A conversation with First Things editor R. R. Reno (Part 1 of 2)

Dec 11, 2019

The author and former theology professor speaks with Daniel P. Schmidt and Michael E. Hartmann about rock-climbing, conservatism, and opinion journals and magazines.

R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things, a leading intellectual journal founded in 1990 by Richard John Neuhaus to ecumenically confront the ideology of secularism and insist on a place for faith in “the public square.” He also serves as executive director of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which publishes First Things. After having been a regular contributor to the journal for many years, Reno became its editor in 2011. He had been a professor of theology at Creighton University.

Under Reno’s leadership, First Things is at the center of vigorous and rigorous discussion and debate about the very definition, or the redefinition, of conservatism. The role certainly seems to be relished, by both him personally and the journal institutionally.

Recently, at an American Enterprise Institute event to commemorate the 10th anniversary of National Affairs magazine, Reno provocatively floated the idea of a lifetime cap of one billion dollars on charitable contributions, which certainly caught our attention here at The Giving Review.

His new book Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West argues that the postwar consensus in America and Europe is breaking down. The populism and nationalism upending global politics, he believes, represent a return of the “strong gods”—the powerful loyalties that bind us together. These “strong gods” may supplant the supposedly liberating “weak gods” pushed by liberals and progressives. Their ideal “open society” is an economically prosperous one, expertly and masterfully managed, devoid of any distracting dogmas.

Reno’s previous books include Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society in 2016, Fighting the Noonday Devil—and Other Essays Personal and Theological in 2011, and Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible with John J. O’Keefe in 2005.

Below is the first of two parts of an edited transcript of a discussion that Reno was kind enough to have with us in late November. The second part, in which he talks about philanthropy, the “open society,” populism, and true freedom, is here.


Hartmann: Where’s home?

Reno: I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland—actually in Towson, a suburb just outside of Baltimore. Then I wandered up a little bit north to Haverford College [in Haverford, Penn.] as an undergrad. Then I continued my northern pilgrimage and lived in New York for a year or so after college before starting at Yale to do my Ph.D., which I did in religious studies and completed in 1990.

Hartmann: So when is the year in the tent that I’ve read about?

Reno: Well, after high school, I was accepted to college, but I had a real bug with rock-climbing. So I thought I’d take a year off between high school and college, and I hitchhiked to Yosemite in California. I wound up spending the better part of a year there living in my tent and rock-climbing. That’s when I really got the bug in a big way, and I’ve been an avid rock climber ever since.

Then I went off to college, but after my freshman year, I went back to Yosemite.

Hartmann: You took a “gap year” before there were even “gap years,” then dropped out after freshman year?

Reno: Yeah. I took a “gap year” in Yosemite, and then went back again. The call of the mountains was just too strong. My dad was not happy. He thought the “gap year” was a great idea. But dropping out after freshman year, he thought, was a very bad idea. I said, Oh, no, Dad, it’ll be fine.

Yosemite National Park, California (Wikimedia Commons)

After climbing in the Tetons and working on an oil rig, I got to Yosemite around Thanksgiving time, and then I realized, No, no, you’ve got to grow up!. I turned 21 that December, and I called my dean in December and said, Hey, can I come back again in January? He said, Yeah, sure.

Hartmann: I wonder if that wouldn’t be so easily done today?

Reno: Haverford was a small school with about a thousand students total when I was there. It didn’t seem like a big deal.

Schmidt: After Haverford, why then Yale?

Reno: When I was an undergrad, I had a professor who—it’s hard to believe, at this liberal college—he was a Missouri Synod Lutheran who taught real theology, and I just fell in love with it. I asked him, Where should I go to grad school? He had done his Ph.D. at Yale, and he said Yale’s the best place. So off I went.

Schmidt: Pelikan was at Yale, then, right?

Reno: Yeah. Yaroslav Pelikan was one of the senior faculty. Hans Frei was a well-known figure there. Yes, and then George Lindbeck. Those were the luminaries.

If you were doing patristics, church history, Pelikan was a one of the major figures. But my area was ethics and theology—basically, the problems of Christianity in the modern world. My dissertation was on Karl Rahner and the role of the individual and community in Christian life.

Hartmann: Did you go right to Creighton from Yale?

