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What Can and Can’t Be Said About “First Things”

May 15th, 2020 | 9 min read

By Jake Meador

The takes on Rusty Reno’s leadership of First Things are beginning to multiply in the aftermath of a very bad couple of months for the magazine’s editor-in-chief. Rod Dreher’s is the best. Helen Andrews’ is an exercise in moral relativism. Jonathan Last’s is substantive, but overstated at points.

The reason that Dreher’s is the best is simple: It reckons more than anyone else has with the difficulties of editing a religious conservative magazine in the post-Obergefell, post-Trump world. Obergefell put religious conservatives on the defensive like never before. Trump tempted us like never before. This has created a very difficult context for all religious conservatives.

The extremes of our moment show the challenge: If you sign up with the Trumpists, you’re going to be running with some mean, ugly people, such as the folks at the Federalist and some of the Claremont crowd, to say nothing of the Breitbart and OANN set. Choosing to align with them is a choice you can make, but it’s not one I’d encourage.

That said, those who have held the line on the importance of character are often not terribly interesting intellectually and seem determined to resurrect the worst form of Reaganism, which would both condemn the Republicans to irrelevance and leave millions of impoverished Americans left behind by an economy which knows only one index of health—the GDP, a measure which, unfortunately, seems to have very little correlation with the prosperity of most American workers. Last is correct in noting that building an intellectual version of Trumpism is impossible, but I don’t see why we would want an intellectual version of a discredited fusionism either.

In that context, any magazine editor has a very difficult task. Figuring out how to navigate such troubled waters is a challenge—Mere O is an extremely small operation relative to First Things and I have felt that challenge pretty intensely. I imagine the struggle is much greater if you’re at a magazine with the reputation of First Things.

Reno’s First Things has pushed conservatives in a number of ways that might help define what the future of religious conservatism in the US ought to be while still retaining a fairly impressive group of contributors to the print edition. Even after Reno’s Trump endorsement, the magazine has continued to publish elite conservative intellectuals.

Here’s a list of people they’ve published since May of 2016 when Reno ran a column explaining why he was ‘anti-anti Trump’ (bolded names are people that they have published more than once):

  • Elizabeth Corey
  • Douglas Farrow
  • Kyle Harper
  • Gilbert Meilaender
  • N. T. Wright
  • Joshua Mitchell
  • Michael McClymond
  • Carlos Eire
  • Hadley Arkes
  • Matthew Milliner
  • Eve Tushnet
  • Fr. Thomas Joseph White
  • Mary Ann Glendon
  • Remi Brague
  • Oliver O’Donovan
  • Kevin Vanhoozer
  • J. Todd Billings
  • Dana Gioia
  • Paul Griffiths
  • Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller
  • Archbishop Charles Chaput
  • Bishop Robert Barron
  • John Lukacs
  • Philip Cary
  • Eugene Vodolazkin
  • Andrew Bacevich
  • Pierre Manent
  • Samuel Moyn
  • Robert George
  • Carl Trueman
  • Peter Leithart
  • Eamon Duffy
  • Ephraim Radner
  • Francesca Murphy
  • William Cavanaugh
  • Richard Mouw

(Do note that the list includes a number of non-Catholics.)

I haven’t checked this so I could be wrong, but I feel fairly confident saying no other magazine has pulled that many high-quality religious conservatives in the past five years. It may not be what it was under Neuhaus—I wasn’t reading it then so it’s hard for me to say—but when you combine the enormous amount of uncertainty for conservative Christians during this moment and the consistent quality of the folks they’ve gotten for the print edition… that’s not a small accomplishment.

It seems to me that if you want to define some unique theory of decline at First Things then you need to account for the fact that this is an enormously challenging time for conservative media. I feel pretty good saying that American Affairs is improving with time, but they also were starting from scratch as an institution. Beyond that, it is hard for me to find magazines on the American right that are clearly better now than they were five years ago. It’s not that there aren’t good conservative magazines or good writers going now. There are many. But there is so much ideological division at the moment that it is hard for the energy from these various writers to coalesce around one institution. The result is that I think most conservative magazines are going through their own version of what First Things has gone through over the past several years. There aren’t easy answers.

Even their biggest missteps—the Mortara essay and, this is my opinion, the Against David Frenchism essay—are best understood as failed attempts to raise a relevant question. If we’re rejecting fusionism, then one place for American Catholics to consider going intellectually is the older 19th century tradition of Catholic anti-Americanism. Given that, the question of Mortara is a very obvious one to take up as a kind of reductio on that broader school of thought. The principles behind Mortara are deeply connected to Catholic sacramental theology and political theology. The error on First Things part was publishing something that defended Pius IX’s actions without much nuance or ambiguity. But I did and still do think that American Catholics need to seriously wrestle with the Mortara affair.

Likewise, an attack against the proceduralism represented by French seems entirely reasonable to me. Indeed, it is merely another chapter in a very old debate on the American Right, as I noted recently on the main page. Again, the execution was wrong—Ahmari is still forming as a thinker, is a relatively new convert, and was a bad choice as the standard bearer for the cause. But tagging proceduralism still seems to me to have been an entirely reasonable thing.

The cardinal error that they have made repeatedly in recent years seems to me less one regarding intellectual questions and has more to do with questions of character and judgment.

As Last noted, Reno’s vision for the magazine has not always been clear. Moreover, he has had a troubling attraction toward the regressive. Indeed, in a strange way there’s an overlap between the biggest issue with Reno’s recent book, the biggest issue with Weird Christian Twitter, and Andrews’ failed attempt to defend the magazine that has become home to many from WCT.

In all cases, there’s a false antithesis being drawn between groups on mostly aesthetic rather than moral grounds. Reno wants the strong gods to return and banish the weak gods of the post-war order, but doesn’t bother to distinguish between the true God and false gods. Weird Christian Twitter wants transgressiveness, but sometimes seems indifferent to whether or not their transgressions in the eyes of the cultural mainstream are also transgressions in the eyes of God. Andrews, meanwhile, is apparently of the mind that if one is owning the libs it doesn’t particularly matter what one is actually doing.

In each instance, there’s an over-interest in appearance and reaction and an indifference to basic questions of truth and holiness. This is not a Christian way of conducting intellectual life. I’ve not read him, so I can’t say for sure, but I also wonder if this is the influence of Schmitt mediated via Adrian Vermeule announcing itself—politics is just an exercise in identifying friends and enemies. Again, I’ve not read Schmitt myself so I can’t say that for sure, but it’s a question that has been growing in my mind for awhile now.

In any case, this critique might offer a way forward for First Things: Rusty Reno is off Twitter. He should stay off. If you’re a thinker drawn to the performatively transgressive, then Twitter is about the worst possible place for you to spend time. Moreover, in its public face and in the way it debates issues internally, they need to spend less time worrying about aesthetics, rhetoric, and public performance and more time worrying about the hard work of saying true things, even if doing so creates greater complexity and alienates powerful people.

There is a quote from T. S. Eliot that has always captured the spirit of what Matt and I have both tried to do at Mere O. I think it would be well if more conservatives started to buy into it:

I confess, however, that I am not myself very much concerned with the question of influence, or with those publicists who have impressed their names upon the public by catching the morning tide and rowing very fast in the direction in which the current was flowing; but rather that there should always be a few writers preoccupied in penetrating to the core of the matter, in trying to arrive at the truth and to set it forth, without too much hope, without ambition to alter the immediate course of affairs, and without being downcast or defeated when nothing appears to ensue.

A conservatism that was friendly to such writers and that supported magazines that publish such writers would be a healthier conservatism. It is likely, too, that it would be a conservatism living within a much healthier republic.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).