More Ahmari-French Fighting Words
Let’s get back to the Ahmari vs. French argument, shall we? My first set of comments about it are here. I do not agree at all with the conservatives who have said it’s bad for conservatives to argue in public. To the contrary, we need to have this argument. It should not be policed by other conservatives. I do object to how needlessly personal Ahmari made it with his initial post, but there is genuine substance to their dispute.
Commenter Rob G. says:
“To my mind, this dispute reinforces the merits of Deneen’s conclusion in Why Liberalism Failed: rather than lay out some grand post-liberal politics, Deneen recommends communal, counter-liberal forms of life. The intelligentsia tends to invest too much energy in imagining what the ideal political order would look like; the New Testament is much more concerned with how we should live faithfully in the midst of the unjust political orders in which we find ourselves.”
I noted this same sort of thing going on in some of the criticisms of The Benedict Option, as if these critics couldn’t move forward on it without some sort of program or other to guide them. In many cases it seemed to be simply an excuse for not doing anything at all.
Yes, it’s as if they would only accept a diagnosis that led them to a particular set of go-and-do conclusions. I was talking yesterday with a Christian friend, who observed that the Christian world is full of people who have given no substantive moral and spiritual foundation to their children because they don’t have any themselves. They have been part of feelgood churches, however conservative (and yes, conservatives can have feelgood churches too), and perhaps have trusted in the fact that in their family, they hold correct opinions, therefore all will be well. Then their kids drift away from faith, caught in the inexorable currents of liquid modernity. They can’t figure out why.
I completely share Ahmari’s rage at the sheer destructiveness of left-progressive culture, but I don’t believe there is a political solution for it. Some on the Christian Right call me a “defeatist” for holding this view. I think they are at best naive idealists, and at worst grifters.
Jim Geraghty at National Review has a piece up today detailing how certain right-wing people and groups — he names names — support their lifestyles by ripping off grassroots conservative donors, telling the rubes that they (the grifters) are the only thing standing between the liberal mob and the marks. Decent people at the grassroots give their money, and … nothing happens. As Geraghty shows, a lot of these grifters and their PACs pocket the money, and then keep exploiting the deterioration of the culture to separate conservatives from their cash.
But Grifter Cons are not the main problem. The main problem is that there is no political solution because most Americans simply no longer are on the side of social and religious conservatives. I was just up in my hometown over the weekend. It’s Mayberry, RFD. Trump won the parish in 2016 with nearly 60 percent of the vote (if the black vote had been discounted, I imagine Trump would have won 90 percent of the vote). I learned over the weekend that they also have gay couples going to high school prom together, and transgender kids in the local school. You can say this is progress, you can lament this as decline, but what you can’t do is pretend that it’s not here, and it’s everywhere.
Here’s a reminder from The Benedict Option about the state of the culture among people who identify as Christians:
As bleak as Christian Smith’s 2005 findings were, his follow-up research, a third installment of which was published in 2011, was even grimmer. Surveying the moral beliefs of 18-to-23-year-olds, Smith and his colleagues found that only 40 percent of young Christians sampled said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or some other religious sensibility. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the beliefs of even these faithful are biblically coherent. Many of these “Christians” are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality.
An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”
These are not bad people. Rather, they are young adults who have been terribly failed by family, church, and the other institutions that formed—or rather, failed to form—their consciences and their imaginations.
MTD [Moralistic Therapeutic Deism — RD] is the de facto religion not simply of American teenagers but also of American adults. To a remarkable degree, teenagers have adopted the religious attitudes of their parents. We have been an MTD nation for some time now, though that may have been disguised.
“America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer, partly necessitated by the Cold War,” Smith told me in an interview. “That is all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.”
The data from Smith and other researchers make clear what so many of us are desperate to deny: the flood is rising to the rafters in the American church. Every single congregation in America must ask itself if it has compromised so much with the world that it has been compromised in its faithfulness. Is the Christianity we have been living out in our families, congregations, and communities a means of deeper conversion, or does it function as a vaccination against taking faith with the seriousness the Gospel demands?