Reno: I did. I applied for jobs, and I thankfully got one. It was at Creighton University in Omaha. So my wife and I, we had a six-month-old and we moved out there in August of 1990.

Hartmann: So you were there for almost two decades?

Reno: Exactly. My last semester teaching was the Spring term of 2010. Then I came to New York to work at First Things in June of 2010 on a one-year leave of absence.

Hartmann: Do you consider yourself a Midwesterner?

Reno: Honorary. My wife spent half of her childhood here in New York City and the other half was in Maine, and I was from Baltimore and then all my education was on the East Coast. I hitchhiked back and forth across the country more times than I can count when I was doing my climbing adventures, so I have great love for the country. I never would’ve chosen Omaha. It’s too far from the mountains for my taste, but we really grew to love it.

Hartmann: When and why did you convert to Catholicism? That occurred during your time at Creighton, right?

Reno: Yes. I was born and raised an Episcopalian. I was very influenced by Ephraim Radner, a grad-student colleague who is an Episcopal minister. Radner and I and others would have long conversations about how to be orthodox and loyal to your denomination. This loyalty was its own kind of spiritual discipline. We took that very seriously.

My church in Omaha was in many ways a very good one. The native conservatism of the Midwest meant that the worst excesses of liberal Protestantism were pretty much absent. But I was put on various national committees for the Episcopal Church, and it’s in that role that I was exposed to the worst excesses of what I would call post-Christian liberal theology. I became so demoralized that I couldn’t continue. I like to tell people that in 2004, I collapsed into the Catholic Church by default.


First Things and conservatism


Hartmann: How did you first get involved with First Things?

Reno: When I was a grad student, one of my friends was a fellow named Matt Berke, and we were having lunch just as both of us were on the job market. Matt said, I’m not going to do the academic thing. I took a job at this new magazine that’s being started New York called First Things. I had heard of Richard John Neuhaus, and Matt told me the backstory on the magazine. I was a charter subscriber because Matt clued me into what was happening.

Richard John Neuhaus

When I would go to New York to visit my father-in-law and so forth, I would often get together with Matt and I met Neuhaus. I wound up doing some articles in the early ’90s for the magazine. One thing led to another.

Publishing for a wider audience is a real charge when you’re an academic, because usually you’re writing  for 12 people in the scholarly journal, and the ability to write for tens of thousands in a place like First Things was very exciting to me. So I was highly motivated to write for the magazine and did quite a bit in the late ’90s and into the ’00s.

Hartmann: Your first article for First Things was on what subject?

Reno: It was called “Good Restaurants in Gomorrah.” It was about the way in which urban renewal affected why the Episcopal Church was so affirmative of the gay agenda. The pioneers of urban renewal were often gay men in historic, but unsafe neighborhoods. It’s precisely in those neighborhoods, on the East Coast at least, where you had Episcopal churches barely surviving after the departure to the suburbs of many of their parishioners that were just delighted to have anybody in the pews, which in the 1980s were often gay urban pioneers. Fr. Neuhaus thought it was very clever and maybe even true.

Hartmann: What do you think he would think of First Things now and the role that it’s playing?

Reno: We have a different angle in in 2019 then we had when he founded the magazine 30 years ago, in 1990. He had been very involved in the debates on the right in the ’70s, as part of the left-to-right crowd, the so-called neoconservatives. There were a lot of very intense arguments in those years about the future of the conservative movement and so on. We’re in that kind of situation now.

I think he would have appreciated the fact that the magazine is leading a debate about the future of the right. That was not the role of the magazine in the ’90s, when he got started. He wanted to leaven the Reagan consensus with religious content. But fundamental debate about what counts as conservative, or liberal for that matter, was part of his life experience in the ’70s, when he was involved in that kind of intense debate.

Hartmann: This might be the same question. What do you think he would think of the state of conservatism today? Would he enjoy the to-ing and fro-ing?

Reno: Well, he loved the contact sport of political debate—and theological debate, which is even more vicious and brutal, I might say. I think he would be demoralized by the state of social conservatism, though. It’s painful to look back and see how much ground we’ve lost over the last 30 years. I think Obergefell would have been very demoralizing to him and would have confirmed his worst fears about judicial usurpation of politics.

