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First Things, Israel, Conservatism, and WALL-E

June 12, 2009

I’ve always regarded First Things as less a Catholic journal than a journal in the right-wing American liberal tradition. When it comes to a choice between the teachings of the Church and support for American foreign and economic policy, it seems to always choose the latter.

I want to talk about a couple of incidences.

I recently commented on an article by David Goldman, who criticized Obama’s Cairo speech on the grounds that it reached out too much to Islam, and did not do enough to bolster America’s traditional alliance with Israel. I pointed out that a Catholic outfit should pay more heed to Church teaching, and especially listen to the words of Pope Benedict, who noted that terrorism can only be defeated by tackling the underlying injustices that facilitate terrorism in the first place. I pointed out the war crimes in Gaza, the and daily indignities and inequities that must be suffered by the Palestinians. Mr. Goldman responded that First Things was not a Catholic outfit, and that as a Jew, he disagreed with the pope on the matter. Well, there are many many Jews who want justice in Palestine, who want a two-state solution, who want the offensive settlements removed, and who would agree with the pope on this matter. It is better to say that Mr. Goldman represents an opinion characteristic of the American neoconservative — that, under Neuhaus, always seemed to find a home at First Things. Of course, unless you twisted the just war conditions beyond recognition (as did George Weigel), it is not really possible to align the Catholic position with this approach, which emphasizes preemptive war, the denigration of the human rights of large groups of people, and the transformative power of violence. In short, everything the gospel is not.

Perhaps then it is best to simply treat First Things as just another National Review or Weekly Standard. Perhaps we should take Mr. Goldman at his word. Is there anything to it that makes it more Catholic than these secular journals? On matters of public policy, I find it hard to see. It now has a wide array of bloggers and these bloggers adhere closely to the right-wing American liberal line — Deal Hudson offers far more diversity of opinion on Inside Catholic. Doing a quick perusal over the past few days, I found entries criticizing plans for universal health care, praising the economics of Ronald Reagan (or what they suppose his economics to be, that’s another story), lauding the virtues of the unrestrained free market, plus plenty of discussion of “conservatism” (they still don’t know what that means). It actually seems worse after Neuhaus — certainly it feels less intellectual and more inclined to adopt the tone and manner of the American pseudo-conservative movement.

But the post one that really stuck with me was a criticism of movies that promote environmentalism, including WALL-E, a charming animated fable that warned about the dangers of excess materialism and consumerism. Surely that would be a message that would resonate with a Catholic, or even a true conservative? Not at all. Wesley J. Smith complains that these movies are somehow anti-person. Here are his words:

“Whether they knew it or not, they furthered the ongoing coup de culture (utilitarianism, hedonism, radical environmentalism), which promotes the anti human view as it elevates environmentalism as the new faith.  But destroying our adherence to and belief in human exceptionalism won’t “save the planet.” However, it could denigrate our self perception to the point that we willingly undermine our own thriving as we surrender our freedom.”

This is a bizarre anthropology, and is confused about the meaning of authentic human freedom. It might find some support within Calvinist circles, but it is certainly opposed to what the Catholic Church teaches about ecology and the environment. I will leave it to Pope John Paul II (who knew a thing or two about personalism) to do the heavy lifting (though Pope Benedict has spoken on this topic too). From Centesimus Annus:

“Equally worrying is the ecological question which accompanies the problem of consumerism and which is closely connected to it. In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way. At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error, which unfortunately is widespread in our day. Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God’s prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray. Instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him.

In all this, one notes first the poverty or narrowness of man’s outlook, motivated as he is by a desire to possess things rather than to relate them to the truth, and lacking that disinterested, unselfish and aesthetic attitude that is born of wonder in the presence of being and of the beauty which enables one to see in visible things the message of the invisible God who created them. In this regard, humanity today must be conscious of its duties and obligations towards future generations.”

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32 Comments
  1. June 12, 2009 11:11 am

    First Things decisively ruined its reputation with its cheer-leading of the Iraq War and the inability of its major writes to subsequently admit any errors of judgment on the issue.

