Perhaps you've heard of a little controversy involving First Things. It seems that the editor, R.R. Reno, issued a quarrelsome Twitter post or two in which he called people who wear the masks prescribed as COVID-19 preventatives "cowards." I was aware that he has been skeptical and even scornful about the way the pandemic has been handled, and that some people were pretty annoyed with him on that score. But there was apparently quite an outcry about the "cowards" business, resulting in a lot of discussion about the magazine, its history and future.
When First Things appeared in the '90s I read it occasionally and liked it. But I didn't subscribe because (1) many of its articles were too academic for me, by which I mean they assumed a level of education that I don't have, and (2) it seemed to have a sort of program which I did not entirely buy into. That program was generally identified as neoconservatism. And I had many points of agreement with it. After all, I was and am in some literal sense a neoconservative in the strict sense of being one who was on the political left and moved to the right. But of course the term in practice encompassed and implied much more than that, so I didn't apply it to myself.
But I was bothered by something deeper than that, something I was only vaguely aware of and never gave much thought to. A sentence in Dreher's post (the first one linked above) gave me an abrupt realization:
Neuhaus’s great triumph with First Things came from his aspiration to make it a political player. He succeeded.
Yes, and that was the problem. When you want to be a player, you have to cultivate alliances, flatter this one and shun that one, calculate your position, keep a close eye on what people are saying about you and whether or not they are people who matter...on and on. I don't say that it's an indefensible thing. Maybe you can advance good causes that way. Maybe you can't accomplish anything much in the world without doing at least some of that. But it's not for me, and I think the scent of it--the impression that Neuhaus and company enjoyed that game, took pleasure in hobnobbing with the high and mighty--always bothered me.
Well, it's easy for me to criticize; I couldn't do that stuff even if I wanted to. I'm just not made that way. But, my personal qualities or lack thereof aside, the effort to become a "player" as a means of advancing the Gospel, or, more mundanely, of advancing political causes that you see as advancing the Gospel, poses obvious dangers. Dreher points out (the first post I linked to above is very much worth reading), and I think he's probably right, that the identification of First Things and neoconservatism in general with the Republican party has really damaged the effectiveness of the magazine even within the scope of Christian politics. The identification of so many prominent "public" Christians, including many of those at First Things, with Donald Trump has done even more.
I don't mean the simple act of voting for Trump. In 2016 you had a choice between Trump and Clinton. In 2020 you will probably have a choice between Trump and Biden. (Let's ignore the third-party option; anyone who takes that road understands that his candidate has no chance of winning.) Given that choice, there are plenty of good reasons to vote for Trump. What I mean, what's doing the damage, is not that, but the fanatical embrace of Trump as righteous prophet-savior ordained by God to lead his nation, and Christians in particular, out of the wilderness. This is just the right-wing counterpart of the left's Obama-worship. And both, as I keep saying, are symptoms of a very bad development in American politics: the elevation of the presidency into the role of god-king incarnating the soul and will of the nation. You can hardly get more un-American than that.
More significantly for the fortunes of Christianity in America, though: when idols fall, those who have embraced them fall with them.