I don’t like to see the argument between my friends Sohrab Ahmari and David French. I admire both of them, and of course like them both. But I have to recognize that the substantive core of the dispute is also at the core of my own unsettled political views. It’s an argument worth having on the Right, though I wish it weren’t happening between two men I count as friends, and look up to, and I wish Ahmari had not unjustly accused French of “keeping his hands clean, his soul untainted.” David French has fought hard in courtrooms, as a lawyer, for religious liberty, as an ADF lawyer. If that’s not getting your hands dirty, what is? I have banged out acres of prose over these years about religious liberty, and I can’t imagine that any of that holds a candle to what David French, as a lawyer, has actually done for religious liberty.
French can’t stand Donald Trump, and that seems to be at the core of Ahmari’s ire. French was one of those conservatives who regarded Trump as a betrayal of core principles of conservatism. For his views, French — the adoptive father of a black child — had to endure a torrent of spite from Trump fans that can only be described as satanic. That is important to keep in mind. Personally, I’ve come to think more favorably of Trump than I once did, both because of judicial appointments and because of the raging radicalism of the left, but I think in no way can Trump be rightly understood as an advocate for the restoration of Christian morality in the public sphere. Trump is a symptom of our decline, not the answer to it. Mind you, I can understand traditional Christians voting for Trump as the only realistic alternative to annihilation by the angry left — I might do what I didn’t do in 2016, which is to vote for him — but I can’t understand trying to convince ourselves that he is a good man.
But this is the dispute in front of us, so what do I think about it?
First, a recap. It’s important to know that Ahmari is Catholic, and French is an Evangelical. Not all Catholics and Evangelicals share their respective views, but this is an important fact in understanding their arguments. Anyway, Ahmari started it by writing a pungent piece in First Things condemning what he (unfortunately) called “David French-ism.” Here he identifies what he means by it:
What is David French-ism? As Irving Kristol said of neoconservatism, French-ism is more a persuasion or a sensibility than a movement with clear tenets. And that sensibility is, in turn, bound up with the persona of one particular writer, though it reaches beyond him to pervade a wider sphere of conservative Christian thinking and activism.
It isn’t easy to critique the persona of someone as nice as French. Then again, it is in part that earnest and insistently polite quality of his that I find unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing religious conservatives. Which is why I recently quipped on Twitter that there is no “polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war.” (What prompted my ire was a Facebook ad for a children’s drag queen reading hour at a public library in Sacramento.)
I added, “The only way is through”—that is to say, 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.
French prefers a different Christian strategy, and his guileless public mien and strategic preferences bespeak a particular political theology (though he would never use that term), one with which I take issue. Thus, my complaint about his politeness wasn’t a wanton attack; it implicated deeper matters.
The gist of Ahmari’s argument is this: French is a classical liberal, who argues in terms suited to classical liberalism. But classical liberalism is a dead end for Christians, and is nothing more than a way of negotiating our complete surrender to those who hate us and what we stand for. Better to fight with all we’ve got, with the expectation of winning and re-establishing Christian standards in the public square, than to keep ceding ground to those who have no intention at all of tolerating us.
As Ahmari put it:
But conservative Christians can’t afford these luxuries [procedural liberalism, supporting pluralism, etc]. 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.
The Ahmari vs. French standoff is a version of what Patrick Deneen, in a 2014 TAC article, identified as “a Catholic showdown worth watching.” Deneen identifies the antagonists not as left vs. right, but a dispute between two kinds of conservatives within US Catholicism. On one side are classical liberals — the Neuhaus/Novak/Weigel folks — who believe that Christianity can be reconciled with liberalism, and enrich it. On the other are those — Alasdair MacIntyre, David Schindler — who believe that they are fundamentally incompatible.
Though Ahmari is Catholic and French is Evangelical, this is near the core of their argument. More on which anon.
Where do I stand? Somewhere unsatisfying between Ahmari and French, for reasons I will explain. Essentially, I lack French’s faith in classical liberalism, and I lack Ahmari’s faith that this is a battle that can be won (also, I’m not quite sure what “winning” would look like, but I’ll get to that).
