The Institute on Religion and Public Life (IRPL), publisher of the journal First Things, describes itself as an "interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public policy for the ordering of society." Both the institute and its journal function, in large part, as the institutional vehicles for the conservative religious philosophy of founder Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and neoconservative activist—or "theocon"—who passed away in 2009.
IRPL has played an important role in the "culture war" between social conservatives and the "liberal establishment." The trouble with contemporary America, First Things contributor Milton Himmelfarb once claimed, "is not that religion in general has too small a role in American public life or American life simply. The trouble is that a particular religion has too great a role—paganism, the de facto established religion." The emergence of IRPL, which was founded in 1989, helped illustrated the declining influence of the so-called Old Guard conservatism and demonstrated the neoconservative ability to integrate a traditional rightist position—the centrality of religion and ethics in politics and society—into its ideological agenda.
Much of the material in IRPL's First Things magazine, which has a circulation of some 30,000, is devoted to intellectual debates among the mostly conservative Christian academics who fill its pages. In recent years contributors have variously explored the role of dogmatism in contemporary Catholicism, the relevance of so-called "natural law" to the U.S. culture wars, and the compatibility of liberal democracy with religious values.
On cultural issues, leading contributors sometimes take an especially strident tone. George Weigel, for example, an IRPL board member and senior fellow at the similarly oriented Ethics and Public Policy Center, inveighed in August 2013 against "a newly aggressive secularism bent on using coercive state power to enforce a naked public square." Following President Barack Obama's reelection in November 2012, Weigel warned that "authentically Catholic health care in America is now in mortal danger" from the Obama administration's requirement that health insurers provide access to contraceptive drugs. Weigel complained further that a "gay insurgency" was "compel[ling] acceptance of the chimera of 'gay marriage'" and recommended that the Catholic church "withdraw from the civil marriage business" altogether. He also called Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic, an "ecclesial embarrassment" for his support of abortion rights and anti-discrimination statutes for transgendered individuals.
Foreign policy is often a tangential concern for First Things contributors, but many of its writers and leaders have helped promote U.S.-led wars abroad. In particular, during the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Neuhaus defended the impending war as a "just war." Citing the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, Neuhaus said that the planned invasion would be a "just war" because "war is sometimes a moral duty in order to overturn injustice and protect the innocent." After elaborating the theological foundations that he said make preventive war "justified and necessary," Neuhaus also gave his imprimatur to the Bush administration's attacks on the credibility and value of the United Nations, while taking antiwar Catholics to task for backing the multilateral institution. "In view of the UN's frequent hostility to the Church on family policy, population, the sacredness of human life, and related matters," advised Neuhaus, "some Catholic leaders may come to regret their exaggerated and, I believe, ill-considered statements about the moral authority of the UN."
Despite his support for the invasion, Neuhaus cautioned that the "Church cannot bless this military action as though it were a Christian crusade," explaining that the Catholic Church needed to maintain its position as a moral arbiter. "After the war, if there is to be a war, the Church, and the Holy Father in particular, will be indispensable as a dialogue partner in moving Islam away from the most ominously destructive possibilities of a 'clash of civilizations,'" predicted Neuhaus.
More recently, in February 2013, First Things ran a piece by Paul Miller arguing that the protracted U.S. occupation of Afghanistan was a "just war." Justice, Miller argued, "involves more than overthrowing the Taliban and getting Osama bin Laden." He added, "Even after our success in removing the Taliban and killing Osama bin Laden, the war still can be justified as self-defense: of ourselves, our allies, and the global liberal order."
First Things writers have cast the U.S.-Israeli relationship in religious as well as political terms. "What is sacred about America is a reflection of the holiness of Israel," wrote David Goldman in 2009. "If America succeeds in banishing the sacred from public life—and that is the broader agenda of the liberal Democrats—there will be little reason," he warned, "for America to have a special relationship with Israel except for military convenience." (Goldman also argued for "military convenience, claiming among other things that Israel could strike Iran's nuclear facilities and Washington could avoid "taking direct responsibility.") Another writer complained the following year that it's "un-Christian" for religious leaders and other observers to "single out" Israel for criticism about the state of Middle East diplomacy.
