Lots of takes on Ahmari-versus-French to think about. I appreciate this discussion, because it’s forcing me to think harder about my own position, or positions. And it’s rather revealing about where others stand.
Classical liberal values and institutions offer a robust bulwark against the worst excesses of the illiberal left. Do Ahmari et al. actually think the system that gave us the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling is so broken as to justify setting the whole thing ablaze? More to the point, do they really believe that what follows after the smoke clears will be better for religious traditionalists?
Yes, exactly. But then Slade goes off the deep end:
But the First Thingsian rejection of the liberal order isn’t merely strategically imprudent. It’s morally reprehensible from a Catholic perspective. The dignity of the human person, which follows from our being created by God in His image and likeness, demands that we be given expansive freedom to make choices for ourselves.
That’s not libertarian propaganda. It comes straight out of the Catechism (“God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions”), which in turn quotes the Bible (“God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him”). As the economist Eric Schansberg once wrote of Adam and Eve, “It was not God’s plan that they should sin, but it was God’s will that they should have the choice.” To exercise coercive control over a person is to treat him as undeserving of a gift bestowed by his creator. It’s to place yourself above your creator.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. You cannot say that the apex of Roman Catholic political thought was reached in Mill and Locke, and that it is “morally reprehensible from a Catholic perspective” to reject it. Where does one even begin with that? Just like that, the entire non-liberal conservative tradition is dismissed as not only unconservative, but un-Christian! That’s so silly it scarcely rises to the level of offensive. This is well into the “God is love, so therefore Christians have to approve of gay marriage” territory. I expect libertarians to strongly oppose anything Team Ahmari says, but calling it “unconservative” and even “un-Christian”? No.
Where I doubt Team Ahmari is that the kind of political order they desire is even possible in pluralistic, post-Christian America, in a way that it is not in, say, Hungary and Poland. Whether it’s desirable is, to me, a secondary question, or at least merely a theoretical one. But the claim that secular liberalism is the only political order consonant with Christianity — and Catholic Christianity at that! — is risible.
Matthew Continetti offers a taxonomy of the various positions and people on the contemporary American Right. He pus my TAC boss Johnny Burtka in the Paleo category, but I end up in a different slot. Continetti writes, in part, about the Post-Liberals:
Here is a group that I did not see coming. The Trump era has coincided with the formation of a coterie of writers who say that liberal modernity has become (or perhaps always was) inimical to human flourishing. One way to tell if you are reading a post-liberal is to see what they say about John Locke. If Locke is treated as an important and positive influence on the American founding, then you are dealing with just another American conservative. If Locke is identified as the font of the trans movement and same-sex marriage, then you may have encountered a post-liberal.
The post-liberals say that freedom has become a destructive end-in-itself. Economic freedom has brought about a global system of trade and finance that has outsourced jobs, shifted resources to the metropolitan coasts, and obscured its self-seeking under the veneer of social justice. Personal freedom has ended up in the mainstreaming of pornography, alcohol, drug, and gambling addiction, abortion, single-parent families, and the repression of orthodox religious practice and conscience. “When an ideological liberalism seeks to dictate our foreign policy and dominate our religious and charitable institutions, tyranny is the result, at home and abroad,” wrote the signatories to “Against the Dead Consensus,” a post-liberal manifesto of sorts published in First Things in March.
“The ambition of neoliberalism,” wrote the editor of First Things in the spring of 2017, “is to weaken and eventually dissolve the strong elements of traditional society that impede the free flow of commerce (the focus of nineteenth-century liberalism), as well as identity and desire (the focus of postmodern liberalism). This may work well for the global elite, but ordinary people increasingly doubt it works for them.” The result, he said, has been populist calls for the “strong gods” of familial, national, and religious authority.
The post-liberals are mainly but not exclusively traditionalist Catholics. Their most prominent spokesman is Patrick J. Deneen, whose Why Liberalism Failed (2018) was recommended by that ultimate progressive, Barack Obama. Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony’s Virtue of Nationalism (2018) is another important entry in the post-liberal canon. Hazony has contributed essays to both First Things (“Conservative Democracy”) and American Affairs (“What Is Conservatism?”) making the case for conservatism without Locke, Jefferson, and Paine.
The post-liberals have put forward two contradictory political strategies. The first, advanced by Rod Dreher, who is Eastern Orthodox, is the Benedict Option of turning away from the secular world and shielding, as best you can, spiritual life. The second, as put by Sohrab Ahmari also in First Things, is “to use these values [of civility and decency] to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral.”
