A number of readers have asked whether I will be responding to Garry Wills’ long article in the New York Review of Books (October 6) claiming that a few friends and I are manipulating the Vatican and the White House to create what he calls government by "the fringes." When the pope and the president of the United States are the fringes, one might well wonder where the center is. Mr. Wills’ answer, of course, is that the center is Garry Wills, and, he would have us believe, the great majority of the American people who agree with him. I do not intend to make an extensive response to his strange article (Where would one begin?), but there will be a comment on all this in the November issue of FIRST THINGS, which you should be receiving within the next two weeks.
While I’m at it, I note in the August 29 issue of the American Conservative , in the course of an attack on those nefarious neoconservatives, Daniel McCarthy indicates that I have recently given up editing FIRST THINGS. I have seen the same misstatement in other publications. For the record, I continue to be editor in chief, as I have been from the beginning. The return to FIRST THINGS of Joseph Bottum, who had been our associate editor before decamping to the Weekly Standard , is an extraordinary gift for which I am deeply grateful, but at this point I intend to continue doing what I have been doing since the launching of FIRST THINGS in March, 1990. At some point, to be decided by an Infinitely Higher Authority, there will no doubt be the major transition that some are prematurely announcing.
Although I admit that editing and writing have taken a back seat this week. Last Friday I was at the board meeting of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) in Washington, D.C. Ed Whelan came on as president of EPPC about a year and a half ago and has done a remarkable job of pulling that important organization together and stabilizing its financial base. In addition to providing a base for the invaluable work of George Weigel, EPPC is that rare thing in Washington¯a place that keeps many thinkers and advocates "locked in civil argument," which Fr. John Courtney Murray said should be the mark of democratic discourse. And then there is the fine work of Eric Cohen and his colleagues in producing the New Atlantis , as good a publication as there is for the intelligent exploration of questions in bioethics and projections¯promising, ominous, and fantastical¯about the human future.
Sunday I was in Princeton with my friend Rabbi David Novak and others for the first-ever observance of Respect Life Sunday in the beautiful chapel there. This was an important event for the vibrant pro-life community at Princeton. Again I was struck by the happy incongruity of there being in the chapel a small Blessed Sacrament chapel where students are to be found day and night reflecting in the presence of the Presence. That was established a few years ago, and one cannot help but wonder what Woodrow Wilson or, for that matter, Jonathan Edwards would think of it. The Papists are coming! The Papists are coming!
Monday was back to Washington for a board retreat of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). It’s now 25 years since David Jessup, a United Methodist layman, caused a stir by questioning the way in which his church was giving financial support to forces on the wrong side of freedom in the Cold War. In recent years, under the inspired leadership of the late Diane Knippers, IRD has coordinated confessional and renewal efforts, mainly in the United Methodist, Presbyterian USA, and Episcopal communions. I made a presentation on where IRD has been and the religio-cultural changes since 1980 that might suggest an expanded mission in the years ahead. IRD is now in the process of looking for a president to succeed Diane, and much will no doubt depend upon the ideas that he or she brings to the job.
Yesterday it was off to Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island where I spoke on the Christian intellectual tradition. It was great fun. Everyone was exceedingly hospitable and the presentation seemed to be well received. Portsmouth is a co-educational boarding school with about 375 students and strikes me as being very reflectively committed to equipping young Catholics and others to live the high adventure of life in service to the truth of Christ and his Church. Among its alumni are Christopher Buckley, E.J. Dionne, and the late John Gregory Dunne. It is a very impressive place. (So there, my hospitable friends, is your promised plug.)
Having returned from Portsmouth this afternoon, I’m off to Princeton again tomorrow. This time at the Center for Theological Inquiry where I’m giving a lecture on the past and present of theological reflection on the American experiment¯from the Puritan errand into the wilderness to John Dewey’s "common faith" to Stanley Hauerwas’ very American anti-Americanism. At some point, the lecture may well turn up as an article in FIRST THINGS. It is intended to be gently provocative but, as is my custom, I will steer clear of anything that might be deemed controversial.
One more thing, if I still have your attention. The last month or so a couple of real-winger (on the far side of right-winger) magazines have been trumpeting the line that FIRST THINGS is floating in money from foundations. Don’t you believe it. The Institute on Religion and Public Life, the publisher of FIRST THINGS, does run conferences, consultations, and other programs that receive foundation support. But FIRST THINGS is dependent upon income from subscriptions, advertising, and the generous support of readers. It is a very lean operation. In the weeks ahead we will be mailing out our annual fund appeal to all our subscribers, and you should know that your help is as appreciated as it is needed. The generosity of FIRST THINGS subscribers is legendary, and I suppose it is not surprising that some other editors are envious to the point of being nasty about it.