First Things : So I think the first thing we would like to know is what it was that brought you to New York in the first place and how you met Father Neuhaus and your background.
James Nuechterlein: In the early ’60s, he was then Pastor Neuhaus of St. John the Evangelist in Brooklyn, and I met him at a convention of the Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church”Missouri Synod.
I was a lay delegate from my congregation in New Haven, Connecticut, where I was attending graduate school. We met briefly then, but we really didnt get to know each other well until, oh, I guess, the mid-’80s. I wrote a long review essay of one of his books, Christian Faith and Public Policy . And he got in touch with me about it, and we talked, and I came out to New York and we visited.
And then all of a sudden”or it seemed all of a sudden to me”he invited me, in 1989, to come out and be editor of a quarterly magazine called This World . I was then a professor of American studies and political thought at Valparaiso University and editor of the university’s journal, the Cresset . And thats how we got together.
FT: So then the Raid happened.
JN: Right, the Raid that shut us down. And then began the planning for the new journal. Originally the idea was to continue what we were doing”that is, to do a quarterly like This World . And Richard was then putting out a newsletter, the Religion and Society Report . So the idea was to continue doing the same things, but now under independent auspices.
And then it was, I believe, Peter Berger, a good friend of Richards, who came up with the idea of putting out a monthly. And he convinced Richard . . . against my inclinations, because its obviously much easier to edit a quarterly than a monthly. But I saw the wisdom of it, and somewhat reluctantly went along with it . . . .
FT: Yes, so would you say that the mission was different once it became a monthly or . . .
JN: The mission didnt change. It was still the application of religion to public life and it was simply a matter of finding the right format; of course it turned out that First Things had far more impact than the old independent things had had combined.
FT: Was there any plan to change the audience when you moved from This World to First Things , from a quarterly to a monthly, to reach a larger audience?
JN: I was always looking towards a theologically informed public, but we were very conscious of not making it too academically theological. We were writing for a generally educated, religiously informed audience, so there really wasnt a change in the target audience. And we were very conscious . . . of making it truly ecumenical, open to”obviously overwhelmingly Christians and Jews”but to make it accessible to Protestants and to Catholics and to Jews.
And that didnt change, by the way, when Father Neuhaus became a Catholic. He became a Catholic in 1990 and then a priest in 1991. But I remember the first thing he told me when he let me know that he was becoming Roman Catholic, which came as a great shock to me. But he immediately said, I want you to be sure that the journal will not change; this is not going to be a Catholic magazine. Its going to continue to be interreligious and interdenominational.
FT: Immediately after the Rockford Raid, when you guys were set up at 338 E. 19th, did you ever have any doubts that the magazine would succeed?
JN: Oh, we had questions about how it would do and there were, of course, initially just very fundamental questions of whether we could get the funding when Rockford cut us off. Now . . . Richard had been working toward going independent when the Raid occurred, so it didnt hit us”it wasnt totally a blindside hit. And he just had to hurry with his negotiations for funders, mainly foundations that supported us.
But there was a track record there, of course. This World was established; the Religion and Society Newsletter was established. The assumption was we wouldnt have to worry about breaking even as a journal, that we would always lose money strictly speaking and be supported by foundations. But we had no guarantee for the future.
FT: But it was an optimistic climate and you guys were excited. What was the overall feeling there in the house?
JN: We were very excited. It was a very exciting, heady thing, starting a new journal and making every decision from scratch: What kind of paper are you going to use, what kind of type, what kind of cover stock? And so we were tremendously busy. But then the numbers”I must say, one of the things that made us optimistic very quickly was that we started out with very low assumptions as to what the impact would be.
I remember Richard saying, Well it would be nice if we could get up to 8,000-12,000. And very quickly we went well beyond that. We had a very rapid early ascent. If you go back and look at circulation figures, we had a rapid early ascent, and got near to where we are now reasonably quickly, but then we reached what I thought was a natural saturation point. Richard had some disagreements with that. He always had dreams of getting us up to 75,000, that sort of thing.
But I thought we had found our niche audience. Anyway, we were extraordinarily pleased by how quickly the journal caught on.
FT: What would you attribute that early success to? What was the powerful combination that people were latching onto?
JN: Well, it was a niche. I mean, there was nothing quite like us. I suppose the closest thing was we were a kind of ecumenical and, frankly, more conservative Christian Century . But simply, to do the kind of thing we were doing, this monthly journal, there was a kind of unique audience and, of course, Father Neuhaus was already very well known, and so from the beginning his impact was enormous. As everyone says to this day”or at least they did when Father Neuhaus was still alive”You know, I read the magazine from back to front. From the beginning, Public Square was the thing that got us the most noticed and the most attention.
