In March, First Things published a manifesto of sorts signed by several mostly youngish, mostly Roman Catholic writers, who argued that “there is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016,” that “any attempt to revive the failed conservative consensus that preceded Trump would be misguided and harmful to the right.”
Against whom, concretely speaking, was this declaration directed?
I don’t claim to speak for the other signatories. But as one of the principal drafters, I have given the question a great deal of thought, both before and since the document’s publication. And I can now say that for me, “Against the Dead Consensus” drew a line of demarcation with what I call David French-ism, after the National Review writer and Never-Trump stalwart.
What is David French-ism? As Irving Kristol said of neoconservatism, French-ism is more a persuasion or a sensibility than a movement with clear tenets. And that sensibility is, in turn, bound up with the persona of one particular writer, though it reaches beyond him to pervade a wider sphere of conservative Christian thinking and activism.
It isn’t easy to critique the persona of someone as nice as French. Then again, it is in part that earnest and insistently polite quality of his 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.” (What prompted my ire was a Facebook ad for a children’s drag queen reading hour at a public library in Sacramento.)
I added, “The only way is through”—that is to say, 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.
French prefers a different Christian strategy, and his guileless public mien and strategic preferences bespeak a particular political theology (though he would never use that term), one with which I take issue. Thus, my complaint about his politeness wasn’t a wanton attack; it implicated deeper matters.
Such talk—of politics as war and enmity—is thoroughly alien to French, I think, because he believes 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. Even if the latter—that is, the libertine and the pagan—predominate in elite institutions, French figures, then at least the former, traditional Christians, should be granted spaces in which to practice and preach what they sincerely believe.
Well, it doesn’t work out that way, and it hasn’t been working out that way for a long time—as French well knows, since he has spent a considerable part of his career admirably and passionately advocating for Christians coercively squeezed out of the public square. In that time, he—we—have won discrete victories, but the overall balance of forces has tilted inexorably away from us, and I think that French-ian model bears some of the blame.
To take one of numerous instructive examples, when the progressive clerisy launched an inquisition against the actor Chris Pratt in February over his membership in the wrong kind of church, French appealed to a fictional pluralism. “A core (and very basic) tenet of pluralism,” he wrote,
is the notion that people of diametrically opposed belief systems can live and work side by side so long as they treat each other with dignity and respect. I’ve spent my entire career working with people who believe that my religious beliefs are wrong, that my stance on sexual morality is wrong, and that my political judgments are deeply misguided. Yet even in the case of profound disagreement, it is easy to treat people well. It is easy to treat people fairly.
Conversely, it is the height of intolerance to believe that it is somehow problematic — absent any evidence of mistreatment on the job or on-set — that a person disagrees with you on matters of faith. And if it is an obligation for colleagues to go beyond “welcoming” each other to “affirming” each other’s deepest beliefs, where is the affirmation of faithful Christians?
French is, in effect, telling the cultural revolutionaries: We will grant your autonomy in the neutral institution (in this case, Hollywood). Won’t you grant us ours? Though culturally conservative, French is a political liberal, which means that individual autonomy is his lodestar: He sees “protecting individual liberty” as the main, if not sole, purpose of government. Here is the problem: The movement we are up against prizes autonomy above all, too; indeed, its ultimate aim is to secure for the individual will the widest possible berth to define what is true and good and beautiful, against the authority of tradition.
Only, the libertines take the logic of maximal autonomy—the one French shares—to its logical terminus. They say, in effect: For us to feel fully autonomous, you must positively affirm our sexual choices, our transgression, our power to disfigure our natural bodies and redefine what it means to be human, lest your disapprobation make us feel less than fully autonomous.
They have a point: Individual experiments in living—say, taking your kids to a drag reading hour at the public library—cannot be sustained without some level of moral approval by the community. Autonomy-maximizing liberalism is normative, in its own twisted way. Thus, it represents the interiorization, and fulfillment, of French’s worldview. And this is how David French-ism gets trapped.
The more that conservative liberals like French insist on autonomy, the more they strengthen the bullies’ position. This far with autonomy, they insist, but no farther. But why should the other side stop? Why shouldn’t this new, aggressive vision of maximal autonomy not overtake the old?
Here French and others fall back on religious liberty. French has done yeoman’s work in defense of Christians and other people of faith persecuted in America. But in the long term, religious-liberty absolutism will put Christians and other traditional believers in a bind. If the moral law is merely a matter of ancient, if sincere, conviction, then of course it must give way to the demands for autonomy of people in the here and now.
Archbishop Charles Chaput made this point in his 2017 book, Strangers in a Strange Land. If traditional moral precepts are “purely religious beliefs,” he wrote, then “they can’t be rationally defended. And because they’re rationally indefensible, they should be treated as a form of prejudice. Thus two thousand years of moral truth and religious principle become, by sleight of hand, a species of bias.”
