Sohrab Ahmari and David French met in debate on Thursday night, at the Catholic University of America’s Institute for Human Ecology, in an event titled, “Cultural conservatives: Two visions responding to the post-liberal Left.” The discussion – which French gave the Muhammad Ali-style moniker the “Melee at CUA” – raised vital questions of how Christians should interact with the state but left pivotal questions unanswered.
Sohrab Ahmari – a Roman Catholic, former senior writer at Commentary, and currently op-ed editor of the New York Post – deserves credit for not canceling his appearance despite having a one-day-old newborn at home.
David French, an evangelical, former religious liberty attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, Iraq veteran, briefly floated as a NeverTrump presidential candidate in 2016, and a columnist for National Review.
Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist for the New York Times and an IHE fellow, moderated the debate.
Defining the terms
Ahmari defined “David Frenchism” as “a program for negotiating Christian retreat from the public square into a safe, private sphere” carved out by legal exemptions. French branded this a straw man argument. “My approach from the beginning has been to aggressively, offensively … use the instruments of liberalism to expand the place of Christians in places that do not want Christians there,” French said. He cited his long record as a lawyer with ADF in helping the Supreme Court craft existing First Amendment jurisprudence, which says public accommodations must be open to people of all viewpoints and religious beliefs.
Douthat best defined Frenchism’s opposite number. “Fundamentally, Ahmarism claims that there has been insufficient attention paid to the influence of state power on culture,” he said.
Ahmari agreed that “[i]n many instances individual action and the market can best serve the common good, but we recognize that there is a common good … and the state has a role in nourishing that.” He urged believers to “go on the offense, including at the level of the state, because the need for a religious horizon does not end in a private sphere in one’s own encounter with Scripture. People have a religious horizon also in their collective experience in the state.”
David French’s strongest point
David French scored the biggest substantive point of the night by saying that the First Amendment must apply equally to all viewpoints, and getting Sohrab Ahmari to clearly demur.
French: You have already said that you would undermine viewpoint neutrality in First Amendment jurisprudence.
Ahmari: Yeah, I would.
French: That is a disaster, y’all. That’s a disaster. That’s not offensive. That’s stupid.
“I am not in any way willing to upset the constitutional order and to provide governments the ability to engage in viewpoint discrimination against disfavored organizations,” French said. “You have to consider a larger superstructure. And the reality is that you cannot take these things on a case-by-case basis and establish rules that say, ‘Free speech for me but not for thee,’ because then you’d better be sure that the ‘me’ is always in charge.” The last sentence echoes our own recent commentary.
Sohrab Ahmari’s strongest point
Ahmari scored his strongest point on the issue of making a prudential approach to politics. “We Christians are not of the world, but we are in the world, and so that means that we have to make concrete political choices at any given moment,” he said and, in his view, Trump’s flaws are less than those of socialists or population control advocates. In place of “the most pro-life administration since Roe,” French would have the American people elect “plausibly a Senator Bernie Sanders, who [recently] suggested that one of the world’s problems is that too many poor people are having children, and so we should promote contraception and abortion and do away with the Mexico City rule.”
French replied “[i]f you win … any given election, it’s not so indispensable.” Christians “catastrophize and magnify these presidential elections to the point where we will… defend behavior that you never would have before [and] wreck your public moral witness.” He felt 2016 was not a “Flight 93 election” and a Republican loss merely amounted to “turbulence.” There is little doubt President Hillary Clinton would have appointed two judicial activists to the Supreme Court, sought to publicly fund abortion-on-demand, further eroded conscience protections on issues of sexuality and gender identity, and expanded the size and scope (and cost) of the federal government. (More on this point under “Unanswered questions.”)
Socialism entered the debate
Ahmari said Christians “should try to forestall the Colosseum” by opposing policies that would economically harm Christian businesspeople seeking to live their faith. French dismissed the idea that Bernie Sanders would build the Colosseum.
“I think socialism is the Colosseum,” responded a woman during the question-and-answer session. Socialism would give the federal government robust powers to regulate, surveil, and financially punish enemies of the state.
Transatlantic populism entered the debate
Ahmari explicitly embraced “a different kind of conservatism”: U.S. “populism” under Donald Trump and European populism in the transatlantic space. “I would say in very inchoate, imperfect ways the conservative nationalist or populist nationalist movements – both here and on the other side of the Atlantic – are testing out a politics of this kind,” he said. Ahmari added that he is not prepared to stop them, because they lack “classical liberal principles.” (All-too-few political movements in Europe combine classical liberal principles with a Christian moral sense.)
