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First Things editor on rough-and-tumble ecumenism

R.R. ‘Rusty’ Reno talks about equipping the intellectual Christian

R.R. "Rusty" Reno Facebook

First Things editor on rough-and-tumble ecumenism

R.R. “Rusty” Reno has been the editor of First Things magazine since 2011. The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran who eventually became a Catholic priest, founded the publication in the 1990s to give the Religious Right a richer theological and philosophical vocabulary. I had this conversation with Reno at the Union League Club in New York.

I have heard the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus jokingly described as a liberal who was mugged by reality. I think he was always theologically conservative. He came of age in the 1960s, was involved in the civil rights movement and then in the antiwar movement. He was trained in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. … The application of these Christian principles, which seemed quite clear in the civil rights era, really motivated him. The antiwar movement was more ambiguous in terms of the application. I think he came to see that, and then he became really radicalized by Roe v. Wade because he saw it as the Democratic Party’s repudiation of the civil rights legacy, which is defense of the weak and the vulnerable and the marginalized. Who could be weaker and more vulnerable than the unborn? That began his migration from left to right, which took place in the 1970s.

Neuhaus had a big influence on one of my mentors, Chuck Colson. They started working on the document Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which is a project that you’re still involved with today. That was something both Neuhaus and Colson really cared about quite deeply. They were convinced that not only should evangelicals and Catholics be united against certain forces in secular America, but also that evangelicals and Catholics need to be in a theological dialogue with each other so that we can discern more deeply what unites us. We don’t just have a common enemy, we have a common Lord, and we need to understand how our common submission to the lordship of Christ reflects a common faith.

You took over First Things at a time when there’s massive technological change in the media landscape. We are very blessed that we’re a monthly magazine that is part of a movement that people care deeply about. It’s turned out that people want the things that are near to their heart in print. It’s a kind of sacramental thing. I hear from subscribers that they were reading First Things on the bus or on the train, and somebody came up to them and said, “You’re a First Things reader too,” and friendships have developed around First Things magazine. We’ve been able to stay strong. We’ve added the digital platforms, and they’ve done fine. We’ve stayed strong in the print form, and that’s been really key for our health as a publication. … We’re at about 28,000 paid subscribers.

You’ve got an elite audience. I like to believe that. We’re not an easy read. It’s a very intellectually demanding magazine. We’re trying to equip the saints. In all of our ministries, we’re equipping, often, different people at different stages in a battle to bring the gospel to our world. Ours is to equip those who have intellectual bent. That’s our mission as a magazine, is to help people who believe that an ever-deeper submission to God’s authority humanizes them and also allows them to be a leaven in our society.

Is that the vision that you bring to the table or that you perpetuate from Neuhaus? I worked with him fairly closely for a number of years before his death in 2009. While we certainly argued about things, it was within a very strong consensus—ecumenical in spirit but with a conviction that the best kind of ecumenism is when those who come from different traditions speak robustly and confidently from within their own tradition. The magazine has Protestant authors, Catholic authors. We have Jewish authors. The occasional Muslim has written for us. My vision is that we’re not going to have that “I’m okay, you’re okay” ecumenism. We have real rough-and-tumble debates on our pages where people are encouraged to speak out of their traditions with confidence and without apology.

You said it’s important to step back from the culture war issues and the current political skirmishes and try to come up with meaningful answers to those eternal questions or more transcendent questions. What do you recommend your readers actually do on a local level? One of the things that I worry about is that in an increasingly hostile cultural environment, my readers withdraw from public involvement. I want them to run for the school board. I want them to run for local government. I want them to be involved in political campaigns. I want them to be engaged at the grassroots level.

[It’s] painful, difficult to be on the school board when somebody is trying to push through some transgender policy and to be the bad guy who stands up and says, “Wait a minute. This is really harmful for kids,” and then to be denounced as a hater and bigot is very painful. I think that one of the things that we can contribute to our society is a bit of courage to stand up against this mania that’s creeping our nation on this transgender issue, and others as well. I think our fellow citizens feel very cowed by political correctness. I think … we have a solid place to stand against this storm, and we need to stand and be seen standing against the storm. I think that will inspire others and give them some hope that they too can descend from the new orthodoxies that are so punitive.

What do you want people to say about your editorship of First Things when it is over? I think the most important contribution that First Things makes is to remind people that politics is not the first thing. The first thing is our faith, and that is the most important dimension of life. I’d like people to look back and say, “First Things was in the mix. We were talking about current issues. It was so topical, timely, and helpful, but it was also timeless. It was also something that helped deepen and renew my faith.”

I often meet people, some of them not so young (we’ve been around for 25 years now), who say to me, “When I was a college student, First Things saved my faith because it convinced me that I could be smart and faithful at the same time.” I have met other people who have said that First Things was instrumental in their return to the faith, or other people for whom it was where they discovered the faith.

To me, that’s the greatest possible compliment to the magazine. It’s a great gift to me as editor to have the opportunity to edit a magazine that brings people to Christ.

Listen to Warren Smith’s complete conversation with R.R. Reno on the Nov. 4, 2016, edition of Listening In.

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. He previously served as WORLD’s vice president and associate publisher. He currently serves as president of MinistryWatch and has written or co-written several books, including Restoring All Things: God's Audacious Plan To Change the World Through Everyday People. Warren resides in Charlotte, N.C.



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