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Our Strategy

Liel Leibovitz’s article “Fight Together, Win Together” (December 2023) is a stirring encapsulation of the dark side, so to speak, of intersectionality’s ideological ascendancy within western academic institutions. Two questions stand out to me after reading the piece.

Several groups of fellow sufferers at the hands of the “Axis of Resistance” seemed strangely absent, most of all the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang and the Masalit of western Sudan. Should their tribulations be treated as categorically different from those of Ukrainians, Israelis, and Armenians?

Leibovitz’s declaration that “failing to defeat our enemies when they strike our allies abroad means that we’ll have to fight them sooner rather than later when they target us at home” seemed far too close an echo to George W. Bush’s statement, “Our strategy is this: We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America.” How will killing Russian conscripts or Hamas fighters abroad weaken the institutional grip of the “useful idiots in American college classrooms” at home?

Randall Fowler
abilene christian university
abilene, texas

I was moved to write this reply by the elegance of Liel Leibovitz’s article “Fight Together, Win Together.” As a reader of First Things, I have come to respect Leibovitz, and I feel compelled to echo his indignation at the horror of the terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians on October 7 with great sympathy for the victims and their families—a feeling perhaps heightened because my wife was on her way to this area of the Middle East that very day. I relate to Leibovitz’s opinion on the account of the ascendant false universalism within and outside college campuses. I also echo his admission of the “complexity of geopolitical realities,” which he maintains as “another strong reason for proceeding with caution.” But proceeding to what, exactly?

I am struck by the language Leibovitz uses to answer this question, or rather by the resonance of his answer—the resonance of the drums of war.

The point at which I diverge from Leibovitz and disagree with his conclusion is when he asserts that “the marauders who set out to brutalize my people on October 7 had no practical objectives.” Their very objective was to disrupt yet another cooperative attempt at peace, beginning with the Abraham Accords and set to eventuate in a comprehensive settlement in the region. Hence my discomfort with the uniformity of the solution proffered by Leibovitz.

As Leibovitz reflects, the rabbinic interpretation of the narrative of the Tower of Babel emphasizes the God-given differences, the sanctified particularism, and a rightful rejection of the “my people” versus “those people” argument.

The very dignity of difference revealed in the biblical hermeneutics, and the particularism gifted to us, compels us instead to seek simultaneously, and with proper discernment, a differentiated solution: a focused justice for the perpetrators of the attacks, and, more importantly, a deeper, broader peace among the many peoples of Israel and Palestine.

Instead, the terrorists have succeeded again in arousing in us the “us-versus-them” sounds of war drums and the exchange of horrors.

Elie Azrak
st. louis, missouri

Liel Leibovitz replies:

I am grateful to both Randall Fowler and Elie Azrak for their thoughtful responses, which I take very seriously. We’ve seen too many American lives lost in ill-advised wars to believe that rushing into battle should ever be advised without the most exacting consideration. But a brief glimpse at the last decade of American foreign policy may offer a more concrete blueprint than anything I could offer in my brief column. Barack Obama rejected American exceptionalism, and he offered instead an approach that distanced us from traditional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia while strengthening Iran in an effort to bring about balance. A former university professor, Obama took an approach that was the embodiment of the flat and facile universalism on display everywhere at college campuses these days. Applied to the real world, it brought about massive death and destruction throughout the region and misery to America’s armed forces.

Obama’s successor took a very different approach, one predicated on particularism. He emphasized America’s strength, empowered its allies to fight our shared enemies swiftly and effectively, and favored non-military means like sanctions. He advanced American interests, which resulted in considerable calm. If we want to support those all over the world facing violence and oppression—and I am thankful to Fowler for his reminder that the Uighurs and the Masalit very much belong on the unfortunately long list—we have a good example to follow right there. Our aim is neither endless war nor rank tribalism. It is, as Azrak rightly suggests, justice and peace for people in Israel and Palestine, in Ukraine and Armenia, in Sudan and China, and everywhere tyranny advances unchecked.

America must approach these crises not as a bloated empire that speaks only the language of force, but as the beacon of hope its Founders believed it would be. Such an approach inspired Ronald Reagan to subdue peacefully but firmly the evil Soviet empire. It empowered Donald Trump to deliver the Abraham Accords between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors. These were not only diplomatic feats but also moral triumphs, and they should continue to inform us as we chart a course forward in an increasingly perilous world.

The ACLU

Helen Andrews’s “What Happened to the ACLU” (December 2023) offers a cogent analysis of the ACLU’s return to left-wing politics. In the course of writing a PhD dissertation, two books, and a monograph on the organization, I have been convinced that principled civil libertarians have always been in a minority among its most active officials. But Andrews is correct to say that “Recently, something changed.”

Over the past two decades, the lurch left has been pronounced. Whether it be identity politics issuesmen who get pregnant and give birth are menor arguing for a presumption of guilt regarding sexual allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the ACLU under Anthony Romero has become wholly politicized. So much so that many sincere civil libertarians have called it quits.