The debate’s weakest point
Tie: A brief discussion of David French’s vehicle purchases (Honda Accord and Toyota Tundra), and a longer-than-expected discussion of French’s military service. French, piqued at being told he advocated retreat, said that he (unlike Ahmari) had marched in the sands of Iraq. Ahmari hesitated before noting that French served as a JAG, which some took as minimizing his service. Although Ahmari began the debate by thanking French for his “service to the country,” and French referenced his service to undermine Ahmari, Ahmari graciously apologized on Twitter. Ross Douthat showed Solomonic wisdom in knowing when to let the discussion flow and when to cut it short – but it would have been best avoided altogether.
For Sohrab Ahmari:
When asked how he would rein in the West’s cultural drift, Ahmari said he would like to see congressional hearings take place. Douthat pressed Ahmari: “There’s a lot of space between ‘Have Josh Hawley hold a hearing’ and ‘Build a conservative, Christian republic,’ right? And I think a lot of people reasonably ask, ‘Well, what is the interstitial activity, and how is it remotely more plausible than David’s use of the existing liberal order to defend Christian practice?” Ahmari clearly gave little preparation to defining the intermediate steps. They should be explicit before conservatives embrace or reject his views.
French asked Ahmari, “What public power would you use [to curtail cultural outrages such as drag queen story hour], and how is it constitutional? And if it’s not, do you believe it’s worth changing the Constitution?” Even constitutional actions often get stalled by costly litigation for months or years at a time.
If you build a political superstructure capable of advancing a viewpoint, what makes you think faithful Catholics (or even Christians or Jews) will become its controllers rather than its victims?
For David French:
Ahmari asked, “What would Bernie’s judicial appointments look like?” While French boasted of progress under Republicans and Democrats (“In the last five years of the Obama administration, more pro-life laws were passed at the state level than were passed at any period in American history since Roe.”), he did not mention that those state laws were regularly enjoined by Obama- or Clinton-appointed judges, nor that the plaintiffs' targets – from a Lutheran elementary school to a Christian funeral home – often enjoyed the full backing of the federal government.
Why is it “absolutizing” to say that electing Bernie Sanders would irreparably the nation, but not absolutizing to say Donald Trump’s election would irreparably damage the Republican Party?
If you fail to stop secular socialists from building a political superstructure capable of advancing their viewpoint, what makes you think they will respect its defined constitutional limits rather than making Christians its victims?
Protestant vs. Catholic, or Augustinian vs. Thomist?
Technically, the first half of this question was asked and answered at the debate: Ahmari said that Catholicism found itself more likely to engage the state, while “the Protestant view” of “the minimal state … sometimes stands in the way.” French denied that their approaches reflected deeper theological differences.
However, the question deserves to be probed at greater length. It is undeniable that the nation’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention, taps into deep skepticism over the use of state power dating to the early Anabaptists, who found themselves persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike. Quantitative analysis by Religion & Liberty Transatlantic contributor Mark R. Royce found that predominantly Roman Catholic nations in Europe were more likely to support a strong European Union than predominantly Protestant ones in his book, The Political Theology of European Integration: Comparing the Influence of Religious Histories on European Policies. (Read our review here.) There are grounds for believing this influences their dispute.
Perhaps the most perceptive theological insight came from Mark D. Tooley, who wrote at Juicy Ecumenism that both factions may draw from pre-Reformation streams of Christian thought:
The divide between French and Ahmari is maybe not so much Protestant/Catholic as Thomist/Augustinian. The former school, focused on natural law and church authority, often has more confidence about building the semblance of a righteous society. The latter, more focused on humanity’s fallen nature, is less trusting of church or state reliably sustaining virtue and true religion in society.
These unanswered questions should be raised at their second debate in Notre Dame, or perhaps future events. (Why not schedule “The Test at SBTS,” moderated by Albert Mohler?)
Instead, Christians must grapple with these questions themselves. All in all, the Ahmari-French debate as an intellectual event should help Christians clarify the enormity of this cultural moment and the importance of selecting means of lightening this present darkness that are not counterproductive.
You can watch the full debate below:
(Photo credit: Screenshot.)