David French and Sohrab Ahmari: What Are We Debating?

Sohrab Ahmari has set off a bitter debate, but it’s not at all clear what that debate is supposed to be about.

  • Classical liberalism?
  • Civility?
  • President Trump?
  • The collected works of David French?

So far, it seems to be about all of those things put in a blender — which is not a recipe for maintaining useful distinctions. I’ll try to separate some of the discrete issues.

‘David French–ism’ without David French

French has been unfairly caricatured — but the caricature is worth defending.

Near as I can tell, the David French controversy revolves around allegations that the man is too much of an accommodating pragmatist on social issues. The charge is amusing to me, given that one of my defining experiences here at NR occurred when French denounced a column I wrote last year about the need for conservatives to pragmatically accommodate transgender Americans.

Do Social Conservatives Really Face an Existential Crisis?

The flawed assumption underlying both sides of the intra-conservative debate kicked off by Sohrab Ahmari

We get your holidays off. Most TV shows have a Christmas episode. I’ve heard about “the spirit of Christmas” more times than I can count. There are churches everywhere. The most-watched news network and some of the most popular websites denounce “happy holidays” while issuing fever dream warnings of Sharia law. Visit Israel or a Muslim country and you’ll see what it looks like when Christianity is culturally weak.

But that’s not the type of power culture warriors and defenders of conservative Christianity are talking about.

To get to the supposed crisis, we have to dismiss a lot of political and cultural power. Even then, examining specific instances of encroaching secular culture shows that “no longer dominant in every area, but still powerful overall” is more accurate than “under immense threat and headed for annihilation.”

The Actual Threat

There are, of course, incidents of religious Americans facing discrimination. There are also incidents of non-religious Americans facing discrimination. The question is not “do religious conservatives face any opposition?,” but whether that opposition is so powerful, and conservative Christians so weak, that the threat is existential.

Consider some of the most prominent cases:

Universities and Free Speech
David French cites a lawsuit in which he defended “a conservative Christian professor who was denied promotion because of his faith.” That’s wrong — it’s religious discrimination — and he won in court. There are many universities where no professors were denied promotion because of their religion, and others, such as Bob Jones in South Carolina, that are allowed to utilize religious criteria.

French also cites the work of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which he used to lead. I share some of their criticisms regarding campus censorship — see, for example, my article on free speech — but it hardly amounts to social conservatives’ impending annihilation.

As an example of threats to free speech on campus, FIRE maintains a database of disinvitations, in which activists tried to prevent someone they dislike from speaking. From 1998 through 2019, FIRE identifies 427 incidents. Of these, 257 cases involve protests coming from the speaker’s left (not all of which involve religion). That means an average of 11.68 cases per year over 22 years. With about 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States, about 0.2 percent see a disinvitation attempt prompted by the left in a given year.

That’s not the only illiberal activity on campus — and I think many of them deserve criticism — but an existential threat it is not.

Hobby Lobby
Obamacare required health insurance plans to cover contraception, and the owners of Hobby Lobby, a privately-held chain of stores, objected. They’re conservative Christians, and argued that being forced to pay for contraceptives violated their religious freedom.

But they weren’t forced to pay for contraceptives. They compensated their employees with health insurance, and then, if the employee chose to buy contraceptives, the insurance company paid for it. Millions of employees spend their paychecks on things their employers disapprove of, but the employers can’t stop it. There’s no reason non-cash compensation should be different.

What the owners of Hobby Lobby wanted is the type of power Ahmari craves — the ability to impose religious beliefs on others. No one forced them to use contraception. No one even forced them to buy someone else’s contraception. But the possibility that employees might choose to use their health insurance for something the employers didn’t like was too much.

In a 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby. As a result, if you work for a private company, and the owners are religious, they can tell you what you can and cannot do with some of your compensation.

You may be more sympathetic to Hobby Lobby’s position than I am. Either way, no existential threat here.

Gay Wedding Cakes
The 2015, 5–4 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage in the United States. That’s probably the biggest example of social conservatives losing the power to impose their beliefs on others. However, while no church has to perform a gay wedding, and no one has to attend any wedding if they don’t want to, legalization created some situations that impose on religious Americans.

Should religious wedding vendors have to sell to gay couples? It’s a fascinating question, because two fundamental rights come into conflict: equal protection for the couple; freedom of religion for the vendor. In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court ducked the larger question, deciding 7–2 that the Commission displayed religious animus in its treatment of Masterpiece.

For me, it comes down to what the vendor’s being asked to do. Refusing to sell a standard product — something off the shelf they’d sell to other couples — is blatant “we don’t serve your kind here” discrimination, like banning black people from the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. But if it’s a custom product — something not unreasonably called art — then the government making the vendor do it is coerced creative labor. (I tackled this in greater detail here).

