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"First Things" was just the latest thing"First Things" was just the latest thing

"First Things" was just the latest thing

Randy Boyagoda on how Father Richard John Neuhaus moved the world with magazines.

Randy Boyagoda
11 minute read

The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker
The New Criterion, The Atlantic, Tradition
Inside the Vatican, Pro Ecclesia, The Christian Century
Foreign Affairs, The Weekly Standard, Touchstone
Standpoint, Policy Review, Commonweal
Commentary, Christianity Today, America
American Interest, American Spectator
The New Republic, National Affairs, National Review
New Oxford Review, Chronicles, City Journal
Human Life Review, Hoover Digest
The Independent Review, Image, Books and Culture
The Family In America, Brigham Young University Studies
The "New" New York Review Azure: Ideas for the Jewish Nation

The size and breadth of this list should come as no surprise to Neuhaus' thousands of readers, who were accustomed to a remarkable array of references to a remarkable array of other publications—both critical and commendatory, if more often and more memorably the former—in the essays, columns, gossipy snipes, grinning anecdotes and pointed observations he wrote in the back portion of the most successful magazine he founded, First Things. Simply put, Neuhaus had a voracious appetite for periodicals.

Indeed, among the many admiring remembrances occasioned by his death, at 72, a mutual friend reported Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's gobsmacked question about Neuhaus' productivity: "How does he do it?" Scalia was referring to Neuhaus' consistently prodigious output as a magazine writer, as evidenced in the back section of First Things—12,000 words per issue, 10 issues a year, for almost 20 years—which is the equivalent of a 400-page book each year—in addition to the several conventional books he wrote during this same period. But the question holds just as much for our sense of him as a reader, judging from subscriptions to theological, political, policy and cultural magazines that would rival a wellfunded public library's.

In fact, Neuhaus' permanent and irreplaceable interest in magazines—as distinctive and valuable sources of both community and argument; as crucibles for the refinement, expansion and critical consideration of culture itself—rates special attention.

When it comes to the magazines he was associated with rather than those he merely read and wrote about, he is best known for First Things, the influential and occasionally controversial monthly of religion and public life that he founded in 1990 and led until he died. But Neuhaus' relationship to magazines reaches back decades. This relationship figured significantly in his life and work as a reader, a contributor, an editor and, founder. And as we shall see, it affords a distinctive insight into his broader sense of vocation, and mission, as a priest, a writer and an activist committed to defending religion's natural and necessary place in American public life. It would help articulate, renew and advance the country's ongoing experiment in ordered liberty. For Richard John Neuhaus, magazines were the best venues for his vocation and mission and, likewise, for his talents and his personality. Neuhaus' passion for periodicals began on Miller Street, a tree-lined road of modest brick houses in Pembroke, Ont., whose sightlines are dominated at one end by an imposing red brick Lutheran church.

In 1936, Neuhaus was born and baptized next door, in the pastor's house—his father's house. His parents were American. His mother, Ella, and his father, Clem, moved to the Ottawa Valley in the early 1930s after answering "a call," as such invitations are known in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, to assume the pastorate of St. John's Lutheran Church. "Dickie," as Neuhaus was known then, grew up in a crowded household alongside seven brothers and sisters. From a young age, he distinguished himself with his sharp intelligence, his industriousness, his moxie and his love of words and gossip—a lively combination that would stay with him throughout his life and work in magazines.

This connection emerged sometime in the late 1940s, when his older sister Mildred discovered that her little brother Dickie was peddling a juvenile scandal sheet up and down their block. It was printed on yellow paper and titled, with simple authority, "The News of Miller Street." This rag was something Dickie had decided to create on his own and, after composing each issue, he made copies on the church office's mimeograph machine, unbeknownst to his strict, severe father.

As for the content, it amounted to little beyond a 12-year-old boy's very local, very immediate observations, but for one element: Dickie got his hands on Mim's diary and published excerpts in each issue. Neuhaus' troublemaking tendencies speeded his departure from Pembroke. His parents sent him to a Lutheran boy's academy in Sewell, Neb. He didn't last very long. In a 2007 CBC television profile, he candidly admitted to "organizing beer parties and panty raids," which, not surprisingly, displeased the school's authorities. This was more than merely a disciplinary matter: rather than simply boasting about his checkered past, Neuhaus also recalled a teacher informing him, during a stretch of punitive confinement to his room, that God was disappointed in him, because God loved him and wanted and expected a great deal more than mischief-making.

This call was effective, but it didn't exactly take immediate effect. Leaving Sewell under something of a cloud, the teenaged Neuhaus was next sent south to Cisco, Tex., where he lived with "shirt-tail cousins" as he called them. Bored and restless, he only got into more trouble, at least when he wasn't pestering his simple country pastor with sophisticated theological questions.

