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Blasted Are The Meek

On First Things and Sohrab Ahmari.
May 30, 2019
Blasted Are The Meek
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“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land,” Jesus explained in his Sermon on the Mount; “[b]lessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

If only Sohrab Ahmari and First Things had been on the scene; they would have totally dunked on Him.

It has been interesting to watch First Things evolve in the decade since its founder, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, passed away. “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, and it was certainly true of First Things. From the very first issue, Fr. Neuhaus recognized the challenge of drawing the right connection between religion and public life. “Authentic religion keeps the political enterprise humble by reminding it that it is not the first thing,” he warned in the magazine’s inaugural editorial; “[t]emporal tasks are best conducted in the light of eternal destiny.”

This was not to eschew politics, but rather to keep the City of God and the City of Man in their proper places: “The first city keeps the second in its place, warning it against reaching for the possibilities that do not belong to it. At the same time, it elevates the second city, calling it to the virtue and justice that it is prone to neglect. Thus awareness of the ultimate sustains the modest dignity of the penultimate.” For Neuhaus, recognizing the limits of earthly politics meant appreciating the value of pluralism, as he emphasized in his opening editorial; it also meant appreciating the value of the liberalism that, as he emphasized throughout his life, was necessary to preserve space in our life and politics for religion itself. “There is no going back to reconstitute the American order on a foundation other than the liberal tradition,” he warned years later.

It has been interesting, then, to watch the post-Neuhaus First Things take the lead in elevating and amplifying illiberalism on the right. To be fair, the magazine has not spoken with one voice in this respect. For instance, so far only one of its writers has argued in favor of the kidnapping and forced baptism of Jewish babies, and editor R.R. Reno assures us that First Things hasn’t adopted this as an official editorial position.

But First Things’ jarring change in style and substance, and the broader move by many conservatives to adopt increasingly illiberal views, has been worrisome enough to spur others to urge them back off the ledge. Yes, the moderates argue, modern American politics offers no shortage of impositions upon (and even threats against) traditional religious beliefs and practices. But it would be a mistake to despair, and a still further mistake to let such despair lead one to reject the American liberal tradition outright.

As one eloquent conservative wrote not long ago:

[T]here have been genuinely alarming encroachments against conscience, religious freedom, and the dignity of life in Western liberal democracies in recent years. Even so, despair is an unhelpful companion to sober political thought, and the case for plunging into political illiberalism is weak, even on social-conservative grounds.

Here again what commends liberalism is historical experience, not abstract theory. Simply put, in the real-world experience of the 20th century, the Church, tradition, and religious minorities fared far better under liberal-democratic regimes than they did under illiberal alternatives.

That was Sohrab Ahmari, writing in Commentary in late 2017. So it is with much surprise to find Ahmari, now writing at First Things, leading the charge against the “liberalism” of David French. Or, as Ahmari calls it, “French-ism.”

(How lucky that his target has a name like “French,” and not like, say, mine. An attack on “White-ism” might be mistaken for something quite different, especially among the alt-right.)

It is hard to grapple with Ahmari’s attack on “French-ism,” because, in the first instance, it’s hard to see how “French-ism” is anything other than a caricature of a few passing lines in French’s broader body of work.

But Ahmari’s attack on French moves beyond simply an attack on French’s support for religious liberty, and moves to an attack on French’s civility: embroiled in “culture war,” Ahmari asserts that “conservative Christians can’t afford [the] luxuries” of political civility and republican virtue. “Civility and decency are secondary values,” Ahmari announces. (It’s still jarring to see such things in First Things, an ostensibly Christian magazine. I guess they’re scratching “Blessed are the clean of heart” off the list, too.)

Here Ahmari abandons not just his recent defense of liberalism, but also his recent defense of political virtue and civility. Barely a year and a half ago, Ahmari urged conservatives to reject the “vulgar” politics of Donald Trump and Roy Moore, warning:

The likes of Mr. Trump and Mr. Moore promise social conservatives an appealing menu of policies and judicial nominations. Their offer is especially attractive after a decade during which the left embraced a new, aggressive mode of secular progressivism and continued its war against tradition long after it had won most courtroom and ballot-box battles.