Brett Kavanaugh
The 2018 fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s conformation to the Supreme Court looms large in social conservative narratives of existential threat. For Ahmari, it’s proof they “face enemies who seek our personal destruction.” Dreher says it “radicalized” him. French agrees that it shows conservative Christians under threat, but argues that Kavanaugh’s confirmation demonstrates why the principles of classical liberalism, such as due process and presumption of innocence, are the best response. (As I said, their debate’s primarily over strategy, not the threat’s existence).

Underlying all of these claims is a staggering presumption of bad faith. Ahmari, Dreher, French and many other conservatives don’t consider the possibility that at least some of the opposition to Kavanaugh might’ve been opposition to Kavanaugh himself, not to American Christians in general.

To get there, you have to assume Christine Blasey Ford was lying, deluded, and/or put up to it, that people who say they believe her allegations of sexual assault are also lying, and that the women who poured their hearts out over their own sexual assaults were crisis actors out of Alex Jones’ imagination, or at least manipulators exaggerating how they feel because of their secret anti-Christian agenda. And you also must dismiss concerns from Americans who think Kavanaugh’s previous experience as a partisan operative isn’t a good fit for the nation’s highest supposed-to-be-impartial body.

Most importantly, you have to ignore the recent Supreme Court confirmations of Neil Gorsuch (conservative and Catholic, like Kavanaugh), Samuel Alito (conservative, Catholic), and John Roberts (conservative, Catholic), none of whom faced accusations of sexual assault. You have to concoct a story where the left wasn’t angry during Gorsuch’s nomination in 2017 — even though they were openly furious that the Senate blocked Obama’s 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland — but developed such fury over the subsequent year that they decided to invent and then pretend to care about accusations of sexual assault.

A lot of people care passionately about the Supreme Court, with many on the left strongly opposed to right-wing positions on abortion, prayer in schools, and other issues involving religion. And there’s no doubt some political operatives oppose every Supreme Court nomination from the other party and will latch onto whatever they can to fight it. But this does not add up to Christians under existential threat.

The Kavanaugh case reveals the fuzziness of the distinction between cultural and political power. According to right-wing culture warriors, winning elections is not a sign of lasting power, because it’s political, not cultural. However, nearly losing — but still winning — a Supreme Court seat is a sign of cultural weakness so menacing that Christians must adapt a crisis mentality.

Chick-fil-A
Social conservatives worrying about cultural annihilation may find all the above examples unconvincing. They all involve institutional power — court rulings, Senate votes — and one of the cultural warriors’ arguments is that conservatives must do anything to hold institutional power as a bulwark against the cultural threat.

Consider, then, the case of Chick-fil-A.

In 2012, the family-owned fast food chain came under fire when the chief operating officer publicly opposed same sex marriage, and it came out that the family’s foundation donated millions to organizations fighting against legalization. In response, LGBT rights activists called for protests and a boycott..

So it went out of business, right? Or if it didn’t, it’s because a court came to the rescue?

Nope. Conservatives rallied to the restaurant’s defense. Sales rose 12% in the aftermath of the controversy, and the chain has continued expanding, growing larger than Burger King or Wendy’s. Activists fought the expansion — here’s one warning of “Chick-fil-A’s creepy infiltration of New York City” — but failed.

It’s Not a Crisis

The Chick-fil-A case encapsulates my argument. Social conservatives face motivated opponents that have some cultural power. But religious conservatives have quite a bit of cultural power too. Plus a lot of judicial and political power. Ahmari’s frame of existential danger is divorced from reality. French’s “immense threat” is overstated.

There’s no question that Christianity is weaker in the United States in the 21st century than it was in the 20th or 19th. Mainstream movies, television, and pop music often portray social conservatives negatively (if at all), and portray things social conservatives disapprove of positively. But what this all adds up to is competing in American society as a large, powerful bloc — not impending annihilation.

The slope isn’t slippery.

Conservative Christians hold the keys to statehouses, House and Senate seats, electoral votes. There’s a friendly majority on the Supreme Court, and friendly judges throughout the system. Christianity has an enduring cultural power, because it’s deeply embedded in American life, and because millions of Americans practice various versions of it every day.

The narrative that religious conservatives face cultural apocalypse is one of the most toxic in American politics. It is one of the biggest causes — not the only cause, but a big one — of zero-sum, no-compromise, fight-over-everything hyper-partisanship. Because after all, if you’re facing extermination, you have no choice.

This logic bears enough resemblance to racist theories of “white genocide” that it should give social conservatives pause.