The man who wrote The Benedict Option will spare you readers a long explanation of why he believes liberalism ultimately eliminates Christianity, and degenerates into what Benedict XVI called a “dictatorship of relativism.” On this point, I agree with Ahmari. I wish I could agree with him 100 percent! But I can’t, and here’s why.
First, if not liberalism, then what? I’m not sure that Ahmari is a Catholic integralist — someone who, broadly speaking, believes that the Church and the State should not be separate — but Catholic integralists have an answer. It is not remotely likely to happen in this fundamentally Protestant country. The Catholic Church can’t even get most of the Americans who profess the Catholic faith to agree with some core Catholic teachings. When integralists convince American Catholics themselves to believe in Catholicism, then we’ll talk.
Besides, how many of us non-Catholic conservative Christians would be willing to live under a political order based on privileging the Catholic Church? I suspect I could, given particular alternatives, because a faithfully Catholic political order would more closely approximate the ideal than a degenerate liberalism. But most of the non-Catholic Christians I know could not and would not, and after the scandal, I would be very hard pressed to accept a political order that privileged the Catholic institution. Look at what happened in Ireland, and in post-Franco Spain. Anyway, integralism is only an answer for intellectuals. I don’t know that Ahmari actually proposes it.
So, for all liberalism’s flaws, there is no alternative that is both preferable and realistic, at least not at the present time.
Second, moral and religious conservatives — especially Christians — are a minority in this post-Christian country. Sorry, but it’s true. I hate it, and wish it weren’t so, but that’s where we are. I can’t see any meaningful protection for us and our institutions outside of liberalism’s structures. Arguments for religious liberty are inherently liberal arguments. Religious freedom is a liberal principle, and a liberal achievement. But what does religious liberty mean in a post-Christian culture? It is not an absolute right, as we all agree (nobody would defend Aztec ritual sacrifice), but where do we draw the lines? It has been clear for some time that most secular liberals will not tolerate religion when it conflicts with equality — LGBT equality particularly. Given that most Americans today support LGBT equality (or at least LGB equality), how are we religious conservatives going to defend our liberties in court if not on a liberal basis? The idea that people should tolerate things that they dislike out of respect for pluralism is a liberal idea — and it’s just about the only thing we Christians have left to stand behind in post-Christian America.
Besides, I concede that I’m more of a classical liberal than I thought I was, in that I resist a coercive political order. I am willing to tolerate certain things that I think of as morally harmful, for the greater good of maintaining liberty. Not all sins should be against the law. Again, though, there’s no clear way to know where and how to draw the line. Sohrab Ahmari uses Drag Queen Story Hour as a condensed symbol of the degrading things that contemporary liberalism forces on the public.
I am a thousand percent behind Ahmari in despising this stuff, and I am constantly mystified by how supine most American Christians are in the face of the aggressiveness of the LGBT movement and its allies, especially in Woke Capitalism. I am also a thousand percent with Ahmari in his general critique of how establishment conservatism tends to capitulate to cultural liberalism. As I wrote in The Benedict Option, seeing how the Republican Party had no legislative agenda to protect religious liberty in the wake of the Obergefell ruling was a radicalizing moment for me.
Still, where I depart from Ahmari, in the main, is that we on the cultural and religious Right are playing a very weak political hand. Ahmari has said that the Kavanaugh hearings radicalized him. Me too! It brought home for me that the Left does not give a rat’s rear end about liberal procedures and principles (the Covington Catholic affair several months later was a similar radicalizing moment). But consider this: conservatives who defended Kavanaugh did so on classical liberal grounds against left-wing illiberalism! And we won! Surely that tells us something.
If Ahmari is calling for a more robust legislative agenda from the Right on cultural matters, then I’m all for that. Here’s a pungent passage from Ahmari’s essay:
How do we counter ideological mono-thought in universities, workplaces, and other institutions? Try promoting better work-life balance, says French. How do we promote the good of the family against the deracinating forces arrayed against it, some of them arising out of the free market (pornography) and others from the logic of maximal autonomy (no-fault divorce)? “We should reverse cultural messages that for too long have denigrated the fundamental place of marriage in public life.” Oh, OK. How do we combat the destruction wrought by drugs (licit and illicit), by automation and globalization and other forces of the kind? “We need to embrace the vital importance of religious faith in personal renewal.” Thanks, Pastor French.