The drift left is only partly driven by ideology. Much of it has to do with money. In 2006, an ACLU committee called for board members to censor themselves. “Directors should remember that there is always a material prospect that public airing of the disagreement will affect the ACLU adversely in terms of public support and fund-raising.”

This led former ACLU board member Nat Hentoff to say, “I can’t think of anything more contrary to the reason the ACLU exists” than this “gag order.” My friend was too generous. In fact, as early as 1936 the ACLU showed its true colors when it threatened a libel suit against the American Mercury for publishing an article that was merely critical of the ACLU. When H. L. Mencken was summoned to decide which side was right, he sided with the magazine. He was promptly called a “fascist” for doing so.

Congratulations to Andrews for setting the record straight.

Bill Donohue
new york, new york

Natural Law

I read, with a mixture of incomprehension and consternation, Marc O. DeGirolami’s review of Hadley Arkes’s new book, Mere Natural Law (“Anchors Aweigh,” December 2023). DeGirolami seems to be reviewing some other book by some other author.

Throughout his long scholarly career, Arkes has always made clear that the principles of natural law he has in mind are what Aquinas would call the secondary precepts of the natural law—that promises should be kept, that killing is wrong, and so on. Like Aquinas, Arkes thinks that all human beings with normal mental faculties understand these principles, not on the basis of arguments, but immediately, which makes these principles natural starting points of moral inquiry. In Mere Natural Law, Arkes follows C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity by emphasizing how ordinary people, even children, appeal to such principles in everyday discourse.

DeGirolami acknowledges all this in his review. Unaccountably, however, he then assails Arkes for “ascending to the airy heights of moral principle” and argues that “the last thing we need is more constitutional debate about high principle—about what dignity or equality or freedom or autonomy or even justice, in the abstract and divorced from ordinary life, requires of our constitutional law.” In truth, Arkes always stays at the level of basic moral truths about ordinary life and never ascends to abstractions like dignity, equality, or autonomy. Even more, Arkes is famous for refusing to enter into such abstract questions. Time and again, he invokes Thomas Reid to insist that such questions are irrelevant for deciding legal cases; all that matters is that these basic moral principles exist and we know them to be true. That’s why Arkes can cite Aquinas and Kant in the same breath: Although they differ sharply on the foundations of morality, Aquinas and Kant agree on basic moral principles, and it is these that Arkes is discussing.

This separates Arkes from Adrian Vermeule and other advocates of constitutional interpretation based on some understanding of the common good. Such advocates have a normative theory about what government ought to be doing. Arkes emphatically does not. He simply argues that, in deciding cases, courts should incorporate into their reasoning basic, pre-theoretic moral principles, which comes down to saying that the positive law should conform to the natural law. Compared to any position based on a theory of the common good, this is a much more modest (and defensible) position.

Robert T. Miller
university of iowa
iowa city, iowa

Former Glories

Matthew Schmitz identifies a cultural context conducive to the rise of the Gothic novel (“The Haunting of Russell Kirk,” December 2023). This “opposition between reaction and progress” is an underlying element present in much of American literature.

Russell Kirk sees former glories among the ruins. Is it possible to translate these former glories into present triumphs? In our literature there is often a kind of “grasping beyond” arising from the depths of human nature. It manifests itself in the ephemeral “American Dream” or the pursuit of an ever-receding utopian ideal. These are not so different, yet in so many American stories we arrive at a disenchanted analysis of those same ideals and dreams which move the plot.

In Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, the American Dream of great wealth and inherited prestige is symbolized by the ruined house of the Pyncheons. It continues to decay with every passing year since the terrible sin of the family’s cold-blooded patriarch. Our utopian dreams seem destined to be met with a frustrating limitation, a restriction loudly denied by the voices of “progress.”

Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby is the archetypal figure of progressive denial. He believes in “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—.”

It seems we try to rebuild Babel ever anew, with new technology and new techniques, but when we look down at our hands it is the same old crumbling bricks made from the clay that we were given.

Andrew Weeden
oshkosh, wisconsin

Conversions Deferred

Tom Hiney’s “The New Agnosticism” (December 2023) explored the theme of conversions deferred. “The phenomenon of agnosticism is not straightforward.” True, for despite a personal encounter with Padre Pio, Graham Greene remained “a Catholic atheist,” whereas numerous incisive commentators of our time, like Jordan Peterson and David Berlinski, remain on the other side of belief in God or divine revelation.

Why don’t people repent of their sins, especially the ones who know better? Why are there so many sorry Christians and so few saints? Inevitably, conversion demands entrance into the mystery of suffering, at which many agnostics balk, be they unbelievers or professing Christians. I kept waiting for Augustine to make his entrance in this essay, but perhaps his story is too well known for Hiney, who seems to have a taste for more obscure figures. The Doctor of Grace expressed more confidence in the importance of arguments than Hiney, but both acknowledge the limits of rational discourse in moving the heart. Sometimes God speaks through the learned, but nearly always through the voices of children at play.

Conversions require patience. Padre Pio swiftly turned back the American bombers over San Giovanni in 1943, but he needed more time to turn back many a “small, dirty beast” from sin. Hiney is surely right to imply that most of the good that gets done in the world is the work of the saints.

