In Pixar’s “Finding Nemo,” there’s a mid-credit scene in which the aquarium fish from the Sidney dentist’s office, having rolled out the window, across the street, and into the harbor to what they naively imagine is freedom, realize they’re still stuck in plastic bags. As this fact dawns on them, one asks, “Now what?” And the credits roll on. I can’t help asking the same question of Christians who’ve decided that civility and classical liberalism are the reasons we’re losing the culture wars and resolved to scrap both.
In a recent essay at First Things, Sohrab Ahmari makes this declaration, designating National Review writer David French as his punching bag. For those who are unfamiliar with the debate (which by now is many articles long and involves half a dozen other well-known Christian writers), here’s the quick-and-dirty: Ahmari is a Catholic traditionalist who’s kind of a fan of Donald Trump and thinks French, with his moral qualms and high-minded rules of political engagement, represents a failed model in conservative politics—specifically the classical liberal ideal of a neutral, pluralistic public forum in which we all respect one another, talk through our differences peacefully, and then vote.
In a stroke of creative brilliance (notice where my tongue is), Ahmari calls this posture “David-French-ism,” and is convinced by recent spectacles like the Kavanaugh hearings, the excoriation of the Covington Catholic boys, and public library “drag queen story hours,” that there’s no talking with secular progressives. The only language they understand, he thinks, is a firm hand. We’re witnessing a civil war in America (Ahmari uses those exact words) and French’s insistence on civility and good faith are hamstringing the right.
French counters that he has consistently criticized the Trumpian attitude that fighting the left is good for its own sake. He thinks fighting makes no sense at all unless we’re fighting for something—a vision of society superior to and distinct from the other side’s vision. He eschews the pursuit of naked political power, and its use to impose our will on opponents. In French’s mind, this winner-take-all attitude is not only morally bankrupt, but ignores the natural priority of culture over politics. If I may make so bold, he seems to concur with two of Chuck Colson’s dicta: that “politics is downstream from culture,” and that God requires of us “faithfulness, not success.”
The discerning reader will already know which writer I tend to side with. I have both moral and prudential reasons for it. The moral argument against adopting Trumpian or leftist (are they really different?) tactics is simple: If we’re going to lose the world, we should at least keep our souls. As Jake Meador writes at Mere Orthodoxy, “One of the most important tasks for Christians right now is to recognize that both progressivism and reactionary conservatism are dead ends. The test for our work must be not only does something advance a Christian ideal, but does it advance it in a Christian way?”
Put simply, what point is there in beating the enemy if in the process we become the enemy? What use is there in electing candidates to restore moral order to America if their campaign budget has a line-item for paying off porn stars?
But, as sound as the moral case against lying, insulting, and ethically compromising our way into power is, I can’t help scratching my head at how pragmatically impotent the very suggestion is. Much of our internecine Christian squabbling over political tactics amounts to an argument over whose losing strategy to adopt. Ahmari thinks the answer to progressive zealotry is to become conservative zealots:
“It is in part [French’s] earnest and insistently polite quality…that I find unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing religious conservatives. Which is why I recently quipped on Twitter that there is no ‘polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war.”
Ahmari is convinced he can win this war, once declared. His aim is “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.” As Rich Lowry remarked in his response, good luck establishing that benevolent, traditionally Catholic dictatorship, Sohrab.
This is the political illusion in its worst form—a bizarre, high-brow reincarnation of 1980s moral majoritarianism. Except, springing as it does from a keen sense of cultural and political exclusion, it’s more like moral-minoritarianism. As Rod Dreher rightly observes, the idea that conservative Christians can simply seize control of America—a representative democracy—and fix the dominant culture from the top down is laughable.
Lowry sharpens this point: “…conservative Catholics aren’t operating from a position of strength. Overall, about 20 percent of the U.S. population is Catholic, and only about 37 percent of Catholics are Republicans. About half [of those] aren’t particularly conservative on abortion or gay marriage.”
For those keeping score, Ahmari’s army-for-the-restoration-of-moral-order-in-America is a minority of a minority of a minority. And its general-apparent is a guy currently celebrating Gay Pride Month. If you think a coalition that includes evangelicals might swell the ranks enough to “defeat the enemy,” and “re-order” the public square around the Highest Good, I direct your attention to decades of values-voter summits and guides which have inexplicably failed to usher in the millennium.
As a lawyer, David French has worked tirelessly to carve out space for religious conservatives to persist as a cultural minority, legally sheltered from the imposition of secularism by the dominant culture. There’s a reason for that: No plausible scenario exists in which Christians come out on top in Ahmari’s figurative civil war. Any power grab and attempt to use the government as a cudgel to subdue progressive radicals, at this stage, is going to result in a catastrophic backlash. As a Jewish gentleman recently wrote to Rod Dreher, there is an art to surviving and thriving as underdogs. And it involves not ticking off the cultural rottweilers. That’s why the Jews finally decided to lay low: They had all the zealotry beaten out of them by the Romans.
David-Frenchians aren’t defeatists, of course. Heck, this one is postmillennial. We just take the long view. And that means not placing our hope in some kind of cultural or political blitzkrieg-for-Christ. Ironically, while Ahmari accuses French of underestimating the depth of the crisis facing religious conservatives, it is he who ridicules the long, hard, culture-shifting work it’s going to take to get our country back on track. We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and we won’t get out of it overnight. We can, however, make things worse with a quick, ill-considered dash for the harbor.