For French, the solution to nearly every problem posed by a politics of individual autonomy above all is yet more autonomous action. But sentimentalization of family life won’t be enough to overcome the challenges posed to it by the present economy. Calls for religious revival are often little more than an idle wish that all men become moral, so that we might dispense with moral regulation.
Government intervention will not be the answer to every social ill. In many instances, free markets and individual enterprise can best serve the common good, albeit indirectly. But I take issue with David French-ism’s almost supernatural faith in something called “culture”—deemed to be neutral and apolitical and impervious to policy—to solve everything. Questions that are squarely political—that is, that touch on our shared quest for the common good—become depoliticized by this culture-first strategy. The libertine camp prefers the same depoliticization, of course; they’re much better at winning in the realm of culture than David French will ever be.
I am not at all sure that that is a fair characterization of David French’s views, but let’s let that stand for the sake of argument. Ahmari wants a more robust, activist government, but active on the side of socially conservative goals. I can go along with that, and indeed there’s probably not much difference between how Sohrab Ahmari thinks the state should intervene, and my views. But here’s the thing: in a pluralistic democracy, if you’ve already lost the culture, how can you hope to elect a government that represents the will of the people, and that supports socially conservative policies?
I wish I saw more evidence that America is a socially conservative country. I wish I saw more evidence that we are a religiously traditional country. It’s just not true, and barring some kind of massive revival, it’s not going to be true for a long time. I am more concerned about religion and culture than politics. I believe in the Benedict Option as a practical response for traditional Christians to the crisis of our time in part because politics are so insufficient to the scope and severity of the crisis. It’s not that I am against politics; it’s that I think politics are downstream from religion and culture, and that we have to first restore a firm cultural basis for a decent politics. At this time, we are fighting (or should be fighting) with all we’ve got just to hold what ground we have.
Many conservatives I know wrongly think that the main part of the battle is political, when the truth is that the absence of moral and spiritual discipline in our own lives, and in the lives of our families and communities, is the root cause of disorder. A Christian academic friend and I were talking a while back about classical Christian education, and he lamented that most of the parents he knew from his local classical Christian school were running away from liberalism more than running towards a vision of classical virtue, Christian or otherwise. This is an important insight. Fighting political battles are necessary, but not remotely sufficient to keep the faith alive. And the faith is not just something we carry in our heads, but is a way of life. The way most of us conservative Christians live — I’m judging myself here too — can often be as much of a threat to passing on the faith to our children as attacks coming from progressives in power.
We have to fight progressivism in politics now in part to protect the institutions through which we pass on our virtues and religious beliefs to our children. But these freedoms won’t mean anything if we don’t use them.
I say all this simply to explain why I don’t have Ahmari’s faith in smashmouth right-wing politics of the Trumpian sort. David French’s fundamental decency as a man and as a Christian is not a fault, but a feature. I don’t get why his decency and honor is a liability. If we lose that for the sake of winning political battles, are we not at grave risk of having sold our souls? Don’t get me wrong, I recognize that sometimes politics may require us to do things we find distasteful (like, well, vote for Donald Trump) for the sake of the greater good. But we can’t let ourselves get to the point of despising decency as weakness — and this is where I depart most from Ahmari, who writes:
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.
What does this mean? The leftists that I fear most of all are those who would throw overboard any standards of decency for the sake of destroying their opponents. These are the leftists who showed themselves in the Kavanaugh hearings, and in the Covington Catholic media pogrom. I don’t believe Sohrab Ahmari is that kind of conservative, not at all, but these kinds of figures have appeared on the pro-Trump Right. We might have to ally with them to defeat a greater evil — Roosevelt and Churchill had to be friends with Stalin, after all — but we should be clear-eyed about what we’re doing, and why.
I’m writing a book now about what we can learn from those dissenters who endured Soviet and Soviet-style communism — what we can learn, I mean, about how to resist the soft totalitarianism the left, including Woke Capitalism, is bringing upon us now. One catalyst for this book project was a Hungarian defector telling me that the most Soviet thing happening in our own culture is the way the contemporary left will stop at nothing to destroy the personal and professional reputations of their opponents, even lying about them if necessary. When you start digging into the history of the Sovietization of Eastern Europe, that’s exactly what you find. The way the Left went after Kavanaugh, and the Covington Catholic boys, were examples of exactly this.
