An Orthogonal Turn at First Things

From its founding, First Things has been the premier journal of high Christian engagement with the public square in the West. The basic proposition of the journal has been that American liberal democracy could be domesticated to Christ by a concerted ecumenical effort of philosophical evangelism. First Things intended to provide a forum for that discourse, and a rally point. Much good has come of this project. But with the recent spate of stunning reversals on sexual policy, and with Christianity ever more clearly in the crosshairs of our secular overlords, the writers of First Things seem to be recoiling from the profane culture of the West and its liberal cult of Moloch. They begin to see that their project has failed, and that perhaps it was doomed to fail from the start. More and more, they seem to realize that rapprochement with liberalism is in any case a pact with the devil.

It’s not just that the editors saw fit to publish an article by our own Jim Kalb back in December. In the February issue, First Things took a decided turn toward orthogony to secular political discourse, as if they all with one mind awoke to a realization that dawned on most traditionalists several years ago: America is too far gone to be saved. As Lawrence Auster then began to say, “It’s their country now.” Likewise also for the West in general.

First Things seems now to have reached the same conclusion.

In the February issue, Michael Hanley (a professor at the Catholic University of America) argued in a major essay that the public significance of Christianity in the West has changed. We have stopped being in any sense a truly Christian culture, except insofar as inertia prevents us still from such blasphemies as cannibalism and human sacrifice in the town square. We are now already a post-Christian culture, and daily more and more therefore an anti-Christian culture. Thus there is no longer any possibility of real détente between Christians and secular liberals. Rather, we must prepare for a time of persecution. Our preachers may expect to be met, not with respect, but with hatred. We should prepare for martyrdom.

There will be for orthosphereans nothing new in Hanley’s essay. But it is well worth reading, if only because it is brilliantly argued from first principles all the way out to the bitter end, and so therefore a wonderfully succinct and complete presentation of the basic arguments and proposals of the orthosphere. It is also beautifully written.

Some key passages:

… a purely juridical order devoid of metaphysical and theological judgment is as logically and theologically impossible as a pure, metaphysically innocent science. One cannot set a limit to one’s own religious competence without an implicit judgment about what falls on the other side of that limit; one cannot draw a clear and distinct boundary between the political and the religious, or between science, metaphysics, and theology, without tacitly determining what sort of God transcends these realms. The very act by which liberalism declares its religious incompetence is thus a theological act.

The prevailing nominalism, voluntarism, and mechanism infected eighteenth-century assumptions about nature and nature’s God with a built-in obsolescence. Therefore, it is fair to say that the ontological presuppositions of liberal political theory were fated to undermine the classical and Christian moral inheritance and the nobility of liberalism’s own ideals. For instance, inasmuch as the founders’ notion of free self-government rests on an essentially Lockean conception of freedom as power outside and prior to truth (however much God or truth imposes an extrinsic obligation to obey, and however reasonable it is to do so in view of future rewards and punishments), then American liberty will eventually erode the moral and cultural foundations of civil society inherited from Protestant Christianity.

John Locke in the Second Treatise remarked that law enlarges the scope of freedom. He does not appear to have considered the converse, that freedom enlarges the scope of law. But insofar as liberal freedom is atomistic and precludes the claim of others on the property that is my person, the state tasked with securing this liberty will exist to protect me from God’s commandments, the demands of other persons, so-called intermediary institutions, and, ultimately, even nature itself.

… in its enforcement of the sexual revolution, the state is effectively codifying ontological and anthropological presuppositions. In redefining marriage and the family, the state not only embarks on an unprecedented expansion of its powers into realms heretofore considered prior to or outside its reach, and not only does it usurp functions and prerogatives once performed by intermediary associations within civil society, it also exercises these powers by tacitly redefining what the human being is and committing the nation to a decidedly post-Christian (and ultimately post-human) anthropology and philosophy of nature.

Perhaps this kairos is a chance for some sort of synthesis rather than a showdown, for an opportunity to rediscover those dimensions of Christian existence that comfortable Christianity has caused us to neglect, and an opportunity not simply to confront but also to serve our country in a new and deeper way.

This synthesis cannot be a political one, as if the civic project of American Christianity could be revived by rejiggered coalitions or a new united front. We must rather conceive of it principally as a form of witness. Here some elements of the Benedict Option become essential: educating our children, rebuilding our parishes, and patiently building little bulwarks of truly humanist culture within our decaying civilization. This decay is internal as well as external, for while the civic project has been a spectacular failure at Christianizing liberalism, it has been wildly successful at liberalizing Christianity.