Nobody but the most deluded of the old-school Religious Right believes that this cultural revolution can be turned back. The wave cannot be stopped, only ridden. With a few exceptions, conservative Christian political activists are as ineffective as White Russian exiles, drinking tea from samovars in their Paris drawing rooms, plotting the restoration of the monarchy. One wishes them well but knows deep down that they are not the future.
Americans cannot stand to contemplate defeat or to accept limits of any kind. But American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears.
Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to . . . stop fighting the flood? That is, to quit piling up sandbags and to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again? Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.
My bare-bones view is this:
Sohrab Ahmari is correct about the decadence of the liberal order and its incompatibility with traditional Christianity.
There are far too few traditional Christians left to mount a successful political defense, much less offense.
- Where are the soldiers for this culture-war offense? Secular, largely de-Christianized France turned out a million people in Paris for the Manif Pour Tous, the demonstration for traditional marriage. Nothing like that happened in America. Why not?
- I think that most conservative Christians can’t conceive of resistance as much more than voting and attitudinizing
As a religious minority, it is likely that the best we can hope for is First Amendment protection under the liberal order. This is where David French comes in. It is not the case that one has to believe that the liberal order is ideal, or permanent, or even good for Christianity … but right here, right now what else is there?
In a post-Christian nation, what is likely to happen to orthodox Christians if we lose the First Amendment, which is a bedrock of classical liberalism? We will be crushed, that’s what.
It may be the case that progressives devise a way to crush us and our institutions even within the liberal order. But damned if I can figure out a better defensive strategy than within classical liberalism.
This is why I’ve been dragged unwillingly towards a de facto libertarianism, though I’m actually a conservative. I can’t figure out how people like me can run our institutions in actual, existing America absent a strong libertarianism.
Bottom line: I can’t dismiss either Ahmari or French, and I live within the tension between their views. I assume that the culture is already lost, is already Babylon; my goal is to create and sustain the small institutions and ways of life in which traditional Christians can live counterculturally, in contradiction to the culture of our time. This can be done under liberalism; this can be done under certain illiberal regimes. My own thinking is not settled, so I’m enjoying reading commentary supporting either thinker.
There’s more to say about all this, of course. Writing in The Atlantic today, Alan Jacobs says that he agrees with Ahmari about the condition of the culture, and speculates that if Richard John Neuhaus were alive today, he would also agree. Jacobs recalls a Stanley Fish piece First Things published a long time ago, in which Fish (who is secular) argued that religious believers ought not be liberal. Fish wrote, 23 years ago:
If you persuade liberalism that its dismissive marginalizing of religious discourse is a violation of its own chief principle, all you will gain is the right to sit down at liberalism’s table where before you were denied an invitation; but it will still be liberalism’s table that you are sitting at, and the etiquette of the conversation will still be hers. That is, someone will now turn and ask, “Well, what does religion have to say about this question?” And when, as often will be the case, religion’s answer is doctrinaire (what else could it be?), the moderator (a title deeply revealing) will nod politely and turn to someone who is presumed to be more reasonable. To put the matter baldly, a person of religious conviction should not want to enter the marketplace of ideas but to shut it down, at least insofar as it presumes to determine matters that he believes have been determined by God and faith. The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch.
Jacobs says that’s Sohrab Ahmari’s argument too. Neuhaus wrote a response to that, arguing for “good liberalism” — a classical liberalism that accommodates Christianity, and is informed by it. (Jacobs associates that argument with David French today.) Today, though, subsequent events have clarified matters, such that it is very hard, even impossible, to take the 1990s-era Neuhaus argument seriously. Again, Jacobs suspects Neuhaus would incline more to the Ahmari side were he with us today.
