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A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

First Things, Three Songs

Through an interesting post by Joseph Bottum on the First Things blog, I discover that R. R. Reno posted all three of the songs I elaborated upon in my June 2007 post “We’ve Lost More Than We’ll Ever Know”, though (so far as I can tell) he arrived at the same three without stumbling across my entry on them. I always read First Things in New York (it’s one of my favourites, and simply a must-read), but it’s sadly not available in South Africa (bar actually scraping one’s pennies together for a subscription) so I’ll just have to wade through friends’ archives when I return to the Empire State. (Or does the Society Library have a subscription? And if not, why not?).

While it has a reputation among some Catholics as being a bit too liberal & democratist, I suspect the whiff of Americanism one finds in the pages of First Things is akin to the aroma of tobacco in an old bar: the smell lingers but that doesn’t mean anyone’s actually still smoking. Nonetheless, they often feature top-notch articles and writing that are of interest to Catholics & other traditionalists.

This post was published on Wednesday, July 1st, 2009 3:45 pm. It has been categorised under Great Britain Quebec South Africa Tradition and been tagged under , .
1 Jul 2009 6:03 pm

As a longtime reader of First Things, I’m trying to figure out how, or when, it became democratist in the manner condemned by Pius or Leo as “Americanism”. Stridently pro-American political democracy, yes. But it was my understanding that Americanism has to do mainly with conforming ecclesiastical institutions to the American political ideal (and not out of temporary necessity due to the exigencies of frontier life, like when Bp. England tried to create a diocesan assembly for the administration of vast, untamed South Carolina; Rather, out of deference to the American political system as an undeniable and fundamental expression of our national Protestant heritage to which Catholics must come to terms.) If anything, I recall that First Things has nothing but contempt for those who (like the lamentable Buckley did in about 1989) call for the “democratization” of the American Church. Yes, of course there is the war and the economy and other such “neo-con” positions they take. But I can’t figure out how that kind of americanism makes First Things heretically “Americanist”.


1 Jul 2009 6:05 pm

Also, for now, there are still about 18 states and several less enlightened foreign countries where, if you smell the aroma of tobacco, it means someone is smoking.

As a smoker and as an American, I think this is significant.

R. Harrington
1 Jul 2009 7:08 pm

Egads man, FT is democratist all the way.

See the Dr. John C. Rao’s “The Exotic Liberation Theology of Fr. Neuhaus & Dr. Hitchcock: Enlightenment Ideology At War with Faith, Reason & The Remnant”:

I join with Cusack in shouting A bas les libéraux!

1 Jul 2009 8:18 pm

Thanks for the link. I stopped reading Rao when I quit reading the Remnant, and I stopped reading the Remnant when I couldn’t take it seriously anymore. (Any paper that employs the polemic against the Pope, on its own authority, is no less democratist than the National Catholic Reporter, even if I think that the basic premise of the one is good and the other is bad.) I’d not read this peice before and it was helpful if for no other reason than to remind me that rampant rectitudinalism,a disease so common among brainy and nobble-headed traditionalists alike, has not loosed its hold upon Rao, and that I should pray for him more frequently.

That being said, as odious as the editorial position of First Things may be, to some, my point is that Americanism is a fairly narrowly defined heresy, involving the democratization of Church structures and theology, not simply a defense of American democracy based on Catholic principles.

Where did FT use democracy to deform the Faith? I haven’t seen it. Rao hasn’t shown it to me, either. He simply substitutes “Americanism”, a heresy, for “neoconservatism” (or whatever you like to call the FT political bent), which is not a heresy, no matter how much you don’t like it.

But, I anticipate you asking, isn’t “neoconservatism” essentially Americanist? I can’t see how, as the concept of “neoconservatism” is so broad and varied (as are most things encompassed by singular epithets), and, as a concept, temporally so far removed from the original Americanist controversy, that it is possible to find elements of one in the other.

Does that make one essentially the other? Anyone who’s taken freshman logic can answer that.

Now the harder question is, isn’t FT, which is neoconservative (a point which I will concede for the purposes of debate), not influenced by Americanism, as the former philosophy is the intellectual heir of the latter? In honesty, I don’t know. I don’t know if Americanism, the heresy, is demonstrably responsible for whatever the hell “neoconservatism” is in the Catholic Church in America today. What I can say, with fair assurance, is that “paleoconservative” Catholics can’t demonstrate a clear connection either, nor can they shed light upon the question. Any reduction (promotion?)of neoconservative ideas to Americanist heresy is, until further proof is given of a causal link, post hoc ergo propter hoc, a fallacy of too frequent resort by Catholic polemicists nowadays.

