Since First Things published Sohrab Ahmari’s disappointing piece, Against David French-ism, last week, my instinctive response has rightly been to defend David. An extended published defense of David was not necessary because Michael Brendan Dougherty and Charlie Cooke said it better than I could, not to mention David himself. Ahmari’s article wrongly identified David French as squishy in the culture war, it wrongly identified civility as a reason the good guys lose the culture war, and it wrongly (and one might say, laughably) identified Donald Trump as the antidote to fighting off “cultural pornographication” (as Charlie put it on The Editors podcast). There was so much wrong with the article, it will indeed and fairly be remembered for such.
And yet, there is a particular underlying point in the article, a really important thing, that I don’t want to lose sight of, even if Ahmari himself was content to lose sight of it with all of the aforementioned disappointments.
There does, indeed, exist an antithesis between good and evil, between right and wrong, between God and the world, between autonomy and the good life. There is an embedded risk in pluralism that only the naïve do not see and only the godless are unafraid of — and that is the one-sided nature of it. Pretending that there is such thing as cultural neutrality is as dangerous and dishonest as pretending that there’s philosophical neutrality, and Ahmari’s important point here was completely lost by his absurd accusation that “French-ism” is unaware of this.
Conservatives who defend the classically liberal tradition, who believe in a structurally pluralistic society, need not give away the farm by pretending that a cultural truce will happen. The contemporary hostility accompanied by unbelief in the Judeo-Christian faith will not be pacified by civility, and I am willing to bet tickets to an NBA basketball game that David French agrees with me on that. Ahmari successfully decimates the straw man that he built of David’s position, that all political and family conflicts will be solved with some vague and emasculated call on “culture” and “faith.” But since we have established that Ahmari dramatically misrepresented David, the question remains unanswered: What is a Christian to do in the current culture war?
I concede Ahmari’s point that progressives are not merely trying to win the argument but are in fact trying to destroy the institutions that underlie the conservative movement. And I yell “Amen!” at Ahmari’s call that there is no neutrality and that we have a moral duty to recognize the reality of the enmity (between God and evil). Classical liberalism calls for certain civil rights, certain protections of those rights, and an open dialogue in the public square that makes for good civil society. I and every National Review colleague of mine affirm that tradition. And yet the need for an institutionally pluralistic society is not contradicted by the recognition that one side seeks to destroy the other and is incrementally succeeding in doing so.
Politically, the Kavanaugh moment was also a moment of tremendous angst for me. I recognized this in a piece Rush Limbaugh read on air — that “our side’s” rulebook inhibited our success while the Left is willing to play with a lawless playbook. But enough people have already covered the “timidity” stuff, and I am perfectly comfortable joining Ahmari in saying that we need an aggressive defense against the hostility of today’s progressive Left. I often find myself lamenting what Ahmari laments — that those forces who would vanquish my side and banish it from the public square get to fight with many arms and legs, not constrained by the handcuffs of morals and civil norms. But alas, I then remember that while they fight with an “anything goes” ethic, my side is armed with this little thing called “truth,” and I feel much less discouraged.
The great Dutch philosopher, Cornelius Van Til, argued for the concept of antithesis, a “diametrical opposition between belief and unbelief and therefore any compromise of revealed truth.” The theological and philosophical reality of the antithesis is at the heart of Ahmari’s concern, whether he knows it or not, and going after David French is the last thing that one ought to be doing if one is looking for a 2019 playbook on Christian culture.
The problem that many of my friends on the right have run into is a problem of faith and confidence in the instrumentation of cultural influence. We are not to choose between “getting wiped out by the progressives” and “talking the progressives into leaving us alone in the sandbox.” I freely admit, with Ahmari, that modern humanism will not be satisfied to keep one corner of the sandbox for itself while leaving us to enjoy another corner. We ought to reject the silly idea of neutrality, all the while seeking to influence and persuade. At the risk of alienating some of my truly classical liberal friends, I believe we ought to be quite transparent about this: We should seek to move the progressive Left from their sandbox corner into ours; we just shouldn’t do so in any of the ways they would do so to us.
I am biased toward the Kuyperian notion of sphere sovereignty, recognizing the institutions of church, state, family, and the individual as entirely separate institutions in their structural “sphere,” yet deeply influenced by one another across the cultural sphere. Ahmari doesn’t explicitly do so, but one gets the impression that he finds the idea of individual sanctification, personal evangelism, strong and dynamic families, and other cultural endeavors that spring from the bottom up as wholly inadequate for the task at hand. And indeed, they are not a sufficient box of tools for the task at hand, but that does not take away from their necessity. We find ourselves under siege in this contemporary struggle, and we need all hands on deck. This includes political, legal, economic, technological, financial, and ecclesial hands. This will involve playing defense at times, even aggressive defense (as patriots like David French have so capably done).
But in the moments of playing offense, we must not abandon the liberal order, and with it the hope for the common good that Ahmari and I both want to see preserved. The liberal order is, indeed, what conservatives are fighting for, and good conservatives know that the liberal order will never, ever be maintained without a society of faith and virtue. Ahmari criticizes French-ism’s belief in civility and religion as tools in preserving the order, not realizing that they are much more than means. They are the ends themselves.