By the tail end of the Obama administration, the culture war seemed lost. The religious right sued for détente, having been swept up in one of the most rapid cultural shifts in generations. Gone were the decades of being able to count on attacking its traditional targets for political advantage. In 2013, Chuck Cooper, the attorney defending California’s ban on same-sex marriage, begged the justices to allow same-sex-marriage opponents to lose at the ballot box rather than in court. Conservatives such as George Will and Rod Dreher griped that LGBTQ activists were “sore winners,” intent on imposing their beliefs on prostrate Christians, who, after all, had already been defeated.
The rapidity of that cultural shift, though, should not obscure the contours of the society that the religious right still aspires to preserve: a world where women have no control over whether to carry a pregnancy to term, same-sex marriage is illegal, and gays and lesbians can be arrested and incarcerated for having sex in their own homes and be barred from raising children. The religious right showed no mercy and no charity toward these groups when it had the power to impose its will, but when it lost that power, it turned to invoking the importance of religious tolerance and pluralism in a democratic society.
That was then. The tide of illiberalism sweeping over Western countries and the election of Donald Trump have since renewed hope among some on the religious right that it might revive its cultural control through the power of the state. Inspired by Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Vladimir Putin in Russia, a faction of the religious right now looks to sectarian ethno-nationalism to restore its beliefs to their rightful primacy, and to rescue a degraded and degenerate culture. All that stands in their way is democracy, and the fact that most Americans reject what they have to offer.
The past few weeks have witnessed a nasty internecine fight among religious conservatives about whether liberal democracy’s time has passed. Sohrab Ahmari, writing at First Things, attacked National Review’s David French for adhering to a traditional commitment to liberal democracy while “the overall balance of forces has tilted inexorably away from us.” Would the left have stood by liberal democracy in the face of such circumstances? In fact, the balance of forces tilted away from the left’s cultural priorities for most of my lifetime, and the left’s response was to win arguments—slowly, painfully, and at incalculable personal cost.
Many religious conservatives see antidiscrimination laws that compel owners of public accommodations to serve all customers, laws that might compel priests to break the seal of confession if they are told of child abuse, and the growing acceptance of trans people as a kind of impending apocalypse. It is no surprise that among their co-partisans, Ahmari seems to have the upper hand here; in such circles, “Crush your enemies” almost always plays better than “The other side has rights too.”
The concerns Ahmari airs are not wholly without merit: Religious conservatives are not paranoid to imagine themselves pariahs someday in the future because of their views; it was not so long ago that liberal champions such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton held public positions that today would be described by the left as bigotry. Nor should the left expect to win every battle with the right over matters of religious conscience; there will be moments when its opponents are correct. The same wall between Church and state that prevents the state from being dominated by the Church also bars the state from dictating the religious commitments of the Church. A law that compels Catholic priests to break the seal of confession, for example, likely runs afoul of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, despite the state’s obvious and compelling interest in preventing child abuse, and despite the Church’s abysmal record in doing so.
In spite of their disagreements, Ahmari and French are in accord about a great deal when it comes to abortion, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights. French’s adherence to liberal democracy is a commitment to a set of rules under which these goals can be pursued in a pluralistic society: through public discourse, the courts, and the ballot box. For Ahmari and his ilk, this is insufficient. He seems to believe not only that the state should always settle such disputes in his favor, but that it should prevent cultural and political expressions he finds distasteful.
This isn’t an exaggeration. In a since-deleted tweet, Ahmari praised Alabama Public Television for refusing to air an episode of the cartoon Arthur in which the titular character’s male teacher marries another man; his attack on French was preceded by another since-deleted eruption, over Drag Queen Story Hour at a public library, in which he cried, “To hell with liberal order”; and he has since suggested the humanities should be defunded because “they may be lost to us for good.” If this is where Ahmari and his cohort are while the GOP still controls the courts, the Senate, and the presidency, imagine what they’ll be willing to countenance should they lose them.
Ahmari’s demands here outline the United States that illiberals would like to see: one that resembles Orbán’s Hungary, where rigged electoral systems ensure that political competition is minimal, the press is tightly controlled by an alliance between corporations and the state on behalf of the ruling party, national identity is defined in religious and ethnic terms, and cultural expressions are closely policed by the state to ensure compliance with that identity. It is no surprise that the vast majority of black and Latino Christians see a secular but pluralist left as more trustworthy allies than conservatives who rail against “poisonous and censorious multiculturalism,” and darkly warn of a plot to “displace American citizens.”
When Ahmari was asked, however, by Jane Coaston at Vox what his “ideal order” would look like, he said, “Working mothers wouldn’t be expected to return to work a mere eight weeks after giving birth.” This sort of obvious, coy insincerity about the actual nature of the changes they seek is one of the major reasons religious conservatives like Ahmari have lost so much ground in the public square, and why the left is inclined to view their demands for religious exceptions to be thinly veiled excuses for discrimination. The question of whether working mothers deserve more generous maternity leave does not represent a bitter split between the religious right and the secular left, nor is it given prominence in his manifesto, which focuses on crushing the left, or, as he put it, fighting “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.”
Although the intraconservative critiques leveled by Ahmari and his allies sometimes take on the language of opposition to market fundamentalism, they are not truly opposed to the concentration of power and capital. These critics observe the decline in wages and community that has resulted from this concentration, and propose to do nothing at all about it other than seize that power for themselves, to be used to their ends. The illiberals see the wealthy and upper-middle classes getting married, forming families, and raising children much as they did in the 1950s, and conclude that the problem with working-class Americans is not the diminished political power relative to their bosses, but the absence of a sharp enough lash, whether from the state or from a culture that has escaped the religious right’s grasp. Gillette should be making commercials about women staying at home and fathers going off to work, not dads teaching their trans sons to shave for the first time.
