Today is my last day as Editor-in-Chief of Public Discourse. But don’t worry, I’m not going away completely—I’ll remain involved in the editorial process under the new title of Founding Editor, and PD itself will be ably guided by Serena Sigillito as Editor and R. J. Snell as Editor-in-Chief. (If you haven’t heard, the reason for this change is that starting tomorrow I’ll be the President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.)
Twelve and a half years ago, Luis Tellez and the Witherspoon Institute placed a bet on a 27-year-old me, just starting graduate school after working two years for Fr. Richard John Neuhaus at First Things. It was a dream come true to get to help create a new journal in the internet age, and be able to publish essays by so many of the scholars I looked up to. PD sought to fill a void between click-bait sensationalism and academic navel-gazing. The idea was—and still is—to provide thoughtful analysis by leading scholars but in a format that is accessible to ordinary readers. Serena and R. J. share this vision.
The coming years will be difficult for people committed to the Biblical and natural law traditions. That’s always been the touchstone for PD: biblical orthodoxy and natural law thinking on essentials, with wide-ranging debates on applications and matters of prudence. Alas, late modernity has not been kind to Biblical orthodoxy or natural law rationality. And all indications are that America’s new presidential administration does not intend to be kind, either.
In this last collection of PD essays that I’ll curate as Editor-in-Chief, I put before readers some essays from the past by some of PD’s most eminent authors (along with some of my own scribbling) which can help us with the challenges we’re likely to face in the future. These challenges center upon debates over the role of religion in America, the value of human life, the benefits and limits of market economies, gender ideology, family structure, race, and the combination of faith and reason that created the West.
Religion in the Public Square
Let’s start with big-picture issues from one of my personal heroes: Archbishop Charles Chaput. The coming years will bring renewed debate over the role of religion in the public square, religious morality as a source of public policy, and the freedom of religious believers to live in accordance with the truth. Archbishop Chaput provides sound guidance on all of these questions. He’s written a number of PD essays (you can find them all here), and I want to bring one of his early ones (from 2011) and one of his last ones (from 2019) to your attention. In “Politics and the Devil” he explains that a “healthy democracy depends on people of conviction working hard to advance their ideas in the public square—respectfully and peacefully, but vigorously and without apologies,” and then concludes that “We cannot simultaneously serve the poor and accept the legal killing of unborn children.” In “Building a Culture of Religious Freedom” he charts the course on what religious believers must do in a culture that has grown ever more hostile to orthodox faith.
No one at PD has done more to explain the situation of religious believers and religious freedom that law professor Helen Alvare (find her PD archive here). Start by reading her contribution to our 2012 election symposium, “Uphold Conscience Protection: Religious Freedom’s Contribution to the American Experience and Threats to its Survival.” Go back, too, to her essay “The White House and Sexualityism.” Here, Alvare explains that the root of our conscience and religious liberty struggles is the fact that “the government is promoting sexualityism—a commitment to uncommitted, unencumbered, inconsequential sex—as the answer” to human happiness.
Two of my own contributions to these discussions include “Make Religious Freedom Great Again,” a roadmap back in 2016 on what the Trump Administration should do to undo the errors of the Obama years, and “Religious Liberty Is Important, But It’s Not Enough,” a 2020 essay cautioning social conservatives not to forget that justice and the common good requires more than just the freedom to be left alone.
Religious freedom isn’t enough when it comes to attacks on life, for example. On this topic, an essay by Patrick Lee, Chris Tollefsen, and Robby George can be particularly helpful: “Marco Rubio Is Right: The Life of a New Human Being Begins at Conception.” So, too, is John Finnis’s PD essay, “The Other F-Word.” There, professor Finnis explains that “outside of medical contexts use of the word ‘fetus’ is offensive, dehumanizing, prejudicial, and manipulative. It obscures our perception of moral reality. Moral status is not a matter of choice or grant or convention, but of recognition, of someone who matters, and matters as an equal, whether we like it or not.” What is true as a matter of morality is true as a matter of politics. Hadley Arkes has spent his career helping people see the moral foundations of our laws. And in his PD essay “Democrats, Obama, and Abortion: Turning Liberalism Incoherent,” he explained how an embrace of abortion and infanticide “challenges the very coherence of everything else that a liberal party proclaims itself to be.”
Economics and the Common Good
The coming years will also bring renewed attention to the challenge of building an economy that serves all citizens. PD was fortunate to have Senator Marco Rubio publish his lecture at Catholic University of America with us: “Common Good Capitalism and the Dignity of Work.” As he argues there, common good capitalism is about “harnessing and channeling that growth to the benefit of our country, our people, and our society. Because after all, our nation does not exist to serve the interests of the market. The market exists to serve our nation and our people.”
Over the years, I sought to make my own contributions to this discussion at PD. In 2011, while doing dissertation research, I wrote a string of book review essays on the topic. In “Human Development and Human Flourishing: Creating Capabilities Isn’t Enough,” I explained why Martha Nussbaum’s Rawlsian “public reason” approach to human capabilities is an insufficient basis for social justice—and explained how a sound natural law approach would remedy the defects. In “Conservatives and Social Justice,” I argued that a recent book by Arthur Brooks and Pete Wehner gave the concept “social justice” short shrift. I concluded that “Conservatives writing in defense of democratic capitalism need to spend less energy fighting off communism, and more energy developing a conservative vision of social justice, painting a picture of what a better capitalism could look like.” That strikes me as still accurate today. In “Conservative Poverty Fighting,” I reviewed a title by Larry Mead, describing it as “neither liberal nor libertarian, a principled conservative way of helping the poor.” I would go on to use “Neither Liberal Nor Libertarian” as the title of my dissertation a couple years later. One last entry I’ll mention on this theme is my 2017 PD essay “Natural Law, Social Justice, and the Crisis of Liberty in the West,” which I described as a reflection on our nature as “dependent, rational animals.”
