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Public Life and Godly Mission: What Are the First Things Today?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 23, 2013

There is a good deal of soul searching going on over at First Things. In the August/September issue, editor R. R. Reno explores “The Challenges We Face” and three other contributors respond—the Catholic George Weigel (“Fighting on New Terrain”), the Evangelical Ephraim Radner (“The Primacy of Witness”) and the Jew Eric Cohen (“Passion and Prudence”). The result is a “symposium on the future” of the magazine which ought to resonate among all serious Catholics in the United States, and even in many ways throughout what is left of “the West”.

The problem of First Things’ sense of direction is certainly unique in some ways, but even the unique aspects of it relate to the larger issues we all face. The magazine was founded twenty-five years ago by Richard John Neuhaus, a convert to Catholicism from Lutheranism. From the first its writers sought to seize what its editors surmised to be “the Catholic moment”. The old mainline Protestantism, which had implanted considerable public virtue in what we might call the American “soul”, had disintegrated, and the people at First Things thought they saw an opportunity for Catholicism to fill the void. Hence the “Catholic moment”.

At the same time, Neuhaus and his collaborators recognized that the United States was, in one of Neuhaus’ pithy phrases, only a “confusedly Christian” nation, and that progress in the public life of the United States required a coalition of groups with common moral values, drawn from those of all faiths who actually still take God seriously. These values and interests could, they believed, gain traction in our public life through a revitalized conservatism with deep religious roots. Thus were born the unique conservative and ecumenical interests of a magazine which has always had a distinctively Catholic impetus.

Still further, the editors have been concerned throughout by the progressive secularization of Western society, which has proceeded even more rapidly in Europe than in the United States. They sought in particular to combat the growing “nakedness” of the public square, to make room once again for religious discourse in our public life. This concern is matched in Western nations around the globe, which is why the issues with which First Things has grappled are highly relevant not only in the special context of the “American experiment” but throughout the West.

I should probably add one more element to this necessarily over-simplified description, and that is the element of academia. First Things has always sought to resolve the issues before it in an intellectual way. The articles, for the most part, have been both lengthy and dense. The authors have generally been employed in universities and think tanks. The emphasis has always been on coming together in theory, not on pragmatic solutions to specific problems. While the writers have frequently attempted to develop a theory to underpin the effective operations of a broader conservative coalition, the problem of how to translate a Godly vision of the public square into effective action has proved vexing, not only in America but throughout the world.

The Present Quandary

By any reasonable measure, First Things has been a great success for the kind of high-brow magazine it is. It has certainly been successful with me, as it is my favorite print publication by a country mile. And yet one can see why the editors feel it necessary to raise again the question of the magazine’s mission. Ecumenism has not proceeded as rapidly as was hoped a quarter of a century ago. Within each branch of the First Things coalition—that is, among Catholics, Protestants and Jews (and even, of late, some serious Islamic voices)—the polarization between secularized and non-secularized elements has increased. In fact, over the past quarter century, the larger culture has rather obviously secularized to the point at which people no longer feel that the respectability of attending a church is significant for public success. Following Europe, the growth in the number of “Nones” (those professing no religious belief) is the single biggest demographic trend in American religion.

In addition, the rising tide of American conservatism in the wake of the Reagan Revolution has been ebbing fast. No matter how Americans poll on specific issues, on election day the most secularized candidates have a decided edge in most places, and the higher the office the bigger the edge. The effort of First Things to take back the “naked public square” has been a clear failure, as the public square is more naked—more bereft of religious values—than ever before.

The virtue of the citizenry having diminished, so has its self-reliance. Speaking in broadly cultural terms, the default institution for solving problems has long since ceased to be the church and is now very definitely the State. Even in America, where the tradition of independent action has been far stronger than elsewhere, citizens typically no longer look to God or to churches or to voluntaristic intermediary institutions. It has become difficult to imagine that any loyalty can trump the loyalty due the State, or that any solution can be trusted which is not born of the State, or that there is ultimately any higher vision of right and wrong than that provided by the State—through whatever the positive law happens, at the moment, to prescribe.

