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First Things First

After people gather into groups they formulate their own founding myths. The veracity of these stories is of secondary importance to their ability to tie people to a sense of noble purpose, shared sacrifice, and confidence that their activities have had some meaning over the passage of time.

Thus I suppose it would be devastating for an Ancient Roman to learn that his empire wasn’t really founded by twin brothers suckled by a she-wolf, or for a Viking to face a refutation of his belief that the world was carved by dwarfs from the corpse of an ice giant.

It has fallen to me to issue such a grim rebuttal to the founding myths of First Things, as told by its editor Rusty Reno last month in commemoration of the journal’s 30th anniversary. This is not merely a trifle. The story of First Things’ founding and Lutheran Pastor Richard John Neuhaus’ split from Chronicles in 1989 is at the epicenter of an earthquake in the wider conservative movement that has had reverberations up until the present time.

As Reno tells it, First Things’ founder Neuhaus was in “an ill-starred marriage” with the Rockford Institute because of Chronicles, “a monthly magazine with little love for neoconservatives, many of whom were Neuhaus’s friends.” Neuhaus “had no inkling that he was about to found First Things,” but his hand was forced by Chronicles’ scurrilous attacks on his friends.

Reno’s retelling of the split gets almost everything wrong and omits the most crucial of facts. Namely, the spark that lit the fuse was the March 1989 number of Chronicles entitled Nation of Immigrants, in which then-editor-in-chief Thomas Fleming wrote an article describing the United States’ coming immigration crisis. Fleming criticized the conservative movement’s commitment to open borders and free trade, and foresaw with great clarity the calamity to America’s society and economy that would eventually result from a “virtual flood of arrivals from the Third World.” Fleming linked the philosophical origins of America’s unwillingness to defend its own borders to the notion that America was merely an idea and a set of principles, rather than a people and a place. “A real country, with its own history, its own particular set of virtues and vices, its own special institutions was reduced to cheap slogans and loyalty oaths,” Fleming wrote.

We don’t need to tell current readers of Chronicles how prescient Fleming’s writing was in that number, how well it presaged the present immigration problem and the populist rebellion in 2016 against the establishment, both left and right. Looking back on Fleming’s article now, his insights seem obvious and completely uncontroversial in light of recent events. You may judge for yourself—Chronicles’ current editors have made Fleming’s piece, “The Real American Dilemma,” available for free from the Chronicles archive.

However, in 1989, no one else was saying what Fleming was about immigration. The spark Fleming struck caught fire in the mind of the editor of the neoconservative journal Commentary, Norman Podhoretz, who penned on Feb. 15, 1989, a scathing letter to Neuhaus, upbraiding him for his association with Fleming after what had appeared in the March Chronicles. Amusingly, Podhoretz was just as angry about pieces about Gore Vidal and his novels (nevermind that Chronicles from its founding in 1977 has always published book reviews from authors across the political spectrum). Podhoretz wrote to Neuhaus:

Have you seen the latest issue of Chronicles? Among other abominations (including a piece of nativist bigotry by the editor himself), it contains two—not one but two—hymns of praise to Gore Vidal. He is celebrated as a great conservative and his critics—specifically those who have protested against his anti-Semetic attack on me—are dismissed as carping pygmies.

In any case, I know an enemy when I see one, and Chronicles has become just that so far as I personally am concerned—and, I would hope, so far as any decent conservative of any stripe is concerned as well.

Neuhaus adopted Podhoretz’s outrage and immediately used it as a casus belli to launch a war against the Rockford Institute and Chronicles. Neuhaus had a clear underlying motive: a desire for money, power, and control. The Rockford Institute had been raising several hundred thousand dollars in funding that would be arriving from foundation grants in the coming quarter and to be split between the institute, based in Illinois, and Neuhaus’s Center on Religion and Society, Rockford’s sister institution in New York. In March, Neuhaus announced his intentions to part from Rockford, and Rockford’s then-president Allan Carlson met with him in Chicago in an attempt to reach an amicable divorce in the coming months.

According to my review of internal documents containing Carlson’s contemporaneous account of the meetings, Carlson proposed meeting together with Neuhaus and the institute’s funding foundations to discuss a division of the coming funds between the two entities. Neuhaus rejected that approach, saying he would meet with them on his own, and that he had in fact already begun to do so. Neuhaus added that he regarded Fleming as “evil” and that he “would work in the future to undermine the magazine,” Carlson recounted in a memo.

Partially because of Neuhaus’s own machinations behind the scenes with the foundations and the uncertainty caused by the dispute, the money that was to sustain his Center dried up. As part of a separation agreement, Carlson had asked for compensation for Rockford’s investment in the Center’s operating reserve funds, which Neuhaus had paid out in promotions and salaries. Neuhaus refused, and by May, with funding having run dry, Carlson was forced to fly to New York and shut down Neuhaus’s office.

Reno’s account of these events is:

On the morning of May 5, 1989, Rockford Institute president Allan Carlson appeared at the Center’s office at 152 Madison Avenue. Backed up by two muscular security guards, he demanded the keys and summarily expelled Neuhaus and his staff.…Within twenty-four hours, Neuhaus had secured the support he needed to launch a new organization, the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

In other words, Neuhaus and First Things ran into the arms of their neoconservative allies and joined establishment conservatism in supporting its favorite causes over the subsequent decades: unbridled free trade which hollowed out the manufacturing base of middle America, unchecked immigration, globalization, and constant military interventions abroad.

Isn’t it strange Reno didn’t mention any of this in his self-congratulatory 30th-anniversary piece? Also interesting is how First Things and neoconservatives in general have tried to re-brand themselves in the Trump era as defenders of sensible immigration and pro-nationalists (but not “nativists,” my gosh!). Reno betrays his sense of confusion about how the sands of time have shifted under the magazine’s feet later in his piece, writing:

‘Populism’ is the vague but indispensable word to describe the disturbing rebellions against the once stable consensus shared by right and left.…We are thrust into the maelstrom of debate, not always knowing where we stand on issues that once seemed clear. Economic globalization? Free trade? Technological innovation? American power? Foreign wars? These questions are open now in ways I could not have anticipated a decade or even four years ago.

Chronicles is now in its 44th year of publication, and has always been outside that corrupt “stable consensus” whose passing Reno laments. The magazine has not strayed from its ideals nor taken the easy path and, as time has shown, it has been right where the neoconservatives have been wrong. We wish our prodigal brother well on its 30th birthday and praise its return to sanity on some of the same issues over which its founder excoriated us so long ago. Let’s hope it’s a real conversion and not one of convenience; lest the sow, once washed, return again to wallowing in the mire.

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