This labor is contemplative before it is active. It is not primarily political; indeed, everything in our politics and in our culture seems predisposed against it. To the extent that we Americans can be said to have a philosophy, it is pragmatism, which is less a philosophy than a trick the devil uses to entice philosophy into killing itself. One need only note the sheer absence of thought that has accompanied the revolution of liberal absolutism to see how successful this trick has been. To speak of freedom as something more than immunity from coercion, to speak of nature as something other than so many accidental aggregations of malleable matter at our disposal, to speak of truth as something other than pragmatic function, is to place oneself outside the rule of public reason and to risk becoming a stranger to the public square. To undertake this labor, in other words, is to risk becoming what liberal absolutism would make of each of us anyway: a man without a country.

… the liberal state cannot really limit itself; its act of self-abnegation is the very act by which it refuses integration into an order of nature or grace that precedes and exceeds it. Only the Church can really limit the state, which is why the existence of the Church is a perennial problem for it. Ultimately, the Church’s limitation of the state depends on our ability to recover a genuine understanding of the Church’s true nature and to regard ourselves not simply as a so-called intermediate association within the state and civil society but as the true whole, the heavenly city, that precedes and transcends them. This contradicts the implicit ecclesiology of liberalism, which recognizes no universality but itself. Knowing only “denominations,” it can acknowledge no truly catholic Christianity. And yet, to see the truth of God and the human person, even through a glass darkly, is already to begin to live in accord with something greater than liberal absolutism. It is already to limit the state in some measure, for it is already to see beyond liberalism’s immanent horizons.

… to see the truth of God and the human person, even through a glass darkly, is already to begin to live in accord with something greater than liberal absolutism. It is already to limit the state in some measure, for it is already to see beyond liberalism’s immanent horizons.

It’s a wonderful, sad, noble essay. I encourage you to go read the whole thing. To gauge the reaction of the men of First Things, you might also want to read the responses by George Weigel and Rod Dreher. They don’t disagree.

40 thoughts on “An Orthogonal Turn at First Things

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  2. It’s inevitable for more and more Christians to realize they’ll have to abandon anything resembling Christianity to go much farther down the liberal rabbit trail. The liberals think that it will only be a small few who will resist, but I hope that they are surprised by what a sizable remnant of newly-hardened “Fundamentalists” they will have on their hands.

  3. But with the recent spate of stunning reversals on sexual policy, and with Christianity ever more clearly in the crosshairs of our secular overlords

    I agree that the silver lining in all of this is that it may help to serve as a wake up call to religious conservatives that the nation is lost and no appeal to Originalism or “American constitutionalism” is going to stop it. No trans-confessional alliance at the ballot box will stem the tide or idolizing the family is working either.

    The fact that the arch-Americanist and heir of John Courtney Murray George Weigel recognizes the problem is a good sign. Its time the mantel pass to others like the Orthosphere or the Josias. No more “dialogue” with liberalism and no more ecumenism.

  4. Weigel is not set on becoming a reactionary, He is merely worried that the foundations of democratic capitalism are getting sapped away.
    “America could be reminded that it takes a certain kind of people, living certain habits of the mind and heart, to make the machinery of democracy work so that the net result is human flourishing, not human degradation”.

    • Yes. Understandable; he made a huge career commitment to the American Project – to American Christian Democracy. Hard, very hard, to see that all swept away.

      He will in the next few years be joined, I hope, in his disillusionment by many millions of other former right liberals, such as I once was.

      The reality is that no political order can hope to stop the rot of a depraved and immoral people. No system of laws can have any effect upon men who reck no rod. This has been clear since Augustus.

    • It’s a case of dumb and dumber. A battle between the “sweet” cafeteria Catholics and the “savory” ones. The party that actually pulls everyone out of this mess will be pilloried by both sides.

      Neoreaction: God expects you to have a pair.

      • I usually eyeroll at your hypermasculinity, but you’re right. Maybe, irony of ironies, a female saint will lead the way. Joan of Arc had more balls than her entire nation combined.

      • Joan of Arc had more balls than her entire nation combined.

        Says a lot about the Chivalric French tradition, doesn’t it?

      • I wouldn’t be too harsh on French Chivalry. It gave us Charles Martel and Charlemagne (not to mention the Crusader Kings).

  5. Rod Dreher has been harping on this theme quite a bit lately in connection with his idea of the “Benedict Option,” the need for religious traditionalists to separate (but not isolate) from the larger world and build self-supporting communities.

    He recently shared a great quote from Alisdair MacIntyre on the decline of the Roman Empire:

    A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.