Schmidt: This brings to my mind John Courtney Murray. Where do you think Neuhaus would be on Murray and the state of his sort of “grand compromise” and Vatican II?

Reno: I think Murray was more cautious about the practical correspondence of Catholic social teaching and America democracy than Richard was. I remember Richard as pretty darn enthusiastic about the American experiment, as he liked to call it, whereas Murray thought that there was a historical contingency that Catholicism could in the mid-20th Century wholeheartedly affirm the American democratic project.

That’s one reason why I think Richard would be anguished by the contemporary scene. It doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be out there fighting for what he thought was right. Of course he would be. Murray might have been more likely to be grimacing, saying, Well, you know, this bad turn of events was always a possibility.

Hartmann: When did you become editor?

Reno: Jody Bottum took over as editor after Richard’s death in January of ’09, and I was hired as editor in June of 2010.

Hartmann: So what do you think of the state of conservatism in America today? You seem like a to-er and a fro-er like Fr. Neuhaus.

Reno: We’re in a time of redefinition that is as significant as what Bill Buckley pushed for when he founded National Review. American conservatism was fragmented and, to a great extent, disoriented coming out of World War II. The degree to which the liberal project was able to take control of the government and of the culture was pretty astounding in retrospect.

It took two decades, really, to sort out a debate that was curated in the pages of National Review, to formulate what later became the Reagan consensus—anti-communism; a broad, patriotic social conservatism in a country not yet as polarized as it was to become in the 21st Century; and then a deregulatory, free-market approach to economic matters. That’s all run its course.

Obviously, the anti-communism is no longer relevant. It morphed in the ’90s and after 9/11 into an odd combination of liberal internationalism combined with an overconfidence in the ability of the military to remake the Middle East.

Globalization after 1990 realized many of the goals of the free-market project, but also it now has brought about all kinds of political challenges associated with a global free market and the pressure it puts on working class labor in the West. Then social conservatism, as I was saying, no longer serves as a generic anchor for American society. It’s become an increasingly embattled element of American society.

Schmidt: Why wasn’t there some rethinking going on?

Reno: I think 9/11 delayed a lot of rethinking because it was such a trauma nationally, and we all felt it at a very deep level. We pivoted towards addressing the dangers of Islamic terrorism. Then there was the ’08 financial crisis, which was another sort of trauma. Then there was the Barack Obama victory, with its historic character as the election of our first black president.

Around 2010 and afterwards, the Tea Party was something of a precursor to Donald Trump’s shocking ability to gain the nomination and then become President. Looking back, we can see there were many things that, in retrospect, were already operating underneath the surface that reached an explosive point. Things like stagnant wages for high-school-educated workers, mass immigration, an escalating rhetoric of diversity that was becoming hostile to any shared American identity, and so on.

Our job at First Things is to participate in and try to guide a debate about the future of American conservatism. I see my role as arguing for the strongest possible place for social conservatism in the new consensus.

Hartmann: Did rock-climbing prepare you for this role?

Reno: [Laughter.] That’s a great question. I wouldn’t say rock-climbing, but mountaineering. Rock-climbing, you can spend a lot of time chatting with your buddies while you’re sitting in the sun. But if you’re on the north face and you’re trying to get to the summit before dark, it does tend to build a certain endurance—I mean mental endurance, which might be a helpful quality to have in intellectual and political debates.


Decades of distilling discussion and debate


Hartmann: You mentioned the two decades it took for National Review to lead the distillation of a consensus. Are we in for two decades of a new distillation?

Reno: It could be. A lot of it depends on who the Democratic nominee is. If the Democratic nominee is a Clintonite centrist and that nominee wins, then it becomes much less clear where our country’s going, because then it’ll still feel as though we’re fighting politically on the same terrain as we were 20 years ago. If Elizabeth Warren wins the nomination, that’s a pretty clear sign that the Democratic party itself is undergoing a redefinition. That’ll be interesting.

Then, of course, if Trump wins a second term, I think that’ll be a tremendous shock to the political elite of our country, mostly dominated by the left establishment—which is really investing all of its energy in trying  to oust him.