I would tweak this slightly. Sohrab’s strategy is explicitly political. My strategy is only incidentally political; it is pre-political, in that it is primarily spiritual and cultural. I’ve explained at length why I strongly sympathize with Sohrab — it’s fair to call us both Post-Liberal — but can’t agree with his political strategy. (In part because I’m more pessimistic than he is.) Along these lines, the Thomist philosopher Edward Feser has some interesting words about the Ahmari-French debate. Excerpts:
If anything, Continetti understates the grounds for pessimism about the prospects for a post-liberal conservative politics. For contemporary Western society is radically out of step with the basic premises to which the post-liberal conservative is committed. Indeed, I would say that liberalism is a Christian heresy and one that seems now to be approaching its full metastasization. I would say that it is the moral and political component of the broader heresy of modernism, which is at high tide and sweeping all before it, the flood now having penetrated deeply into even the innermost parts of the Church. It is like Arianism both in its breathtaking reach and in its longevity. It is worse than Arianism in its depravity. Its god is the self – the sovereign individual of the liberal, and the subjective religious consciousness of the theological modernist – and in seeking to conform reality to the self rather than the self to reality, it tends toward subjectivism, relativism, fideism, voluntarism, and other forms of irrationalism. And there is no limit to the further errors that might follow upon such tendencies. That is why, as Pope Pius X said, modernism is the “synthesis of all heresies.”
Because of this irrationalism, the liberal and modernist personality tends to be dominated by appetite, and by sexual appetite in particular, since the pleasures associated with it are the most intense. But he also has a special hostility to the natural purpose of sex – marital commitment, children, and family – because that imposes the most stringent obligations on the self. The family is also the fundamental social unit, and thus the model for all other social obligations, such as those entailed by ties of nationality. Hence it is inevitable that the liberal and modernist personality will seek to reshape the family, and through it all social order, to conform to his desires. Woke socialism is the last stop on the train ride that begins with radical individualism.
Some readers will no doubt find all of that overwrought, to say the least. The point, however, is that it is a diagnosis that is hard to avoid if one begins with the sorts of premises to which post-liberal conservatives are typically committed. And it entails that an ambitious near-future post-liberal conservative political program is probably not feasible, precisely because, as Continetti says, there simply are not enough voters who still sympathize with that view of the world. In the short term, it seems to me, the post-liberal conservative will have to settle for rearguard actions, piecemeal and often only temporary victories, uneasy alliances with other conservatives, and in general a strategy of muddling through that can hope at best to take the edge off the worst excesses of late stage liberalism.
Where he must be ambitious is in working for the long term revival of Western civilization. For the average person, that means committing oneself firmly to a countercultural way of life – to religious orthodoxy, to having large families, and to preserving the social and cultural inheritance of the past the best one can at the local level, Benedict Option style. For the intellectual, it means working to revive the classical (Platonic, Aristotelian, Scholastic) tradition in Western thought, and showing how it is not only in no way incompatible with, but provides a surer foundation for, the good things that modernity has produced (such as modern science, limited constitutional government, and the market economy).
The good news the post-liberal conservative can give the fusionist is that rejecting liberal philosophical foundations does not entail rejecting these good things, even if it does mean interpreting or modifying them in ways that the fusionist might not like. The bad news is that philosophical liberalism has so eaten away at the moral foundations of Western society that these good things too are threatened along with everything else.
Strongly suggest reading the whole thing. Feser is onto something important. A smart Christian cultural observer told me today, “American Christians, with a tiny handful of exceptions, have no means of self-defense, nothing, nil, nada. They are completely at the mercy of the culture, and completely in denial about it.” This friend is not a Trumpist, nor a Never Trumper. His comment is about the dissolute state of Christian culture in late liberalism.
Jake Meador criticizes Team Ahmari harshly in this post. He goes too far, I think, but here’s the part I liked:
“What, then, of political power?” you might ask. Does not the above represent little more than yet another twist on Anabaptist style quietism, a refusal to get one’s hands dirty in the necessary and inevitably messy work of politics?
It does not. Rather, it recognizes that a genuinely Christian political witness is not merely about a certain political content in our ideas, but a particular mode of existing as political beings. To become intelligible to those whose only political standard is the acquisition of power is to give up any political good other than power. It is, then, to give up our quiet confidence that God is at work in the world and that his work will not be advanced by those of us who would eat the king’s food and bow to his idols.
It is only candor that our foes do not understand, Berry reminds us, an inner clarity that comes from knowing that there are goods in this world grander than political power and fates in this world more dark than martyrdom.
I found myself wondering what stance Jake would take if he were a Spanish Catholic of the 1930s, when there was no middle ground, and you had either to stand on the side of the Nationalists (that is, with Franco) or with the Republicans, violent anti-clericals who burned down churches and the like. I hope to God that none of us American Christians every have to make a choice like that. But we might. We are not Spain in 1931, but I am much less put off than Jake is by Ahmari’s alarmist rhetoric (though to be fair, Jake grew up in a fundamentalist church, and was traumatized by it; Sohrab’s rhetoric sets off his anti-fundamentalist spidey sense). In my experience, you can shout at most conservative American Christians that the river is rising, and they had better get out before the flood takes them, and they will do their very best to deny the radical nature of the threat. They are so bought into the idea of Christian America, and the American project, that they have no choice but to live in denial. If maintaining one’s commitment to shoring up the Empire requires lying to oneself about the realities in which we all live, then they’re prepared to do that, because the alternative is too hard, too scary.