This understanding also helps illuminate the right’s eruption over YouTube’s decision to demonetize (but not remove) the channel of Steven Crowder, a conservative YouTuber who called the Vox reporter Carlos Maza a “lispy queer,” among other slurs. A world in which one can refer to gay people as “lispy queers” without repercussion is one in which the illiberal right is winning the culture war, so it matters little that YouTube is no less a private business than Masterpiece Cakeshop, and has a right to define the rules for using its platform. The same sort of protests that the right decries as illiberal when deployed against right-wing speakers on college campuses are suddenly a legitimate tactic when used against Drag Queen Story Hour. The objective here, in Ahmari’s words, is to defeat “the enemy,” not adhere to principle, and that requires destigmatizing anew the kind of bigotry that was once powerful enough to sway elections.
Indeed, the illiberal faction in this debate retains Trump as its champion precisely because the president is willing to use the power of the state for sectarian ends, despite being an exemplar of the libertinism to which it is supposedly implacably opposed, a man whose major legislative accomplishment is slashing taxes on the wealthy, and whose most significant contribution to the institution of the family is destroying thousands of them on purpose. It is power that is the motivator here, and the best that could be said for these American Orbánists is that they believe that asserting an iron grip on American politics and culture would offer the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Every authoritarian movement has felt the same way.
I don’t want to overstate the significance of this dispute between French and Ahmari. They are yelling at each other in a walled garden; conservative pundits in ideological magazines have little influence over a base whose opinions are guided by the commercial incentives of Fox News and right-wing talk radio, and the partisan imperatives of the Republican Party. If they possessed such influence, Trump would not be president.
The question of whether the Republican Party would abandon liberal democracy for sectarian ethno-nationalism was decided in the 2016 primary, and all French and Ahmari are doing is arguing about it after the fact. The commercial and social incentives for conservative writers to succumb to Trumpism are vast. Some, like French, have had the integrity to stick to their stated principles. Others, like Ahmari, have already fallen. Today’s skirmishes among conservatives resemble the irregulars in 1865 shooting at one another because they had not yet heard of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. And the support Ahmari has drawn suggests that the conservative intelligentsia will offer less resistance to authoritarianism than it did in 2015 and 2016.
Trump is the symptom of the Republican Party’s turn toward illiberalism, not its cause; even before Trump ran for president, some Republican elites were plotting to diminish the political power of minorities and enhance those of white voters. Whatever their disagreements, the leaders of both the populist and establishment wings of the Republican Party have concluded that they cannot be allowed to lose power simply because a majority of American voters do not wish them to wield it. The president speaks of imprisoning his political rivals, and his voters cheer. He valorizes political violence, and his followers take note. His attorneys argue both that Congress cannot investigate criminality in the executive branch and that the president has the authority to end criminal investigations into himself or his allies, while ordering them against his opponents. Trump’s supporters exult in the head of state attacking private citizens who demand equal rights, then wave the banner of free speech exclusively in defense of expressions of bigotry. In the end, Trump will dictate the course of his party on these matters, and his base will do whatever he gives it license to do. Writers such as French and Ahmari cannot shape this course; they can only argue about it after the fact.
What is notable is that crisis of faith in liberalism for this faction of the religious right comes only now. It is true, as The New York Times’ Ross Douthat writes, that “liberalism has never done as well as it thinks at resolving its own crises.” Yet this faction did not abandon its faith in liberalism’s capacity to solve problems during the decades of Jim Crow. It did not cry, “To hell with the liberal order!” over mass incarceration. It did not erupt in fury over the shattering of Latino families at the border, or the Trump-made aftermath of the catastrophe in Puerto Rico. It did not question whether liberalism had failed after the first, third, fourth or 15th mass shooting at a school, or because it is typical for Americans to beg strangers on the internet for money to cover their health-care costs or after an untimely death. The state of emergency occurred when, and only when, liberal democracy ceased to guarantee victory in the culture war. The indignity of fighting for one’s rights within a democratic framework is fine for others, but it is beneath them.
Some perspective is in order. Douthat looks to the future and asks whether a society “dominated by virtual reality and eugenics and mood-stabilizing drugs, post-familial and post-religious and functionally post-human,” would “deserve the political loyalty of (let us say) a traditional Christian or Muslim, just because it still affords them some First Amendment protections? It is reasonable to say that it might not.”
Black Americans did not abandon liberal democracy because of slavery, Jim Crow, and the systematic destruction of whatever wealth they managed to accumulate; instead they took up arms in two world wars to defend it. Japanese Americans did not reject liberal democracy because of internment or the racist humiliation of Asian exclusion; they risked life and limb to preserve it. Latinos did not abandon liberal democracy because of “Operation Wetback,” or Proposition 187, or because of a man who won a presidential election on the strength of his hostility toward Latino immigrants. Gay, lesbian, and trans Americans did not abandon liberal democracy over decades of discrimination and abandonment in the face of an epidemic. This is, in part, because doing so would be tantamount to giving the state permission to destroy them, a thought so foreign to these defenders of the supposedly endangered religious right that the possibility has not even occurred to them. But it is also because of a peculiar irony of American history: The American creed has no more devoted adherents than those who have been historically denied its promises, and no more fair-weather friends than those who have taken them for granted.
Undetectable in the dispute on the right is any acknowledgment of the criticisms of liberal democracy by those who have been fighting for their fundamental rights in battles that are measured in decades and even centuries; that the social contract implicitly excluded them from the very rights white Christian men have been able to assert from the beginning. Perhaps to do so would be to acknowledge the fundamental immaturity underlying the American Orbánists’ critique: that what they describe as a crisis of liberal democracy is really just them not getting exactly what they want when they want it.
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