The Future of Public Discourse

For the past ten years, Public Discourse has been a different kind of website—thoughtful, calm, and civil, even while defending unpopular truths. In our next decade, we want to keep improving, reaching more people, and addressing a broader array of topics.

Throughout America, anxiety and uncertainty are high. This is particularly true for conservatives, and even more so for religious and social conservatives. The anxiety and uncertainty, coupled with the temptations of social media, have led many people to jump on board fads, to stake out more and more radical positions, to ratchet up their rhetoric, to virtue-signal, and to try to be shocking and provocative as a way of showing they’re up to the challenges of our moment—or merely as a way of generating an audience in a click-bait age.

Public Discourse, for the past decade, has been different. It sought to be thoughtful, to be calm, and to be civil—all while defending unpopular truths. It sought to be deep, and yet accessible. It sought to be committed to eternal truths, while willing to rethink their application in changing circumstances. And in the past ten years, it’s provided a forum for some of the most thoughtful scholars to write serious essays for the general public.

It’s been a huge success. And in our second decade we intend to double-down on this vision while also improving on our delivery. This means you can continue to expect to see essays from the best scholars defending life from beginning to end, the truth about marriage and human sexuality, and the critical role that religious and economic liberty play in a free and virtuous society.

While we take a strong editorial stance on life, marriage, human sexuality, and religious and economic liberty, we also provide an amicable platform for debating questions where the right answer is less clear. We were neither Never Trump nor Always Trump. We don’t give four cheers for capitalism, nor do we say it struck out. We don’t blame America for every modern ill, nor do we pretend that our Founding principles were pristine. Instead, we’re willing to host back-and-forth essays debating each other on the important but unsettled questions that are shaping the future of conservatism, especially religious and social conservatism.

We’ve always been an ecumenical—indeed, interfaith—publication, and multidisciplinary in nature: philosophers, theologians, political theorists, economists, lawyers, doctors, scientists, and humanists all write for us. And that will continue. It’s what allows us to host pro- and con- debates about “liberalism” and “integralism,” about the justice of nuclear war and capital punishment, about the morality of lying and the nature of the American founding—even about finer points of metaphysics, God, and natural law theory.

And so, while conservatives are uncertain about the future, Public Discourse will continue to provide a platform for the most thoughtful scholars to reach an audience of sharp non-specialists who want to think deeply about the future of America, the role of religious and social conservatives in the wake of the latest church sex scandals and Trump presidency, how to balance populism, patriotism, and globalism, and more.

A Vision of the Human Person

Our editorial vision is not based upon the policies of a particular party, but upon a particular understanding of the human person. As Yuval Levin observed in The Fractured Republic,

American conservatism has always consisted of a variety of schools of moral, political, and economic thought. But they are nearly all united, in a general sense, by a cluster of anthropological assumptions. Conservatives tend to see the human person as an incorrigible mass of contradictions: a fallen and imperfect being created in a divine image, a creature possessed of fundamental dignity and inalienable rights, but always prone to excess and to sin, and ever in need of self-restraint and moral formation.

At Public Discourse, we believe that a free and thriving society is possible, but that it depends on the existence of a virtuous citizenry—human beings, living in community, who seek to understand what is good and to live it out. The formation of virtuous human beings is a complex task, one that works best when families, religious communities, and schools work together to accomplish it. An online publication can never replace this network of interconnected institutions, but it can inform and inspire the people who comprise it. That is what we seek to do.

Many conservatives today get caught up in decline and fall narratives. The details differ—was the advent of nominalism the turning point? Enlightenment liberalism? The sexual revolution?—but the arc of the story is the same. Liberals are generally drawn to a more progressive, Hegelian storyline promising that, with the right social engineering, humankind can be rid of its undesirable characteristics, from violence to discrimination. This forms the philosophical basis for the “right side of history” language that has been widely adopted to champion the causes of contemporary individualism.

But neither of these narratives tell the whole story. Human nature does not change. Technology, education, and prevailing ideologies do change, it is true, and a society can do a better or worse job forming human persons. In many ways, our current culture does a very poor job. And yet, this does not erase the elevated aspects of human nature.

Man by nature desires to know, as Aristotle taught so long ago. Poor moral formation can distort our vision of what is good and true, and unrestrained appetites can lead us to be distracted by lesser goods and to neglect the pursuit of lasting, transcendent realities. Yet modern man is still drawn to truth, goodness, beauty, and love. Individual relationships, strong communities, and exposure to the riches of the Western tradition—its philosophy, theology, literature, music, and art—still have the potential to inspire virtue. It can be useful to analyze the techniques of those who brought about social transformations that have undermined human flourishing, to examine the philosophical and anthropological errors of harmful ideologies, and to diagnose the moral and social failings of our society. While such analyses may be necessary, they are not sufficient.

Public Discourse is a place not only to analyze what has gone wrong but also to propose new, better ways forward—creative applications rooted in unchanging truths about human beings and the nature of reality. We provide a platform for thinkers to articulate—and readers to discover—strategies for personal improvement or social change that acknowledge current realities, harnessing modern technologies and social structures to encourage human flourishing.

What’s New?

Currently, we publish five essays a week. These essays have a distinctive style: twice the length of a standard op-ed, Public Discourse pieces are challenging. They contain substantial content, but we strive to make that content accessible to the educated layman. Public Discourse authors—many of whom are well-known scholars and cultural commentators from the Witherspoon Institute’s extensive network—write on a wide array of topics in a variety of academic disciplines. They are united by a common commitment to the idea that truth exists, is knowable, and should inform our politics and culture.

This approach has resonated with a large audience. Since its founding in October 2008, our site has been visited by over 10 million people.

But we want to keep improving, reaching more people, and addressing a broader array of topics. That’s why we’ve redesigned our website, reorganized our content, and expanded our editorial team. We invite you to take some time to look around our new site, particularly the pages that explain our new five-pillar framework and introduce our new editorial team. Download a free eBook (or five!) for a sample of some of the great content we’ve published over the past ten years in each of these five pillars, along with an exclusive introductory essay from each of our five contributing editors.

In the coming days, we’ll be publishing a launch essay by each of our new contributing editors, explaining more about each of their pillars (The Human Person, Sexuality & Family, Politics & Law, Education & Culture, and Business & Economics). Check back daily (or sign up for our email list) to make sure you don’t miss their reflections on the past ten years and their predictions of what lies ahead. In the weeks to come, we’ll also be premiering some new types of content: brief book notes, so you can keep up with new releases on important topics, and shorter articles, which will focus on the concrete applications of the complex, theoretical problems dealt with in classic PD essays.

For those who share our core commitments, Public Discourse has been and will remain a source of intellectual stimulation and inspiration to positive action. For those who unthinkingly accept the status quo, it provides exposure to ideas, arguments, and stories that may compel them to question their beliefs and assumptions. And for those who actively reject the idea of natural law, the methods of classical liberal education, and the Western moral and intellectual tradition, but who are open to true discourse, Public Discourse provides a place to encounter opposing arguments that are clear, rigorous, and written in a spirit of charity.

To our faithful readers, thank you. We hope you enjoy what’s new here and continue to value the things we’ve preserved. To new readers, we’re glad you’re here too. Together, we can help build a decent, dynamic, and thriving society.

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