FT: One thing that Davida Goldman pointed out was that he had been doing Public Square before First Things at This World , so he had been doing it for a while.
JN: He hadnt really been doing Public Square. He was doing his own separate newsletter.
FT: But the format was just so similar, it seemed.
JN: It was similar, yes. It was not a new thing for him to do. And before he was doing the Religion and Society Report , he had for a long time been editor of a little journal called Forum Letter , a Lutheran newsletter. So he had been doing this kind of thing for a very long time before First Things started.
One thing I want to emphasize is that we had a very lean staff. That first year there were basically three of us. I mean, there was Father Neuhaus and myself and Maria McFadden, but she was only there for the first three issues or so. And then Matt Berke came in to replace her as managing editor.
Paul Stallsworth was listed as an editor, but he mainly worked on Public Square with Richard and did a little bit of proofreading. At the end of the first year Midge Decter joined us, and she was a terrific help, a great editor. But basically it was a handful of us putting out the journal. When I look back, Im kind of amazed by it.
Richard always wanted to keep the journal as lean as possible. I think that was a wise instinct. Of course, we had nothing in those days like what you have today”the interns and the junior editors, that only came in the late ’90s.
FT: Did you start building up a base of writers quickly? How did that develop? It seems like, if you look through the pages of First Things , there definitely seems to be a stable of writers that contribute on a regular basis. And how did that family of writers develop over the time that you were here?
JN: Partly it came, again, as a continuation from This World . And, of course, Richard knew a lot of these people and it came also from two continuing quarterly seminars, one on theological ethics, and one more explicitly on theology that we ran. It was the Ramsey Colloquium on Theological Ethics, and the Dulles Colloquium, which was more explicitly theological.
And the people who were part of that were a stable of people that Richard had gotten to know over the years, with some new people added. And there were, from among those people, a lot of people who became board members, regular contributors, and so on. We were in constant contact with those people through these quarterly seminars.
FT: Was there a point where you felt like”you started the magazine, and was there a point where you didnt feel like you were starting a magazine anymore, that it was established, and that you had arrived in a sense? When was that?
JN: Thats hard to say. In one sense, the success was so rapid that, after the first year or so, we had a strong sense that we had a going thing. If there was a single incident when we sort of knew that we had established ourselves, I think it was the famous End of Democracy?” symposium in 1996. That caused an incredible uproar in our circles, both pro and con.
The reaction was by no means all positive. I mean, as you know, we lost people over it and there was significant disagreement about it. But all sorts of people picked up on the debate and on the divisions that arose from it. They had a symposium in Commentary a few months later that was heavily about us and it was picked up. New Republic ran pieces on the whole thing, and all sorts of places that hadnt paid close attention to us were suddenly very much aware. And from then on we kind of became known in a broader sense. We had been known within academic, religious circles heavily earlier on, but it was the End of Democracy?” symposium that really made us nationally known.
Even though, I have to admit, I sat there in disagreement. I was the one editor who disagreed with it. Midge Decter also disagreed, but she was no longer on the editorial staff. But we rode through that.
FT: What was your relationship like with Father Neuhaus? I mean, were you like sounding boards for each other?
JN: Yes, we worked very closely. And we were constantly bouncing ideas off each other and we spent a lot of time outside the office together. I spent endless hours in his apartment; we had dinner often, and other times I would just come over and have a drink in the evening. Then, when I moved into the apartment and into the house in 1995, all that became even more frequent. And so even when we werent at the office, talking about the journal, it just came up constantly in conversation. So it was a very close working relationship.
FT: I was wondering too how Father Neuhaus pastoral sensibility worked its way into office life and then in addition, the mission of the magazine. How did his pastoral vocation change that?
JN: You mean pastoral as both as Lutheran and as Catholic, or the change from Lutheran to Catholic?
FT: I guess both. Just in terms of him, because the folks that weve spoken with have talked about how he viewed First Things as having a pastoral mission broadly.
JN: My sense was he always kept that pretty separate. When we worked together at the office he was my employer and colleague, he wasnt my pastor, even when he was still Lutheran.
