Jonathan Merritt: Lauren Daigle and the lost art of discernment
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.