Credit: CUA/YouTube Screenshot
There was a curious entry to these pages on Monday. Emma Ayers, managing editor of the libertarian outfit Young Voices, offered her two cents on last Thursday’s debate between the New York Post’s Sohrab Ahmari and National Review’s David French, cleverly coined the “Melee at CUA” by the latter. As Matthew Walther has observed over at The Week, most normal Americans spent their Thursday evening watching a dominating performance by the Green Bay Packers’ defense in the NFL opener. But the CUA event has nonetheless sparked strong and varied reaction across the conservative commentariat. That’s because, contrary to Ayers’ contention that it was a “pointless display,” it got to the fundamental question for the future of the political right in the Trump era.
For the uninitiated, the debate stems from a May First Things essay by Ahmari denouncing what he calls “David French-ism.” The term refers to a political sensibility that has pervaded the political right at least since Reagan (and probably since the emergence of Frank Meyer’s fusionism), one that sees protecting individual autonomy and the neutral public square as the surest way to create space to pursue conservative (specifically Christian) cultural ends. This is roughly the same “dead consensus” that Ahmari and others (including TAC’s Rod Dreher) wrote against in March, opting instead for a political program that pursues a positive conception of the good. It’s regrettable that the May Ahmari op-ed pinned this disposition on one man, French, rendering it too easy to dismiss the whole thing as ad hominem posturing. But there really is a philosophical divide between the two men that gets to the heart of American conservatism.
As a Protestant, Emma Ayers takes issue with what she sees as the overtly Catholic theology underpinning Ahmari’s argument. To be sure, Ahmari’s Catholic faith does inform his view that “we conservatives should put forward a vision of the good.” And perhaps it’s not entirely an accident that the signatories of the March manifesto against the dead consensus were mostly Catholic. But suggesting that policy should pursue the good is quite different from endorsing the “Catholic integralist state” that libertarians and classical liberals love to throw back in scare quotes. There is a wide gap between using the levers of political power to promote the common good and suggesting an overt papal takeover of Washington institutions—something that no one outside of maybe the most committed over at the Josias is actually proposing, especially considering the current state of the Vatican. One can be philosophically sympathetic to an integralist critique of liberalism while recognizing the practical necessity of operating within the established political order. Common good conservatism is ecumenical.
In a sense, Ayers’ thesis makes Ahmari’s point. She writes, “The two men ultimately weren’t arguing about politics, on which they might have found common ground. They were arguing about theology and faith.” In this paradigm, politics and theology are entirely separate phenomena. It’s a familiar stance to us Americans, echoing that infamous “wall of separation” between church and state that is frequently misattributed to the text of the Bill of Rights. But while maintaining this distinction may be attractive in a country of such religious diversity, it’s ultimately an untenable position. Underlying every political decision is a conception of the good. Even the “non-aggression principle,” which the most ardent libertarians like to trot out as the sole arbiter of legitimate state authority, is premised on a moral precept: aggression is bad.
The question is how we determine the conception of the good that will order the public square—and the proper limits of political power in pursuing that good. Politics and theology, properly understood, inevitably point to each other. Theology here does not refer to the doctrinal stipulations of any particular religious denomination, but rather to the inquiry into the human condition that leads beyond the mere political and to the “things of uncommon importance,” to quote the late Father James V. Schall, SJ. There is a theology to even the seemingly secular, as the annual summer ritual of Pride parades indicates. Human affairs cannot be neatly divided into “disciplines” of politics and theology; reaching the limits of one leads directly to the other.
The French-Ahmari debate, then, is not about politics or theology, but about political theology. It asks fundamental questions of our political regime. How do we resolve the tension between individual and community? What is the relationship of liberty to virtue? What is the proper conception of liberty, for that matter? These are difficult questions to grapple with, for our regime is already informed by a certain political theology that points towards the side of autonomy, license, and individuality over obligation, virtue, and community.
David French illustrated this in the rare common ground found on Thursday night. He conceded that pornography can and should be banned, and that Christian prayer in public schools can and should be allowed—but made sure to couch this in the procedural language of jurisprudence and First Amendment freedoms, rather than the normative language of the common good. In this way, the side of classical virtue is framed as consistent with a “neutral” public square. Moderator Ross Douthat noted the incongruity: “That’s Ahmari-ism…your argument is that the originalist interpretation of the Constitution allows for essentially morals legislation that reflects a Christian worldview about pornography.”
The “originalist interpretation” language of French’s position is important, though, because it differs from “Ahmari-ism” in an important way. Ahmari has struck such a nerve because he eschews the procedural spectacle of couching his normative politics in the language of “originalism,” “constitutional jurisprudence,” and “First Amendment liberty,” instead denouncing socially destructive behaviors as such. This is not the same as, to use Ayers’ words, a “tireless push for a Catholic state,” or as French put it, “upsetting the constitutional order.” It’s recognizing that in order for our constitutional order to succeed—to resist the prevailing political theology—it will require laws and rhetoric that explicitly promote a robust conception of the common good.
Charges that Ahmari’s critique is simply “cultural imperialism” that amounts to a “bunch of trads storming the Capitol building”—and no viable political program—are tiresome and wrong. As Ahmari noted Thursday evening, “A new generation of conservatives is not asking ‘will this hinder or promote individual autonomy,’ but whether it serves a good.” The only interesting energy on the contemporary right stems from this shift. In the economic realm, that might mean developing an industrial policy to compete with the rise of China, promoting skilled trades and vocational programs in American classrooms, and implementing tariffs to protect American workers. In the social realm, it could mean increasing the child tax credit, instituting paid family leave, and reducing or eliminating income tax on families with multiple children to encourage family formation and make it easier to support a family on a single income. In the cultural realm, perhaps we need a more robust enactment and application of obscenity laws against scourges like pornography and—yes—Drag Queen Story Hour. These proposals may run afoul of the tired old “individual autonomy” orthodoxies that shudder at the thought of state power actually pursuing anything good. But they’re hardly a “threat to our constitutional order.” In fact, nearly all have historical precedent in the United States.
The debate on display Thursday night at CUA isn’t going away. As American society becomes more enmeshed in loneliness, despair, and alienation, the prevailing political theology of our regime emerges as increasingly bankrupt. As conservatives, we need a better answer than proceduralism and individual autonomy—and that starts by recognizing that politics and theology are unavoidably connected.
Emile A. Doak is senior development associate at The American Conservative. He lives in his hometown of Herndon, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter, @EADoak.