Jacobs parts company with Ahmari on the question of civility. He writes:
Ahmari thinks that “civility and decency are secondary values,” but even if that is true, they remain values, and Ahmari is not warranted in discarding them so flagrantly. Yet I am not sure that that statement is true. And here again, Neuhaus’s response to Fish is relevant: “The Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom is titled Dignitatis Humanae. Respect for the dignity of the other person created in the image of God requires that we not silence or exclude him but try to persuade him.” Even when people are wrong, he says, “we must put up with them or tolerate them or, much better, respect and love them”—not because that is a politically effective strategy, which it may or may not be, but because we are so instructed by God.
This respect and love require a commitment to conversation, and “conversation requires civility”—even when people do not reciprocate that civility. After all, it is Jesus himself who tells us that when we are struck on one cheek, we should turn the other toward our attacker. Civility should not be our religion, but “there are religiously imperative reasons for being civil that do not entail turning civility into a religion.”
Even if Ahmari and others now associated with First Things are right to say that the old-fashioned commitment to liberal proceduralism is a “dead consensus”—even if we Christians are facing a genuine crisis—charity, and the civility and decency that accompany charity and have so consistently been manifested by “Pastor French,” are what we are commanded to do. And charity begins at home.
Jacobs continues on his personal blog, again asserting that he shares Ahmari’s diagnosis of the rotten liberal culture, and how the game is rigged against orthodox Christians, but questions his prescription. Here he is quoting Ahmari:
Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.
Jacobs adds, summarizing Ahmari:
And when you recognize your moral duty, you will realize that your job is “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”
Nothing about this is clear.
- Who are the “we” implied in “our order and our orthodoxy”? Social conservatives? Religious social conservatives? Christian social conservatives? Catholic social conservatives? What about Muslim social conservatives? What about faithful Catholics who aren’t social conservatives? Who, in short, gets access to the control room?
- Who is “the enemy”? This would be determined, I guess, by how you answer the questions above, but I wonder if David French — and any other Christian who defends the liberal social order — belongs to the enemy. (Probably not? Probably French is just an unreliable ally, like Mussolini to Hitler?)
How, specifically, would “we” “enforce our orthodoxy”? Would atheists be denied citizenship, or have their civil rights abridged in some way? And by what means would this enforcement be achieved?
- “Weakening or destroying their institutions” presumably means, for instance, something more dramatic than, say, removing federal funding from Planned Parenthood — so, maybe, finding legal means to punish systemically left-wing companies like those in Hollywood and Silicon Valley? But even that doesn’t seem nearly enough….
Unpacking that last bullet point: I’m going to assume that Ahmari is not counting on an angelic army to descend and impose the reordering of the public square to the Highest Good; I’m also going to assume that he’s not advocating a coup by the American armed forces. I think that leaves winning a great many elections and winning them by large majorities. (I mean, reordering the public square to the Highest Good is not something that could possibly be accomplished without amendments to the Constitution.)
This is something I think about a lot. If we had a silent Christian majority, this might be feasible. But we don’t; we can’t even hold on to our own children in many cases. I don’t think that Ahmari is a Catholic integralist (though he might have been converted since last we talked), but I think integralism is hopelessly romantic. You can’t even get most American Catholics to agree with the Church’s teaching on, say, abortion and homosexuality; how are you going to get not only Catholics, but non-Catholics, to agree to live under an integralist order?
The political reality is that religious and social conservatives are playing a weak hand. A religious conservative friend of mine who works in politics e-mailed to say that “it’s mathematically impossible in a democracy to be a social conservative maximalist in a society in which social conservatives to not have political hegemony.” He adds that the greatest losses in state religious liberty battles have come when conservative hardliners have bulldozed incrementalists, on the grounds that they lack fortitude. That’s just not how politics work in a country that is no longer religiously or culturally conservative. This is very hard for many conservatives to grasp — just as it is very hard for many progressives to understand that the country is liberalizing, but is not as liberal as Cambridge, San Francisco, Portland, and Brooklyn.
