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The Ahmari/French debate: A reading list

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“If you printed out and stacked up every piece written about the dispute between First Things contributor Sohrab Ahmari and National Review writer David French, it wouldn’t quite go up 68,000 miles—that would be the $22 trillion national debt, stacked by ones—but it would be towering nonetheless,” says Matt Welch.

For those who are late to the debate and want to catch up, I’ve collected a reading list of articles related to the controversy. I’ve included the original essay by Ahmari first and the response by French second. All the others are in alphabetical order by author. If you know of additional online articles or essays that should be included, please leave a link in the comments.

Against David French-ism
Sohrab Ahmari, First Things

As an activist, French has benefited from the Trump GOP’s ascendance, but he has kept his hands clean, his soul untainted. As anyone familiar with the Amelia Sedley character in Vanity Fair knows, a kind of airy, above-it-all mentality can supply its own vain satisfactions.

But conservative Christians can’t afford these luxuries. Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.


What Sohrab Ahmari Gets Wrong
David French, National Review

“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.”


What Sohrab Ahmari Gets Right
David L. Bahnsen, National Review

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?


Okay, Sohrab Ahmari, but Why Did You ‘Snap’?
Charles C. W. Cooke, National Review

One of my biggest problems with the worldview that Sohrab Ahmari outlines in the course of criticizing David French — and, for that matter, with the general tenor of the Deneen-inspired “anti-liberalism” that First Things is presently indulging — is that it gets extremely fuzzy when it reaches the questions, “What do we actually want?” and “How do we intend to get there?” Ahmari says he wants 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.” Okay. But what does that actually mean in practice? What does a “defeated enemy” look like? By what mechanism is the “public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good”? Which “public square”? — there are many in America. And what is the “common good and ultimately the Highest Good”? Who decides? Ahmari? The Pope? Nicolás Maduro?


The Cultural White Walkers Have Descended
Ben Domenech, The Federalist

It is not particularly comforting to recognize we have reached a point in America where politeness and decency is no longer the best approach to politics. Most of the political class agrees with French. They would vastly prefer a world where everyone in politics has an approach like Paul Ryan. But even as the political elite, both leaders and staff, have insisted on that approach for years where culture and policy fights are concerned, something has come along which disrupts their chiding message about a cultural defense with the ease and give of a soft-boiled egg. It embraces the happy while forgetting the warrior part. Domesticated animals are always more welcome at the garden party atmosphere of the plexiglass roundtables shot through the airwaves, where people say “I think” about the news.


What Are Conservatives Actually Debating?
Ross Douthat, New York Times

The further this reconsideration goes, the more fanciful, utopian or revolutionary it might seem. (The integralists would cop to the last designation.) But the basic concept of a right rooted more in cultural conservatism and economic populism than in libertarianism and individualism isn’t fanciful; it describes the emergent right-of-center ideological formations all across the Western world. The American pendulum may swing back to fusionism after Trump — French is hardly alone in championing the old regime, and most Republican politicians remain instinctive fusionists — but some version of Ahmari’s turn is one that the right is making almost everywhere, for now.

But in making that turn, so far, the American version of conservatism hasn’t solved a problem that’s also distilled in Ahmari vs. French — the problem of how a culturally conservative movement can expect to thrive under the leadership of a figure as distant from its official ideals, and as alienating to persuadable voters, as the figure of Donald Trump.


Sohrab Ahmari Vs. David French
Rod Dreher, The American Conservative

The Ahmari vs. French standoff is a version of what Patrick Deneen, in a 2014 TAC article, identified as “a Catholic showdown worth watching.” Deneen identifies the antagonists not as left vs. right, but a dispute between two kinds of conservatives within US Catholicism. On one side are classical liberals — the Neuhaus/Novak/Weigel folks — who believe that Christianity can be reconciled with liberalism, and enrich it. On the other are those — Alasdair MacIntyre, David Schindler — who believe that they are fundamentally incompatible.

