First Things Print
By Richard John Neuhaus   
Tuesday, 24 May 2011

By religion and public life we mean something like what Saint Augustine meant by the City of God and the City of Man. The twain inevitably do meet, but they must never be confused or conflated. Whether at the beginning of the fifth century or at the end of the twentieth, the particulars of their meeting are always ambiguous. At the deepest level the two cities are in conflict but, along the way toward history’s end, they can be mutually helpful. The polis constituted by faith delineates the horizon, the possibilities and the limits, of the temporal polis. The first city keeps the second in its place, warning it against reaching for the possibilities that do not belong to it. At the same time, it elevates the second city, calling it to the virtue and justice that it is prone to neglect. Thus awareness of the ultimate sustains the modest dignity of the penultimate.

It is our further prejudice that public life includes much more than politics. Public life means, first of all, “culture.” Our subtitle could as well be “a journal of religion and culture,” except that culture has come to have a narrower meaning in popular usage, referring mainly to what is done in theaters, concert halls, and museums. We will not ignore the cultural in that narrower meaning of the term, but by culture we mean something more inclusive. Culture means the available truth claims, explanatory systems, myths, stories, memories, loyalties, dreams, and nightmares by which a society lives. Culture is the cognitive, moral, aesthetic, and emotive air that we breathe.

So we think it true to say that politics is, in largest part, an expression of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion. Politics is the effort to give just order to public life, employing the ideas made available by the culture. And the most communally binding of those ideas are by nature religious, whether or not they bear the label “religion.” Given these considered assumptions, readers should not be surprised when in these pages they come across articles and arguments that are not ostensibly “religious” in the conventional use of the term. One does not always need to talk about God to be talking about God.

-From the first issue of First Things


Other Articles By This Author