Reno has made choices, in other words, that have forced him to linger in the spaces of in-between identity. And yet his personal beliefs and political project are dedicated to the pursuit of settled-ness and unity. “People say, ‘Oh, it must be great, children growing up in two different traditions,’” he told me. “No, it’s not great. It makes it hard for them. They do strongly identify as Jewish. But one of the things we want is … to have a home in the world. A spiritual home, as well as a home-home.”
The magazine has had a consistently socially conservative identity since it was founded in 1990, but it has also adapted to various eras of American conservatism. Neuhaus served as an informal adviser to President George W. Bush on bioethics, and “the whole circle around the magazine were very much in communication with the White House on a fairly regular basis,” Damon Linker, a senior correspondent at The Week who was an editor at First Things in the early Bush years, told me.
Since then, First Things has traveled a different road from Bush-administration evangelical leaders, such as Pete Wehner, who worked with Karl Rove in the Office of Strategic Initiatives, and Michael Gerson, the former speechwriter who is now a Washington Post columnist: Wehner, Gerson, and others have pledged opposition to Trump on moral grounds. Conservative writers at mainstream outlets range in their sympathies for the First Things project, but mostly stop short of alignment. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is in some ways a kindred spirit, but has written about his skepticism of the publication’s brand of anti-Trumpism; his colleague Bret Stephens, meanwhile, recently wrote a scathing condemnation of what he described as the Trump-style illiberal impulses on display in the “Against David Frenchism” article. As right-wing outlets have formed new post-Trump teams in the Little League of conservative politics, First Things has found itself in bitter feuds with stalwarts such as the National Review and newcomers such as The Bulwark, the webby reincarnation of the Weekly Standard. Even ex-staffers like Linker have been involved in spats: His 2006 book, The Theocons, harshly criticizes Neuhaus’s project as essentially theocratic.
Throughout its history, the magazine has fostered a freewheeling, ecumenical debate about God, publishing Lutherans, Jews, Catholics, and occasionally even Muslims on the nature of their religious faith. Collectively, this kind of conversation is important for society, Reno maintains: “If you don’t have some sense of a transcendent horizon, young people really will become slaves to the relentless competition for wealth and status.”
In keeping with the Trump zeitgeist, the magazine has promoted the idea of civic nationalism, or, to borrow a phrase, the civil religion that has long been at the heart of American identity. Reno argues that the progressive gospel of diversity mistakenly elevates difference as a good unto itself, missing the shared qualities of American identity that actually bring the country together. “Pluralism—it all sounds great on paper,” he told me. “But in fact, especially in times of crisis or tension—and I think we live in a time very polarized and divided—the imperative is unity.”