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Conservatism and the Privatization of Religion

Watching (d)evolution of the lumbering organism that is First Things is certainly interesting. One of the latest developments in this conservative bazaar is the recent addition of a group blog by evangelicals. The lineup is rather interesting, consisting of the sort of usual suspects one might expect to see on a blog by politically conservative evangelicals (i.e. plenty of the Biola types). However, when you starting looking though the posters more deeply, and some of the posts, things start to look quite odd, considering the deeply Catholic nature of First Things.

To take the most extreme example, at least one of the posters on this new blog is ardently anti-Catholic. Like, extremely so. Think rabid fundamentalism meets the New Calvinism meets a loud person with an IQ of around 75 and you’ll have a slight idea of what we’re dealing with here. What are people like that doing posting on the same site as David Bentley Hart and Rusty Reno? It boggles the imagination.

But if you really think about it, all the pieces fit. At the most fundamental level the “first thing” which this publication concerns itself is simply  neoconservatism. And really nothing more than that.  To be sure there are exceptions that prove the rule, and occasionally a good article or post peeks its head through the quicksand, but the fact remains that at a basic level as long as you’re a political conservative, nothing else matters at First Things. You can be an Ultramontane Caesaropapist or a Fundamentalist who thinks the pope is the antichrist as long as you’re both glad to be conservative together.

As such, I submit that First Things is only serving to perpetuate what they so often deride: the privatization of religious and theological convictions. For them, the most central claims of the church’s life and doctrine are swept aside so that all can come together in the embrace neoconservative ideology, the master story that supersedes all religious and theological trivialities. Oddly enough, this predominately Roman Catholic publication actually offers a goofy and contrived alternative form of catholicity, namely that of neoconservative ideology. It is conservatism rather than the faith of the church that will bind us together in common mission, concord, and purpose. Truly a bizarre, though not unpredictable ideological development. A publication dedicated to theology’s public importance has ultimately become nothing more than the obviation of theology itself. As such all we have left is a half-baked neocon ideology in the ruins of what was once a sort of okay publication.

29 Comments

  1. Hill wrote:

    Sadly, I think you are basically right. It seems as if their larger internet presence has come at the expense of what was good about the print journal. Say what you will about Neuhaus, but I have a hard time believing this could have happened with him at the helm.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 11:44 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I look and look for a silver lining, and then something like this happens, you know?

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 11:48 am | Permalink
  3. Nathaniel Drake Carlson wrote:

    And a lot of the actual writing itself isn’t very good either. Let’s not overlook that.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    I know… I’ve taken the most charitable approach possible. At this point, whatever unique and helpful perspective FT may have provided in the past, however compromised, seems to be fading fast. It should be quite interesting to see where this is in five years.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 11:58 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    But apparently they’ve won the title for the “best evangelical group blog.” (!) I guess that says something about the quality of evangelical blogs these days, doesn’t it?

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 12:08 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    They’ll all be in a secret underground organization hiding senior citizens from the mandatory euthanasia program that’s being implemented as we speak, of course!

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  7. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Why is this not posted under: “Things that make you want to gouge your eyes out with your pinky, shove scalding hot pokers in your ears, and repeatedly slam the door of a 1950s-vintage, American-made sedan on your head”?

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Fixed.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  9. Stephen wrote:

    You said, “For them, the most central claims of the church’s life and doctrine are swept aside so that all can come together in the embrace neoconservative ideology, the master story that supersedes all religious and theological trivialities.”

    Modify this slightly and you have Politics of the Cross Resurrected.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    I don’t know how to make a modification that slight.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 1:51 pm | Permalink
  11. mike d wrote:

    I’m not familiar with all of the bloggers there but if you remove one or maybe two of those names I think this blog gets much, much better. First Things reaching out to evangelicals and including them in the First Things world? Not really new or news.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Mike, I think the issue is deeper than the fact that some of these bloggers are nutcases. The point is that the only thing the various streams of First Things writers have anymore is simply neoconservatism. What unites them is not any sense of common faith, merely common partisan political position. That, more than even the positions they themselves hold, seems to me to be the major problem with this phenomenon from a theological perspective.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  13. Dan wrote:

    I wonder if this about market leadership through diversification or whether this is part of an ongoing effort to bring more evangelicals back in to the arms of Rome. I mean Catholics in the US have been winning their share of high-profile converts, even if some of them are Newt Gingrich.

