Over at First Things, editor-in-chief R.R. Reno (right) attempts to take stock of American Catholic conservatism (or orthodoxy) from the beginning of the Culture Wars to the Summer of 2013 and beyond. I found the piece more fascinating for its view of recent American history than its future speculations.
Most prominently, I was struck by Reno’s acknowledgment of the importance of “second things” (my term) like context, change over time, contingency, complexity, etc.—historical thinking, in a word—even while exhibiting clear weaknesses in that latter category of thought.
Here are some excerpts from, and my critical replies on, the “First Things School of History”:
(a) In the 1980s and 1990s, theological liberalism seemed a powerful, or at least recently powerful, force. First Things consistently fought against its influence. The journal accepted modernity and argued that the achievements of modernity—democracy, respect for the dignity of the human person, the central role of freedom—are an integral part of the Christian message and sustained and renewed by loyalty to religious authority. We rarely let pass an opportunity to criticize theological liberals and point out the decline of mainline Protestantism. Today theological liberalism is no longer a force in the churches. We have in that sense won, and won decisively. In the Catholic Church, most theological liberals argue for their right to exist rather than assume they will determine the future direction of Christianity.
ME: “The journal accepted modernity”? Did this include the full acceptance of scientific findings, of individual expression and development, of changed women’s roles, of pluralism? And over what period of time did Catholic “theological liberals…assume they [would] determine the future direction of Christianity”? From 1955-1965? During Vatican II and for a few years after?
(b) When First Things was founded, Richard John Neuhaus could presume a broad range of religiously engaged people who had diverse political commitments. The journal’s inaugural editorial announced: “If the American experiment in representative democracy is not in conversation with biblical religion, it is not in conversation with what the overwhelming majority of Americans profess to believe is the source of morality. To the extent that our public discourse is perceived as indifferent or hostile to the language of Jerusalem, our social and political order faces an ever-deepening crisis of legitimacy.” We saw ourselves speaking on behalf of the majority and against a narrow secular elite. This is no longer true.
ME: So, in 1990 and the 1990s, “Neuhaus could presume a broad range of religiously engaged people who had diverse political commitments”? Considering that the journal began in the heat of the Culture Wars in the U.S., and those “wars”—in the eyes of one prominent authoritative observer—pitted the orthodox against the progressive, with the former being conservative and Republican and the latter being liberal and Democrats, how was that presumption possible? Given that environment, did Neuhaus really presume First Things-style orthodoxy was to be found with progressive Democrats? Was that environment truly “hostile to the language of Jerusalem,” or was that language simply being debated—with the journal joining to push the debate in a particular direction?
(c) First Things is associated with an optimistic phase of American conservatism. The Reagan coalition affirmed American exceptionalism, sought to unleash the creative potential of capitalism, and was influenced by a can-do, problem-solving neoconservatism. The Reagan coalition has run its course. Today, American conservatism is often angry or despondent rather than optimistic. A McCarthyite mentality has emerged that insists the progressive tradition is alien and un-American. A hard-hearted libertarianism is replacing the warmth of Reagan-era patriotism and its affirmations of national solidarity. An apocalyptic mentality (national bankruptcy, demographic decline) promotes policies less as opportunities for renewal than as bitter necessities that follow from this or that collapse. More broadly, as the Reagan coalition has unraveled, the Republican party has become undisciplined and its political culture exotic, often to the point of embarrassment.
ME: Wait, if I’ve read my George Nash correctly, it was 1960s libertarianism, via Milton Friedman, that was the policy-oriented and problem-solving branch of post-WWII conservatism. So when, precisely, did libertarianism grow “hard-hearted”? Isn’t there an intellectual ideological strain of neoconservatism that accompanied the “Reagan Revolution” and its political descendants? I understand the rhetorical optimism of the Reagan era, but how were its policies practically “optimistic”—if we can define optimism as something distinct from unrealistic, guesswork, or ideological? And wasn’t an apocalyptic rhetoric a part of the New Right and the early, first-term Reagan oeuvre (e.g. heating up the Cold War, fear of end of America and its values—fear enough to inspire art like this)?
Perhaps if First Things-style historical conservatism was more reflective about “Second Things,” it would would be able to acknowledge some of its essential relativism. – TL
Aside: I hope to finish up my look at Michael Kramer’s Republic of Rock next week.