Politics & Policy

What Sohrab Ahmari Gets Wrong

(Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
No political ‘emergency’ justifies abandoning classical liberalism, and no temporal emergency could ever justify rejecting the eternal truth.

Yesterday, New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari published a lengthy essay with the rather eye-catching title, “Against David French-ism.” While the essay takes rather direct aim at me personally, it also uses me as a kind of proxy for two competing visions of American life.

Ahmari’s desire, he says, is “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.” By contrast, he says, I believe “that the institutions of a technocratic market society are neutral zones that should, in theory, accommodate both traditional Christianity and the libertine ways and paganized ideology of the other side.” Thus, he constructs a dichotomy between people like him, who understand “politics as war and enmity,” and people like me, who possess an “earnest and insistently polite quality” that is “unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing religious conservatives.”

What is singularly curious about this, and Ahmari’s essay on the whole, is the extent to which it depends on the creation of two fictional people: a fictional David French far weaker than I think I’ve shown myself to be over many years of fighting for conservative causes, and a fictional version of Donald Trump as an avatar of a philosophy that Trump wouldn’t recognize. It is within the framework of these two fictional people that my approach is allegedly doomed to fail and Trump’s approach has a chance to prevail.

First, let’s deal with the fictional version of me. While Ahmari is kind enough to acknowledge my record defending individual liberty in courtrooms across the land, he flat-out misrepresents my approach to politics and my role in key public controversies.

For example, he writes, “How do we counter ideological mono-thought in universities, workplaces, and other institutions? Try promoting better work-life balance, says French.” This is complete nonsense. Just months before I joined National Review full-time after many years as a contributor, I won what I believe is the first-ever jury verdict on behalf of a conservative Christian professor who was denied promotion because of his faith. The litigation took seven years, involved a trip to the Fourth Circuit — where we established a leading precedent in support of professors’ free-speech rights — and ended in a week-long jury trial and a judgment that granted the professor his promotion and back pay and my firm almost $700,000 in legal fees.

And that’s just one case. I literally can’t count the number of cases I’ve filed to preserve and protect conservative Christian voices on campus. I’ve also written, spoken, and advocated for significant federal reforms designed to deter and punish university illiberalism, and while Ahmari says I have an “airy above-it-all mentality,” I didn’t feel “above” anything on that night at Tufts University when I literally placed my body between a small group of Christian students and a collection of roughly 100 protesters who were trying to intimidate them in a darkened hallway.

Here’s what Ahmari doesn’t recognize: Time and again, I and lawyers I was proud to work with didn’t just win these court cases, we persuaded left-dominated institutions to turn back from repressive illiberalism and recommit to religious pluralism. I’ve spent more time in conference rooms and meeting halls persuading the libs than I’ve spent in court owning the libs, and I’ve found that persuasion works. Not always, of course — nothing always works — but far more often than you might think.

I could spend this entire essay debunking Ahmari’s misrepresentations.

To hear him tell it, I “spent two years promoting the now-discredited Russian ‘collusion’ theory; moralizing and pretending we don’t face enemies who seek our personal destruction (just ask Justice Kavanaugh); and haranguing his fellow evangelical Protestants for supporting Trump, as if they were the only American voting bloc ever forced to compromise.”

The first claim, that I spent years promoting the “now-discredited Russian ‘collusion’ theory,” is rebutted by the very articles he links to in support of it. For example, in the principal article he cites, I specifically say that I do not buy the collusion story peddled in left-wing media. I do not believe the theory that “collusion represented the marriage of a sophisticated Russian intelligence operation with a near-treasonous Trump campaign.” Instead, I posit something different, something supported by actual court filings and actual evidence: The Trump campaign “had in its orbit and near-orbit a collection of comically inept crooks and grifters who were looking to gain any advantage they could — without regard for morality, law, or common sense.”

Sorry, Trump fans, but this is true.