The same situation applies widely worldwide but, as far as we know, there is no other region of the world which can boast a publication like First Things, a publication which can speak with a broad (if academic) voice, a publication which can lead the way in worrying about how, under these new circumstances, our collective mission should change. In this process of worrying, each of the contributors to the “symposium on the future of First Things”, in typical academic fashion, identifies both concerns and solutions which merit serious consideration. But (as is also typical in academic discussions), the points made are very different and, at times, conflicting, based on the special interests, competence, and perceptions of each writer.

But again, these are concerns for all of us. We do well to reflect on them. The following, I think, are the crucial questions that have been raised not only by the contributors to the symposium but in my own reflections on the problem of a public mission:

  1. Can a mission to instill what we might call “Godly” principles into the American (or any Western) public order succeed?
  2. Is contemporary politics viable without a prior transformation of culture at the local level?
  3. Is a deliberate effort to operate ecumenically essential to broader public success?
  4. Are umbrella missions—that is, missions devoted to establishing broadly cohesive meta-strategies—essential to public success?

My answers to these four questions are no, no, no and no. Let me explain.

Godly Principles and the Western Public Order

Respect for religion, and adherence to either religious or natural law principles, have disappeared from the Western public order, but not because we have inadvertently elected the wrong people. They have disappeared from the public order because they have disappeared from the private lives of the vast majority of Westerners who have influence either through wealth or the media or the educational establishment. We can play the game of running elections and betting on the outcomes as much as we want, but at least eighty times out of a hundred, the result will be executives, legislators, judges and bureaucrats who, regardless of rhetoric, do not act in office according to any deep commitment to the perennial sources of truth and wisdom upon which Western civilization was built.

Overcoming the obstacle of what we might call “the fashionable”—the values and attitudes of the broadly influential portion of our society—is made even more difficult in that the vast majority of citizens are educated in State schools at every level, from first to last. Moreover, the mass media, including entertainment media, is—almost by definition—under the control of the same portion of the population which supplies the State with leaders. We have to remember two things: First, power over others always tends to attract those least worthy of exercising it; and second, our particular situation today is the result of a complex process of secularization which has been going on for more than 500 years, and which is only in our own time revealing its absolute moral and spiritual bankruptcy.

This deterioration has resulted in decidedly false views of religion and even of nature itself, views which literally propel people to seek “liberation” in exactly the things which enslave them most. Writing in the “The Back Page” column in the same issue of First Things, editor David Bentley Hart, who has recently been discussing the future prospects of natural law theory, makes what appears to me to be a chilling but important observation: “I simply cannot shed the suspicion that many of us today fail fully to grasp the sole true intellectual achievement of modernity: the creation of a fully developed, imaginatively compelling, and philosophically sophisticated tradition of metaphysical nihilism.”

It is not that Hart thinks this tradition is valid, and indeed one never knows where and how the grace of God will break through. More than once in history it has been poured out in the collapse of an old order, which often has the result of leaving a shaken and humbled people open to the ministry of the Church. I cannot help but hope that the passing of American and European dominance may yet bring a new interest in ultimate meaning—in issues more pressing than personal desire, finances and leisure. But as things stand now, I firmly believe that it is categorically impossible—humanly speaking—to instill Godly principles directly into our public order.

Politics and Culture

It follows from the previous section that I hold out very little hope for effective political action in the foreseeable future. We have already engaged on in some discussion of the priority of politics, occasioned specifically by the reelection of U.S. President Barack Obama amidst a sea of inadequate candidates. (See for example my two-part series, The End of Pro-Life Politics (which I might as well have entitled “The End of Pro-God Politics”) and To Emphasize Politics: The Sequel.) My contention has not changed. The present situation does not provide a propitious moment for Catholic (or natural law) moral principles in politics. Therefore simple prudence demands that we put the lion’s share of our energies into more broadly cultural initiatives, charitable works, and the building of intermediary institutions. It makes little sense (for the very many of us who have been doing this) to continue throwing good time, energy and money after bad in efforts to win unlikely political victories.

