Have you noticed the recent trend? Young conservatives have grown dissatisfied with the state of American conservatism. Especially young Catholic conservatives. I am not used to being trendy, but I count myself as a member of this now trendy group.
For decades, American conservatism has been dominated by people like National Review’s David French. French and other conservatives of his era think that the government should not promote any particular religion, moral system, or vision of the good. Instead, it should remain neutral, and should focus on providing liberty and autonomy to its citizens, allowing all citizens to pursue their own understanding of religion, morality, and the good. Many younger conservatives have soured on this libertarian leaning conservatism. They want something different. Such younger conservatives often think that, instead of being neutral, the government should encourage (or at least help facilitate) the practice of Christianity, should promote morality through law and regulation, and should have a specific, positive understanding of the good of society, and should activity pursue that good. One increasingly high-profile proponent of this sort of conservatism is Sohrab Ahmari, editor of the New York Post.
The battle between the two visions of conservatism has been on rancorous display in the ongoing debate between French and Ahmari. Their debate has taken place in the pages of magazines, and on the stage at Notre Dame and Catholic University of America.
French thinks that his version of conservatism is the best for protecting Christianity. French’s strategy: promote liberty (especially via the first amendment) and thereby keep Christians from being persecuted by the illiberal left. Ahmari thinks that French’s conservatism only plays defense, and that, if conservatives are going to protect the interests of Christianity in the long run, they must play offense too. Ahmari’s strategy: fight to change America’s laws and use the law to shape society in a way that is in accord with Christianity and the true human good.
Ahmari is right. French is wrong. At least in principle. The government should not be neutral on religion, morality, or the good. The government should promote Christianity, Christian morality, and a Christian conception of the good. That’s my view. I could argue for this view (drawing on Aquinas, papal encyclicals, and numerous old Catholic texts that the Protestant David French might not appreciate), but I won’t here. Instead, I will say that, even if Ahmari is right in principle, he could still be wrong in practice. What should we do today, right now, in America? Suppose we give the government more power to promote morality, discourage immorality, and seek the good as Ahmari would have us do. I can hear French saying, in an exasperated tone: congratulations, you’ve just given the government more power to promote progressive sexual morality, to discourage traditional sexual morality, and to seek (with the coercive power of law) a disordered understanding of the good. Maybe government neutrality is the best thing we can get in our troubled times. Given the state of our society, the government is not likely to promote what is true, so as a practical strategy perhaps we should limit the power of the government as much as possible and promote liberty and autonomy as much as possible, just to give the traditional Christian minority a chance to survive. Maybe. Maybe in principle we are Ahmarians but in practice we must be Frenchians.
I wonder, however: will Frenchianism really protect Christianity from the persecution of illiberal progressives any better than Ahmarianism would? Maybe not. Progressives can, and do, simply argue that Christians, in practicing the Christian faith, are trampling on other people’s freedoms. For instance, by refusing to perform so called “gay marriages” Christians are trampling on people’s freedom to marry. By refusing to pay for employees’ abortifacient drugs, Christians are trampling on women’s freedom to control their own bodies. Etc. Appeals to liberty and autonomy are the favorite anti-Christian weapons.
Maybe, then, we don’t need to adopt Frenchianism even for practical purposes. Maybe we can be both theoretical and practical Ahmarians. At this point, I’m not sure. But it’s an option worth exploring.
(Featured image: Sohrab Ahmari and David French debate, with Ross Douthat moderating. Photo credit, Institute for Human Ecology.)