The Corner


Doug Wilson’s Broadside against Liberalism’s Defenders

Sohrab Ahmari and David French (Images via Twitter)

I suppose it says something about David French that he finds himself surrounded by wildly divergent critics. It’s not an altogether bad place to be. The 16th-century Reformers battled radical Protestant utopians trying at sword-point to usher in the new heavens and the new earth at the same time they battled Roman Catholic utopians who thought they already had. Strange bedfellows somehow have a habit of reuniting.

New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari, along with many at First Things magazine, now infamously thinks the problem with late-modern liberalism is people like David French who don’t understand that the legal principles embodied in our liberal order are insufficient to a just and flourishing society. We need to alter those legal principles and grant the coercive state the prerogative to nudge things along to our — well, Ahmari’s — desired ends. Comes now influential Protestant pastor Doug Wilson, who seems to agree with this assessment of French.

If he has said it once, French has said it a thousand times: politics (and law) is downstream from culture. There is no political or legal solution for cultural problems, and culture is primarily the domain of civil society—you know, things like families, churches, schools, and magazines. In other words, the very kinds of things to which Doug Wilson devotes his talents. And David has been busy ensuring that Doug can continue all this cultural work by asserting on his behalf the legal principles embodied in our liberal order. It really is a marvel: a guy spends his life making sure cultural influencers like Doug Wilson and Sohrab Ahmari might legally go about influencing things; and when they face widespread lack of societal influence they decide to blame their lawyer. It’s not amusing.

Ironically, I’ve read Doug Wilson write “politics is downstream from culture” something like ten thousand times. Nevertheless, he has taken the opportunity to write a laborious essay informing the ostensibly naive, “lovable,” “bewildered,” “nice man” David French that our liberal order requires a wide cultural “center of gravity” and a “system of shared cultural values” in order to work. The condescension is inexcusable, but leave it aside for the moment. The Dutch have a saying about the sort of thing going on here: Doug is “kicking down an open door.” The very first person who would agree that we have a culture problem is David French.

Before I get to some of the particulars, I need to point out the flabbergasting question that is begged. Yes, Doug: we need a cultural center of gravity; we need the “unwritten” constitution; we need people to recognize the transcendent idea at the heart of our Republic; we all need to be “Creationists” in the sense of the Declaration of Independence. How do we attain that goal? Since Wilson is enjoining the debate on the side of Sohrab Ahmari, does he agree that we need to dispense with the liberal order itself by grasping the reins of power and coercing our way to a society ordered to the “highest good”? (Actually, when actually faced with the actual living and breathing David French, Ahmari has now clarified that what he really wants is for some senators to jawbone at a bureaucrat on national television.) Now, given the context, one might think Doug agrees with this overall “post-liberal” project (e.g., First Things, Patrick Deneen, et. al.), but apparently not. He has now informed me on Twitter that he meant all this as a defense of the liberal order!

He begins by lambasting  “viewpoint neutrality.” Wilson imagines that “viewpoint neutrality” refers to some kind of philosophic ultimate epistemic commitment to relativism, and, boy howdy, does he go to town on that absurdity, as only he can. Except, of course, nobody was talking about some kind of ultimate epistemic commitment to relativism. They were instead talking about the legal principle that the state should provide equality before the law when it comes to accommodation for use of public spaces. Maybe you don’t like it; maybe you’ve got a better idea to manage things in a diverse, pluralistic society; maybe you’ve got a principle that only ever lets the “right” people use public spaces, and with which no government official will ever label you the wrong kind of person. French, who is in a better position to know than anyone else involved in any of this, happens to think that this legal doctrine has been an enormous boon to Christian cultural influencers, and that whatever downsides are a pretty decent tradeoff, all things considered.

It’s also the case that things like equality before the law and not showing partiality are decidedly not neutral; they are divine commands in the Bible, however imperfectly we might apply them (c.f., Lev. 19:15; Dt. 1:17; 10:17; 16:19). One would think that would be something of comfort to Wilson. I’m having trouble fathoming the complaint here.