This does not mean that nobody is called to politics, or that we should not keep an eye on the possibilities. It is merely a question of realistic emphasis, of the most effective expenditure of resources. None of us can do everything; none of us can support every cause. Many people over the centuries have lived in cultures and under regimes in which effective political action was virtually closed to them. We need instead to think seriously about (and act seriously upon) the need to form an authentically Christian culture from the ground up, beginning with the family and groups of families.

In the First Things symposium, George Weigel emphasized the need to focus more on the reconstruction of an authentically Christian culture, but Weigel was thinking of culture in the high and restricted leisure-based sense: “literature, film, music, the plastic arts, and architecture”. There is always this tendency among academics—a tendency most of us share to some degree—to start culture from the top, yet that is rarely how culture is formed. It makes far more sense to find ways to start at the bottom, seeking to transform habits of life “on the ground”, one family at a time. When that process reaches critical mass, the higher forms of culture, from art to politics, will gradually change. I do not mean that the higher forms cannot also further transform the lower. But even high culture needs at least a rudimentary market. The same is true of politics, in which, barring foreign invasion or totalitarian control, each culture gets broadly what it deserves—that is, what it fosters and tolerates from below.

We do well to remember that the real “first things” are not influential art or influential politics, or even the many ways we attempt to infuse spiritual values into art and politics. The real first things are, in the spiritual realm, faith, and in the temporal realm, family. All of us could devote our lives to strengthening faith and family—including the necessary reconnection of the two—without complaining of any wasted time. Indeed, an effective battle against contemporary individualism would in itself be a sufficient service of a lifetime. Next after grace, and indeed arising from it as its first fruits, the fusion of faith and family is the catalyst of all positive cultural and political change, just as it is of salvation itself.


I bring up the question of the efficacy of an ecumenical approach to the public order mainly because ecumenism has always been such a striking component of the First Things formula. The editors have insisted not only on forging a broader religiously informed conservatism but more specifically on undertaking formal ecumenical projects, such as the common meetings and statements arising from “Evangelicals and Catholics Together”. Most of us are not involved in formal ecumenical exercises, but I think many Catholics do wonder about things like common ground and coalition building. One of the symposium participants (it was the Protestant, Ephraim Radner) suggested that formally ecumenical initiatives seemed to be of less interest recently at First Things than before.

If so, it is about time. But before readers who are so inclined begin to cheer a fellow opponent of ecumenism, I have to say that I am not. The fragmentation of Christianity has been, as a matter of both history and psychology, an almost insuperable scandal, and a chief cause of the shattering of a Christian worldview in favor of increasing secularism—and increasing hopelessness. When the Second Vatican Council insisted on serious ecumenical work to heal the breaches among the various Christian bodies, the Church put her institutional finger firmly on a severed artery, hoping to diminish and ultimately stop the constant escape of life-giving blood.

But from the point of view of a larger public mission (which is, after all, the topic of this essay), the world has changed dramatically since the early 1960s. The rapid destabilization and secularization of culture has by itself been sufficient to force serious Catholics and Protestants (and even Jews, to whom the Catholic use of the term “ecumenism” does not apply) to recognize that they could be very friendly political allies, and in fact would have to be. Enemies of enemies are friends; it is as simple as that.

It is true that Christian differences in creed remain obstacles to a unity which will ultimately foster a healthier culture, instead of raising persistent doubts about the possibility of certainty in religious faith. But at the level of shorter-term strategies for public renewal, and political strategy in particular, there is little if any remaining need to break down barriers. Creedal differences no longer even remotely prevent similarly concerned people of different religions from working together. Among those who take God seriously, no group thinks twice any longer about partnering with those who differ in even significant elements of faith, as long as their fundamental moral commitments are sound. That is what matters for politics.