Though Ahmari is Catholic and French is Evangelical, this is near the core of their argument. More on which anon.

Where do I stand? Somewhere unsatisfying between Ahmari and French, for reasons I will explain. Essentially, I lack French’s faith in classical liberalism, and I lack Ahmari’s faith that this is a battle that can be won (also, I’m not quite sure what “winning” would look like, but I’ll get to that).


The Death of Liberal Democracy: A Few Notes on the Ahmari-French Controversy
John Ehrett, Patheos

Without delving into the book too deeply, I tend to think Deneen’s case against liberalism is a bit of a just-so story. It largely fails to engage the nuances of political theory teased out by scholars like Philip Hamburger or John Marini—such as the emergence in the early 1900s of the “administrative state,” which abandoned traditional ideas of natural law in favor of a positivistic managerial progressivism. Absent the rise of the administrative state (which has a European, not American, philosophical pedigree) it is entirely unclear whether the modern American dystopia Deneen describes—one where the leviathan state perpetually intervenes to emancipate ever-more-alienated individuals—could have come into being. Rather, as the Claremont school of political philosophy has argued (quite persuasively to my mind), from the start the American liberal tradition was deeply rooted in the principle of human equality as a matter of natural law, even if that promise of inequality was imperfectly actualized.

But Deneen’s argument has been widely influential among those of a certain cast of mind. And so, in lieu of a “return to the Founders’ vision,” some propose to turn the clock back further still—returning to a model of “Gelasian dyarchy” where the state and church participate together in the business of governance.


What a Clash Between Conservatives Reveals
Alan Jacobs, The Atlantic

It’s important to note that Ahmari sees the differences between him and French as rooted, ultimately, in their different Christian traditions: Catholicism for Ahmari—who recently published a memoir of his conversion—and evangelical Protestantism. But whether this is indeed the heart of the matter, the dispute so far hasn’t fallen out that way. Some Catholics are with French, some Protestants with Ahmari. And in any case, I’m more interested in the ways this dispute illuminates questions that all Christians involved in public life need to reckon with than in choosing sides. How Christians choose to reckon with these questions will have consequences for all Americans, whether religious or not.


Why Jews Should Pay Attention to the Recent Debate Rocking American Conservatism
Liel Leibovitz, Tablet

To put it briefly, the Never Trump argument is that they should be greatly approved of, while Donald Trump should rightly be scorned, because—while they agree with Trump on most things, politically—they are devoted to virtue, while Trump is uniquely despicable. The proofs of Trump’s singular loathsomeness are many, but if you strip him of all the vices he shares with others who had recently held positions of power—a deeply problematic attitude towards women (see under: Clinton, William Jefferson), shady business dealings (see under: Clinton, Hillary Rodham), a problematic attitude towards the free press (see under: Obama, Barack)—you remain with one ur-narrative, the terrifying folk tale that casts Trump as a nefarious troll dispatched by his paymasters in the Kremlin to set American democracy ablaze.


The Alternatives to David-Frenchism
Peter Leithart, Theopolis

Those are serious political concers, but I’m more interested in the theological problems with Ahmari’s piece. Against French, he insists that “Civility and decency are secondary values.” OK. But what about love? Would the Catholic Ahmari suggest that we can put that to the side while we prosecute the culture war? What kind of orthodoxy would we then be enforcing?

So, can we fight to win and yet fight in love? Yes, but only if we shift the register, and view our cultural and political conflicts as aspects of a larger, spiritual warfare.


How the intellectual right is talking itself into tearing down American democracy
Damon Linker, The Week

On one level, Ahmari’s position aligns him with the magazine’s founding aims. He, like the Neuhaus of 1990, wants to politically empower social conservatives, ultimately making it possible for them to play a significant, if not a dominant, part in political rule. But on another level, his outlook is very different — because he believes that social conservatives can achieve those aims despite the fact that they do not constitute anything close to a majority of the country. (Those with Ahmari’s theological and political views are almost certainly a minority even within the Catholic Church in the United States, let alone in the country as a whole.)

