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John Stuart Mill once proclaimed that the modern world exemplified an “age of discussion.” The public square, open to all and free of coercion, would serve as a forum where the great questions of politics and human life could be considered and perhaps resolved. When Richard John Neuhaus founded First Things, however, he saw that the public square had been left “naked”: a de facto secular outlook stripped away from the agora the voices of religious believers. Because every question of serious importance requires principles deeper than the mechanisms of procedural democracy and utilitarian ethics, that square was “naked” indeed. It was left shivering and vulnerable to whatever novel winds of doctrine happened to be blowing at the time. Neuhaus saw that the solution to a philosophically impoverished American society was to restore religious voices to public discussion, where they rightly belonged.

In the decades since, however, far more has been stripped away than principled religious voices in our public debates. America has been hollowed out culturally, rendered insecure economically, and isolated socially. And the public square itself has been cracked down to the bedrock. There is almost no place left for substantive discussion. If First Things began with the hope of returning religious voices to the public square, it has become in these later days a remnant, a last forum with foundations strong enough to allow its authors to speak with reason, clarity, faith, and conviction about the permanent things. 

When I began reading First Things as a student, its authors helped me to understand and articulate the great questions of the sanctity of human life and the integrity of marriage and the family. I remember finishing up my evenings of study by reading Clarke D. Forsythe’s “An Unnecessary Evil” or Maureen Condic’s “Life: Defining the Beginning by the End,” short but powerful essays whose arguments have never left my memory. I recall the delight I took in discovering new poems that actually sounded like poems, tucked into the magazine’s pages. 

Over the last decade or so, however, First Things has provided its greatest help. The financial crisis, the inane leftward tilt of the Obama years, and the arrival of a disorienting postliberal moment from 2016 onward have required circumspection and seriousness—both intellectual and moral. First Things has been a voice of principled prudence, helping us to see what is distinctive about the present hour while also helping us to imagine what might come next. In a flourishing society, there would be several such institutions. In ours, there is at least First Things.

Many years ago, a classmate and I had a discussion about how long one should hold onto back issues of magazines. “I have not yet thrown away any of my issues of First Things,” I observed. “That is because they never grow old,” my classmate replied. As I look back on my collection of issues going back more than two decades, I encourage you to support a magazine that speaks to the present hour without merely belonging to it. The spring fundraising drive is underway. While First Things is a permanent presence in many of our lives, it is also always in need of help to continue its mission in our otherwise confused age.

James Matthew Wilson is Cullen Foundation Chair in English Literature at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston.

Image by Bijay Chaurasia, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

More on: Religion, Public Life

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