Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Neuhaus, the Liberal

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Neuhaus, the Liberal

Article excerpt

The most recent issue of National Affairs (summer 2016) features an essay about our founder, "The Liberalism of Richard John Neuhaus." The author, Matthew Rose, currently director and senior fellow at the Berkeley Institute, was a junior fellow at First Things and worked with Neuhaus. Reading the essay, I was struck by the continuity of Neuhaus's thought. I hope the same continuity characterizes First Things.

Rose cites a 1990 contribution Neuhaus made to a Christian Century series, "How My Mind Has Changed." That was the year First Things got going. Already well known as a Christian neoconservative, Neuhaus had shifted from left to right in the 1970s and was active in bringing the newly powerful Christian right into conversation with a range of conservative intellectuals. But in that article, he denied any fundamental changes in his outlook. He recalled that while in seminary, he formed lasting convictions. He would be "in descending order of importance, religiously orthodox, culturally conservative, politically liberal, and economically pragmatic." To this personal "quadrilateral" he remained loyal, even as the world around him changed, forcing him to change in order to stay true to his principles.

Does First Things remain loyal as well? It's best to begin with the least important: economic pragmatism. Neuhaus didn't treat free-market capitalism as the fundamental imperative. Like many of his generation, he came to see that socialism, while theoretically the morally superior option, at least in some accounts, in fact concentrates power in the hands of a few, suppresses freedom, and leads to economic stagnation. Without a free economy, it's hard to sustain a free society, much less a prosperous one. But he didn't suppose that market deregulation and the free flow of capital and labor would cure all social ills and automatically promote the well-being of most citizens.

By the time First Things was founded, Neuhaus belonged to the "two cheers for capitalism" camp. (Irving Kristol coined the phrase to describe Pope John Paul II's endorsement of free markets in his encyclical most friendly to capitalism, Centesimus Annus.) In our first year of publication, Neuhaus ran an article by Paul Johnson on the moral inadequacy of capitalism as society's sole organizing principle, another by Amy Sherman on why Christians concerned about the economic development of poor nations should acknowledge the success of market-oriented models, and still another by Christopher Lasch arguing that in contemporary American politics, cultural conservatives are mismatched with free-market proponents whose ideals of economic freedom undermine stable communities.

First Things remains economically pragmatic. When the magazine was launched, half the world was coming out from underneath the suffocating blanket of "actually existing socialism." We were rightfully optimistic. Eastern Europe is today both prosperous and free. China and India have seen remarkable growth, lifting millions out of abject poverty. But it's now 2016 and we face the problems of capitalism's excesses, even its successes, not socialism's deadening effects. Man is fallen, and our bondage to sin leads to a profoundly distorted ambition for wealth, not just for the luxury it brings, but the power as well. There are no self-regulating, self-correcting economic systems. Free enterprise may provide more safeguards against tyranny than any other system, but it too needs to be checked by our collective judgments about what best serves the common good. There was no party line on economics when First Things was founded, and that remains the case.

Which brings us to politics and Neuhaus's liberalism. As Rose explains, Neuhaus was a great proponent of what he liked to call "the American experiment." In his view, our free, democratic society is an open-ended project. We continue in an unbroken conversation-sometimes a bitter debate-about how to structure our common life, both formally with laws and informally through civic norms and a shared moral consensus. …

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