    Which is rather our situation today. We can be good people, or we can be good citizens, but we can’t be both.

  6. “The basic proposition of the journal has been that American liberal democracy could be domesticated to Christ by a concerted ecumenical effort of philosophical evangelism.”

    There’s really no support for liberal democracy in classical Eastern or Western Christian theology, so in hindsight our team should have seen this coming. Another thing we didn’t realize at the time: we weren’t actually supporting democracy; we were supporting our status as the demographic majority. Now that that status has been destroyed by public welfare and mass immigration (with the active participation of the Christian churches), it is simply too late. White, orthodox Christians will be a shrinking minority for the foreseeable future.

    At this point, we should probably be taking our cues from the Amish and the Hasidim, but I don’t know for how long they’ll be left alone either.

    • >At this point, we should probably be taking our cues from the Amish and the Hasidim, but I don’t know for how long they’ll be left alone either.

      That is a coward’s “solution” and is unworthy of consideration by those who have put on Christ. I notice your lot are more concerned with Western Civilization and regard the Christian faith as an appendage (or at worst, a vestigial organ) that can be excised if it causes problems for the whole.

      • Not only is it cowardly, it is dishonest. Western Civilization cannot be separated from the faith, every attempt has led to death and madness, the more one removes the faster savagery descends.

      • I’m not sure what your point of disagreement with me is. Let me put this in more stark terms: we are outnumbered and outgunned. The mainstream Protestants are gone completely. The Evangelicals are close behind. The Catholic Church, desperate to reclaim its former dignity as advisor and counselor to the State, will declare its wholehearted support for secular social democracy, even to the point of welcoming its ancient enemy, Islam, into the former heart of Christendom. I’m not sure who that leaves. “Western Civilization” has too many zero- and one-child families to sustain itself. And crap like this is sure not helping.

        The Internet tends to amplify. If I had to guess the number of people in the US with truly “reactionary” vs. conventional “conservative” attitudes within the Overton window, I’d guess no more than 100,000.

        The Amish and Hasidim seem to have been successful at carving out their cultural spaces. My suggestion is that reactionary Christians learn to do the same so we can keep things going after our descendants crawl out from under the rubble. This civilization is as doomed as Byzantium.

      • >I’m not sure what your point of disagreement with me is.

        The Great Commission was not “Hide in attics and spider holes like sissies” but “Go and make disciples of all nations baptizing etc. etc.”
        You go on and on about how the age of Evangelization is over; nothing can be further from the truth. You mention the capitulation of the Clergy; newsflash, the Clergy comes from the Laity, and latter makes up a miniscule proportion of the Church.
        You mentioned you don’t know how long it will be until the rest of the world picks on the Amish and the Hasidim; instead of watching and waiting you could be doing something. Tell one person that Jesus Christ is The Way, the Truth and the Life–if that person blows you off, tell the next person.

        But no. That won’t work because excuses ergo civilization is doomed. [/facepalm]

      • Tell one person that Jesus Christ is The Way, the Truth and the Life–if that person blows you off, tell the next person.

        How many Jewish synagogues or Muslim mosques or Hindu temples are you visiting to conduct these conversations? You must be real fun at parties.

        At some point, everybody on earth will have heard of Christianity’s claim to sole and exclusive Truth. This is already the case with all but a few remote Asian and African villages, where a dozen Christian sects are already tripping over each other trying to be the first to tell them they’re right and all those other folks handing out New Testaments and medicine are wrong. You’d gain many more souls raising an extended family in your own pews.

        This vision Christians have in their heads of themselves as St. Paul speaking truth to Herod Agrippa is pure derangement and delusion.

      • >You must be real fun at parties.

        Oh, certainly. Whenever I open my mouth, they tell me, “You must read The Anti-Gnostic.”

  7. After reading the essay, I have a few small disagreements that may be semantic, but overall its not wrong and seems to at least approach an overarching meta-narrative, as you suggest, that there can be no political consensus between the Modern state and Christianity. They are necessarily opposed. It’s good to see other Christians recognizing this fact, even if they may be too depressingly passive in their outlook.

    As important as small cultural coups like #gamergate and the Hugo Awards are, it is the co-opting of resources like First Things into the truly Reactionary Christian cause that will reap greater long term dividends. If as you say the publication is turning further right and setting course for the isles of Tradition (and the evidence does seem to suggest such a change is occurring), then it will be a very big development indeed. First Things will essentially become symbiotic with the Orthosphere in a mutually beneficial way, and thus the Reactosphere at large.