One of Wilson’s readers pointed out his misunderstanding of “viewpoint neutrality,” and eloquently explained the distinction between legal architecture and ultimate epistemic commitments. He responded:

I am happy to distinguish the two neutralities as you describe them. But here in our world, when we are seeking to defend objective neutrality in, say, the courtroom, and others are attacking that procedure (and doing so for metaphysical reasons), we need a better defense than “this is the way we have done it for centuries.” Because their reply will be “precisely.” And you do it that way because you inherited this system from slaveholders. Critical theory is a universal corrosive, and we have no defense against it apart from an appeal to the transcendent.

For someone who was just himself a moment ago attacking, not defending, the procedure of objective neutrality, I fear he might be giving readers whiplash. As for his insistence that one needs some kind of transcendent answer to such attacks, I hope he gets good exercise kicking through open doors.

Wilson’s second point accuses French of not really being supportive of viewpoint neutrality, because he wouldn’t approve of a bunch of Baptist kids doing a Bible Story Hour at the local library. I have zero idea why he thinks this, because his discussion is entirely fact and evidence free. What is a fact, however, is that plenty of presumably Baptist kids wanting to proselytize on college campuses have benefited from legal advocacy like French’s. I have no reason to think things would be different for a library.

Wilson’s third salvo is that religious liberty is a Christian idea. It includes a helpful insight:

An ostensibly neutral state with an accumulated reservoir of historic Christian moral capital can preserve religious liberty, but only for a time. But run it out a few decades. You cannot make Herbert Marcuse the Secretary of Free Speech at Animal Farm without finding out, to your chagrin, that some animals are more equal than others. Religious liberty for Christians is not a principle that can be derived from the premises of an aggressive secularism.

So the problem is a depleted reservoir of historic Christian moral capital, not the legal architecture of the liberal order (itself a product of that very moral capital). Who has the responsibility to replenish this reservoir of moral capital? Politicians? The state? If Wilson doesn’t like our current arrangement, what is the alternative? But wait! I was told by Wilson himself that he is defending the liberal order. So does he want an alternative, or not? It is awfully hard to tell. It seems to me he just wants to rhetorically light up this straw-man with his Zippo lighter from as many angles as possible.

Notice how quickly in that paragraph the liberal order transforms into ”aggressive secularism.” This is an equivocation that thoroughly plagues this debate. In a similar context, James K. A. Smith speaks of liberalism as an “architecture” and as an “ethos.” These things are quite distinguishable. If people want to equate the Western legal tradition with the illiberalism of contemporary aggressive secularism, they are entitled to make that mistake. I would just point out that that is exactly what the aggressive secularists want you to do. (What do you think all the minimizing of Judeo-Christian influence on the American founding is about?) Strange ground to cede for erstwhile opponents of secularism.

Most of the rest of the essay is entirely irrelevant to French, though there is one bit that I cannot let stand. Wilson argues: “There is a difference between behavior that libertines like and and behavior that will preserve liberty. French doesn’t see it yet, but he is actually defending the former, while Ahmari is urging a return to the latter.” In light of all that David French has said and written about culture, I find it incredible that one could seriously level that accusation.

Be that as it may, perhaps French, and those of us in his camp, believes that the American experiment is the greatest political arrangement yet devised for the triumph and flourishing of freedom and virtue, precisely because free virtue is real virtue, organic moral fiber, not outward conformity produced by fiat. Perhaps he knows that virtue is the work of fathers and mothers, gospel ministers, and school founders and teachers, rather than by politicians and lawyers. Perhaps he knows this is a fallen world where we do not have the luxury of a system of unfailing perfection, and that there are always tradeoffs, lamentable as they might be. Perhaps he is owed an actual constructive proposal for establishing this never-seeming-to-arrive utopian society that has no downsides. Alas, there’s nothing in Wilson’s broadside that improves on Ahmari’s efforts so far.