Twenty-five years ago when I first started graduate school, I used to enjoy reading First Things, the “journal of religion and public life” founded by Richard John Neuhaus. Neuhaus was a Lutheran “neoconservative” who eventually converted to Catholicism and became a priest. His journal was provocative, witty, and always inspired thought. I’d look for it in the mail every month and literally read it cover to cover as soon as it arrived. But in 2009 Neuhaus died and his journal never recovered. Today First Things is a reflexively partisan, ideological mouthpiece for an unappealing kind of gentrified Trumpism.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the United States, the current editor of First Things took to writing a “daily diary.” But instead of offering thoughtful reflections for distressed readers searching for meaning in a time of historic crisis, First Things’ editor has taken to criticizing churches for canceling worship services and practicing social distancing. Richard John Neuhuas must be rolling in his grave. The journal he founded has become a case study in what Reinhold Niebuhr called intellectual and spiritual pride.
My friend Joseph Capizzi, who teaches at The Catholic University of America, and I decided to pen our own reflections on the COVID crisis. Partly we were responding to First Things, but beyond that, we are trying, like most Americans, to make sense of this extraordinary challenge to our country.