These viewpoints reflect IRPL's skepticism about religious pacifism more generally. In a 2012 critique of a work by a pacifist Christian author, First Things writer Eric Cohen called the view "that we can live as if war has been abolished" not only "morally unconvincing but morally perverse." Although he conceded that "there have been times when we have used massive and terrible power against terrible enemies," Cohen channeled a common refrain among neoconservatives and other right-wing hawks about the moral superiority of the United States, arguing that "while the history of America's wars is hardly a story of moral perfection, it is, by human standards, a mostly heroic story of doing the right thing and doing it for the right reasons." Warning that love was an inadequate weapon against "those who believe that sending young girls to the gas chamber is rational or that nuclear war against Israel might bring about the new reign of God on earth," Cohen concluded that if pacifism is "the true political theology of Christianity, then Christianity is a form of eschatological madness."
In some cases, First Things writers have pushed back against perceived rhetorical excesses or inadequacies of fellow conservatives. In a March 2013 column, for example, editor R. R. Reno said that he "didn't like" the liberal plan "to construct international institutions in accord with human rights and democracy," finding it "self-serving for the liberal nomenklatura that is in many cases already transferring its loyalty to NGOs and global institutions." But he then complained that "the Republican party does not have a functional public rhetoric that deals with the relative decline of American hegemony. The [Mitt] Romney campaign had no visible stance on foreign policy other than to attack Obama's supposed lack of commitment to American greatness." Reno contrasted this void on the right with liberal internationalism on the left, which he said "may not be ideal but will be workable" if it is "tempered by realism."
Similarly, although many First Things writers take a wary or hostile view of Islam—one contributor argued that there is little place for "love" in Islam—others have protested campaigns by the likes of David Yerushalmi and Pamela Geller to pass "anti-Sharia" laws in U.S. statehouses. Making a conservative case against these laws, one writer likened the campaign to "such violations of religious freedom" as laws requiring "pro-life pharmacists to dispense the morning-after pill, Christian adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples, and religious entities to pay for their employees' contraceptives." He concluded that the "attack on the ancient system of Islamic law … imperils the religious liberty of all Americans."
Leadership and History
In the early 1970s, IRPL founder Richard John Neuhaus was a liberal, antiwar Lutheran minister; by the end of the decade, however, he had embraced the neoconservative camp. During the 1980s, he directed the Center on Religion and Society, which was part of the Rockford Institute. The center's quarterly journal The World gained a reputation as a leading forum for conservative Catholics and mainstream Protestants. The Rockford Institute was at one time firmly entrenched in the right's "paleoconservative" Old Guard, which from the mid-1970s through the 1980s was locked in an uneasy political alliance with the neoconservatives.
Both IRPL and First Things received funding from the Bradley Foundation through the Rockford Institute. Mark Gersonrecounts in his 1997 book The Neoconservative Vision how, after the Rockford Institute published articles that some neoconservatives like Weigel criticized as anti-Semitic, Neuhaus split with the institute. With funding from Bradley and other conservative foundations, Neuhaus then established the IRPL. The institute quickly established itself as staunchly neoconservative, recruiting Midge Decter to serve on its board at roughly the same time that she was invited to join the board of the Heritage Foundation. In 1991 Neuhaus became a Roman Catholic priest.
Members of the First Things editorial board have included Decter, who is the spouse of early neoconservative trailblazer Norman Podhoretz, and George Weigel. Neuhaus served as the journal's longtime editor-in-chief. First Things advisory council members have included the anti-abortion law professor Hadley Arkes; theoretical particle physicist Stephen M. Barr; Environmental Ethics and Christian Humanism author Thomas Derr; political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain; author and former American Enterprise Institute scholar Suzanne Garment; founder of Princeton's James Madison Program, Robert George; professor of Catholic studies Russell Hittinger; Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky; economics professor Glenn Loury; Notre Dame professor George Marsden; and Christianity scholar Robert Louis Wilken.
Contributors to the journal and its blog have included Weigel, Decter, Michael Novak, David Novak, Robert Bork, George, Mary Ann Glendon, Charles Colson, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), Vaclav Havel, Irving Kristol, Paul Davies, Cardinal Francis George, among many other well-known religious figures.
IRPL board members in 2013 included professor of Jewish studies David Novak, Weigel, Wilken (Chairman), Hittinger, Frederic H. Clark, and Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon.
From 1996 to 2005, the IRPL received close to $9 million in grants (see MediaTransparency.org). Right-wing foundations the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, Castle Rock Foundation, and Carthage Foundation were among the contributors. Much of the funding was directed toward support of First Things. According to its 2011 IRS Form 990, IRPL's revenue was $2.4 million and expenses $2.4 million.