On the Ahmari-French debate – Catholic World Report

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(Image: Patrick Tomasso | Unsplash.com)

Does liberalism, the view that makes equal freedom the highest political standard, mean tolerance for Christianity?

Or does it ultimately mean suppression of Christianity in the name of the freedom and equality of non-Christians? The question matters a great deal, because America is a liberal country, and because classical liberalism has been central to American conservatism.

A recent debate on the question began with an interchange between Sohrab Ahmari at First Things, who sees the current state of affairs as a genuine cultural war, and David French at National Review, who holds to the classical liberal conception of the public order as a neutral pluralistic space devoted to equal freedom in which a hundred flowers can bloom.

Ahmari’s side of the argument is stronger. French’s seems to offer more immediate practical possibilities, because it allows appeal to established principles and categories of discussion. That can be useful, as in the case of the litigation on behalf of religious and academic freedom French himself has carried on.

Ultimately, though, it cannot be relied on because it ignores basic realities. Liberal pluralism is an oxymoron. Liberalism cannot be pluralist because like any view it excludes other possibilities. It puts freedom first, without subordinating it to any definite substantive good, and that means its demand for personal autonomy can’t be limited. The public order depends on public attitudes, and the demand for autonomy will define it only if it pervades the moral and religious understandings of the citizens. But if it does, to the exclusion of other understandings, where is the pluralism?

Classical liberal conceptions such as religious freedom give a protected status to religion. They hang on today because of legal precedent, constitutional text, and general inertia, but more and more leaders of thought view them as groundless and retrograde. After all, the very existence of traditional religious views creates an environment that puts people, such as homosexuals, who have traditionally been subject to discrimination at a disadvantage. So why—they say—give such views special protection?

As French notes, his view makes “the government primarily responsible for safeguarding liberty, and the people primarily responsible for exercising that liberty for virtuous purposes.” So his classical liberal view requires limited government and a virtuous populace.

But when has the system of government French’s view requires ever existed? The Constitution says nothing about it. The Federal government was not intended as a complete system of government, but left most functions to the states, which exercised a general police power that included the power and indeed duty of promoting religion and morality. That is why a number of states had explicit religious establishments, and it is why the First Amendment includes, among other things, a promise by the Federal government to leave those establishments alone.

So limited government that maintains a neutral and pluralistic public sphere was hardly a foundational American principle. Nor has it become such except perhaps rhetorically. No one influential in American public life cares about limited government or neutrality. Instead we have a government that raises our children, supports us in times of trouble, decides that “rights” and “health” include abortion and transgenderism, and redefines the family out of all definite meaning.

We also have a government that views remaking human relations, notably the relations between the sexes and among ethnic and religious groups, as one of its basic duties. All respectable public figures agree that government should suppress the practical importance of differences related to sex, culture, and ancestry. Some conservatives complain a little about the ever-growing list of discriminations to be abolished and the ever-more-intrusive measures thought necessary to do so, but the basic principle that fighting discrimination should be fundamental to public policy is universally considered a moral imperative.

But if government is to reform human relations how are the people to be independent arbiters of morality within a neutral pluralistic system? Religion and inherited cultural community have a pervasive effect on how moral issues are understood, and the proper roles of the sexes depend on understandings of sex and family life. Since government is expected to suppress the practical significance of religious, communal, and sexual distinctions, how can it possibly leave cultural standards and expectations regarding religion, morality, sex, community loyalty, and the family untouched?

For example, emphasis on woman’s role as mother and the evils of contraception and abortion burden women’s ability to take part in professional and public life on a basis identical to men. How can a society and government that consider equality of the sexes in such settings an absolutely fundamental value allow free rein to traditional understandings on such topics? And since Catholic doctrine favors traditional understandings more than some other views do, how can such understandings be allowed public influence without favoring Catholicism over the others?
A yet more provocative question raised by the debate is whether American and Western politics now involves “war and enmity,” in Ahmari’s expression, or—as French would have it—should always be understood as deliberation among fellow citizens for their common advantage.

It seems evident that what politics is like depends on circumstances, including agreement on common goods that is sufficient for political cooperation. Ahmari believes such agreement no longer exists, and under such circumstances fruitful public discussion breaks down and “the only way is … to fight the cultural 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 seems to believe Christianity forbids such a view, because it commands love of neighbor. But he is a decorated military veteran. Has he rejected his former profession and embraced pacifism? If so, he has abandoned politics, which inevitably involves contentious choices and coercion, and he should not pretend otherwise.

French refuses to recognize how serious a problem fundamental differences regarding the common good can be. “While governments should of course seek the common good,” he says, “they do not and should not have the brute coercive force to ‘re-order’ the public square to achieve that good as they define it.”

But why does saying that government and other social institutions should adopt an understanding of what is good that is in line with moral reality mean more “brute coercive force” than other possibilities?

Also, what can he mean by seeking the “common good” when he believes in pluralism and the neutrality of public spaces? Sohrab Ahmari, Peter Singer, Elizabeth Warren, and Jeffrey Epstein disagree fundamentally with French over what the common good demands. Does pluralism and neutrality mean that their views should all have equal status in public life? If so, how does government go about seeking a common good that is so lacking in coherent definition?

Such objections seem insuperable. But the difficulty for Ahmari and those who agree with him, as many point out, is what to do to promote a more favorable setting for traditional Christianity than French’s classical liberal approach allows.

Those on Ahmari’s side may no longer believe in liberalism as a theory, but seem to maintain a certain faith in popular self-government through liberal institutions. The mission of First Things, for example, is to provide a public voice for the traditionally religious that enables them to take a fruitful part in public discussion. How does that work if we are all at war?

It is hard to know what any of us can do other than go with what’s available. And that is a reason for reservations regarding talk of war, enmity, and the spoils of victory. When you lack power you rely of necessity on weapons of the weak like persuasion and appeal to abstract norms of justice. That’s what, among others, the early apologists did.

But Ahmari may simply mean that the “say something and then apologize when progressives complain” approach goes nowhere. If so, he is right. If you favor something you should say so, and if it’s not realistic to think it will be realized any time soon it is all more important to say clearly what it is. How else can it acquire a public presence?

As Saint Paul said, we should preach the word in season and out of season. If the substance of what we say causes offense, that is all the more reason to say it if it is true and important. It will give people something to think about that may eventually bear fruit.

And perhaps that is the ultimate lesson of this debate. Politics depends on what precedes politics, including religion, and Catholics will not win what we need to win through political strategizing. Instead, the only way forward is to know what is good, beautiful, and true, declare it publicly, promote it where we can, and live by it. How it all turns out after that is not up to us.


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