A real dead end
The most bracing pieces are sometimes the least defensible.
So it is with Sohrab Ahmari’s fusillade in the religious journal First Things against my National Review colleague David French that has occasioned a cataract of conservative commentary.
Ahmari’s piece is part of the “post-liberal” ferment among a coterie of mostly Catholic writers on the right. A Catholic convert who has written a widely praised memoir, “From Fire, By Water,” he argues that conservatives should give up on defending a neutral public square and instead “impose our order and our orthodoxy.”
This would seem a fierce rallying cry in the culture war, but really – like the denunciations of the American political order from a smattering of Catholic writers – comes from a place of despair that, if acted on, would promise only futility.
The animating insight of the “post-liberal” writers and their allies seems to be: We are losing the culture war so badly that the only option left is to impose our values on everyone else. How will they do that? Good question! We’ll get back to you after we are done savaging our allies.
To simplify, Ahmari’s prescription is fighting harder, being less civil, caring less about individual liberty and focusing energy on politics instead of culture toward the end of socially conservative government impositions. He also expresses suspicion of evangelicals (French is one) for being naturally inclined to oppose authority (for instance, national churches).
This hardly sounds like a winning formula. Ahmari says he was shocked into his current radical posture by the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation fight.
Imagine, though, if conservatives had argued for Kavanaugh on the basis that decency doesn’t matter to us much anymore – so we don’t care about the truth of the allegations against him – and furthermore, we expect him to impose his Christian (or more specifically, Catholic) values on the country. We would have lost in a rout.
Kavanaugh won the day by appealing to reason, fair play and the presumption of innocence – in other words, things that the most disillusioned Catholic conservatives perhaps consider a sucker’s game, yet still have purchase with the American public.
Needless to say, America is not a country ripe for the imposition of Catholic traditionalism. Among other things, conservative Catholics aren’t operating from a position of strength. Overall, about 20 percent of the U.S. population is Catholic, and only about 37 percent of Catholics are Republicans. About half aren’t particularly conservative on abortion or gay marriage.
Ahmari appears to envision politics, and government action, as an escape from culture and excoriates French for the emphasis he puts on cultural transformation. But politics isn’t a magic wand. In a liberal democracy, it depends on public sentiment, which is decisively shaped by culture.
Ahmari, strangely, pours scorn on the idea that we need religious conversions. Obviously, though, the religious landscape of the country matters greatly. The growth of evangelicals – while the Catholic Church has been losing numbers – provides a crucial cultural and political backstop for social conservatives.
A top priority of the cultural right has been getting President Donald Trump to appoint constitutionalist judges. This is right and proper. Besides its intrinsic value, as a practical matter, the Constitution is the strongest protection that believers have.
Let’s assume everyone on the right agreed for some reason to strip the First Amendment out of the Constitution. Would this free religious conservatives to steamroll and suppress our opponents, or the other way around? Almost certainly, the latter.
All that said, there’s much I agree with Ahmari about.
There’s obviously cause for great alarm in the culture war, which has unquestionably entered a new, more treacherous phase.
We need to realize that America suffers, not just from a swollen state, but from a toxic individualism, people detached from family, church and community, and thus from larger meaning.
Finally, we need to hang together and, if we can’t muster decency when fighting our adversaries, at least show some when disagreeing with allies.