Monday, September 9, 2019

A Strange Debate

Unlike conservative politicians, conservative thinkers can often be quite interesting. After all, at least one wing of contemporary conservatism traces itself intellectually back to Edmund Burke (1729-1797), whose Reflections on the Revolution in France highlighted the damage done to human society by the French Revolution in particular and totalitarian revolutionary movements in general. His writings also highlighted the importance of religion and other traditional social institutions for social cohesion and human flourishing (concerns I certainly share).

So it was with some curiosity, if not interest, that I watched the YouTube replay of the recent debate at Catholic University, "Cultural Conservatives: Two Visions Responding to the Post-Liberal Left," pitting Sohrab Ahmari (New York Post)  against David French (National Review), which can be watched in full at 

Entertaining at times and personally confrontational at times virtually to the point of nastiness, the debate did not disappoint entirely, but for the most part the two protagonists seemed ultimately to be talking past each other, so different were their premises and priorities. It did not help either that so much of the discussion was taken up by Ahmari's obsession with something called "Drag Queen Story Hour." On the other hand, that obsession does seem to illustrate quite well the heart of the difference between the two. Living in the same society as  "Drag Queen Story Hour" is part and parcel of living in a free and tolerant society. Discomfort with freedom and tolerance has a long intellectual pedigree - not least in pre-Vatican II Catholic political theory. Making a modest peace with democratic modernity, however, was one of the accomplishments of Vatican II. French's defense of the American constitutional order and the First Amendment's "value neutrality" may never bring about a certain vision of a good society, but it does free churches and citizens to pursue and promote their vision of a good life, even at the cost of having to live alongside other competing visions which enjoy the same legal standing.

Ahmari did make one good historical point in his insistence that it was only with Constantine that the widespread diffusion of Christianity through all levels of society became seriously possible. (Actually, it was Theodosius the Great a few decades later who finally established Christianity as the imperial state religion, the familiar union of Throne and Altar that lasted until the French Revolution.)  The problem is that the Constantinian settlement, itself a product of historical change, has been undone in turn by subsequent historical change, and - whether for better or for worse - we no longer live in a Constantinian empire.

This debate has been going of for a long time, and given the inherent importance of the issues involved is likely to continue at a theoretical, philosophical, and ultimately theological level. At a practical level, however, it is increasingly irrelevant to how religious people live, inasmuch as most Americans of any religion (or none) have long ago accepted that in the modern world a society with First Amendment freedoms is ultimately more conducive to social peace, religious liberty, and human well-being than one without those protections - and that it is worth protecting those freedoms even at the cost of sharing the world with "Drag Queen Story Hour."

Not all conservatives care about tradition and religion. (Libertarianism, for example, is a very different version of what in this society is classified as " conservative.") But these two thinkers and their constituencies clearly care a lot about religion, religious freedom, and the widest possible diffusion of religious values in society. Given this preoccupation with religion, it matters that Ahmari's campaign against "civility" seems like an endorsement of a combative "populist" politics, which, in one way of thinking, may radically negate much of what Christianity purports to be about, which French suggests has more to do with "love your enemies" and "bless those who persecute you." French's most powerful rejoinder in the debate, it seems to me, comes when he says, "I'm not going to recognize them [my ideological opponents] as enemies in the way you describe them as war and enmity ... enmity is not love."

All of which brings one back to Russell Moore's famous observation back in 2016: "The Religious Right turns out to be the people the Religious Right warned us about."

So much of what passes for religion in America seems surprisingly very preoccupied with the acquisition and exercise of political power, surprisingly so when compared with Jesus’ own words and actions. And so much of what passes for religion in America sometimes seems more like apocalyptic outrage - just another part of our ambient culture of conflict and outrage - than about the kingdom of God.

I guess it all goes back to the perennial Gospel warning about trying to gain the world at the possible cost to one's soul.

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