    I’m not sure if this neo-conservatism or just plain old theo-conservatism either – when I think “neocon” I think of the whole Straussian end-of-history capitalist teleology crowd. The FT gang is about more – and less – than that. Maybe you are using a different definition.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 2:27 pm | Permalink
  14. mike d wrote:

    You’re right. Given that a few of those guys (at least one) would have a really hard time not saying that Neuhaus is damned if went to the grave with his RC beliefs is tact, it’s difficult to figure out how these guys are united with the RC’ers traditionally associated with First Things. J.I. Packer, Timothy George & Alan Jacobs these guys ain’t.

    wouldn’t be able to happily admit that Neuhaus isn’t damned there’s little

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  15. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Weird, Frank Turk made the roster. You’re right, Halden, this is a strange brew.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  16. Hill wrote:

    It really seems like the result of some sort of focus group testing.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    Dan, my only reason for using the “neocon” label is because of how contested the “conservative” label has become. So in this case I’m not appealing to that sort of Straussian thing or the Fukuyama nonsense (though those antecedents are important). And of course clearly the meaning of the term is somewhat fluid. What I have in mind, when I apply the labels to folks like the conservative Catholics and Evangelicals of First Things includes:

    -a tendency to see the world in binary good/evil terms
    -readiness to use military force against perceived threats
    -fixation on common socially conservative issues like sex, abortion, gay marriage, etc
    -advocacy for unilateral American action & a disdain for multilateral organizations or accountability
    -being strongly pro-Israel and anti-palestinian
    -inconsistent but rabid defense of neoliberal economics & common appeal to socialism or totalitarianism as inevitable dangers to the West

    I think that’s a least something of an accurate summary.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  18. Dan wrote:

    Halden,

    I sort of had a feeling that that’s what you were driving at. It almost deserves its own terminology though, since I feel like the Straussians own that term. Palinism?

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    Are there really any pure Straussians today? I feel like modern neoconservatism is a pretty direct outgrowth of such antecedents, but I could be wrong. I don’t really know much about Strauss.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 3:22 pm | Permalink
  20. mike d wrote:

    This was meant to go up a bit higher with slightly more editing…reading blogs and posting comments at work right before meetings is probably unethical but more importantly it distracts from the reading and commenting.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  21. Dan wrote:

    Considering that the only consistent thing that I’ve read about Strauss is that there was controversy over what exactly Strauss himself believed, maybe the only pure Straussian was Strauss. I was more applying the term in the sense that he was an important nexus for getting Fukuyama, Perle and Wolfowitz and some others together. Albert Wohlstetter of RAND was the only other unifying figure I can think of for the early neoconservative crowd.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 3:58 pm | Permalink
  22. tim kumfer wrote:

    perhaps the turning point you are looking for was when someone as theologically conservative as Stanley Hauerwas no longer felt welcome–just after 9/11.

    I, for one, have always thought it was shit…at least as long as i could understand it.

    also, it seems that biola-style worldview evangelicals and benedict-lovin’ catholics share certain epistemological assumptions which they simply locate in different things (ie bible/ church tradition) and the triumphalist narrative of Christendom.

    quite a scary combo, which I as a Yoderian really can’t get into. (It seems, though, that some at Duke Div can, as I can attest from personal experience and can be deduced from Rusty Reno’s gushing praise of the school.)

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  23. Joe Carter wrote:

    On reading your post I get the sense that your complaint is that First Things is not Commonweal — a liberal Catholic magazine. If that’s the case there probably isn’t much I could say to change your mind.

    Nevertheless, I feel it necessary to make a few clarifications. Let’s start with the mission of FT: To advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society. Despite the misperceptions some people have—fostered by the magazine itself, I admit—we are not a Catholic journal. We are now what the magazine has always been—interreligious.

    You seem to think it is odd that someone who is “ardently anti-Catholic” would be allowed to contribute. I’m not sure why. It shouldn’t come as any secret that Catholics and Protestants disagree on theological issues. FT wants to be a place where those issues can be argued about rather just glossed over.

    You also say, “At the most fundamental level the “first thing” which this publication concerns itself is simply  neoconservatism.” Perhaps if you had bothered to actually read the posts on the new blog rather than passing judgment based on the masthead you would have seen about like this one (http://firstthings.com/blogs/evangel/2009/10/funny-i-dont-feel-neoconnish/ ) about . . . not being a neocon. (How did we let that guy slip in?)

    There is also this strange point: “You can be an Ultramontane Caesaropapist or a Fundamentalist who thinks the pope is the antichrist as long as you’re both glad to be conservative together.” Um, yes, why not? If we were a theological Catholic journal than it would indeed be out of place. But if the mission is to come to an agreement about public philosophy then why shouldn’t divergent theological points of view be allowed? Conservatives are damned for being too narrow and damned for being too inclusive. We just can’t win.

    I also don’t understand you complaint that “… the most central claims of the church’s life and doctrine are swept aside so that all can come together in the embrace neoconservative ideology, the master story that supersedes all religious and theological trivialities.” The most central claims of which church. If I understand correctly you yourself are not a Roman Catholic. Also I suspect that by “master story” you don’t mean the Gospel since the new evangelical blog has had a dozen post already on that topic (and its only been online for two days). Maybe a little more reading of what we actually say would be useful before rushing to judgment.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 7:36 pm | Permalink
  24. Halden wrote:

    Joe, thanks for the reply. Unfortunately, however you really end up making my own point. If as you claim, the mission of FT is to “advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society” then we must all admit that it has horribly failed, because that is precisely what does not go on there in any meaningful sense. Any debate is already over by virtue of the fact that (at least in its online presence) this publication’s writer’s have ultimately only one thing in common: a commitment to what virtually anyone would broadly call neoconservatism. Your fellow poster may claim to not “feel” neoconservative, but when it all comes down to the brass tacks, there isn’t anything really different on offer from any of you.