Eventually, from this particular combination of mischief and longing, he made his way to a new Lutheran junior college in Austin. There, as he enjoyed telling people for the rest of his life, he talked his way into the college stream despite the lack of a high school diploma. Unsurprisingly, he wrote for the school newspaper and continued to make trouble; he also discovered he had a particular talent for arch pronouncements and an incurable weakness for late-night debate. His yearbook entry identifies him as "Arbiter Elegantarium," no doubt with a combination of admiration and sarcasm.

Most important, he fully discerned a vocation to the religious life and left Austin for St. Louis, Mo., in 1956, where he enrolled in the historic Concordia Seminary, then the Missouri Synod's premier institution for training and forming its pastors. Years later, reflecting on the spiritual fervour and intellectual ferment that marked his seminary years, a bemused Neuhaus remembered impressing one of his professors because he was rare among a strong student body in having taken out a personal subscription to Time magazine.

This marked him as someone who understood that while ideas and doctrines develop across centuries and thus merit the kind of sustained, exclusive focus that sequestered seminary studies could provide, they also matter in the here and now and demand their own kind of attention, an attention ordered to making sense of what Neuhaus elsewhere described as the "irreducible this-ness" of things, meaning, over and against philosophical abstractions and theological concepts, the concrete realities of lived-out human experience, if always philosophically and theologically framed. For him, magazines were ideal venues for this kind of attentiveness, and as he came into his own as a man of God and a man of letters, this was where he energetically sought to provide it.

He did so with great success over the years, and his efforts involved him contributing to a variety of publications, such as Worldview, a Carnegie Council for Peace-sponsored monthly that surveyed public life from a liberal-Christian position. There, he served as senior editor for many years in the 1970s and early 1980s, by which point his politics were more identifiably conservative. During the same period, he contributed to prominent conservative publications such as National Review and Commentary, where he served as an occasional columnist and regular book reviewer. Also, until his conversion to Catholicism in 1990, he wrote for and edited important American Lutheran publications such as the "Lutheran Forum Letter," where on a monthly basis, specifically over questions of the church's commitment to theological orthodoxy, liturgical renewal, social justice imperatives and ecumenism, Neuhaus fulfilled the formula he regarded as crucial to any magazine's success.

His work inspired enthusiasm and outrage, joyful agreement and raging dissent. His best magazine writing, in other words, was catalytic: it forced conversations of ecclesial and political consequence when and where he thought these were necessary, and especially when people disagreed with him—as happened constantly, for decades, in most every publication he worked on, judging from the letters to the editor and the personal letters that his work elicited. In fact, the intensity of the disagreements he brought about reliably proved the need for these conversations, which he understood as part of his broader ministry from almost the start of his life as a pastor.

Following seminary and a brief detour to a Lutheran church in upstate New York, in 1961 Neuhaus answered a call to take over the pastorate of St. John's Lutheran Church in the Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn. He thrived in this urban ministry and soon became active in civil rights and the anti-war movement. He also landed his first magazine job, as reviews editor for Una Sancta, a Lutheran-supported journal of theology and church life with a strong ecumenical mandate.

In a pattern that would always hold, Neuhaus wasn't content just to edit; he also contributed, voluminously. He further realized that magazine work, which is collaborative by its very nature, also lent itself to alliance—and friendship—making. Indeed, shortly after joining Una Sancta in the late 1960s, Neuhaus wrote a letter to Peter Berger, a fellow intellectual-minded Lutheran living in New York, who was generating attention for his bold work in sociology. Not surprisingly, Berger came to Neuhaus' attention because Neuhaus had read something of his in a magazine and he wanted Berger to start writing for Una Sancta. This led to a lunch, and then to a review assignment, and from that to a close friendship and decades of fruitful collaboration on magazines, books, and a series of religious and political public initiatives. Out of a little magazine reading and writing came a veritable two-man industry, which ironically broke down in 1996 because Berger read something of Neuhaus' in a magazine.

I'm referring to the famous, if not infamous, "End of Democracy" October 1996 issue of First Things, for which Neuhaus convened a series of prominent colleagues, collaborators and close friends—more often than not, there was considerable overlap here—to consider whether the judicial usurpation of politics, evident in a series of Supreme Court decisions critical of religion's place in public life and, more specifically, in the Court's continued affirmation of a constitutional right to abortion, represented sufficient grounds to question the very legitimacy of the U.S. government. In the preface he contributed to the symposium, Neuhaus went so far as to invoke the possibility that the current American situation could be understood to bear some resemblance to past totalitarian regimes, specifically Nazi Germany.

In making these claims, Neuhaus was exceedingly careful—indeed, his formulations were tortuously convoluted—to make it clear this was a not yet and God willing not ever situation. Yet even to draw attention to a parallel, if only to disavow it, using such charged terms was to invite misunderstanding, anger and controversy.