    There are two goals for Reaction at this time, that go beyond mere scholarly philosophizing and launching devastating takedowns of Modernity at the intellectual level (as important as these are). Those two goals are the following:

    – Reaction must absorb Conservatism as an offensive measure
    – Christian Reaction must absorb Christianity as a defensive measure.

    This is the political radicalization of the right, and the consolidation of the faithful into an actionable and defensible, exclusive force rather than a scattered peasantry in retreat.

    “ontological presuppositions of liberal political theory were fated to undermine the classical and Christian moral inheritance and the nobility of liberalism’s own ideals.”

    De Maistre facepalms. Why was nobody listening back when this could have been stopped?

    “and an opportunity not simply to confront but also to serve our country in a new and deeper way.”

    Country is a political irrelevancy. It is nationhood that means something. No Reactionary has loyalty to any Modern state, and in fact he serves the interest of his nation by opposing the Modern state, for it destroys nationhood with ‘diversity’. I will serve my fellow man, but I will serve no country before the dawn of the Reactionary state.

    • No Reactionary has loyalty to any Modern state…

      I get what you are saying here, and generally agree. However, there are modern states which do have some continuity with the old Traditional states. There are also elements of the Traditional state within them. This is most obvious in Constitutional Monarchies, but even republics retain small elements of the Traditional state within them. This is often what makes moderate heart-conservatives retain their loyalty to the state that is destroying the future of their own nation.

      Furthermore, many people use the terms “country” and “nation” synonymously. There is a very popular hat sold here in the DC area that says “I love my country, but fear my government.” Now, I disagree with the libertarianish sentiments of the ordinary person who wears this hat, but it does show that it is relatively common to divorce loyalty to one’s countrymen from loyalty to the state.
      As important as small cultural coups like #gamergate and the Hugo Awards are, it is the co-opting of resources like First Things into the truly Reactionary Christian cause that will reap greater long term dividends.

      This is the political radicalization of the right, and the consolidation of the faithful into an actionable and defensible, exclusive force rather than a scattered peasantry in retreat.

      I know this is a tangent, but I wrote an essay last year that is about retaking the institution of the Protestant Episcopal Church, mainly because my High Church Anglican theology demands that the Protestant Episcopal Church be considered our national Church until it excommunicates the faithful (thus denying herself). However, there are only 1.5 million communicant members and it has large wealth reserves, which, if by some miracle a sizable number of Traditionalists could become members, could instantly be a force for Traditionalism instead of wasting away supporting feminism and whatever other nonsense Katherine Jefferts Schori spends the Church’s resources on.

  8. Reaction must absorb Conservatism as an offensive measure

    The problem with Conservatism is that it is not Conservative, rather a slow moving version of the Left. Therefore, Reaction cannot absorb it. Reaction is about Truth, Conservatism is about Tradition. It is a grave error to conflate Tradition with Truth.

    • I’m not sure in which sense you use the word Tradition, I am using it in the grand metaphysical sense (a la Evola), to denote the pre-Enlightenment structures. Tradition Vs. Modernity. This is typically what people mean when they capitalize the word, rather than simple ‘tradition’ which is a vague and usually particular denotation of some generationally accepted way of doing something.

      When I say ‘absorb’ Conservatism, this is to say that Reaction must become the primary right wing force in the battle of ideas. Conservatism has to die, and people who are predisposed to being right wing need to become Reactionaries rather than falling for Conservatism’s pragmatic and losing approach. Conservatism has acted as Reaction’s neutralizing force since it was set up as a controlled decoy opposition. It has sucked in people who, in its absence, would have been Reactionaries.

      • “Conservatism has to die, …”

        Absolutely! A wise man once said that the problem with the “conservative” party is that it never conserves anything.

      • to denote the pre-Enlightenment structures.

        What, Do you mean the civilisation of the Etruscans?

      • The World of Tradition is an areligious and non-particular term. It doesn’t refer to a civilization in particular, but rather a mode of civilization that was virtually universal up until the Enlightenment (albeit in both advanced and degenerated states). A more in-depth study of this concept can be found in the works of Guénon and Evola.

  9. What far too many conservative Christians fail to understand is that the American project was utterly rotten from the start. The fruit that we see today is not the result of some wrong turn during the 20th century, but the entirely logical endpoint of our origins in the 18th. I’ve long said that the fundamental problem with the Constitution can be encapsulated in its first three words: “We The People.” The meaning (dare I say ‘original intent’?) is unmistakable: free, autonomous Man is the Sovereign. And God? Article VI disposed of Him. “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required.”

    America was created by founding fathers who modeled our government directly after Judges 21:25 – ‘In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’ Would that more Christians could realize this.