These kinds of political events tend to force intellectual issues forward. It seems to me that the devastating defeat that Barry Goldwater suffered meant that National Review had to wait for a champion in order to be able to gain dominance on the American right.

Hartmann: How about the substance and nature of the Sohrab Ahmari-David French debate that began in First Things? Did it have benefit?

Reno: It’s interesting. One of the things that we do at First Things is host discussions. Some of them are with our readership, and some of them are with invited intellectuals and scholars. It’s fascinating to me how over the last year, all of the discussions inevitably wind up falling into a debate that effectively mimics this Ahmari-French debate.

What you get with the French side is a certain kind of pessimism about the cultural contours of American society and an argument that our best strategy is to carve out zones of liberty so that we can continue to pursue what we believe is the right moral and religious option. Then the other side says that the carve-outs just aren’t going to work, and this side argues that we have to gain some victories in the culture wars in order to be able to “denuclearize” the conflict, so to speak. The left has to suffer some defeats before it’s willing to actually compromise on sharing the public realm with social conservatives.

In these conversations that we host, it’s really interesting to see these different assessments recapitulated. Bill McGurn’s recent column in The Wall Street Journal could fit into that matrix. It’s not social issues, its economic—but it’s the same. Bill’s saying maybe we’ve got problems, but we shouldn’t deviate from the core Reagan principles, because it will do more harm than good—as opposed to someone like Oren Cass arguing that no, we need to rethink some of our foundational principles of economic policy in order to reorient the economy towards goals that conservatives ought to have. That means taking the risk that you could mismanage and mess up. That’s an interesting division on the right. Same thing on foreign policy.

Basically, French says we should not change course. There’s too much peril in changing course and, moreover, our principles are sound. You have Ahmari. He is saying, No, the external data, experience, the political realities suggest that we have to change course. Otherwise, we’re heading towards even more-severe problems and losses. That side doesn’t exactly know which direction we should go, but it thinks we need to take some risks and experiment with some new ideas and new directions.

Hartmann: Has the role of opinion magazines and journals changed and, if so, how?

Reno: It has changed and it hasn’t changed. Technology has changed a great deal. The web and Twitter have hastened the pace of the back and forth. The increased pace is not necessarily an advantage to the discussion. More heat than light, often.

But other than that, I think the roles are pretty similar. You have to thread the needle. You want to host a debate, but at the same time, you want to stand for something, a position. Nobody subscribes to a magazine that’s a Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner, where anybody gets to talk and it isn’t really sure what it believes. We’re not really sure what we believe, and there are  arguments to be hashed out, but there are also positions that are excluded. You have to stand for something.

You can’t just repeat the same stuff over and over, though. You have to have a discussion and debate about where this is all going, why should you go this way rather than that way, as well as considerations of the alternatives and a recognition of where what you represent is not clear or needs further development.

Schmidt: When we started at Bradley in ’85-86, there was a belief that what was in these opinion journals and magazines would filter down and through institutions and ultimately into both policy and the culture. Is that still true?

Reno: Oh, I think so. If you look at questions of crime and mandatory sentencing, the journal-article discussions of that had a big impact on American policy. It’s only now that we’re beginning to shift away from it, and maybe rightly so.

It’s often the case that successful social policies lay the seeds of the next generation’s problems. That’s what I counsel my friends. Look, we needed the policies that Reagan got through on economics. We had a lot of untapped potential in the American economy. If you look at the results after the ’80s, it vindicates those policies

But now, in 2019, the problems we suffer from do not arise primarily because the economy is insufficiently dynamic, but rather they come from the fact that a globalized economy, no matter how dynamic, often has no role for high-school-educated Americans. That’s a different problem. To some extent, it’s a problem brought on by the very dynamism of the global economy: its fluidity and the mobility of capital, things that lead to productive outcomes.

In short, the dynamism of the global economy can have negative externalities for our civic culture that need to be addressed. It’s our job to address them, it seems to me, and we need to do so in a conservative fashion that preserves the best aspects of the free-market economy, whereas the left will tend to try to solve those problems in ways that are more destructive of the creative potential of the free economy.

Opinion magazines and journals, including ours, can and should address the question of how to have an economy that engages the productive labor of the widest array of Americans. We will do so, I hope. I think we are.


The conversation continues in Part 2 of 2 here.