  2. June 12, 2009 11:57 am

    I subscribe to First Things and read every issue with great interest. I end up disagreeing with much of what I find there and the advertisements can be very disturbing, but I always find something that is genuinely interesting. I especially like the book reviews and correspondence. This is more than I can say about a lot of other journals I read with regularity.

    Having said that, I do think that the journal has hardened its identity a bit over the past few years. I have read back issues from the 90’s and early 2000’s and they seem to be much richer in scope—more catholic.

    But, I did find their issue in honor of Neuhaus to be very moving and showing a great deal of the ironies of their recent departure from the more sensible positions they began with. I must also say that R.R. Reno’s “Theology After the Revolution” still makes me think to this day.

    All in all, it has some problems (like every other journal I can think of) but is worth reading with regularity. But, then again, I also listen to conservative talk radio with religious regularity.

  3. June 12, 2009 12:27 pm

    I cannot recall ‘First Things’ ever having identified itself as ‘a Catholic outfit’. Neoconservative for the most part (home to Neuhaus, Novak and Weigel); but it has had Jewish and evangelical and orthodox contributors since its inception.

  4. June 12, 2009 1:36 pm

    If “Wesley J. Smith complains that these movies are somehow anti-person,” then he does not see them as “warn[ings] about the dangers of excess materialism and consumerism.”

    He may be right about the movies, he may be wrong. Either way, impugning his Catholic faith on the basis of his opinion of the movies is gravely wrong, if not Calvinistic.

  5. June 12, 2009 1:40 pm

    Since I assumed he was not Catholic to begin with, it’s difficult to argue that I am “impugning his Catholic faith”. But if he is Catholic, then I suggest he get informed on Church teachings in this area.

  6. ben permalink
    June 12, 2009 2:04 pm

    Why does this sound like the pot calling the kettle black?

  7. jeremy permalink
    June 12, 2009 2:07 pm

    Having read Mr. Smith’s book “Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World” and a follower of the Secondhand Smoke blog for some time, I think you are being rather unfair to the man. When he refers to environmentalism, he is usually attacking the radical aspects of environmentalism that try to draw an equal moral worth between humans and animals (or plants). I think Church Teaching agrees that human beings are primary, and that environmental concerns should not override basic human necessities. You are, of course, free to disagree about where that line should be drawn.

  8. June 12, 2009 2:22 pm

    ben: Because Vox-Nova is “in the right-wing American liberal tradition” too, of course.

  9. June 12, 2009 2:22 pm

    Jeremy, I’m simply quoting this person, and I’m juxtaposing his position against the words of John Paul II.

  10. June 12, 2009 2:36 pm

    However, I also see that Wall-E isn’t anti human as a character and that the retaking of human control is also a part of the message. My friend focused on the earlier part of the movie in his reaction against it. I think its supporters here have focused on the latter parts, and like the character.

    So, I have had my mind changed: Since, unlike The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Happening–the ending of the film is optimistic, rather than nihilistic and reahabilitates the importance of being human it creating a balanced life, I yield and stand corrected.

    Sometimes it helps to read the comments of a post.

  11. June 12, 2009 2:37 pm

    I’m twice wrong, then, since Smith is a convert to Orthodoxy.

    The point remains, though, that Morning’s Minion has merely asserted, not demonstrated, a contradition between the two passages he quoted.

  12. June 12, 2009 3:07 pm

    Minion:

    I think the environmentalism Smith is attacking is very different from the environmentalism JPII is proposing. Indeed, when you read things like people foregoing reproduction in order to reduce the carbon footprint, then Smith is quite right to be worried about something reducing our thriving.

    Of course, I think Smith’s main problem is criticizing a movie he’s only heard about from a friend. Indeed, Wall-E makes the point that consumerism is itself dehumanizing, particularly with the chilling depiction of the robots teaching the kids about “Buy N large-your very best friend.”

    Indeed, as a conservative I loved Wall-E and found it to be one of the better, if not one of the best, to show to kids if one is worried about promoting good ideals.

  13. June 12, 2009 4:19 pm

    From its self description:

    First Things is published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.

    An admirable goal. Pity I see very little trace of it in its blog activities at least. And how can the neoconish foreign policy views be hammered into this box?