Gender, Sexuality, and the Family
Gender identity and transgenderism will continue to be pressing issues for the years to come. For sound guidance on these issues, look to Dr. Paul McHugh’s 2015 essay, “Transgenderism: A Pathogenic Meme.” Dr. McHugh, who shut down the Johns Hopkins’ sex-reassignment clinic back in the 1970s, argues in this PD essay that the “idea that one’s sex is a feeling, not a fact, has permeated our culture and is leaving casualties in its wake. Gender dysphoria should be treated with psychotherapy, not surgery.” Walt Heyer experienced those causalities firsthand. His PD essay, “I was a Transgender Woman,” is worth re-reading to prepare for the challenges ahead, as are all of his PD essays.
For a reliable source on what the data really show—and what they don’t—turn to Mark Regnerus. Time and time again, Mark has blown the whistle on bogus studies (see his PD archive here). Indeed, one of his PD essays forced an academic journal to issue a correction. Read that essay here: “New Data Show ‘Gender-Affirming’ Surgery Doesn’t Really Improve Mental Health. So Why Are the Study’s Authors Saying It Does?” Since the abuse of science at the service of ideological agendas is likely to continue, read up on the PD analyses.
I’ve written a number of PD essays on transgender themes. I’ll list a few here:
- “The Philosophical Contradictions of the Transgender Worldview”
- “Sex Change: Physically Impossible, Psychosocially Unhelpful, and Philosophically Misguided”
- “The New York Times Reveals Painful Truths about Transgender Lives”
- “The Supreme Court’s Mistaken and Misguided Sex Discrimination Ruling”
- “Physical Interventions on the Bodies of Children to “Affirm” their “Gender Identity” Violate Sound Medical Ethics and Should be Prohibited”
- “Protect Good Medicine, Stop the Censorship of Good Counseling”
The gender identity debates follow from debates about the nature of the human person and human family. Don’t expect those to let up. To prepare, re-read Melissa Moschella’s essays on parental authority. Start with her essay making “The Fundamental Case for Parental Rights.”
On the family itself, look to witnesses, and not just theorists. Start that list with Doug Mainwaring, and his essays “I’m Gay and I Oppose Same-Sex Marriage” and “Hearts, Parts, and Minds: The Truth Comes Out.” On more recent threats with same-sex parenting, look to Adam MacLeod’s “The Double Mommy Trap: Two Mothers and No Rights for Junior.” And on assisted reproductive technologies, Chris Tollefsen’s “Making Children, Unmaking Families.”
Facing the Challenges Ahead
The challenges facing the West in general, and America in particular, have been explored by two of PD’s most prolific contributors: Sam Gregg and Carson Holloway. It’ll pay dividends to re-read Sam’s “Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization” on the centrality of the West’s “core commitments to reason and the reasonable God that are central to its identity,” along with his essay on “Regensburg, Ratzinger, and Our Crisis of Reason.” Carson Holloway has done more than any PD author to help readers understand the Trump phenomenon. Start with his “On the Bipartisan Inadequacy of Governing Elites: A General Theory of Trump’s Victory,” and then follow it up with essay “Donald Trump Was Elected Because Elites Have Failed the Working Class.”
My contributions here include my essay on the French-Ahmari debate, “False Dichotomies, the Common Good, and the Future of Conservatism, and my inaugural John Paul II Teaching Fellow lecture at the University of Dallas, “Catholic Thought and the Challenges of Our Time.” Two commencement addresses I gave, both then published at PD, may also provide some guidance for the years to come: my 2013 address at Regent University, “Truth, Responsibility, and Love,” and my 2017 address at Franciscan University, “Faith and Reason, Beauty and Holiness.”
I opened this collection with essays by a hero of mine from the Catholic world, Archbishop Chaput, so let me close it with two essays from a hero in the Southern Baptist world, Al Mohler. Thanks to our Contributing Editor Andrew Walker, we’ve been fortunate to run two essays by Dr. Mohler helping Christians think through questions of race. See his PD essays “Black Lives Matter: Affirm the Sentence, Not the Movement” and “Systemic Racism, God’s Grace, and the Human Heart: What the Bible Teaches About Structural Sin.”
Public Discourse has played an essential role in advancing ideas and arguments that have made a difference in the past dozen years. If you want more evidence of that, look to some of the previous featured collections I’ve curated:
- Common Good Economics
- Church and State
- Race and Racism in America
- The Vocation of Education
- Debating Liberalism
- Debating Capital Punishment
- A Decade of Debates
Re-reading the essays in these collections, too, will equip you for the necessary conversations to come. You can expect to continue seeing this sort of content published at PD for decades to come. The authors and editors at PD don’t pretend to have all of the answers, but we think we know something about which questions we need to raise, and who we should ask to address them. As more and more about America and conservatism seem up for debate, expect PD to continue to provide a path forward.