I find Ben Domenech’s pro-Ahmari piece also to be challenging. He writes that it would be nice to think that we could work this all out with liberal proceduralism:
But the truth is the culture has long ago passed the point of consensus where it is possible for a peaceable navigation of the conflict.
Politics today is for the rough, the confrontational, and the unapologetic. It is not comfortable unless we lie to ourselves about where it is and where it is going. Instead, American Christians inhabit the position where their foes are animated by beliefs consistent with an apocryphal quote from Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune: “When I am weaker than you, I ask you for freedom because that is according to your principles; when I am stronger than you, I take away your freedom because that is according to my principles.”
And it could get worse: it’s possible both the perspectives of these Christian conservative thinkers are too optimistic. Social conservatives should be most concerned that both French and Ahmari are wrong about what the enemies of freedom believe possible, that the harshest voices in the American left won’t be satisfied just driving traditional American values from the oped pages or the universities or the local boards. Instead, the left may be turning into the culture war white walkers, bent on utter and total destruction of everything American Christians hold dear – including the liberty to hold beliefs at odds with the consensus of the elite – and that they will root for that belief, even when it is hidden in their hearts.
You know that I agree with this diagnosis! I think the people who believe that if only we make better arguments, we’ll win, are wrong! I also think that the winsomeness-is-next-to-godliness people are hopeless!
And: I may yet vote for Donald Trump, someone who I believe is a bad man, solely because he doesn’t despise social and religious conservatives, or want to destroy, in the name of equality, our right to run our institutions according to our faith. Every single Democratic member of the House of Representatives does (this is why they voted for the Equality Act). As Alan Jacobs describes the logic of contemporary liberalism:
I part ways with French et alia because I believe that voting for Trump is acceptable under these conditions, as a desperate defensive measure. I part with Ahmari et alia because I don’t have any hope that politics in this culture can be anything more than protecting Us from Them — and I do not want to become the kind of hard-hearted man who withholds mercy, and even charity, from my enemies. As Alan Jacobs says, we are Christians; Our Lord gave us no alternative. So, Ahmari looks forward to restoring the “Highest Good” to the public square, but what kind of people would we have to be to make that happen — that is, to impose it on an unwilling public? As a religious conservative friend said to me at Walker Percy Weekend, Ahmari-ism sounds an awful lot like the Boromir Strategy: that if we get the Ring of Power ourselves, we will use it for the Good.
And then there was this entirely disedifying spectacle over the weekend. It began with this bog-standard Catholic moral teaching in a tweet by the Bishop of Providence, RI:
BOOM! went the culture. He’s deleted the tweet, but I saw some of the comments, and, well, the Catholic reader who tipped me off to it on Saturday is right in this comment:
The comments scare me. The LGBTQ crowd are going to kill us or our kids and scream at us about how Jesus is love at the same time. I know what you are thinking — the priests have lost their moral authority because of the bad priests and bishops. This kind of thing makes me very sympathetic to Sohrab. It’s almost like the plot line to The Mission. You feel like Jeremy Irons’s character is right, but you sure can identify with Robert De Niro’s.
It’s true that Catholic bishops have lost their moral authority, but good lord, the viciousness of that Twitter mob (which is unfazeable by the irony that over 80 percent of the minor victims of sexually predatory priests were male). Blood is in the water. And of course Bishop Tobin backtracked and issued a groveling apology:
I regret that my comments yesterday about Pride Month have turned out to be so controversial in our community, and offensive to some, especially the gay community. That certainly was not my intention, but I understand why a good number of individuals have taken offense. I also acknowledge and appreciate the widespread support I have received on this matter.
The Catholic Church has respect and love for members of the gay community, as do I. Individuals with same-sex attraction are beloved children of God and our brothers and sisters.
As a Catholic Bishop, however, my obligation before God is to lead the faithful entrusted to my care and to teach the faith, clearly and compassionately, even on very difficult and sensitive issues. That is what I have always tried to do – on a variety of issues – and I will continue doing so as contemporary issues arise.