And what about Justice Kavanaugh? As my colleague Charlie Cooke points out, we won the Kavanaugh fight, and we didn’t win by insulting or owning the libs but by appealing to “classically liberal values such as cross-examination, hard evidence, and the presumption of innocence.” That’s what pushed Susan Collins to tip the scales in Kavanaugh’s favor, not punch-them-in-the-face populism.

As for my supposed “haranguing” of my fellow Evangelicals, Ahmari is wrong there, too. I didn’t vote for Trump or Hillary Clinton, and I stated my reasons and urged others to abstain as I did. But I don’t criticize my fellow believers for making a different choice. What I have done is to point out the moral failure and hypocrisy of those of the movement’s leaders who abandoned their clearly stated, long-held principles for the sake of continuing to defend a man they’d unequivocally condemn if he was a member of the opposing party. There are receipts here. There are Evangelical statements, like the Southern Baptist Convention’s 1998 Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials, that were supposed to describe enduring Christian principles, including the rules of Christian engagement in the public square. Too many Christians are tossing them aside, and I continue to ask: For what?

Here’s where we leave the fictional David French and meet the fictional Donald Trump. See if you recognize this person as the 45th President of the United States:

With a kind of animal instinct, Trump understood what was missing from mainstream (more or less French-ian) conservatism. His instinct has been to shift the cultural and political mix, ever so slightly, away from autonomy-above-all toward order, continuity, and social cohesion. He believes that the political community — and not just the church, family, and individual — has its own legitimate scope for action. He believes it can help protect the citizen from transnational forces beyond his control.

Donald Trump wouldn’t even fully grasp what this paragraph means, much less recognize it as a governing philosophy. He is a man of prodigious personal appetites. A man who proudly hangs a Playboy cover on the wall of his office. A man who marries and then marries again and again, yet still feels compelled to find porn stars to bed. In his essay, Ahmari condemns the man who craves autonomy above all else. He is, without knowing it, condemning Trump.

So, there you have it. To Ahmari, the alignment of forces looks like this: In one corner is the nice milquetoast libertarian, David French. In the other corner is the strong instrument of social cohesion, Donald Trump.

If this were a real binary conflict and I had to choose, I’d go with Trump, too. Ahmari’s version of me sounds useless. But of course, Ahmari has stacked the deck, grossly misrepresenting both me and Trump to make his case.

“Frenchism” (is that a thing now?) contains two main components: zealous defense of the classical-liberal order (with a special emphasis on civil liberties) and zealous advocacy of fundamentally Christian and Burkean conservative principles. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. It’s the formulation that renders the government primarily responsible for safeguarding liberty, and the people primarily responsible for exercising that liberty for virtuous purposes. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Moreover, I firmly believe that the defense of these political and cultural values must be conducted in accordance with scriptural admonitions to love your enemies, to bless those who persecute you, with full knowledge that the “Lord’s servant” must be “kind to everyone, able to teach, and patiently endure evil.”

I’m a deeply flawed person in daily (or even hourly) need of God’s grace, so I don’t always live up to those ideals. But I see them for what they are: commands to God’s people, not tactics to try until they fail. Ahmari does not wrestle with these dictates in his essay. He should have.

It is mystifying to me that my critics seem to believe that I don’t understand the nature and intentions of the enemies of American liberalism. They think me naïve, as if I wasn’t shouted down at Harvard, as if I don’t know what it’s like to be the only social-conservative faculty member at Cornell Law School, as if I don’t speak at events from coast to coast about the immense threat to Christian liberties and livelihoods. Still, they say, I just don’t understand.

Ben Domenech, in a Federalist essay supporting Ahmari, compares the radical forces of the illiberal Left to the white walkers from Game of Thrones, “bent on utter and total destruction of everything American Christians hold dear.” He paints with too broad a brush, though there are of course radicals who would like to stamp out Christian liberty. But the Valyrian steel that stops the cultural white walker is pluralism buttressed by classical liberalism, not a kind of Christian statism of undetermined nature, strength, power, or endurance.