And the worlds were kept distinct for Father Neuhaus. I think especially the older he grew, he didnt want to be known around his parish for his work as editor of First Things , which was often controversial, and ideological to a degree”although he tried to minimize that as much as possible. But his work as pastor was really quite distinct. Now, of course, there were times”and youd have to talk to the various individuals involved”when people would go in to see him on personal things or private things, and he would then become somewhat pastoral. I suppose that even happened, now that I think about it, on rare occasions, between him and me.
But most of the time, for us, he was Father Neuhaus”but Father Neuhaus the editor of First Things , rather than Father Neuhaus the priest.
FT: Continuing on the theme of Father Neuhaus, if you had to choose a period of time during the time you worked at First Things ”could you point out a moment in time, maybe in the ’90s or afterwards, when you feel that First Things , or Father Neuhaus, sort of reached their apex, in terms of writing or insight, or what were the best days of the magazine, in your opinion?
JN: Thats very hard for me to say. And I would be reluctant to pick any particular period.
FT: You dont remember a golden years?
JN: No. Its the normal sort of thing one has looking back on the past, but I dont recall thinking, You know were getting better, were getting worse, were staying the same. I think I can go back there”though I dont spend a lot of time doing it”but I can look back at some of our early issues and think we had some terrific stuff that we ran.
And we tried hard to keep it up over time. And, in an odd way, it became harder over time, because you were now visiting issues, not for the first time or second time, but revisiting them over and over. And I think to a degree, perhaps, that became occasionally a problem for Father Neuhaus. His stuff was wildly popular, and it was extraordinarily well done, but inevitably he repeated himself. And so every now and then Id go in and say to him, Richard, do you really want another three items attacking the New York Times ?”that sort of thing. Or, in the early days, the National Council of Churches.
And like anybody, he had periods when hed sometimes say, I feel written out and burnt out, but he always had these incredible powers of self-renewal. He always seemed to think, Look, were doing something important; it deserves our very best effort; we must continue to work really hard on this and not rest on our laurels. He was always worried about that. Are we losing our edge? Are we becoming complacent? He was very self-conscious about maintaining quality and freshness. And with the business of having a continuity of writers: Thats very good in certain ways, but on the other hand people say: Oh, yes, well there is so and so, we know what he thinks. So there was always a problem of looking for new writers, new ideas, new insights. And he was constantly aware of that.
FT: Could you just say a few words about his work ethic?
JN: He was extraordinary. I think, quite literally, Ive never known a harder working man, and he had an incredible focus. I mean, when he went into the office and sat down at his desk and worked, he worked . Richard was not a big one for schmoozing at the office. And our meetings”well he didnt rush our meetings; wed joke and so on”but they were serious and there was a focus and his work schedule was pretty tight.
Hed get up and hed do his prayers and say mass early, read the Times , work at home, usually until about late morning, often until noon, have a light lunch, unless he was having lunch with someone. And hed come in and work all afternoon and not stop until 7:00 at night for evening prayer back at the house. Then, most nights or a majority of nights, he would continue to work until 9:00 or so and then stop for a drink and dinner.
And hed have work on the weekends. I remember, one of the first weekends I was there, and it was a Friday afternoon, I went into his office and I said, Well, what are you going to do this weekend? And he looked up rather surprised and he said: Ill do what I always do, Im going to read, write, and think. He was just a man of extraordinary energy, focus, discipline. He liked to relax late at night over a drink. But, basically, life was serious. Life was to do things, accomplish things. He was aware that he had great personal gifts.
He had a strong sense of using those gifts for the best, for Gods purposes. And so he was very much aware of that. I used to tease him: You are a Lutheran who turned Catholic who behaves like a Calvinist. But that was Richard.
FT: What about you, Jim? What are you most proud of? Do you have a particular piece of work that you wrote or a period of time when you were writing, where you really felt like you were proud of what you did and what you accomplished? What was the hardest thing you had to write? That kind of thing?
JN: I did the column, basically, for seven years, from 94 to 01, and then dropped it, except for a few occasions. Id run out of steam. Unlike Richard, I could not revisit issues freshly. Once I had written on something, I had written on something, and that was it.
So I wrote my column for seven years and I can look back on those and say, I think they were pretty good. I am not ashamed of that work. And I did several longer pieces, some of which I am very happy with.
But, oddly enough, my most”from my point of view, at least”important writing was actually done before I came to First Things . It was done in a whole series of articles I wrote for Commentary in the 1970s and ’80s. And at this point in my life, retired and looking back on it, the pieces that I think are the most significant are mainly essays I wrote in Commentary in the ’70s and ’80s. And now some recent things I’ve done for FT.