If what we are concerned about is an overarching religiously conservative strategy—forged under existing conditions—for the reclamation of American (or Western) public life, then time and energy spent on formal ecumenical projects will be time and energy frittered away at the edges. The common enemy has already rapidly transformed the more parochial attitudes of an earlier era. If political alliances are what we need, then animosity among the various groups that take God seriously is simply not an issue.

One Mission or Many?

That’s a good thing, of course. But the reader must recall that my own position is that political alliances are not what we need, and in fact will predictably prove fruitless. If the culture is really so far gone that it is not possible at present to invest the political order with Godly principles, then something far more radical than political alliances is necessary. If what we must expect is greater disintegration of society under the pressure of a Godless State, no matter what we might do politically—a prediction I give about a 90% chance of being right for the time being—then the whole mission of attempting to architect an overarching, religiously-inspired conservative movement is beside the point.

I was encouraged by the fact that two of the three respondents to R. R. Reno’s symposium proposal recognized this. Reno suggested that a new conservative coalition will form following the demise of Reaganism, and that “this presents an opportunity for First Things and the movement it represents to shape American conservatism.” But he received at least partially negative rejoinders from both his Catholic and his Protestant interlocutors:

  • Weigel: “…we should pay less attention to politics stricte dictum and more attention to the cultural currents that shape political perceptions…. [This] also means being cautious about the temptation, which strikes me as self-induced, to seize some putative ‘opportunity…to shape American conservatism.’”
  • Radner:First Things should not…wish to be a standard ‘player’ in the normal political debate of America. After all, the challenge of a ‘communal ascetics’ that is bound up with vital religious renewal is something that American political and economic culture is currently unable to assimilate…. [D]eeper faith realities lie elsewhere.”

Meta-strategy is fine for intellectuals. It makes interesting reading. But it does not create political success, at least not for believers in our circumstances today. Moreover, the very temptation to channel all of our respective initiatives into some set of broadly-defined political parameters may in itself be a betrayal of Christ’s own attitude toward the public order. What is needed, again, is personal and therefore cultural transformation, starting at the lowest levels. A successful magazine (or a successful website) could be as easily devoted to a wide-ranging discussion of the many ideas and initiatives for transforming the living culture of real people on the ground—all reflections of the common love of God in each “missionary” person or group—than to a continual effort to construct a theory which will somehow be barely sufficient to engage in successful politics without stepping on any serious believer’s toes.

I repeat that First Things has long been my favorite magazine. It contributes much more than the attempt to forge a conservative theory broad enough to be politically successful. It is far more multipurpose than its agonies over a public mission would suggest, for it sheds important light on one problem after another. But in terms of the future of its mission, and in terms of our own understanding of what a truly inspiring and successful mission ought to look like, the emphasis on creating some sort of political umbrella is a distraction. Perhaps it is not always and inevitably a distraction, but it bears repeating that, at the present time, mission and politics are almost mutually exclusive terms.


It is also necessary to emphasize that the essence of mission is vocation. I have written before that one of the most effective ways to renew culture will be for Catholics actually to depoliticize, especially to regain control of their own charitable works, dissociate them from the State, and begin again to provide the kind of generous and deeply personal service to those in need that turns heads and changes hearts. I am not talking about choices among a few theories, or a party, or some massive program designed to conquer the world. I am talking about each one of us acting according to his prayerful discernment of God’s call.

This is not something that can depend upon or be motivated by political success, which invariably uses those served as pawns. That, after all, is the all-too typical province of State programs. Rather, every spiritual and corporal work of heart and mind and hand transforms culture at its root, in the daily habits of personal lives. Such manifold missions change everyone, not only those who receive but those who give.

