The Alternatives to David-Frenchism

Last week at First Things, Sohrab Ahmari launched a blistering barrage against the views, public posture, and political theology of National Review’s David French.

In place of French’s “earnest and insistently polite” demeanor, his insistence on civility and his appeals to pluralism, his struggle to carve out a safe place for believers in a secular society, Ahmari thinks that “religious conservatives” need “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.”

I don’t know French’s work well enough to know if Ahmari’s treatment is fair (see French’s own response here). But many believers are liberals who believe that government exists primarily to protect individual rights. As Ahmari says, that plays right into the hands of progressives, who simply push autonomy to its logical terminus.

Political debate becomes an intramural struggle between variant forms of liberalism: “The more that conservative liberals like French insist on autonomy, the more they strengthen the bullies’ position. This far with autonomy, they insist, but no farther. But why should the other side stop?”

Advocacy of religious liberty will, he thinks, backfire: “in the long term, religious-liberty absolutism will put Christians and other traditional believers in a bind. If the moral law is merely a matter of ancient, if sincere, conviction, then of course it must give way to the demands for autonomy of people in the here and now.”

Ahmari wants to fight the culture war to win. He renounces any attachment to a neutral politics. Somebody’s orthodoxy will rule. Ultimately, the aim must be to “enforce our order and our orthodoxy.”

I agree with Ahmari’s critique and the positive vision.

The question is, how do we achieve it? Ahmari spends a good piece of his essay critiquing French’s attachment to “cultural” solutions and his hope for religious revival, and, positively, defending the use of state power to enforce social conservative aims. He wants conservatives to be more self-conscious about politicizing the culture war.

In a response to Ahmari, Rod Dreher has pin-pointed the practical problem here: Religious conservatives don’t have the votes. Even if there were a silent majority or even a dedicated minority waiting to be awakened (and I agree with Dreher that there isn’t), they would need to be persuaded to adopt the agenda Ahmari advocates. That sounds like a cultural project as much as a political one, and one that depends on something very like a religious revival.

Those are serious political concers, but I’m more interested in the theological problems with Ahmari’s piece. Against French, he insists that “Civility and decency are secondary values.” OK. But what about love? Would the Catholic Ahmari suggest that we can put that to the side while we prosecute the culture war? What kind of orthodoxy would we then be enforcing?

So, can we fight to win and yet fight in love? Yes, but only if we shift the register, and view our cultural and political conflicts as aspects of a larger, spiritual warfare.

When we do that, the conflict sorts out differently. For instance: Those who advocate the murder of the unborn are our enemies because they are enemies of God; but we should also view them as slaves of Sin and Death. We must rebuke them severely, but in love, with the hope that they will be delivered from their slavery into a freedom they have not yet conceived. And, if they are implacable, as Israel was in the face of most of her prophets, then our witness will harden and blind them for eventual judgment.

In a word, if we’re fighting a spiritual war rather than simply a political or cultural one, then the human actors aren’t the only actors, and the human forces aren’t the only forces in play.

To prosecute that sort of warfare, we’d need to pursue a more explicitly evangelical political agenda. We’d need to start talking about Jesus, instead of, as Ahmari does, the “Highest Good.”