So for me, my main job at First Things was not as a writer. I was trying to see to the best of my ability, through editing, and choice of materials, and so on, that the journal stayed at a very high level. In a way, I think”I dont know if I can go back and measure this”but I almost felt as if I did less writing, especially early on, than I had done earlier before I was at First Things .
This is because with starting the journal, especially at the beginning, when we were a very lean staff, I found myself pretty much overwhelmed just getting the journal out and getting it done.
FT: Its remarkable how quick you guys, the magazine, found success and then it was in 1993 that Father Neuhaus had his first battle with cancer . . .
JN: Right, 93.
FT: How did that affect . . .
JN: That was an enormous shock because he was so strong and vigorous and then, suddenly, this thing hit. I had dinner with him on a Thursday night, and he was complaining about some bowel problem and some pain, but I didnt realize how serious it was. I think it was the following Sunday that fortunately George Weigel was in town and they had to rush him to the emergency room and they had this operation under the worst conditions. They couldnt properly prep him; they couldnt clean him out. It was truly emergency surgery.
And, frankly, I thought he was going to die. I didnt think hed make it through that first week afterwards. And, of course, it was a tremendous sense of loss, first of all, and the horror of contemplating Richard going.
But then the second thought was, well, whats to become of the journal? But of course, he recovered and everything was fine until it came back . . .
FT: Who pitched in and who did the work when he was sick? I mean, he wasnt writing, was he, when this was going on?
JN: Well, fortunately he had written a fair amount of Public Square material in advance. So when he became sick, there was some amount of backlog. And we sort of rested on that for a couple of months, and then Richard very quickly recovered, and in the meantime we put out the journal.
I mean, Richard was always, of course, deeply involved in all the work of the journal, in the planning, in the sense of planning ideas, and what goes in and what doesnt go in. But he was never involved in the mechanics of putting out the journal”copyediting and proofreading and any of that. So when he became ill, the problem was not, Can we keep putting out the journal, at least for a while, the question was, If this is the end, can the journal go on without him? But fortunately, of course, we didnt have to face that until many years later.
FT: Keeping all these points in mind, do you have any thoughts about the role that First Things plays in the lives of its readers? It seems like its kind of a sustaining force for the intellectual life of a lot of subscribers and”I just wonder if you can comment on the role it plays.
JN: Yes, I was often really quite touched and moved by letters we’d get from people, simply saying Thank you, thank you, thank you for First Things . And it was especially people who felt”often theologians either in the academy or parish priests or pastors”isolated and there really is nobody around here that thinks the way I do.
And our emphasis on cultural conservatism and theological seriousness”for many people, it really was a kind of lifeline. As I say, I was amazed by this and it was really very moving. It gave you a sense that what we were doing was so important that people out there would talk about getting the journal and sitting down to read it and it was the greatest pleasure of their month. Part of me used to say, Wow, get a life. But I knew this was important. Were providing an important spiritual and intellectual service for people, and we better keep doing it right”and that was true for all of us. We were really affected by that, the sense of people just constantly letting us know how important we were to them.
FT: Do you feel like over the years, reading the responses of readers, that the scope of First Things changed at all, or the mission, from the input you had from the readers on what they liked or didnt like?
JN: Well it clearly, over time, became a more Catholic magazine. That was, I think, inevitable, simply from Richard becoming a Catholic priest. And you could trace it”if you wanted to do this in some semi-scientific way”you could trace it by simply looking at the way the ads have changed over the years and how it looks more and more Catholic . . . .
And I dont know if theres been a recent reader survey or not. We did a few early on. And when we first started, there was a clear, but not overwhelming, plurality of Protestants over Catholics. As I recall, and this is from vague memory, but at the time of our first reader survey, we were something like 54 percent Protestant and 41 percent Catholic and the rest other.
And then we did another one a few years down the road, and it was closer, Protestant to Catholic. And since then, I’m sure, the Catholic readership has increased proportionally.
Now, as I say, I dont know if there have been any reader surveys since I left at the end of 2003. But there was certainly often this sense in the public”among the public that was aware of us”that we were simply a Catholic magazine, even though we were never a Catholic magazine in terms of our mission statement or intent.
Given Father Neuhaus overwhelming presence within the journal”in writing more and more about Catholic matters in Public Square”it was, as I say, rather inevitable that we became more and more regarded as Catholic. In a way, Richard was uncomfortable with this. He didnt want it to be that way, but we all kind of understood why it was that it became more and more considered a Catholic journal.