Here is the absolute, blunt truth: America will always be a nation of competing worldviews and competing, deeply held values. We can forsake a commitment to liberty and launch the political version of the Battle of Verdun, seeking the ruin of our foes, or we can recommit to our shared citizenship and preserve a space for all American voices, even as we compete against those voices in politics and the marketplace of ideas.

One solution is grounded in the wisdom of the Founders. The other refutes the fundamental firm insistence of the Declaration of Independence that “governments are instituted among men” to secure our “unalienable rights.” While governments should of course seek the common good, they do not and should not have the brute coercive force to “re-order” the public square to achieve that good as they define it.

The triggering event for Ahmari’s first attack on me was a tweet announcing a “drag-queen storytime” at a public library in Sacramento. For whatever reason, his initial instinct was to blame me as, in his mind, an example of a conservatism too “nice” to prevent such a thing from happening. It is curious, however, that he never got around to proposing a concrete course of action that would have achieved the desired result. Does re-ordering the common good mean using the power of the state to prohibit that form of freedom of association? And if the state assumes for itself the power to stop such an event and perhaps fire the librarian who organized it, why does anyone think that the forces of Christian statism will continue to prevail and prevent, say, a radical member of a President Kamala Harris administration from wielding the same power against a public reading of The Screwtape Letters?

Nowhere in Ahmari’s essay does he offer answers to any of these questions.

If one rejects kindness because the stakes are so high and our opponents allegedly so terrible, he’s apt to find that there is no inherent power in cruelty. Do Trump’s insults deter his opponents or motivate them? In a time of peace and prosperity, has he expanded his coalition, or, as his reelection campaign kicks off, does he face immense peril in spite of a roaring economy? If he’s allegedly a force for social cohesion, where is that cohesion now?

A core tenet of Frenchism (I still can’t believe that’s a thing) is the consistent and unyielding defense of civil liberties, including the civil liberties of your political opponents — both in law and in culture. That means defending the legal rights of a radical leftist professor with the same vigor that you defend an embattled Christian conservative. And if you despise corporate censorship and corporate efforts to punish dissent, that means supporting not just libertarian Googlers who question Silicon Valley orthodoxy but also kneeling football players who use the national anthem as an occasion for public protest.

So, yes, I do want neutral spaces where Christians and pagans can work side by side. I’ve helped create those spaces, and lived in them alongside Christians and atheists, traditionalists and LGBT Americans alike. In fact, those spaces are the rule, not the exception, everywhere in this nation, and thank God for that.

I’m already going on too long, but let me close with an important point of agreement with Ahmari. He says I don’t see “politics as war and enmity,” and he’s right about that much: I do not see politics as war, and while enmity exists, I seek to lessen it, not fan the flames.

But it was not always so. Many years ago, before I deployed to an actual war, I gave a speech at a conservative gathering in which I actually said these words: “I believe the two greatest threats to the United States are university leftists at home and jihadists abroad.” Looking back, I’m ashamed I said it. It was fundamentally wrong, as I quickly learned during my deployment. In the course of almost a year in Diyala Province, Iraq, I saw the most dreadful things, sights that haunt me today. Eastern Diyala under al-Qaeda’s thumb was one of the deadliest places on Earth. And as much as I disagree with university radicals, I lived a happy life in law school in deep-blue Cambridge, Mass. My son was born in deep-blue Ithaca, N.Y. I served as president of FIRE while living comfortably on the outskirts of Philadelphia’s so-called “gayborhood.”

My political opponents are my fellow citizens. When I wore the uniform of my country, I was willing to die for them. Why would I think I’m at war with them now? I disagree with the Left and much of the populist Right, vigorously. If and when any of my political opponents seek to undermine our fundamental freedoms, I’ll be there to pick a legal, political, and cultural fight with them. I won’t yield. I won’t stop. I won’t be weak. But I also won’t turn my back on the truths of scripture. I won’t stop seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly. There is no political “emergency” that justifies abandoning classical liberalism, and there will never be a temporal emergency that justifies rejecting the eternal truth.

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David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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