But these vulgar populists exact an exorbitant price: namely, complicity in the degradation, conspiracism, thinly veiled bigotry and leader-worship that is their stock in trade.

“Christians are called to live in faith, hope and charity,” he added. I liked this version of Ahmari-ism better, and I thought of it when I reached the point in his new essay where he attacked French for treating political opponents with a spirit of charity and goodwill: “Again and again, French insists on the sincerity of the believers whose causes he takes up, as if asserting sincerity of belief can move the heart of an enemy who finds you and your beliefs repulsive . . . But they won’t listen.”

By styling political debate in terms of “an enemy,” Ahmari adopts what might be called the “Flight 93 Election Forever” style of politics, which sees democratic politics as not a matter of debate, persuasion, or compromise, but one of war with an “enemy.” Never mind that the other side might not be an “enemy,” or that even when there are genuine “enemies” in the political arena, there are far more Americans who disagree with Christians’ political views but who could be persuaded by (or at least compromise with) political advocates who present their arguments in less apocalyptic tones. We are all susceptible to moments when our political rhetoric goes overboard—Fr. Neuhaus was no exception, of course—but those are precisely the moments when we are most lucky to have others among us appealing to the better angels of our nature.

In that way, French sees greater prospects for actual success in civil democratic dialogue (as he explained eloquently a few days ago), always with an eye to the culture upon which our political disputes float. But here, too, Ahmari objects:

I take issue with David French-ism’s almost supernatural faith in something called “culture”—deemed to be neutral and apolitical and impervious to policy—to solve everything. Questions that are squarely political—that is, that touch on our shared quest for the common good—become depoliticized by this culture-first strategy.

And here, too, I miss Fr. Neuhaus, who dedicated a large part of First Thingsinaugural editorial to the importance of the very thing Ahmari marginalizes, culture:

[P]ublic life includes much more than politics. Public life means, first of all, “culture.” . . . Culture means the available truth claims, explanatory systems, myths, stories, memories, loyalties, dreams, and nightmares by which a society lives. Culture is the cognitive, moral, aesthetic, and emotive air that we breathe.

So we think it true to say that politics is, in largest part, an expression of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion. Politics is the effort to give just order to public life, employing the ideas made available by the culture. [Emphasis added.]

I can’t pretend to know what led Ahmari to such a dramatic conversion, from defending civility and liberalism in late 2017 to mocking them in early 2019. It would be comforting to chalk up his new attacks to the proverbial “zeal of a convert,” and presume that he will eventually remoderate his approach. But that would be unfair to Ahmari; we should give to our friends, no less than to our “enemies,” the presumption that their arguments are made knowingly and in good faith.

But in any event, to focus exclusively on Ahmari in particular is to miss the point—namely, that Ahmari reflects a much broader contingent of modern conservatives who have grown disillusioned with America’s liberal tradition. As another writer diagnosed the situation:

Behind social conservatives’ Trumpian turn, I suspect, is deep pessimism about America’s future. Many fear that under secularism’s relentless onslaught, Judeo-Christianity will be banished permanently from the public square. I feel similar angst.

But then I look back on the late 20th century, when, thanks to heroic figures such as Pope John Paul II, the Christian idea bested Soviet Communism, an ideology that was far more hostile to religious faith than America’s Enlightenment liberalism has ever been. I also look to the explosive growth of Christianity in places like China and Iran today.

Unlike under Communism or Iran’s Islamic theocracy, Christianity in America has the First Amendment and freedom of conscience. And there are other reasons to be optimistic about our place in the culture in the long term.

That author, as you might have guessed, was also Sohrab Ahmari, again in late 2017. What he mocks today as “French-ism” is, in substance and style, strikingly similar to an earlier version “Ahmari-ism.” Perhaps, in waging public war on David French, Ahmari is merely acting out the battle within.

I hope the old Ahmari-ism wins the argument with the new Ahmari-ism. More importantly, though, I hope that the spirit and ideas of the old First Things prevail over the radically different magazine that bears its name today.

Adam J. White

Adam J. White is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-director of George Mason University’s C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State.