  14. June 12, 2009 4:33 pm

    Paul quotes selectively. Before penning the text he quotes above, Mr. Smith said the following:

    I believe the picture promotes the idea that humans are destrying the planet, because as the film opens, we HAVE destroyed the planet–just as the Deep Ecologists say. No plants. No ecosystems. It is a dead world, killed by humans, who we later found escaped in a spaceship to become obese blogs of lazy self indulgent good-for-nothings. I think that message is no different than The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

    Elsewhere: “I think the premise is unquestionably anti-human, what we did to the planet.” and “I think we can agree that the bulk of the movie is radical environmentalism, e.g. we HAVE destroyed the planet and have become so many self indulgent, lazy, gluttonous slugs, that we are really to be despised.”

    In other words, he likes the character, but not the message. That’s not much of a concession. For the message of WALL-E can be seen as the ultimate implication of what John Paul is warning about — the religion of consumerism, whereby “man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way.” For sure, it’s a fable, but we get the point. When Smith talks about “human exceptionalism” and not “surrendering our freedom”, John Paul instead complains that “man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will.”

    This “freedom” can even provoke “a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him“. After all this is the premise of the other movies Smith criticizes, including The Happening (I hate them because they are bad, stupid movies, no more than that). I think Smith has it backwards.

    I would also point out that people with this view tend to be the ones deriding global warming too. Coincidence?

  15. June 12, 2009 5:26 pm

    First Things is not a Catholic journal.

    ….

  16. June 12, 2009 5:27 pm

    Not to mention there are and always have been a diversity of voices. The journal has not chosen between “the teachings of the Church and support for American foreign and economic policy, it seems to always choose the latter.”

    Nor has it ever had to. What a weird post.

  17. June 12, 2009 7:18 pm

    You still have not shown that anything Smith has said contradicts the Pope. Smith’s not denying that humans should be good stewards, but he merely resents the implication that humans have wrecked the plant beyond repair.

  18. lewiscrusade permalink
    June 13, 2009 2:57 am

    I know Wesley J. Smith. He’s not a Catholic. He’s an Evangelical, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, and he has a very deep-set anti-Catholicism bubbling beneath his “Ecumenical Jihad” facade.
    The Seattle C. S. Lewis Institute is sponsored by Seattle University (Catholic), Seattle Pacific University (Methodist) and the Discovery Institute. When I applied to speak at their 1998 C. S. Lewis Centennial Conference at the age of 21, the two founders of the Institute, Andrew Tadie and Michael Macdonald, were both excited to such “a rising star,” as Tom Howard introduced me to Peter Kreeft.
    They even paid some money for me to attend, when the other speakers had to pay their own way.
    Where the other two were very enthusiastic, welcoming and mentorly, Smith was very abrasive to me, and the only reason we could discern was that I was Catholic and wrote an overtly Catholic paper.
    So, the fact that the two authors you quote are, respectively, a Jew and a Protestant, would seem to validate the thesis that _First Things_ is not necessarily “Catholic.”
    That said, I never thought it was. It would probably be more precise to say that it has gone political rather than religious, since its original intent, IIRC, was to be a journal for “conservative ecumenism” like _Touchstone_

  19. Magdalena permalink
    June 13, 2009 11:21 am

    As others have said above, First Things was not founded and was never intended to be a Catholic magazine. In fact I believe the late Fr. Neuhaus was still a Lutheran when he started it, although I think he converted later that year.

  20. Mark DeFrancisis permalink
    June 13, 2009 11:41 am

    It was just to give a religious veneer to American exceptionalism and expansionism…..

  21. June 13, 2009 11:51 am

    Lewiscrusade – fascinating. Says a lot that FT is hiring an anti-catholic. I knew I could detect a whiff of Calvinism in his writings.

  22. June 13, 2009 12:33 pm

    MM,

    What Catholic journal/magazine do you know that has had as significant an impact on American politics as First Things? I know of none.

  23. June 13, 2009 1:24 pm

    Given that it’s been pointed out, ad infunitum, that FT never has been a Catholic publication, as anyone who reads the mag would know, why not just delete the post? Its premise is absurd on its face.

  24. June 13, 2009 4:40 pm

    It may not be Catholic, but its editor in chief was until recently a Catholic priest, it is lauded in right-wing Catholic circles, and it claims to “advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.” How does cheerleading and right-winmg liberalism support this aim?