If reports are to be believed, Hiney’s own conversion has led him down a demanding path. Let’s hope that he continues to exercise his literary gifts along the way, where the mystery of suffering will not be wanting.

Sam Zeno Conedera
saint louis university
st. louis, missouri

Tom Hiney replies:

I am grateful to Fr. Sam Conedera for responding to what I had to say about agnosticism and conversion. He’s right, of course, that the voice of Augustine was missing, but perhaps even more that of Newman. The latter was dealing with a culture closer to our own, where faith was already sidelined as a personal matter. Faith is personal, but in An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (especially in the last two chapters), Newman shows what else it is—a reasonable response to revelation. People are persuaded by argument, but they are disposed to that argument by more intuitive matters, including how much they trust the person talking to them. Even with family and friends, it can take years to earn that trust, time enough (in my experience) for the realization to dawn that it is above all holiness that will draw those I love into the safe harbor of Christ. To that end, sanctification—what Cardinal Cantalamessa calls the series of conversions all Christians are called to in the course of their lives—is the most evangelical thing that could happen to me (God willing). J. C. Ryle’s classic (and furious) critique of Protestant complacency, Holiness, and John Wesley’s well-documented debt to Orthodox teachings on “divinization” tell me this is not an exclusively Catholic position to have reached.

The Promised Land

I was delighted to read the article by James Matthew Wilson because I grew up in Southfield, Michigan (“Sweet Land of Michigan,” December 2023). Michigan is a unique geographical peninsula surrounded by water. So we called it a Water-Winter Wonderland. When we were young, the winter was the most intriguing because we could chase cottontails and stalk pheasants in the snow. When they took off, we were on them. We also ice fished and skied, and we would regularly go up into “the mitten” to frolic in the deep stuff. We even crossed the Mighty Mac when visiting my brother at Northern Michigan University in Marquette.

Our backyard became an ice rink, and in the spring we would canoe on the Pine River when she was high with white water. Dad would say a prayer of thanksgiving when we crossed the state line after a vacation in the West because we felt sorry for all those poor westerners with so little water, while we enjoyed a fifth of the world’s fresh water in the Great Lakes. You had to go out of your way to get into Michigan and most people bypassed it on I-80. No problem! In our time the auto industry was the center of the universe. Grateful were we when a new Corvette pulled into our driveway each year, even if it was a one-day loaner. The children would all line up for rides with dad.

Now, after forty-six years in a cloister in Upstate New York, I long for the day when I shall be able to revisit the Promised Land: Michigan. My first love on the planet . . . Alleluia.

Augie Jackson
piffard, new york

James Matthew Wilson’s piece “Sweet Land of Michigan” was such a delightful read that I simply had to write in and thank him for it. I particularly appreciated his discussion of how our love for our fatherland cannot be explained. When I’d speak longingly about my home state to friends during a six-year working exile in Connecticut, I was frequently asked, “What’s so great about Pennsylvania?” Half-joking, I’d reply that in PA my cousin could unapologetically serve her guests boxed wine in stemless plastic wine glasses. This trivial answer only scratches the surface of my love for the place and people, but how can you explain love?

Wilson explains that “the love of one’s country is like the love of a mother or a father.” A mother loves a child not because of what he does, but because he is hers. In a world in which more and more people are willingly childless, fewer and fewer people have any attachment to the place where they were born. Perhaps the love of parents for children is more closely connected to our love of homeland than we realize. Having children helps us to see the beauty of a love that we did not choose. Having children also helps to root one to a place—it’s very hard to uproot a family and raise children outside of a familial community.

Modern culture is obsessed with love as a choice, but Americans have always understood that we are supposed to love God, family, and country—and none of those things are chosen. They are all given to us to love. Unchosen loves, fully embraced, are a powerful force for cultural renewal and transformation. Perhaps conservatives can start the renewal of the culture by embracing our rootedness to a particular place and fostering love and dedication to our home states.

Molly DeVito
bath, pennsylvania

James Matthew Wilson replies:

Augie Jackson’s reminiscences are representative of a good number of others that I have received since the appearance of “Sweet Land of Michigan.” We often speak in profound but abstract language about the pathologies of modern life: rootlessness, loneliness, liquidity, etc. These are helpful terms indeed, but as Jackson’s words remind us, what we finally are seeking are real places, real people, and real goods that are worth loving and recalling even from the distance of years and miles. I will be grateful if all readers of my essay feel nudged to grind their heels a little deeper into the place they live in order to sense and live out better the different kinds of piety to which we are all called. As the first winter snows begin to fall on Michigan, I will be doing the same.

Molly DeVito’s welcome thoughts about her native Pennsylvania and children strike me as absolutely correct and remind me of the broader truth that my own essay tried to illustrate. Human beings need to be rooted in genuine homeplaces and communities, and they also need to be ordered to the Good that transcends all places. Those who are well grounded and ordered to transcendence flourish, and one chief sign of flourishing is the begetting and rearing of children. Fruitfulness is a sign of joy, but to be fruitful we need roots and sunlight.

Image by Flickr on Rawpixel licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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