In May, New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari published an essay in First Things with the eye-catching title (to me at least) of “Against David French–ism.” While the essay takes rather direct aim at me personally — including offering a false version of my career and beliefs to create a straw-man version of milquetoast libertarianism — his claims serve mainly as a proxy for two competing visions of American political engagement.
Ahmari’s stated desire 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.”
According to Ahmari, contemporary politics should be viewed through a prism of “war” and “enmity,” and then public commitments to decency and civility become optional. In fact, they can be a hindrance to political victory over a vicious and committed opponent.
In essence, Ahmari is forsaking classical liberalism — the commitment to neutral principles (such as free speech, religious liberty, and due process) grounded in respect for individual liberty — for a largely undefined version of Christian statism. Classical liberalism (especially polite classical liberalism) is the path to defeat and decay. Only a more robust statist Christian response can meet the challenge of the illiberal secular onslaught.
Yet in forsaking classical liberalism, Ahmari is essentially forsaking the framework for ordered liberty established by the Founders. “Frenchism” — to the extent such a thing exists — reflects the two main components of that commitment to ordered liberty. It combines a zealous defense of the classical- liberal order with zealous advocacy of fundamentally Christian and Burkean conservative principles. The government is responsible for securing American liberty; the people are responsible for advancing American virtue.
And at all times every bit of the political and cultural conflict 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, patiently enduring evil” (2 Timothy 2:24).
I’m a deeply flawed person in constant need of God’s grace, so I don’t always live up to those ideals. But I see them for what they are: commands for God’s people, not tactics to try until they fail. Sohrab did not wrestle with these dictates in his essay. He should have.
Moreover, it is mystifying to me that critics of the classical-liberal order don’t believe that its defenders understand the nature and intentions of the illiberal Left. I am not naïve. I was shouted down as a student at Harvard Law School, I was the only social-conservative faculty member at Cornell Law School, and I have sued universities from coast to coast to protect free speech and religious liberty on campus. Still, they say, we just don’t understand.
Ben Domenech, in a Federalist essay supporting Ahmari, likens the radical forces of the illiberal Left to the undead white walkers from Game of Thrones, “bent on utter and total destruction of everything American Christians hold dear.” While the entire Left isn’t illiberal, there are radicals on campus, in Hollywood, and in progressive corporate America who would like to stamp out Christian liberty. But the antidote to this illiberal assault is pluralism buttressed by classical liberalism, not a kind of Christian statism of undetermined nature, strength, power, and 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 some of those voices in politics and the marketplace of ideas.
One solution is grounded in the wisdom of the Founders. The other refutes the fundamental principles 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 government-defined good.
The triggering event for Ahmari’s first attack on me was a tweet announcing a “drag queen storytime.” It was the existence of this event that led him to launch an attack on my politeness. But what is Ahmari’s proposed solution to the menace of drag-queen book readings for children? 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 the meeting and perhaps fire the librarian who organized it, why does anyone think that the forces of Christian statism will continue to prevail? What would prevent, say, President Kamala Harris from wielding the same power against a public reading of C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters?
Moreover, if one rejects kindness, there is no inherent power in cruelty. Do Trump’s insults, for example, deter his opponents or motivate them? In a time of peace and prosperity, has he expanded his coalition, or does he face immense peril in his reelection campaign in spite of his economic success? There is a larger problem with Ahmari’s Christian statism, however. If conservatives must now abandon classical liberalism because the culture is already lost, how will that same culture repeatedly and indefinitely elect only governments that will advance the Christian conception of the so-called Highest Good?
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 — in both law and culture. That means defending the legal rights of a radical leftist professor with the same vigor that you use to 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 Christian and pagan can work side by side. I’ve lived in those spaces. I’ve helped create those spaces. I’ve hired Christians and atheists, traditionalists and LGBT Americans. In fact, those spaces are the rule, not the exception, in every region in this nation — and thank God for that. In other words, classical liberalism still lives, it still thrives, and it still merits a robust defense.
Allow me to close with an important point of agreement with Ahmari. He says I don’t see “politics as war and enmity.” He’s correct. 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 where I actually said these words: “I believe the two greatest threats to the United States are university leftists at home and jihadists abroad.” I’m ashamed I said that. It was fundamentally wrong.
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 (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) while living right 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, we’re going to have a legal, political, and cultural fight. I won’t yield. I won’t stop. But I also won’t turn my back on the truths of scripture. Seek justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly. There is no political “emergency” that justifies abandoning classical liberalism, and there will never be a temporal emergency that justifies rejecting eternal truth.
This article appears as “Politics Is Not War” in the June 24, 2019, print edition of National Review.