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Why do we need First Things

When FDR spoke of the “God-fearing democracies” he expressed a common understanding that biblical religion contains revealed truth and wisdom without which this country cannot live well. Today everyone is aware that a new attitude has supplanted the old understanding within most of the country’s public institutions. 

I got a refresher course in the new attitude during my niece’s Princeton graduation ceremony last month. President Chris Eisgruber decried both prospective judicial constraints on universities’ ability to admit students based on skin color and new laws blocking the insertion of DEI agendas into public schools. 

Even a decade ago a university president would have felt the impropriety of haranguing an audience assembled to celebrate students’ educational accomplishments with political views many in the audience do not share. But according to Eisgruber sincere belief in free speech and civil rights indisputably entails fervent embrace of Princeton’s identitarian political program. Objections to this program, we were left to infer, come only from the kind of people that used to support segregation. They rate no forbearance. With a revivalist tone and Pentecostal conclusion, he exhorted students to seek fulfillment in life through carrying the new attitude to the wider world.

We recognize the ideologue not only by his effort to make a laudable but limited ideal (such as inclusiveness) answer questions it does not, but also by his unnatural insistence. He rebuts our impression that he exaggerates with ever more exaggeration. His sense for proportion and harmony never seems too good. 

This habit of mind, showing in a speech as bad manners, manifests in art and scholarship as bad taste. Stroll from the magnificent gothic quads built under Princeton’s seal Vet Nov Testamentum to its recently built residential college, which advertises the new attitude with what amounts to prison architecture. We should not let the aggressiveness with which the structure wounds the campus obscure the inner starvation it unintentionally expresses. Look through the ideological facade to see the people leading this noble institution. They have forgotten what inspires. 

One consolation of education is the realization that time shows even less mercy to what is mediocre than to what is wonderful. How apt that the youngest speaker at Princeton’s commencement, its valedictorian and a Serbian immigrant, marveled at the power of Princeton’s enchanted old buildings to breathe meaning into students’ lives. He noticed the new ones only as distractions.

Stipulate for a moment that the collapse in the cultural ascendancy of biblical belief is not best explained by reference to the energy of secular progressivism. And grant that its deeper source is long neglect by Christians and Jews of their calling to glorify God in fresh and vital forms.

I’ll venture the claim that recovery from this habit of neglect has started, though it may take centuries to find mature shape. After all, almost no one wants to start or fix a public institution. People only act when incumbent institutions fail to supply what is needed. Witness the motivation behind the long-building wave of initiatives to start K–12 classical schools.

The classical school movement suggests a pattern. Those who seek the God of Abraham will increasingly see themselves as a cultural “we” rather than just as members of disparate religious denominations. Needing the nourishment, guidance, and opportunity for expression that public institutions were originally designed to provide, they will shift their attention from institutions that deny the soul to those that feed it. That shift will occasion rediscovery of the contemplative energy from which fresh forms of beauty and intellectual inquiry emerge.

To succeed, new and reformed institutions need not achieve the worldly ascendancy of the old ones. The measure of their success will be the dynamism and quality of the conversations they facilitate.

We need First Things because it is one of those institutions which makes such conversations possible—conversations through which God preserves and constantly regenerates culture and public life.

Colin Moran is a managing partner of a private investment fund and chairman of the First Things board of directors.

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