1 Jul 2009 10:32 pm

Forgive me, but dont Mr Cusack’s words – “the smell lingers but that doesn’t mean anyone’s actually still smoking” – imply that hes saying that First Things is probably NOT Americanist?

The “whiff” remains, in a bar even if no one is smoking and the suspicion of Americanism remains even if no one is really Americanist?

Andrew Cusack
1 Jul 2009 11:09 pm

Heavens! How much one can make of such little fleeting thoughts of mine!

The gist of what I meant to convey was that First Things is liberal, neoconservative, democratist; the reader is free to use whichever term he likes within the reasonable bounds of communication. I will sum all these terms up with one simple word: wrong.

Yet civilization is positively littered with examples of people who have been wrong but still interesting, and I am glad that First Things still manages to be interesting in spite of its errors. It shows that there is good and truth somewhere in there, and I pray that the good and the true in First Things increase while the bad and wrong decrease.

1 Jul 2009 11:31 pm

Forgive me, but when you mentioned the smoke, I went looking for the fire.

1 Jul 2009 11:48 pm

Mr. Cusack,

Thanks for the clarification of your gists. But still, if I concede that democratist-ism (what’s the word? democratism?) is wrong, I still can’t connect it with Americanism,or even the whiff of Americanism, which, as heresy, goes beyond wrong to damnably wrong. And even the whiff of damnably wrong is, I think, too strong a charge to level at First Things.

But I get that these are fleeting thoughts of yours, and I hope you don’t think that mine in response are any less fleeting (overburdened by too much comment, yes, but hey, it’s a slow day.)

Have a good day,

Steve M
2 Jul 2009 4:17 am

Let this be a lesson to you Andrew, and please take care if you ever post large, non-fleeting thoughts. I had never run across “democratist” before, so I come away from this post and thread better informed (at least in a fleeting) way.
Now we need Mr. R.R. Reno to show up and explain himself.

2 Jul 2009 4:36 am

I must confess to my confusion, Andrew. Am I correct in understanding that you believe “democracy” to be bad and wrong? If so, then am I also correct in understanding that you believe “monarchy” to be good and right? If I am correct on both counts, how are we to understand your apparent support of Ron Paul for president of the United States? Forgive my ignorance. This is a sincere question.

PS: I’ve tried to read First Things several times and did not find it very interesting. But then again I am not a Catholic.

M.J. Ernst-Sandoval
2 Jul 2009 4:42 am

Those look like clips from Bok van Blerk’s “De la Rey” video…

Andrew Cusack
2 Jul 2009 9:33 am

I don’t believe democracy to be bad and wrong, but I believe the idea that democracy is inherently good and universally applicable is wrong. The inherent flaw of democracy is that is ascribes legitimacy to anything which happens to be temporarily popular at a given moment. (But then all systems of government have inherent flaws).

Where democracy works, then fine. I suspect that the system of government that would tend to work best in most situations is mixed government (as the UK used to be), which was a combination of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy (Crown, Lords, and Commons) all counterbalancing each other. This system is not really operational anymore in the UK, but could be restored without any major upheaval since all the key factors remain.

I also think (as did the Blessed Emperor Charles who is the patron saint of this blog) that there is a false dichotomy of monarchy vs. republic. He was comfortable with the idea of having individual republics within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, if conducive to the civic good. Likewise, I think it would be a fine idea if we would allow Hawai’i to restore her monarchy and remain within the United States (should she decide to do so) … but there is currently a constitutional provision that states must have republican forms of government.

One can envision several ways in which states of the U.S. could move to better systems of government that remain republican. A governor could be selected by a non-partisan process, have a long term of, say, seven years, or even life, with a power of veto but an expectation of non-interference. An upper house could be organized part corporately, part appointed, perhaps even with hereditary representation. A premiership could be established to run the state government with a cabinet instead of the non-partisan governor. And so on and so forth.

Given that the U.S. Supreme Court forced all the States to rewrite their constitutions to get rid of state senates that are elected by geography (as is the case in the U.S. Senate) rather than population (as with the U.S. House of Representatives) we could expect court challenges to these changes, but they would all be within constitutional bounds (not that, as with the state senates, that would stop the Supreme Court from trying to banish them).

