The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Revisited
The Leftovers Left Behind

The Dangers of Being a Player

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. 

Here's Rod Dreher on the matter. (And here is his account of the initial explosion, if you aren't already aware of it and want to know.) 

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.


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This is good.

The more I think about the Church seeking a place in the marketplace, the more I wonder if it's a good idea. It certainly wasn't what the early Christians did. Also, at this point in history, I think Christians have about as much chance of engaging the movers and players of the world in the way that Neuhaus envisioned as mid-20th century Jews had of influencing Hitler.

As far as I can see politics has had a much greater effect on Christianity than Christians are having on the world.

I am wondering what might have happened if Fr. Neuhaus had spent all that talent and ink on building up and catechizing the lukewarm not-so-faithful.

Well, I have more to say, but I've sat here staring at the screen so long, I better send this before Typepad decides I can't.


I am reading The Day is Now Far Spent by Cardinal Sarah for a reading group, and one of the things is talks about is the morals of politics invading the ranks of the Church. I wonder if looking to politics to accomplish what can only be accomplished by God, has been in part responsible for this.

As you can probably tell I am pretty much rambling here.

Anyway, both our American government and the marketplace are pretty much circling the drain at the moment, so it will be interesting--maybe horrifying--to see what comes next. I suspect that this plague in combination with all the rottenness underlying the structure of our society will do for the United States what WWII did for England.

I am not as discouraged as all this sounds. I think the Church has a part to play in all this, but it will be her proper part. I am unhappy about the near complete withdrawal of the Church in the present moment, and keep hoping to see a resurgence of the faithful before long.


Excellent comments. Especially: "As far as I can see politics has had a much greater effect on Christianity than Christians are having on the world."

That sums up a lot of what Dreher and some of his commenters have been saying for a while. The hurrier we go, politically, the behinder we get, it seems--in the sense that even when we achieve political victories, the hatred of Christianity gets deeper and wider. That could be an illusion, I guess. Maybe it only seems that way because the haters have such a grip on the media etc. But then I'm pretty sure it is the case with the embrace of Trump. At any rate we are truly swimming against some kind of tide that we don't understand.

I read all of those deranged coronavirus “diaries” Reno posted at First Things, and found them simply appalling. Can’t believe the journal’s board of directors hasn’t fired him.

I did not. I skimmed some of them and didn't think anything worse than that they were sort of cranky. I get the impression that they got worse as they went along, and then came the Twitter things which have apparently been deleted now. The most appalling thing I've heard about what he's written (not sure if it was a diary or on twitter) is that he was obliged to wear a mask somewhere, didn't have one, and picked up a discarded one from the gutter. You don't have to be a corona alarmist to find that pretty disgusting.

The thing about wearing a mask, and I should think any Christian could see this, is that ae should do it out if charity if nothing else. There are people out there who are terrified, and it's a small thing to do if it always their fears. And, of course, we could have Covid. The odds are really against it, but who knows.


Yes, exactly. I went to Mass yesterday for the first time since the shutdown. We’re in “partial opening”. I took a mask with me partly in case there seemed to be some of those really scared people nearby. As it turned out I think there were as many or more people without masks as with, and people were way far apart, so I didn’t use it.

The bishop in Memphis, where I will go to Mass one day this week, has asked everyone to wear a mask, so I will.


Here's our archidiocesan policy. Masks are optional.

Did you see Reno's apology?


Heh. I was just about to post the link:

I've put the Google search back now, with tweaking of the colors to make it blend in better. I don't see a way to set the background of the search box, though, so that's still sort of ugly. I'd like to make it smaller, not the whole width of the window, but as yet don't see a way to do that.

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