But it’s also good for political mobilization and media consumption. And a lot of people seem to like thinking of themselves as victims. So I wouldn’t expect it to stop.

What Are Conservatives Actually Debating?

What the strange war over “David French-ism” says about the right.

In March the religious journal First Things published a short manifesto, signed by a group of notable conservative writers and academics, titled “Against the Dead Consensus.” The consensus that the manifesto came to bury belonged to conservatism as it existed between the time of William F. Buckley Jr. and the rise of Donald Trump: An ideology that packaged limited government, free markets, a hawkish foreign policy and cultural conservatism together, and that assumed that business interests and religious conservatives and ambitious American-empire builders belonged naturally to the same coalition.

This consensus was never as stable as retrospective political storytelling might suggest; even successful Republican politicians inevitably left many of its factions sorely disappointed, while conservative intellectuals and activists feuded viciously with one another and constantly discerned crises and crackups for their movement. But the crisis revealed or created (depending on your perspective) by our own age of populism seems more severe, the stresses on the different factions more serious, and it is just possible that the longstanding conservative fusion might be as dead as the First Things signatories argued.

Among them was Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor at The New York Post, whose public career embodies some of those shifts and stresses: An immigrant whose family fled the Islamic Republic of Iran, he began his career on the right as an ex-Marxist secular neoconservative at The Wall Street Journal editorial page and has since become a traditionally inclined Catholic (a journey detailed in his striking memoir, “From Fire, By Water”) and also more Trump-friendly and populist into the bargain.

In the last week Ahmari has roiled the conservative intellectual world with a critique of something he calls David French-ism, after David French of National Review, another prominent conservative writer. This controversy, like the debate over Tucker Carlson and capitalism earlier this year, has been a full-employment bill for conservative pundits. But it probably seems impossibly opaque from the outside, since superficially Ahmari and French belong to the same faction on the right — both religious conservatives, both strongly anti-abortion, both deeply engaged in battles over religious liberty (where French is a longtime litigator). Indeed it is somewhat opaque even from the inside, prompting conservatives engaging with the dispute to wonder, “What are we debating?”

I’m going to try to answer that question here. We’ll see how it goes.

Basically the best way to understand the Ahmari-French split is in light of the old fusion, the old consensus, that the First Things manifesto attacked. French is a religious conservative who thinks that the pre-Trump conservative vision still makes sense. He thinks that his Christian faith and his pro-life convictions have a natural home in a basically libertarian coalition, one that wants to limit the federal government’s interventions in the marketplace and expects civil society to flourish once state power is removed. He thinks that believers and nonbelievers, secular liberals and conservative Christians, can coexist under a classical-liberal framework in which disputes are settled by persuasion rather than constant legal skirmishing, or else are left unsettled in a healthy pluralism. He is one of the few remaining conservatives willing to argue that the invasion of Iraq was just and necessary. And he opposes, now as well as yesterday, the bargain that the right struck with Donald Trump.

Ahmari, on the other hand, speaks for cultural conservatives who believe that the old conservative fusion mostly failed their part of the movement — winning victories for tax cutters and business interests while marriage rates declined, birthrates plummeted and religious affiliation waned; and appeasing social conservatives with judges who never actually got around to overturning Roe v. Wade. These conservatives believe that the current version of social liberalism has no interest in truces or pluralism and won’t rest till the last evangelical baker is fined into bankruptcy, the last Catholic hospital or adoption agency is closed by an A.C.L.U. lawsuit. They think that business interests have turned into agents of cultural revolution, making them poor allies for the right, and that the free trade and globalization championed by past Republican presidents has played some role in the dissolution of conservatism’s substrates — the family, the neighborhood, the local civitas. And they have warmed, quickly or slowly, to the politics-is-war style of the current president.

But what, specifically, do these conservatives want, besides a sense of thrill-in-combat that French’s irenic style denies them? I don’t think they are completely certain themselves; in a useful contribution to the Ahmari affair, R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, describes their animating spirit as a feeling that something else is needed in American society besides just classical-liberal, limited-government commitments, without any certainty about what that something ought to be.

Still, you can see three broad demands at work in their arguments. First, they want social conservatives to exercise more explicit power within the conservative coalition.

This may sound like a strange idea, since, after all, it is social conservatism’s growing political weakness, its cultural retreat, that led the religious right to throw in with a cruel sybarite like Trump. But there’s a plausible argument that even with its broader influence reduced, religious conservatism should still wield more power than it does in Republican politics — that it outsources too much policy thinking to other factions, that it goes along with legislation written for business interests so long as the promised judicial appointments are dangled at the end, and that it generally acts like a junior partner even though it delivers far more votes.