    If it was unclear, I’m not really concerned with the fact that there are fundamentalists and Catholics who write for FT. What I care about is what this means as far as what the magazine is really up to. It masquerades, in your words as “a place where those issues can be argued about rather just glossed over.” However that just isn’t what goes on there. The very obvious truth about FT today is that difference over “those issues” (like the meaning of the gospel and the nature of the church) is not important. What is important is that all (or the utterly vast majority) who write there share a common conservative ideology.

    Now, if FT presented itself as intentionally trying to propagate a reactionary conservative ideology rooted in the American project, I would at least laud them for being honest. As it is however no such honesty is to be found. Rather people there claim, as you do, that it is a place of public debate over political issues in which theology is supposedly important. However this is simply not true. There is no debate, only conservative posturing. Theology is unimportant, only acquiescence to conservative positions. That is what I have a problem with. At least Commonweal is honest about what it is.

    And, believe it or not I did somehow manage to read the posts that have been put forth in the young life of your fledgling blog. I hope that comforts you. I should be clear that my critique is not directed at individual contributors, many of whom write some good stuff in the blogosphere and have for some time (see my comment in the original post about the occasional emergence of something valuable from the quicksand that is FT). What I find troubling is the way in which FT has become nothing more than a vehicle of contemporary neoconservative ideology while still falsely claiming to be a place of reason and debate. It simply is not and the publication should be up front about what really is. That’s all.

    So to answer your initial question, I’m not mad that FT isn’t liberal. I’m disappointed that it feels the need to obfuscate about being an advocate of neoconservative ideology.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  25. Joe Carter wrote:

    Thanks for the reply. It appears that you consider the term “neoconservative” as an umbrella term for a political positions you don’t agree with. That you think the divergent views—political views, not theological views—can all be called “neoconservative” shows that you may not understand what that term means. But that fact that you claim that “Theology is unimportant, only acquiescence to conservative positions” shows that you really aren’t making a serious claim, just insulting a magazine because you disagree with its politics. To imply that when people write posts about the Gospel but that it we really consider it “unimportant” is rather demeaning to fellow Christians.

    But if that is how you truly feel, then I guess there isn’t much left to say.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 11:01 pm | Permalink
  26. Halden wrote:

    Not at all. Neoconservatism is indeed something of an umbrella, but certainly not one for simply “everything I disagree with.” I disagree with many, many more things that you would doubtless also condemn as utterly liberal.

    Moreover I have no interest in insulting FT. I merely want it to be honest about what it is and what its mission really is, that’s all.

    And as I made clear in my response, I was not directing the focus of my critique to any individual contributors (other than the crazy one, about which I make no apologies). I certainly never said that you or anyone else’s interpretations of the gospel were unimportant to them.

    But they are unimportant to FT. That’s my point. What is important to FT is that there be lots of posts about the inevitable onset of euthanasia, abortion, gay marriage, and why the Iraq war was a good thing. If I’m somehow off my nut to call such a fixation neoconservative, you’ll have to do a better job of showing me how.

    Also, I’d advise you to take a page from your own book of pretentious blog put-downs and maybe read some more of my posts prior to high-handedly speculating about what I couldn’t possibly understand. But if superior, down-the-nose glares are what you are most interested in doing, then so be it.

    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 11:23 pm | Permalink
  27. Keljeck wrote:

    I’m not so terribly confused over Evangel, but I can’t for the life of me understand where Gateway Pundit fits in. How does an overtly conservative political blog (and a rather inflammatory one at that) help advance religion in the public square? Since it was transferred the only context in which religion has been mentioned is talking about those damn muslims. I don’t see the synergy at all. Unless all you need to be is a relatively popular conservative blog.

    I loved Culture11 in the time that it lasted. But I fear First Things Online is turning into a Culture11-lite, absent the qualities of Culture11 I enjoyed. … except PomoCon.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 7:18 am | Permalink
  28. Dan wrote:

    who gives out the title…it’s like every movie get’s a “best movie of the year” or every new tv show gets ‘best new show” even before they’ve aired… don’t write off all us evangelicals because of this blog! btw I did check it out and it was embarrassing!

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 6:52 pm | Permalink
  29. Christopher wrote:

    Unfortunately this decline started while Fr. Neuhaus was still alive, and Halden’s diagnosis is spot on. It’s only accelerated since Joseph Bottum took over. Such a bad publication now, hardly anything worth reading.

    Friday, October 30, 2009 at 9:40 am | Permalink

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