  25. June 13, 2009 9:32 pm

    I’ve never read much of the journal, either way. But I do think that the caution is worthwhile, if inaccurate in application. The very title is basically an adaptation of Russell Kirk’s “permanent things”, an expression of intellectual, cultural conservatism, which some (Peter Kreeft comes to mind) have argued ought to be called “traditionalism” instead, since conservatism, and particularly neoconservatism, involves so much that “traditionalists” are uncomfortable with.

    I forget if it was an early _Inside Catholic_ feature or _Crisis_ or a different venue altogether, but a couple years ago, Kreeft wrote a piece about driving through Boston with three academic friends.

    In the car were Kreeft, a colleague who was a political conservative, a political liberal, and a radical leftist hippie, Ralph Nader type.

    Talking about politics during the first part of the trip, it was Kreeft and the Republican versus the Democrat and the hippie.

    But, as they drove through Boston, they passed a new building. They started talking about architecture and urban sprawl.

    Suddenly, Kreeft and the hippie were on one side of the debate, talking about both conservation of resources and quality of craftsmanship, and the Republican and Democrat were both preaching progress.

  26. June 14, 2009 9:30 am

    MM

    “Cheerleading” is such an absurd description of First Things; it’s obvious you’ve never read the magazine.

  27. June 14, 2009 4:18 pm

    Oh, please, Zach, much much ill-informed nonsense in the area of economics do I need to read? There’s Michael Novak lying about statistics, and Joseph Bottoim idolizing Ronald Reagan, when it’s clear he doesn’t understand the economics at all. And let’s not even talk about the self-serving approach to the Iraq war.

  28. June 14, 2009 4:38 pm

    Well, the magazine hardly ever deals with economics.

    I doubt Michael Novak has lied about statistics (he may very well have been misinformed). It’s obvious you have no interest in giving him the benefit of the doubt, but hey, it’s worth pointing it out.

    And Bottom certainly doesn’t idolize Reagan – I’d be curious to see what you’re referencing here. Is it an article, or just an idea you made up?

    As far as the Iraq War – the magazine was not of one voice on the matter, as I recall. But it’s easier to blur all the distinctions and just universally condemn things, no?

  29. June 14, 2009 9:22 pm

    As far as the Iraq War – the magazine was not of one voice on the matter, as I recall?

    Well, I can tell you who was of one voice — the Vatican. And for the record, who were the anti-war voices at FT and what percentage of total space devoted to the Iraq war were they givem?

    On Michael Novak’s shoddy economics.

    On Joseph Bottum’s Reagan worship

  30. Magdalena permalink
    June 15, 2009 9:06 am

    I followed the link on Jody Bottum and I have to say I detected zero Reagan-worship. In fact in the post your link references, Bottum writes “Lord knows, the Reaganites and their successors didn’t do everything right.” Hardly prostrate adoration. I think you need to read Bottum (and FT as a whole) a little more deeply than you are allowing yourself to.

  31. Br. Matthew Augustine Miller, OP permalink
    June 19, 2009 8:09 am

    MM,

    I knew I could detect a whiff of Calvinism in his writings.

    No offense MM, but where don’t you detect a whiff of Calvinim? You first lesson in Evangelical Theology: most Evangelicals are not, not, not Calvinists.

  32. Br. Matthew Augustine Miller, OP permalink
    June 19, 2009 8:44 am

    MM,

    I am in Jerusalem right now. Two days ago I went to an audience with the Latin Patriarchate here in the Holy Land: His Eminence Fouad Twal. He spoke about the plight of Arab Christians and the problems caused by Christian Zionists. Guess who was with me eating up every word of the Patriarch? A group of 20 or so Evangelicals from a prominent evangelical college in California. I went to tea with them afterwards and was struck by their intelligence and their love for and commitment to the Palestinians (Christian and Muslim)who they had spent the past five weeks living with and learning from. If you want to speak intelligently about Evangelicals, you need to learn more about them and perhaps even get to know some of them. You would realize that they are just as complex a group as any other- and just as resistant to easy caricatures- not to mention outright factual errors (i.e., Evangelical = Calivinist).

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