In short order, First Things and the intense debate and public fallout from that issue generated months of national and international news coverage while convulsing and fracturing America's conservative intellectual movement. Peter Berger and others resigned from the magazine's editorial board, while other prominent conservatives, notably Norman Podhoretz, publicly distanced themselves from their erstwhile ally. This represented unprecedented attention for a seven-year-old magazine that consistently devoted itself to sober and sophisticated engagement with pressing questions of religion, culture and public life for a subscribership of some 30,000 clerics, academics, policy wonks, commentators and thoughtful, religiously minded laity. But the "End of Democracy" was a sequel of sorts for Neuhaus. First Things itself was born out of still another magazine controversy that ended Neuhaus' long and productive relationship with the Rockford Institute, an Illinois-based conservative think tank that had funded his work, including his authorship of "The Religion & Society Report" throughout the 1980s. (With its lively, idiosyncratic mix of observation and critique, the report was in many ways a forerunner of the "Naked Public Square" entries that Neuhaus contributed to First Things.)

Though the liberal-weighted, mainline Protestant establishment was a regular focus of Neuhaus' generous blunderbuss, he never shied from criticizing those closest to him, whether ideologically or practically. This was nowhere more evident than in 1989, when Neuhaus publicly alleged that another of the Rockford Institute's publications, Chronicles, was trafficking in thinly veiled anti-Semitism. The Institute responded by unceremoniously firing him from his position at the New York-based Rockford-funded Center for Religion and Society. And I mean unceremoniously: one spring morning, Neuhaus and his colleagues were issued notices of termination and ordered to vacate the premises; a couple of burly men were on hand to ensure this happened. Personal effects aside, they were told to leave everything behind. The staff complied, almost perfectly: just before leaving, Davida Goldman, Neuhaus' longtime personal assistant, grabbed the office Rolodex. Less than a year later, First Things was on the racks. Since then, and beyond its most famous issue, the magazine under Neuhaus' leadership became, in the grudging estimation of The New York Times Magazine, "the spiritual nerve center of the new conservatism" and a "deeply influential" voice in American intellectual and public life. Indeed, the magazine became a venue for religiously informed discussion and debate on a variety of matters, including stem-cell research, the clergy abuse scandal, the Lewinsky scandal, just war deliberations over the War on Terror and the Gulf wars, and ecumenical advances between American evangelicals and Catholics.

Despite this important and impressive array of concerns, the great majority of the magazine's readers during the Neuhaus years proudly admitted to reading each issue backward so they could start with Neuhaus. And indeed, while many of his books contain many brilliant passages, his best work was in First Things. The pace of print journalism, which depends, for its vitality and value, on its capacity to be at once responsive to immediate events while also far-sighted enough to remain relevant and incisive regardless of how those events play out in the time between writing and publication, matched well Neuhaus' remarkable capacity to respond to the chaotic here-and-now with the wisdom of centuries and the faith-filled boldness of prophecy.

Indeed, the magazine became something of an extended calling card and instrument of evangelization for Neuhaus. He was wise and generous with free copies and gift subscriptions, providing them to high-ranking officials at the Vatican, Congressional leaders, fledgling presidential candidates, and presidents and their key staff. He'd send out copies, prefaced by a friendly personal note drawing the recipient's attention to a particular article that he humbly, bluntly believed would clarify that person's thinking on an issue or concern he knew or presumed or, in fact, proposed was one of importance to them and their work. But of course, as Neuhaus and his colleagues proposed in "Putting First Things First," the magazine's founding editorial, he hoped everything his magazines had to say would be important to everyone who read them. "In these pages the reader will find items that report, analyze, instruct, warn, exhort, and sometimes entertain. But the key word is conversation.

A real conversation, as distinct from intellectual chatter, is marked by discipline and continuity. Gilbert Keith Chesterton observed that, "[Tradition] is the democracy of the dead." Agreeing with that, we intend to take on the questions of today and tomorrow, but always in conversation with the best that has been thought and said in the past. At every historical moment, the contemporary is afflicted by the crippling conceit of its utter novelty. We hope First Things will be an antidote to that intellectual and moral disease. "When in the course of human events something new is launched, a decent respect for the opinion of others calls for a word of explanation. Of course this brief statement of what we're up to will be vindicated or falsified by this and subsequent issues of First Things. We very much hope that you will be part of the continuing conversation, and we invite you to hold us to our word."

The best magazines are, indeed, ongoing conversations. For decades, Richard John Neuhaus' readers came to expect from him and his many publications a wide-ranging, robust, often hard-minded, often joyful conversation about God and man and all the many things in between. On this, he gave his readers his word. Many words, in fact.

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