The recent henhouse debate among Republican pundits comes arguably a few decades late. I refer to the squabble that began when Sohrab Ahmari wrote “Against David Frenchism ” in First Things, a few weeks ago.
We have a split between the essentially libertarian, “classical liberal” wing of the conservative movement, and the “social conservatives.”
The fault line has been long observed, and the potential for an earthquake understood. Two quite different, and possibly incompatible worldviews have been accommodated within a single political party, not only in the United States but throughout the Anglosphere and beyond it.
One side is “enlightened,” in the sense that its civic ideals and principles descend explicitly from the Enlightenment. The other is not. The American Revolution comes in the thick of this, and the Constitution that emerged from it arrived with the Enlightenment’s high tide.
The Fathers of that Revolution, however, both consciously and unconsciously recognized that the “neutral” arrangements for governing an unprecedentedly free society could only be possible if that society were not itself neutral. America was Protestant-Christian; without the general agreement that followed, on everything from right and wrong, to trust in God and Reason, there were no common premises upon which any common order could be built.
The American Fathers did not go, and had no intention of going, as far as the instigators of the French Revolution. The Americans were proposing a new political start, but they were not proposing to remake the world from scratch. Commendably, they sought a peaceful and (oh yes!) agrarian society that would be the opposite of revolutionary in spirit.
For the better part of two centuries, despite such catastrophes as the Civil War, something like what the Washingtons and Hamiltons and even Jeffersons envisioned was largely achieved. That it doesn’t much resemble the America of today is no fault of theirs. The twentieth century put all Western Civ through the grinder, and by extension the rest of the world.
I am, as ever, oversimplifying to a purpose, which is to place recent political squabbles in a wider historical context. One thing leads to another, and we are still experiencing the fallout from the Revolutions, and Reformations, of long ago – five centuries and more through which the scandal of Christendom has been its divisions, and competing assertions of the faith that have rocked it to the core.
To a Catholic mind, this is a history of rebellions, against an authority that is ultimately Christ’s. Each successive “revolution” takes society and the individual souls who constitute it farther away from God. But God does not die, for all our attempts to kill Him. And the possibility of restoring a truly Christian order will never disappear, even if we lose every single battle. Onward Christian soldiers!
Sohrab Ahmari’s is an interesting case. Raised in Iran, among post-modern Persians, who saw Islam as a thing of the past, his heart opened to religion in the West, on an intellectual and spiritual trajectory that took him, fairly directly, into the Catholic Church.
David French, Iraq War vet, is a trained lawyer and rights-oriented born American conservative constitutionalist of the Evangelical persuasion. He is in several ways a voice of sweet reason, and civility. He has been a prominent advocate for religious liberty, and a “Never Trumper” through thick, thin, and thinner. He is the kind of conservative most liberals can be civil with, too (after all, they all hate Trump).
The fight Ahmari picked with him was daring. Ahmari’s very point is that French is too civil. At a time when every precept of Christianity and, indeed, classical liberalism, is under attack from forces that are essentially atheist and nihilist, French respects and defends their “right to an opinion,” while begging them to respect others’ rights, too.
Ahmari thinks this is too soft for survival. I don’t doubt that the freshness of his Catholic conversion has contributed to his more militant view; indeed, this is one thing I find attractive in it. He does not speak for a Christianity that is old and tired, worn down by centuries of retreat. He does not find Christian faith, or tenets, to be fluid or negotiable.
That said, I invite gentle reader to dig out the debate and read it all. My only biased comment would be, that half that argument, we’ve all heard before. “Social conservatives” in the Republican Party were long used to being hushed by their “libertarian” partners, lest they disturb the chickens, and told to “take one for the team” during elections. They are also used to being fit under buses.
Ahmari is saying, “No more Mr. Nice Guy.” Donald Trump has changed the rules of the game, and among other things demonstrated that the great majority of Americans, including the “blue collars” who were reliable Democrats, were hardly ever free-traders in outlook, and remain America-firsters to a fault.
Their instincts, to the present day, remain those of most “simple” people in all places and times: in two words, “socially conservative.” They can be conned, and out-slithered in the swamp of politics, but not forever. The Republican, “country club” gerontocracy cannot go back to their smug old ways.
I try to take a long view of things – one that can see over elections – thus try to see this “fight on the right” in terms of the longer civilizational struggle. On this plane, I’m entirely with Ahmari. The culture we’re defending is, in fact, a Christian one, and the best defense is a ready offense. Tired and increasingly stupid we may be, but the whole history of Christian triumph is one of assertion.
As Ahmari wrote, civility and politeness are secondary virtues.
And as we should have learned from our Gospels, Christ Himself could be aggressive and rude. Not only real charity (a different thing from capitulation), but clarity – candor and truth – are higher virtues. Our job is, damn the torpedoes, to PROCLAIM.