What a Clash Between Conservatives Reveals

Even if the secular left has no intention of playing fair in the culture wars, that doesn’t erase the Christian imperatives of civility and decency.

People hold out Bibles for President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, to sign as they visit Providence Baptist Church in Smiths Station, Alabama.
People hold out Bibles for President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, to sign as they visit Providence Baptist Church in Smiths Station, Alabama. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

A story commonly told these days on both the left and the right says that American Christians, and especially evangelicals, are solidly behind President Donald Trump. The real story is far more complex, and has led many Christians to some fairly serious soul-searching, and others to ask hard questions about whether we even know what an “evangelical” is. Among Christians, as among so many other Americans, one of the chief effects of the rise of Trump has been to widen some fault lines and expose others that we didn’t even know existed. It is at least possible that some good will come from this exposure.

You can see some of these fault lines opening up in a recent controversy that has greatly occupied many journalists, scholars, and ordinary people who care about the relations between Christianity and conservatism. The controversy began when Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor of the New York Post, tweeted, “There’s no polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war”—referring to the lawyer, former soldier, and senior writer of National Review who has often made the case that Christians in the public arena need to practice civility. Ahmari then expanded that tweet into a full-scale attack on French, and since then, the conservative world has been fairly obsessed with adjudicating the dispute.

It’s important to note that Ahmari sees the differences between him and French as rooted, ultimately, in their different Christian traditions: Catholicism for Ahmari—who recently published a memoir of his conversion—and evangelical Protestantism. But whether this is indeed the heart of the matter, the dispute so far hasn’t fallen out that way. Some Catholics are with French, some Protestants with Ahmari. And in any case, I’m more interested in the ways this dispute illuminates questions that all Christians involved in public life need to reckon with than in choosing sides. How Christians choose to reckon with these questions will have consequences for all Americans, whether religious or not.

In brief, Ahmari’s critique of French is that he is too nice a guy for the harsh times we live in, and he is too nice because he has too much belief in what political philosophers call “liberal proceduralism.” That’s the idea that all Americans can flourish, more or less, in a political environment in which we don’t agree on the prime ends of culture or of human life more generally, but do agree to follow the same set of political and rhetorical rules—the same “procedures.” To this idea, Ahmari responds:

But conservative Christians can’t afford these luxuries. 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.

In Ahmari’s view—and it’s a view I largely share—liberal proceduralism has become a fiction. Today’s secular left has no intention of playing fair, and if Christians and conservatives—if people who follow “David French–ism”—insist on playing by the discarded rules, they’re just setting themselves to be played for suckers. Ahmari thus echoes a great American who wasn’t willing to be suckered. I refer to Bugs Bunny, who on more than one occasion intoned, “Of course, you realize this means war.”

For me, a Christian who is also sort of conservative, this is not a merely academic dispute. But I think that the argument to this point has not been fruitful, and that, I believe, has happened because of a lack of clarity on one key point. That point can be clarified if you look at an earlier moment in the history of First Things, the magazine in which Ahmari’s critique of French appeared.

In 1995, when I wrote regularly for First Things, the editor in chief, Father Richard John Neuhaus, gave me an interesting bit of news: The prominent literary critic and theorist Stanley Fish, who was then thought of as a disturber of the intellectual peace and certainly not as a religious person, had submitted an essay to First Things, a self-described “journal of religion and public life.” Neuhaus wanted to know whether I thought he should publish it. Indeed, I did. (He probably asked many people, but I don’t know anyone else’s answer.) He decided to run it, but to include a lengthy response. I pleaded with him to allow me to write that response, but he did it himself.

Why did Fish’s essay need a response? In large part because it made this argument:

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.

This is Sohrab Ahmari’s argument, 23 years avant la lettre.

Neuhaus began his response by quoting a part of the passage I just quoted and then setting out to refute it—though not with a whole heart, because Neuhaus realized that one variety of liberalism is indeed programmatically opposed to religion. That variety contends that confidence in metaphysical claims—especially claims about what human beings are, and are for—is always dangerous because those claims are just not true. But Neuhaus saw that there was another kind of liberalism that is programmatically modest about what a whole society can claim to be true—and that kind of liberalism, he thought, was useful.

Thus, in his essay, he cites the great American Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray:

John Courtney Murray said that pluralism is written into the script of history, and I would add that it seems God did the writing. By pluralism, I mean a world in which people live by significantly different accounts of reality, including moral and religious reality, and must learn to live together.

Neuhaus thought not only that Good Liberalism is compatible with Christianity, but also that Christians, if they are properly mature, are among the best-suited to live in such an environment: “The Christian understanding of reason, faith, and how the world is created to be is the best guard against the totalitarianism, whether liberal or religious, that is invited by a monistic view of reality … This gives the Christian confidence that he can enter into conversation with the non-Christian … The Christian therefore tries in various ways to enter into the reason and language of non-Christians in order to help reorder them to truth.”

This sounds like a variety of French-ism: a commitment to conversation, to civility, to gentle persuasion. (As the apostle Paul said, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”) But would Neuhaus, who died in 2009, still take this line if he were alive today? Or would he, like Ahmari, have concluded by now that Good Liberalism has been fully eclipsed by Bad? I cannot be sure, of course, but I am inclined to believe that he would have a lot of sympathy for the substance of Ahmari’s argument. That is, I suspect that Neuhaus would have drawn closer to the position articulated by Fish all those years ago.

But there is one more point to be explored here, and it involves not substantive political philosophy, but rather rhetorical style. If you are centrally a political conservative and you also happen to be a Christian, then perhaps you may set aside certain Christian commandments in order to achieve your primary ends. But if you are centrally a Christian and secondarily a political conservative, then you have certain obligations that you cannot ignore.

Among those is to be truthful about your political opponents, something that I do not believe Ahmari achieved in his article: Many of the beliefs that he attributes to French are simply made up from whole cloth, as French has explained, and his crude mockery of “Pastor French” recalls another figure who substitutes demeaning nicknames for argument. An American president might declare a national emergency and set aside American and international law, but a Christian cannot in the same way set aside divine commandments, even if he thinks, as Ahmari does—and, for that matter, as I do—that there is a “present crisis facing religious conservatives.”

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.