Is Ahmari proposing that we on the Right have to embrace this ethic? If so, I can’t go there. It’s not a matter of political prissiness. It’s a matter of fundamental Christian moral responsibility.
In the end, I find that I am dragged along into supporting liberal democracy halfheartedly for the same reason that Christians in the Middle East support a secular political order: as the only plausible protection for us, as a minority, in a hostile majoritarian culture. What else is there?
Look, I am a cultural pessimist. I believe that radical individualism is destroying the basis for a stable moral and political order. I believe that our liberal democracy will not be able to endure the loss of small-r republican virtue among the people. I believe in doing what we can within that order to shore it up, if only out of self-interest, but that our primary focus should be on building up the little platoons and lay Benedictine monasteries (so to speak) to endure the collapse of Empire. I see no contradiction between supporting political efforts to rein in the hegemonic roles of institutions like major corporations and universities like Harvard, and in building up our Ben Op communities. But political aggressiveness is not in itself sufficient to do what sensible Christians must want for themselves and their families, and political aggressiveness must be bounded by moral laws and customs.
It’s a difficult time for conservatives and conservatism. The way forward is not clear. I see a role for the David Frenches and the Sohrab Ahmaris. I’m not just being a split-the-difference nice guy here. We need both. But I also recognize that whether I like it or not, we live in a pluralistic, post-Christian society, and that we Christians have to figure out how to deal realistically with that, while also extending to people who don’t share our beliefs the same respect and dignity that we want them to show us. I am grateful that Donald Trump broke the decayed GOP consensus, but I don’t see him as any kind of model for the future.
I wish I had a neat, clean answer to this argument among two bright, articulate conservatives. It’s something I think about all the time as I try to settle this same argument within myself. I have never been able to reach a satisfying place, but this dispute is exactly the one the Right needs to have right now.
UPDATE: Here’s a link to David French’s long, strong response to Ahmari. Excerpts:
“Frenchism” (is that a thing now?) contains two main components: zealous defense of the classical-liberal order (with a special emphasis on civil liberties) and zealous advocacy of fundamentally Christian and Burkean conservative principles. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. It’s the formulation that renders the government primarily responsible for safeguarding liberty, and the people primarily responsible for exercising that liberty for virtuous purposes. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Moreover, I firmly believe that the defense of these political and cultural values must be conducted in accordance with scriptural admonitions to love your enemies, to bless those who persecute you, with full knowledge that the “Lord’s servant” must be “kind to everyone, able to teach, and patiently endure evil.”
I’m a deeply flawed person in daily (or even hourly) need of God’s grace, so I don’t always live up to those ideals. But I see them for what they are: commands to God’s people, not tactics to try until they fail. Ahmari does not wrestle with these dictates in his essay. He should have.
… If one rejects kindness because the stakes are so high and our opponents allegedly so terrible, he’s apt to find that there is no inherent power in cruelty. Do Trump’s insults deter his opponents or motivate them? In a time of peace and prosperity, has he expanded his coalition, or, as his reelection campaign kicks off, does he face immense peril in spite of a roaring economy? If he’s allegedly a force for social cohesion, where is that cohesion now?
A core tenet of Frenchism (I still can’t believe that’s a thing) is the consistent and unyielding defense of civil liberties, including the civil liberties of your political opponents — both in law and in culture. That means defending the legal rights of a radical leftist professor with the same vigor that you defend an embattled Christian conservative. And if you despise corporate censorship and corporate efforts to punish dissent, that means supporting not just libertarian Googlers who question Silicon Valley orthodoxy but also kneeling football players who use the national anthem as an occasion for public protest.
So, yes, I do want neutral spaces where Christians and pagans can work side by side. I’ve helped create those spaces, and lived in them alongside Christians and atheists, traditionalists and LGBT Americans alike. In fact, those spaces are the rule, not the exception, everywhere in this nation, and thank God for that.
I’m already going on too long, but let me close with an important point of agreement with Ahmari. He says I don’t see “politics as war and enmity,” and he’s right about that much: I do not see politics as war, and while enmity exists, I seek to lessen it, not fan the flames.