As the gay community gathers for a rally this evening, I hope that the event will be a safe, positive and productive experience for all. As they gather I will be praying for a rebirth of mutual understanding and respect in our very diverse community.
This is the kind of thing you’d expect from a bishop who was arrested by the secret police, violently interrogated, and forced to sign with a gun at his head. Bishop Tobin capitulated after tens of thousands of angry tweets, and protests. Let this be a lesson to Catholics about how useful their shepherds are likely to be when the actual persecution starts.
Bishop Tobin ran for his life to a bland, conciliatory statement in an attempt to get the progressive mob off his back. It will do no good. They will never, ever forgive him for what he tweeted. He’s been neutered now, and is no longer a threat to them. It’s stuff like that that makes me pro-Ahmari. Peace isn’t possible with this mob. I mean, look, when Budweiser, a massive brand symbolizing masscult blandness, takes up the standard of the cultural revolution, you should understand that things aren’t as they were:
Black is for asexuals who don’t feel sexual attraction to anyone. Grey is for grey-asexuals, who sometimes feel sexual attraction, and demi-sexuals who only feel it if they know someone well. White nods to non-asexual allies, and purple represents the whole community. pic.twitter.com/CfAExuxb99
— Budweiser UK (@BudweiserUK) May 31, 2019
OK, look, I’m going on too long here. I am in the unsatisfying position of believing that both Ahmari and French are partially correct, and that we need both men, and the strategies they represent. I have no long-term faith in liberalism, but all the other realistic alternatives seem worse, and tradcons are politically and culturally quite weak. But I also think that most of us Christians are not at all preparing in a deep sense for what’s coming, or are even ready for what’s already here. I think of all the Trumpy Christians who believe that the war is Out There, while they are unwittingly aiding and abetting their own children defecting to the other side. To return to Jeff Bilbro’s useful distinction, with which I started this long post: I am less interested in creating the ideal political order than in figuring out how to live faithfully in the unjust political order in which we dwell today.
We are going to need the Benedict Option whether we live under a Trumpian integralist dynasty, or rule by Buttigiegian Directory. On my recent trip to Eastern Europe, a conservative Hungarian Catholic — who lives under a regime that many Americans admire — told me how much it weighs on her heart that so few of her friends take the faith seriously anymore. They’re all being drawn towards Western-style lifestyle liberalism.
A Russian Orthodox traveler visiting Slovakia told me that “we need the Benedict Option in Russia,” because despite the fact that the Russian government is doing a lot of things that our American Christian statists would support (and that I would too!), the perception of believers on the ground is that the institutional Orthodox Church is far too preoccupied with gaining, maintaining, and exercising political power, such that its spiritual mission is badly compromised. (I’ve not been to Russia myself; I’m just reporting what this churchgoing Orthodox Christian told me.)
I heard from Catholics there that Poland — which, again, is an ideal for a lot of us US conservative Christians — is now at the outset of dealing with its own sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and that by the time the fever passes through the body politic, the faith will be in a substantially weaker position. Maybe so. Poland may well need its own version of the Benedict Option, which is about traditional Christians pioneering ways to build thick, strong communities of faith, memory, and commitment under local circumstances. The Ahmari-French controversy is massively important, but it’s not the most important thing, if you ask me.
UPDATE: Reader Francis:
Rod, your quote “The political reality is that religious and social conservatives are playing a weak hand” is somewhat correct but missing the fundamental point. Real religious conservatives are not playing ANY hand, regardless of their numbers. Whatever you think of Bishop Tobin, if he can’t tell the basic truth about Pride Month without a groveling apology, then we are unable to play any hand at all.
This is not a function just of numbers or a lack of a silent majority. It’s an unwillingness to face ostracism. The LGBT community faced it for years and was hardened under it. We are complacent and not used to the fighting.
The key is not numbers. It’s being willing to take some hits. The political solution, which requires numbers, will not arise until a dedicated group of real disciples is willing to make those sacrifices. Hopefully the BenOp is what gets us there.