A lot of focus has been placed recently on Mark Movesian’s First Things (FT) blog piece on the deplorable situation of Christians in Iraq, “A Line Crossed in the Middle East.” You should go read it; it’s quite good. The article does, however, inadvertently raise the question a friend of mine asked, “What responsibility does FT bear for Iraq?” For those of you too young to remember, during the 1990s and 00s, FT was the main hub for neoconservative Catholicism. The late Fr. John Neuhaus, along with his ideological sentries George Weigel and Michael Novak, beat the war drums leading up to the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 while trashing those Christians who stood in the way. While FT has undergone some significant internal shakeups since the death of Neuhaus in 2009, the magazine—which at this point is a minor Catholic institution—has never publicly repented of its support for the Iraq War and, by extension, the misery which followed it.
Soul searching does not come easy for Americans. When we do it, we do it begrudgingly. When political leaders such as our current President, Barack Obama, issues public apologies on the world stage, it is taken by many as a sign of weakness and shame. To own up to a past mistake or bad intellectual bet amounts to a self-inflicted reputational gunshot wound, or so we often fear. While it is understandable—though hardly defensible—that overtly ideological rags such as The National Review, The Weekly Standard, and Commentary aren’t falling over themselves to issue mea culpas for America’s Mid East debacle, shouldn’t we expect better of a Catholic publication? It seems almost self-serving and shallow for FT to run pieces condemning the genocide in Mosul without first coming to grips openly for its support of the military action which made a murderous band of radicals like ISIS possible.
Now, some might say that FT only had a “minor role” to play in the Iraq affair, and to a certain extent they are right. In the grand scheme of things FT is a small-time player compared to mainstream conservative publications. For American Catholics, however, FT was, and still remains, a powerful voice. At the very time when certain Catholic intellectuals in America and Europe were expressing skepticism toward the justness of going to war with Iraq, FT was there to set consciences at ease that invading a country which had not attacked the United States was meet and right. There are more than a few Catholics in “my generation” (I am 34) who will say with a straight face that FT tipped their hearts and minds to backing the American invasion of Iraq. Besides, no matter how one judges “influence,” there is no doubt that FT came out for the war and dedicated column space to defending it. That is sufficient for putting them on the culpability hook.
Others might argue that while the FT of the 1990s and 00s bears responsibility for getting into bed with neoconservatism and supporting the Iraq War, today’s FT is a different story. The editorial leadership has changed and many of the regular contributors were not around back then. Ideologically speaking, FT appears to be more diverse than it ever was. Are the children responsible for the sins of their fathers? Well no, not directly. However, as custodians of a publication which committed itself to a disastrous political position, the current editorial leadership, along with its supporting staff, owe it to the Christians now suffering terribly in Iraq to repent of the publication’s misdeeds. Perhaps no single editor or writer on FT is responsible, but here we are talking about a publication/institution which still carries a lot of heft. Shouldn’t it be easier for the current leadership at FT, as compared to the old guard, to take a hard look at the magazine’s past position on Iraq and publicly distance themselves from it?
Of course, even if FT were to dedicate a page or two to lamenting its past association with pro-war apologetics, that does not relieve certain individuals—particularly Novak and Weigel—from making their own professions of error public. While I don’t see that happening anytime soon, it’s still the right thing to do. Even if an apology is far too little and too late to lend any material assistance to the ravaged Christian communities of Iraq, perhaps they would serve as sobering reminders to Catholic intellectuals that they must carry out their vocation in the light of the Church’s wisdom, free of the dark machinations of earthly powers.