When social conservatives thought they were the moral majority, it made sense for them to dream of exercising real political power. When they recognized that they were a minority, it made sense for them to resign themselves to adopting a defensive posture and preparing to live out their days in a country as dissenters from the reigning liberal consensus.
What makes no sense is for social conservatives to think they can be both weak and strong at the same time — a minority that wields the power of a majority.

Unless, of course, social conservatives no longer care about democracy.


David French and the Revolutionary Style in Conservative Journalism
Jake Meador, Mere Orthodoxy

The fact that Ahmari’s piece is concerned with image and rhetorical positioning is suggestive of an excessive concern amongst some dissident conservatives with striking the right rhetorical pose, positioning oneself as a strongman who is sufficiently radical to answer the challenge before us.

Do note that the argument which follows concerning Ahmari’s alarming rhetorical style should be kept separate from the question of the reconcilability of classical liberalism with Christian faith.


David French and Sohrab Ahmari: What Are We Debating?
Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review

The difference between French and Ahmari with respect to Trump is also elusive. It’s clear that French is more critical of the president than Ahmari is these days. Ahmari suggests that there is something rotten about French’s welcoming some developments that have occurred under, through, and thanks to Trump while maintaining this stance toward the president. But Ahmari still regularly offers his own criticisms of the president. So what amount or degree of criticism is acceptable before crossing the line? Surely the answer cannot be that all conservatives have to be exactly where Ahmari is on Trump at any given moment.

We should all be willing to listen to one another — if that is not too civil and naïve a thing to say — especially given our many shared convictions. I’m not “against Sohrab Ahmari-ism.” But I wish I had a better sense of what it is.


What Liberalism Lacks
R.R. Reno, First Things

As a tradition, liberalism is and always has sought to expand and protect freedom. This has meant diminishing the public authority of older, pre-liberal traditions (expanding freedom through deregulation, cultural and economic). It has also meant clear specification of rights and principles that limit the ability of powerful forces in contemporary society to re-regulate the public square in accord with new norms (protecting freedom with rights).

Freedom often needs to be encouraged and protected. But responsible citizenship requires knowing what diseases threaten the body politic. Today, we are coming apart. Our families are fragmented. Our civic life is tattered. People distrust their leaders. Meanwhile, the reparative power of moral and religious communities has greatly diminished.
As a tradition, liberalism offers little help for thinking about and addressing these problems, for they are crises of solidarity, not freedom. Insisting on the importance of liberalism, however cautiously defined, can be worse than useless if it focuses our attention on the wrong things.


Sohrab Ahmari Is Right
Matthew Schmitz, First Things

Civility—indeed, our whole civic life—will always be directed toward some good, whether higher or lower. Aristotle begins his Politics by saying, “Every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all … aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.” Augustine agreed: “A ‘people’ is an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love … the better the objects of this agreement, the better the people; and the worse the objects, the worse the people.”


The New Theocrats Are Neither Conservative Nor Christian
Stephanie Slade, Reason

Classical liberalism privileges individual liberty, correctly understood as freedom from coercion and aggression, by championing things like free expression, due process, and the relatively unencumbered movement of goods and people. The ascendant progressivism, on the other hand, has no qualms about infringing people’s liberty in order to advance its own moral agenda. Socialists seek to command people’s behavior in the economic sphere, while social justice warriors try to impose rightthinkon matters of culture. It’s not enough that same-sex and opposite-sex couples receive equal treatment under the law, the left now says; the state must compel Christian business owners to participate in gay weddings or be driven from the marketplace.

Ahmari also wishes to use government power to constrain people’s freedom. Thus, he is advocating an illiberal conservatism—a rejection of the right’s longstanding fusion of social traditionalism with staunch respect for individual rights.

My colleague Robby Soave and countless others have already pointed out that this would be a catastrophic unforced political error on the part of conservatives. Classical liberal values and institutions offer a robust bulwark against the worst excesses of the illiberal left. Do Ahmari et al. actually think the system that gave us the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling is so broken as to justify setting the whole thing ablaze? More to the point, do they really believe that what follows after the smoke clears will be better for religious traditionalists?