Again and again, French insists on the sincerity of the believers whose causes he takes up, as if asserting sincerity of belief can move the heart of an enemy who finds you and your beliefs repulsive: “The biblical sexual ethic is based on a sincere conviction. . . .” “Evidence of devout faith is frequently evidence of a sincere commitment to fairness, compassion, and the faithful discharge of one’s constitutional duties. . . .”
But they won’t listen. Tub-thump long enough about your sincere but irrational (in the eyes of the reigning ideology) views, and soon opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, polyamory, kids in drag, and much else of the same kind will come to resemble the wrongheaded and indeed irrational opposition to vaccination mounted by ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York. Sorry, Pastor French, but your superstition will have to give way to public health and the smooth functioning of the autonomy-maximizing society.
So what long-term strategy, if any, does David French-ism offer? In a word, culture.
Conservative liberalism of the kind French embodies has a great horror of the state, of traditional authority and the use of the public power to advance the common good, including in the realm of public morality. That horror is a corollary to its autonomy-maximizing impulse.
This goes back, I think, to its roots in English non-conformism. In Culture and Anarchy, his great Victorian critique of this mode of thought, Matthew Arnold says of the nonconformist that, because he has encountered the Word of God by his own lights, he sees no need for the authority and grand liturgies of a national church (still less the Catholic Church).
But as Arnold notes, while the nonconformist vision of an austere, no-frills, solitary encounter with God might be suitable in one context, it doesn’t satisfy other necessities, such as collective public worship befitting public needs. Or again, while free trade might have provided for growth in Britain’s urban cores, something middle-class liberals welcomed, it also created public misery and overcrowding that needed to be addressed—and not by individual initiative alone. And so on.
Mutatis mutandis, David French-ism. Forced to reckon with the fact that autonomy unbound hasn’t yielded freedom but new and insidious forms of digital tyranny, French treats as a nonstarter conservative proposals to intervene (“I oppose government efforts to regulate social-media speech policies”). Instead, he urges essentially a cultural solution. Silicon Valley should voluntarily adopt First Amendment norms, per French, and I wish him good luck persuading our programmer-kings to go along.
How do we counter ideological mono-thought in universities, workplaces, and other institutions? Try promoting better work-life balance, says French. How do we promote the good of the family against the deracinating forces arrayed against it, some of them arising out of the free market (pornography) and others from the logic of maximal autonomy (no-fault divorce)? “We should reverse cultural messages that for too long have denigrated the fundamental place of marriage in public life.” Oh, OK. How do we combat the destruction wrought by drugs (licit and illicit), by automation and globalization and other forces of the kind? “We need to embrace the vital importance of religious faith in personal renewal.” Thanks, Pastor French.
For French, the solution to nearly every problem posed by a politics of individual autonomy above all is yet more autonomous action. But sentimentalization of family life won’t be enough to overcome the challenges posed to it by the present economy. Calls for religious revival are often little more than an idle wish that all men become moral, so that we might dispense with moral regulation.
Government intervention will not be the answer to every social ill. In many instances, free markets and individual enterprise can best serve the common good, albeit indirectly. But I take issue with David French-ism’s almost supernatural faith in something called “culture”—deemed to be neutral and apolitical and impervious to policy—to solve everything. Questions that are squarely political—that is, that touch on our shared quest for the common good—become depoliticized by this culture-first strategy. The libertine camp prefers the same depoliticization, of course; they’re much better at winning in the realm of culture than David French will ever be.
Voters across the developed world have had enough of depoliticized politics. In the United States, this great “no” culminated in 2016’s election of Donald Trump. With a kind of animal instinct, Trump understood what was missing from mainstream (more or less French-ian) conservatism. His instinct has been to shift the cultural and political mix, ever so slightly, away from autonomy-above-all toward order, continuity, and social cohesion. He believes that the political community—and not just the church, family, and individual—has its own legitimate scope for action. He believes it can help protect the citizen from transnational forces beyond his control.
French’s response to these developments on the right has been predictable: He has spent two years promoting the now-discredited Russian “collusion” theory; moralizing and pretending we don’t face enemies who seek our personal destruction (just ask Justice Kavanaugh); and haranguing his fellow evangelical Protestants for supporting Trump, as if they were the only American voting bloc ever forced to compromise. 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.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post. He is at work on a book, exploring 12 fundamental questions our culture doesn’t ask.
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?
- 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
Keeping track of the Jacksonians, Reformicons, Paleos, and Post-liberals.
I like to start my classes on conservative intellectual history by distinguishing between three groups. There is the Republican party, with its millions of adherents and spectrum of opinion from very conservative, somewhat conservative, moderate, and yes, liberal. There is the conservative movement, the constellation of single-issue nonprofits that sprung up in the 1970s —
- gun rights,
- right to work
— and continue to influence elected officials. Finally, there is the conservative intellectual movement: writers, scholars, and wonks whose journalistic and political work deals mainly with ideas and, if we’re lucky, their translation into public policy.