    • Seriously. I think I got a couple of people to realize how silly they had been for blindly following it after a group of friends and I watched Les Miserable and I pointed out how “every man will be a king” can’t be more explicitly put to sleep by that one verse in Judges.

      What’s really funny is the Christians who think of Judges as the ideal. Yes, these fools exist.

  10. Here’s a troubling video that tells me Wiegel’s attitude about the Catholic doctrine about Christ’s social Kingship.

  11. “He is merely worried that the foundations of democratic capitalism are getting sapped away.”

    I don’t know anything about Weigel, but this is a common characteristic among the so called “Tea Party” types, at least in my neck of the woods among the locals.

    Those who are at retirement age – by far the majority – make a big show of patriotism and commitment to biblical principles, but when you get down to where the rubber meets the road with them, they’re really just concerned about their dwindling social security checks and the “injustice” of having to pay $1,300.00 out of their pockets for a $64,000.00 medical procedure (I cite an actual complaint, but the point is it’s typical among this particular group). Those among them within my age group – by far the minority – aren’t s’much concerned about that kind of thing (yet) as they are with making sure there’s no reduction in government spending while they simultaneously protest the size and influence of government.

    They seem genuinely concerned about the immigration problem, as well as the Islam problem, however. They don’t, as a group, very well understand either, but they’re learning and that’s good I guess.

  12. Mark,

    Would you agree that Tradition with a capital T, in an Evola-Guenonian sense, would suggest a plurality of Tradition? This being the case because no single form can exhaust the formless. In this time of the Kali-Yuga, should/could reactionaries of different Traditions make common cause against the modernist deviation?

    • Short answer: Yes.
      Complicated answer: It’s complicated.

      Modernism has affected different cultures in sometimes radically different ways. Its impact on the culture of Sweden has been very different from its impact on India. Reactionaries also find it harder to work cross-culturally simply because in the World of Tradition, this wasn’t as common as it is today. Nations looked out for their own. I do think its possible and desirable however.

      Take for example the Orthodox Eurasianist movement in Russia, which is fundamentally anti-Modern. Can I see making common cause with their efforts, and those of say the Catholic Falanga in Poland? Yes I can. Particularly with regard to a superstructure like the EU which has to be brought down by more than one country really.

      Such Reactions are difficult however because they are just not in the original Traditional nature. It’s part of the reason why in the European Parliament, left wing blocs never have trouble forming, but right wing blocs fall apart quickly because parties sometimes have competing interests, for instance border disputes between Hungarian and Romanian nationalists.

      An inability to ignore these by contrast petty differences has hobbled Reactionary ascendancy. Other factors like grand-standing and crab-bucket mentality don’t help either. Like I say, its complex to rally disparate Reactionary forces with different focuses together. The internet is helping matters. For instance, half of the total viewers of my own blog have come from the United States, and the other half is split pretty evenly between Canada, China, the UK, France, Germany, Brazil, Australia, Serbia, and Russia. The arrival of the Reactosphere is definitely providing a pan-national backdrop for these ideas and a general resource for people to take from and adapt to their own cultural critiques.

      Just take a look at the Oriental NeoReactionary, who blogs out of Turkey!
      https://theorientalneoreactionary.wordpress.com/author/theorientalneoreactionary/

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  17. By all accounts, only a tiny percentage of Muslims are fanatics, yet those fanatics get plenty of respect from liberal atheists and moderate Muslims alike. Does Christianity really have any problems that couldn’t be solved with dull knives and video cameras? We certainly inhabit a target-rich environment.

    Then, before these Christian death squads start beheading each other, a brave leader must step forward and say, “We’ve won the war, let us now break bread together and establish a just government.” The Jacobins, Bolsheviks, and Khmer Rouge missed that step.

  18. “By all accounts, only a tiny percentage of Muslims are fanatics, yet those fanatics get plenty of respect from liberal atheists and moderate Muslims alike.”

    Respect? Hardly. More like contempt and disdain.

    “Does Christianity really have any problems that couldn’t be solved with dull knives and video cameras?”

    Are you proposing your own version of jihad?

    “Like I say, its complex to rally disparate Reactionary forces with different focuses together.”

    Indeed, especially when one of the leaders of Reactionary thought, a virulent anti-homosexual, succumbs to that temptation, yet nary a peep from his brethren regarding his fall from grace.

    • “especially when one of the leaders of Reactionary thought, a virulent anti-homosexual, succumbs to that temptation,”

      Who is that? And please don’t name some Conservative. There is a difference between Reactionaries and Conservatives.

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