But the First Thingsian rejection of the liberal order isn’t merely strategically imprudent. It’s morally reprehensible from a Catholic perspective. The dignity of the human person, which follows from our being created by God in His image and likeness, demands that we be given expansive freedom to make choices for ourselves.


David French Is Right: Classical Liberalism Is the Best Framework for Protecting Religious Freedom
Robby Soave, Reason

There’s something childishly immature but deeply emotionally satisfying about standing up and declaring that everyone who disagrees with your worldview is either a moron or evil, and that you are against them and all they stand for. Notice that both the manifesto and the anti-French piece are titled “against X.” It’s fun to be against things, and to profess epistemic certainty that the thing is bad. Post-Trump social conservatism is certainly enjoying its shouty tantrum moment. So, too, is woke progressivism, which evinces the same with-us-or-against-us militancy. That the new right and the new left simultaneously despise each other, yet completely depend upon each other to make absurd leaps that fire up the other side and prompt similar overreaches, is a central theme of my book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump.

With woke scolds on one end and devout scolds on the other, this can be a frustrating time for those of us who are still committed to an open and free society that places individual rights on the very highest philosophical, moral, and legal pedestal. But defending individual rights remains the best way forward.


Sohrab Ahmari and the Futile Rage of the Illiberal Conservatives
Robert Tracinski, The Bulwark

The First Things manifesto begins with sneering references to “individual autonomy” but then moves on to denouncing “the cult of competitiveness,” “free trade,” “economic libertarianism,” “the demands of capital,” “investors and ‘job creators’ “—note the gratuitous scare quotes—and “warmed-over Reaganism.”

I predicted a few days ago that we were only weeks away from conservatives trashing Ronald Reagan in order to bolster Trump. It turns out I was behind the curve. It was already happening.

The signatories of that manifesto don’t just want to eject the free-marketers. They want to welcome in the nationalists: “We embrace the new nationalism insofar as it stands against the utopian ideal of a borderless world.” They talk about “communal solidarity” and “the human need for a common life.” And who are the bad guys? Here we get a lot of familiar alt-light rhetoric about supposed “jet-setters,” “citizens of the world” who can “go anywhere” and “work anywhere” in a “borderless world.” I’m surprised they didn’t just go straight to “rootless cosmopolitans.”


Sohrab Ahmari, First Things, and the High Church of Victimology
Greg Weiner, The Bulwark

Why cling to victim status, with its halo of helplessness? Precisely because it releases one from norms of civility, which bind by tradition and habituation rather than by reflex. It authorizes the expression of our baser instincts while soothing losses incurred in the realm of representative self-government.

Another hallmark of this style of politics is railing against amorphous oppressors. In the Trumpist case, it is the culture and its corporate backers, who bully communities into accepting, for example, changing sexual norms. To be sure, the bullying culture, especially in bien pensant college towns and the Philistine Acela corridor and the Gomorrahs on the coasts—places from which, not incidentally, the besieged tend to write—is real, even if the apparatus of the state is no small weapon of defense. Moreover, culture arguably matters more than politics, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted. But the latter, as he also wrote, is a formidable means of shaping the former.

The larger problem with going home in search of monsters to destroy is that it is an AUMF for domestic politics: a license for perpetual warfare because the enemy can always be said to be lurking, somewhere.


The Iran-Iraq War Among Conservatives
John Zmirak, The Stream

These grim, pessimistic, un-American vapors are wafting in from the fever swamps of a bizarro-world Catholic right that rejects religious liberty. I don’t think they deserve any more mainstream welcome than their secular counterparts.

Whatever the American right will become in this age of shifting definitions, I know one thing certainly. It won’t be a mongrelized mix of theocratic socialism, Catholic authoritarianism, and despair or contempt for our country. That dog won’t hunt.


 

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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