I get that. I really do. It is hard, and it is scary. But what are the realistic alternatives? Last summer, I wrote a post about re-reading The Final Pagan Generation, historian Edward Watts’s account of the intellectual and cultural world of learned Romans born at the beginning of the 4th century, during which the Roman Empire became officially Christian, and pagan religion withered. (As did the Roman Empire, nearly concurrently.) From that post:
Interestingly enough, despite all this, most pagan temples in the Empire remained open, and images of the pagan gods were still ubiquitous in Roman cities. Pagan festivals continued to be observed. Writes Watts, despite the anti-pagan laws, “traditional religion remained very much alive throughout the empire.”
We now know from history that the fourth century was when the Roman world changed fundamentally, and became Christian. But that’s not how it appeared to members of the final pagan generation, at the end of that century, and their lives. Here’s how Watts’s book ends:
The fourth century has come to be seen as the age when Christianity eclipsed paganism, and Christian authority structures undermined the traditional institutions of the Roman state. Modern historians have highlighted the rising influence of bishops, the emergence of Christian ascetics, the explosion of pagan-Christian conflict, and the destruction of temples. This is one fourth-century story, but it is neither the story that the final pagan generation would have told nor the one that later generations told about them. Their fourth century was the age of storehouses full of gold coins, elaborate dinner parties honoring letter carriers, public orations before emperors, and ceremonies commemorating office-holders. These things occurred in cities filled with thousands of temples, watched over by myriads of divine images, and perfumed by the smells of millions of sacrifices. This fourth century was real, and the men who lived through it told its story in ways that mesmerized later Byzantine and Latin audiences.
What are the lessons I draw from all this for Christians in our own time? Let’s stipulate that the world of 21st century Europe and North America is very different, in obvious ways, from that of fourth-century Rome. But there are parallels.
- Christianity today is like traditional religion of the fourth century. We are at the end of the Christian age, not at its beginning. Christianity back then had muscle. It is now decrepit, as a social force. The fact that we Christians believe that our faith is true can blind us to the fact that what is obvious to us is by no means obvious to others.
- It is not clear what the Roman pagans could have done to have slowed or stopped Christianity, but it is quite clear, in retrospect, that they did not take it seriously enough as a threat. This was a failure of imagination on their part. They assumed that the world would always be as it was, because it always had been.
- Worldly power matters. If Constantine had not converted, the future of Christianity in the West would have looked different.
- Yet worldly power is limited. Julian the Apostate failed miserably. You cannot legislate belief.
- Talented elites who form, and who are formed by, a counterculture, can have an outsized effect. Bishops and priests who saw their function as to serve the imperial system were not as inspiring to the young as those who rejected it, and its promises.
- The old ways of resisting anti-religious forces — fighting within the system — don’t work. This makes me doubtful about the strategy that people like me have generally adopted: fighting within liberalism for liberal goals, like religious liberty. The asymmetrical strategies of opponents, like LGBT rights groups, overwhelm us. But what can we do?
In the main, the story of the final pagan generation ought to be a severe warning to us complacent 21st century Christians. Ours is also a time of “storehouses full of gold coins, elaborate dinner parties honoring letter carriers, public orations before emperors, and ceremonies commemorating office-holders.” Christians are complicit in all of these. But the deeper shifts in the culture are clear for those with eyes to see. The old religion — Christianity — is fast fading. The young believe in a new religion of self-worship, hedonism, and materialism. The laws are not yet anti-Christian, but the broader culture is moving to push Christianity to the margins quickly. This is not likely to change. Christians need to prepare for this.
By “prepare for this,” I mean several things, all of which can be summed up with: Stop the complacency. Details:
Stop thinking that it’s always going to be this way, and that anything short of radical action is sufficient. The mindset of older Christians may actually be a hindrance, because they don’t understand how radically different the world today is.
Do not mistake the presence of Christian churches and symbols in public life for the true condition of Christianity in the hearts and minds of people. Remember, the pagan temples and statues of the gods remained long after paganism was a dead letter.
Clean up our own churches. Stop tolerating corruption within the church — especially corruption that benefits the leadership class, at the expense of the church’s authority and integrity. Watts presents no evidence that pagan temples were corrupt. I bring this up simply to point out that Christians are in an existential fight, and cannot afford to have our own positions weakened by internal corruption.
Train ourselves and our children to stand aside from the promises of the world, and to cultivate asceticism, like the elite Christians of the mid-fourth century did. Only then will we develop the heart and the mind to resist.
Understand that we, like the final pagan generation, might think we are fighting for tolerance, but our opponents are fighting for victory. We have to change our tactics. We are bad at asymmetrical warfare. Frankly, like an old pagan of the fourth century, I would prefer to fight for tolerance — but that is not the fight that’s upon us.
Neither abandon politics entirely, nor put too much faith in princes. Elites cultivated relationships within the imperial power structure, and served that power structure. But the real work of conversion happened among the people, through the labors and examples of saintly ascetics and charismatics.
Read the whole post, which summarizes the Watts book. Look at point 5. Is that not Ahmarist? Did I see things more clearly when I wrote that? I wonder: if we’re not fighting for tolerance, what are we fighting for? Is it an achievable goal? Or: which goals are achievable, and which ones not? Do I need to read The Final Pagan Generation a third time to re-learn?