I hope some day the U.S. will again have a president who can spend most of the day playing golf, rather than making war and usurping power.

L Gaylord Clark
2 Jul 2009 11:52 am

That lapidary last sentence of yours, Mr Cusack, distills all the political wisdom anybody needs.

2 Jul 2009 3:19 pm

Thanks for your lengthy and insightful response, Andrew. You’ve given me much food for thought.

As for the last sentence: Perhaps it’s my working class background and ethic, but, though I fully share your hope that someday the U.S. might have a president who doesn’t make war and usurp power (thus your support of Ron Paul), I just don’t “get” the wisdom of the head of state playing golf most of the day.

Mrs. Peperium
2 Jul 2009 5:22 pm

Andrew! What the $#&@#$ are you smoking?

Andrew Cusack
2 Jul 2009 6:13 pm


2 Jul 2009 7:47 pm

American liberal-conservatives! So touchy!

Baron v Senden
3 Jul 2009 12:01 am


It’s simple. A President who plays golf all day knows that he is not God, that the nation he represents can take care of itself, and that his role is to help solve problems, and not, by busy work, to create them.

3 Jul 2009 12:25 am


The president is certainly not God. Nor is he a king. A president is an elected official who works for the nation you say can take care of itself. If his role is, as you say, to help solve problems, then how does playing golf most of the time accomplish this? The fact is, the president of the United States is a salaried employee (or public servant, if one prefers), not an entrepreneur, much less a noble or an aristocrat.

Forgive my lecturing tone — perhaps I was more put off by your “It’s simple” than I should have been. Apologies.

Andrew Cusack
3 Jul 2009 9:04 am


The idea is that if he’s playing golf, then he’s not causing trouble for the citizens or the world.

According to the law, the President of the United States is not someone whose role is to “help solve problems”, except in so far as they relate to his job, which for the most part is merely to execute the laws enacted by Congress.

Because the Presidential office was usurped such an amazing array of power that it has no actual right to, we would all be much better off if the President was playing golf rather than working with his advisors to try to find new ways to restrict the freedom of his citizens, increase the power of the government, or wage unnecessary wars.

3 Jul 2009 5:10 pm

Of course the president’s role does not include finding new ways to restrict the freedom of citizens, increase the power of government, or wage unnecessary wars.

On the other hand, why spend millions in public funds each year to support a man’s golf game?

I suspect there is plenty of real work for a president to do by way of protecting the freedom of his citizens, restricting the power of government, and establishing and maintaining respectful relations with other sovereign states.

And I suspect the so-called Founding Fathers would have rather seen future presidents working in that way as opposed to spending most of his days playing golf (with the support of tax payer dollars).

R. Harrington
3 Jul 2009 6:44 pm

Enough with focussing on the golf! Golf is not the point. Still, it’s better to spend millions to support a man’s golf game then to spend trillions on unnecessary war, etc.

Sure, it’d be great having a virtuous president and all, but the fact is, virtuous people don’t go into politics anymore, and until that situation changes, the less the President does the better.

Experience shows that government is only at its most effective when at its most destructive. No ones saying we should pay the president millions to play golf. We’re saying that the country and world would be much better off if the president of the United States stopped trying to run the country and the world.

That he’d “play golf” is just Cusack’s somewhat lyrical way of saying he’s not sitting in the Oval Office with his advisors saying “Let’s fix this! Let’s fix that! This place looks ripe for bombing! Let’s do something big to mark my place in history!”

3 Jul 2009 6:55 pm

Pardon me. I just didn’t “get” the “lyricism” of Andrew’s comment.

I fully agree with you about the presidency and unnecessary wars. Not to mention self-aggrandizement.

At any rate, neither a self-absorbed loafer nor a mad meddler!

L Gaylord Clark
3 Jul 2009 9:51 pm

Eisenhower was often chided during his second term for playing too much golf.
That, I had presumed, was Mr Cusack’s reference. But I think now it may not have been, and that I am about the only one of his readers for whom that knowledge is based upon personal memory.

Andrew Cusack
4 Jul 2009 12:07 am

It was Eisenhower I was thinking of, but I didn’t want to get bogged down in debating the merits of Eisenhower as a particular president.

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