First Things’ New Old Direction

Two years after the death of Father Richard John Neuhaus, new challenges face the magazine and its committed core readership.

FIRST EDITOR. Father Richard John Neuhaus, the late editor of First Things, depicted in 2004.
FIRST EDITOR. Father Richard John Neuhaus, the late editor of First Things, depicted in 2004. (photo: CNS file photo)

NEW YORK — In a culture poised to consign print media to the dustbin of history, First Things still brings influential writers and loyal subscribers to its high-level conversation on “a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.”

Two years ago, the death of its charismatic founder, Father Richard John Neuhaus, cast a pall over the magazine’s prospects. But after a rocky start — a controversial redesign, followed by the abrupt departure of the new editor, Joseph Bottum — First Things has begun to regain its equilibrium.

“We will stay focused on the primary reason we have subscribers: First Things offers intellectually, theologically and politically serious content,” confirmed R.R. “Rusty” Reno, the editor-designate who will assume his post in April.

The magazine, whose full title is First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, is published by the New York-based Institute on Religion and Public Life.

Meanwhile, the editors have executed a modest retreat from the journal’s redesign, which had expelled the marquee of article titles from the cover and introduced photographs, illustrations and feature stories.

While expressing strong support for James Nuechterlein, the interim editor, Reno acknowledges that “readers were divided on the redesign.”

The critics appear to have been mollified, however, by what Reno calls “a refinement of the redesign. The article titles are back on the cover, and we’ve adjusted some sections to focus on core issues. Overall, we have a more attractive magazine that will serve the long-term goals of First Things.”

Philosophers and theologians venting their spleen over a redesign? The uninitiated may find the passionate response surprising, but First Things is more than just an intellectual journal; it’s a holdover from another age, when the printed word could ignite a revolution.

For its 30,000 subscribers, the journal operates as a moral compass — a kind of extended conversation among a diverse group of trusted friends. Letters to the editor regularly exceed a page, and some readers confess their marriage has suffered from conflicts over which spouse gets to read the latest issue first.

The monthly forum for high-powered ideas from top academics and public intellectuals has served as an incubator and a catalyst for groundbreaking ecumenical collaboration. Father Neuhaus and Charles Colson affirmed the common beliefs and policy goals of their faith communities with “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” — an initiative that has created a fruitful dialogue and prompted joint policy statements on issues like traditional marriage, bioethics and, most recently, religious freedom.

Father Neuhaus’ Vision

Father Neuhaus’ tendency to confront, rather than deflect, perceived threats to American culture and religious freedom has been a trademark of the magazine’s spirited response to hot-button issues.

The Ramsey Colloquium, an academic seminar linked to the journal, has issued a series of statements that offer no apologies for violating the creed of political correctness.

In the 1994 declaration “The Homosexual Movement,” Father Neuhaus, papal biographer George Weigel and other signers repudiated the guiding principles of the “gay rights” movement. “Where there is love in morally disordered relationships, we do not censure the love. We censure the form in which that love seeks expression,” read the statement. “We are well aware that this declaration will be dismissed by some as a display of ‘homophobia,’ but such dismissals have become unpersuasive and have ceased to intimidate.”

Literature, history, philosophy, political theory, art, theology, cultural criticism and political commentary were all elements of Father Neuhaus’ original vision for the magazine, which published its first issue in 1990.

Early contributors and editors were part of Father Neuhaus’ inner circle of friends and colleagues — “family.” In one published recollection, Weigel remembered that the “magazine was planned in conversations between us on the deck of Father Neuhaus’ cottage in the Ottawa Valley in the summer of 1989. … [O]ur deliberations were aided by a liberal use of bourbon and cigars.”

At that time, Father Neuhaus was still a leading Lutheran pastor and public figure, the author of The Naked Public Square, which alerted the nation that an aggressive secular ideology sought to dispel religiously informed debate from mainstream culture and politics.

A longtime civil-rights activist, Father Neuhaus had broken with the Democratic Party over its embrace of abortion rights. But the struggle against segregation underscored the power of ecumenical and interfaith engagement, and Father Neuhaus wanted Protestant, Catholic and Jewish thinkers to have a place in his new magazine. Lutheran ethicist Gilbert Meilaender, Jewish scholar David Novak, Catholic theologian Michael Novak and Timothy George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School, have all played important roles.

“Richard brought people together across a spectrum,” said Hadley Arkes, who serves on First Things’ editorial board and recently converted to Catholicism.

Oasis of Sanity

Academics mired in the secular culture of higher education quickly welcomed First Things as an oasis of sanity.

Rusty Reno’s own trajectory is a familiar one for many of the journal’s younger contributors. A classmate at Yale Divinity School introduced him to First Things, and he remembers it as “an immediate hit. My education hadn’t prepared me to answer the questions placed before me. How, I wondered, should I navigate my life intellectually, morally and spiritually? Where could I find trustworthy guides and companions? I found them at First Things.”

Arkes, the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, who helped to craft critical pro-life legislation, vividly recalls the trepidation that accompanied the magazine’s launch. “The question was whether there would be enough talent and material out there to sustain this venture. It turned out that ‘if you build it, they will come.’ The journal seemed to elicit a community well beyond Neuhaus’ inner circle.”

During its first decade, the prestigious journal drew more Protestant readers than Catholics. But at some point, the center of gravity shifted decisively to Rome. Deputy editor David Mills notes that many people now assume First Things is a “Catholic” publication.

First Things isn’t ‘officially Catholic’ — though our editor, ex-editor and managing editor are all Catholic,” said Mills, a former editor at Touchstone Magazine, an ecumenical journal, who converted to Catholicism in 2001. “Rusty Reno is an Episcopalian who taught at Creighton University and then became a Catholic.”

The editors suggest that the magazine’s Catholic profile may be the inevitable result of the spiritual vacuum created by the ongoing decline of mainline Protestantism.

In this month’s issue of First Things, Gilbert Meilaender explained why he remained a Lutheran in the Missouri Synod, but he then acknowledged “the immense importance for all Christians of the Roman Church. The rest of us are all parasitic upon it, and its achievements and contributions are immense. If the Church as the body of Christ must, as Bonhoeffer put it, take up space in the world, then it is simply a fact that the Roman Church takes up a great deal of such space.”

Just two years have passed since the death of Father Neuhaus, and the magazine’s editors and readers still mourn the loss of a beloved writer, collaborator, friend and pastor.

“There was a moment when I was feeling a particular despair that we weren’t making more of a difference in the world, and that Christianity seemed to be in retreat,” recalled Charles Colson. “Neuhaus sent me a letter that I treasure to this day. Basically, he said: Do not despair, for ‘we have enlisted for the duration, bearing witness to the truth.’ That was just the word I needed to keep me going at a very critical moment.”

Said Mills: “A founder’s genius is a force of nature. Everyone keeps his legacy in mind — his personal care and interest in people, along with the serious thought. We are publishing a magazine that takes ideas seriously, in part, because of their effects on people’s lives.”

Register correspondent Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland. She has written for First Things.

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