In other words, the point about the future of mission on which I will close is this: In Catholic mission, just as in God Himself, there is multiplicity in unity. Our purpose is to love God. We are not called to know a theory but a Person, the Person of Christ, who continues to reveal Himself to each generation in and through His Church. The first step toward effective mission is to discern prayerfully, with a sacramental faith nurtured and shaped also in and through the Church, whatever it is that God is calling each one of us to do. We will be called to work in a thousand different areas, including even politics for a few. Yet every call will tend toward the same end, the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

Behaving in this way is contagious, and it gradually forms a different sort of culture. There is no need to discourage the freedom and joy of the children of God by insisting that we orient our respective missions to some theory of political success, conservative or otherwise, with all the compromises, missteps and inevitable spiritual and practical failure that such a strategy must presently entail. It is not as if all of our missions must meld together in one public quest. Our kingdom is not of this world. There will be time enough, when the culture begins to change, to see what might be done politically in a more organic way, and without losing our souls.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 27, 2013 8:33 AM ET USA

    Excerpts here are reminiscent of Bishop Robert Morlino's talk on Dignitatis Humanae at the Institute of Catholic Culture this past Friday. He made two compact statements that are central to right-orderred thinking and action. First: There can be no love without truth. Second: (paraphrased) No one has the right to impede another's access to or the pursuit of the necessary means of salvation. (He repeated this comment and added "and I mean no one" for emphasis). Now to convince others.

  • Posted by: - Aug. 26, 2013 12:54 PM ET USA

    Much of this essay is brilliant. However, there is one problem. The Left (the ideology that believes that there is a conflict between faith and reason in which reason must prevail) seeks to impose its will via the state. If we do not challenge them politically, they will gain even more ground. Indoctrination of young people will result in a loss of souls. Politics must at least be defensive until a fragile Catholic counterculture is in a position to gain ground. Political despair could be fatal.

  • Posted by: meor2day8658 - Aug. 25, 2013 10:14 PM ET USA

    Excellent essay. It's going to take folks converting to Christ's message to shape a more Godly culture. All I know is that God calls each & every human being to be in His Kingdom.

  • Posted by: - Aug. 25, 2013 3:54 PM ET USA

    It is time for all Catholic/Christian institutions to learn that, if you insist on dancing with the devil (receiving State funding), don't complain when he steps on your tows (tells you what you can or cannot do with them. Long before the Church became involved in the political arena, i.e. the early Church, the Church took care of her own. It's time we do that again. We are not of this world.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Aug. 25, 2013 9:16 AM ET USA

    This is a splendid essay which I will not sully by pretending I can add anything substantial. One observation, though, of our current situation: I am reminded every day that we are living a reality akin to that of Catholics in Nazi Germany in the 30s or of French Catholics under the Vichy regime. Although seemingly purposeful and dedicated to the public good, our government is in fact the epicenter of infidelity, immorality, and insanity. Our leaders are beyond objectionable; they are monsters.

  • Posted by: mleiberton3126 - Aug. 24, 2013 12:16 PM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, Thanks for this. I was struck by your analysis: "Within each branch of the FT coalition...the polarization between secularized and non-secularized elements has increased." The same has occurred within board/staff at FT. At the death of Fr.Neuhaus, I could no longer devour the issues as previously. Following a hiatus of many months, my first random read was "On the Brilliantine Coattails of Lust." Finding it sad and scandalous, I shan't renew my subscription. Prayers are needed.

  • Posted by: the.dymeks9646 - Aug. 23, 2013 9:27 PM ET USA

    Agreed. I've been a subscriber to First Things for years, and have always enjoyed the articles like I enjoy sipping on cognac in front of a fire. But, lately because of the seriousness ( or my awakening of realty), it all seems so pointless at times and too academic. We are entering a new age of martyrdom, and it is the blood of the martyrs which will change the hearts of culture. The mind is a slave to the heart and not the other way around.

  • Posted by: Dlukenbill2151 - Aug. 23, 2013 8:36 PM ET USA

    Excellent article and First Things was also my favorite magazine until Richard John Neuhaus passed away (RIP); and so true that as much as the intellectual articles which are First Things’ stock in trade, are stimulating to read, they rarely lead anywhere. Pointing folks back to charity resonates deeply with me, but we need to keep a sharp eye on politics and intervene whenever we see an open policy window to create some goodness to counter the badness.