FT: Were there any experiences that you had that gave you an indication of how influential First Things had become in public discussions, in ecclesial life, or in other settings?
JN: Well, certainly, as I mentioned, The End of Democracy?” symposium”the fact that this was picked up in so many places, and simply the fact that from the mid-’90s on we were just more and more mentioned all over the place, that people would make references to us, and often without having to do a long description of what we were.
When we first got going theyd say, First Things , a religious journal on religion and public life, and it became less and less necessary over time for that description to be used by people who were interested in this sort of thing”which is a very small world, of course, in many ways.
And simply on a personal basis: people ask you what you do, Im editor of First Things . Well, when we first started, nobody had the vaguest idea what that was, and over time it became”in the small intellectual world of New York and Washington, especially, which is where I suppose we were the most publically identified”known and didn’t require explanation.
FT: Just one issue, in particular, that we certainly covered repeatedly, is the right to life. Do you feel that First Things ”lets say on some of these life and bioethical issues”has had an impact in making the pro-life case and then sort of closing the case, in a way?
JN: Well youd like to think that. But I am not sure, in terms of the larger picture, to date, how much influence weve had. Richard used to say that, in general, we wanted to be careful about repeating ourselves, but there was the one great exception to that, which was the abortion issue and more broadly the life issues, but certainly abortion above all. He said, I wouldnt mind if we had a piece about abortion in every issue.
It was that important to him and to the journal. And I think we made the case as winsomely and effectively as we could. We covered it from every imaginable perspective. After a while I was kind of in despair: How can we find something new to say about abortion?
But then there is the Human Life Review , which covers nothing but abortion and the life issues, and they keep going as a quarterly continually. But its hard with any issue to keep it alive and fresh and find a way so you are not just preaching to the choir, to find ways to engage people . . . People are instinctively pro-choice, at least in intellectual circles: it’s hard to try to get those people to think again, to engage them, to make them stop and think about what it is they are really arguing. And I like to think that we had some impact. But its terribly difficult to measure something like that.
Of course, Father Neuhaus had significant public influence, especially with President Bush, and President Bush said publically that Father Neuhaus was important to him in advising him on life issues and abortion. And not, of course, just with President Bush, but he just had an enormous range of people he knew and influenced and who respected him even when they disagreed with him.
FT: What was it about Father Neuhaus”of course there were many things about Father Neuhaus that gave him his popularity and commanded the respect”but what talent of his showed through the most? Was it his writing or his thinking or his reading or which of those stood out, in terms of what made him be noticed by people?
JN: Well, thats a little bit complicated. For people who met him and knew him personally, he was simply a charismatic figure. He was a man who wound up running practically any organization he ever joined. Richard was a natural leader and so among people who got to know him personally, it was mainly the impact of his personality.
But wedded to that, both in those circles and, of course, the wider public”people who didnt know him or saw him occasionally on TV”I think it was the sheer power of his intellect. He was obviously a very, very smart man who wrote very well and very clearly, and yet subtly, about the issues of religion and public life. And there werent that many people doing that and very few people, if any, doing it as well as he did.
And so there were often people I ran across many times . . . who disagreed with him on a general ideological or theological basis, but who had great respect for his intellect and his ability and his knowledge. He was an extraordinarily widely read man. He knew more about more things than I think just about anyone Ive ever known, and Ive spent my life around academics. Ive known a lot of very bright and well-read people. But he was really quite extraordinary.
FT: We just began a new decade. And it seems like the mission of the magazine is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. Could you maybe speak to the goals of the magazine and maybe what you think you hope it addresses in the near future?
JN: We want a religiously informed public philosophy. We dont want a religiously suffused politics. We never supposed that politics becomes applied Christianity. Richard was of a Niebuhrian frame of mind and I certainly was too. Most of the major editors had that view.
But to want a religiously informed public life, and yet without having theocratic ambitions of any sort, thats a fine line. But its a very important voice to continue to add to the American cultural conversation. And very few people are doing that. Its simply the case that First Things still has that niche, it still has that peculiar, special role to play, to add to the cultural conversation with a sophisticated religiously informed public philosophy”and one that is theologically serious. So much talk on these matters”either on the far right or far left”is simplistic in its theology and sloppy in its application of religion to public life.
And it’s all been about a sense that we should try to enter this conversation and maintain it at a very high level of intellectual quality, so serious people will be forced to pay us serious attention.
And I think that role is still very important in American public life. And so I think First Things will have an important part to play in the American conversation for a very long time to come.
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