The tension between Christian morality and individual liberty is one many conservatives and libertarians are intimately familiar with, and for good reason. At times, American Christianity has been a force for individual liberty—in the context of the abolition movement—but it has also been a force against individual liberty, like in the push for prohibition. Still, the nation has always had a core majority population that was familiar with Christianity, attended church regularly, and saw value in living, at least publicly if not privately, according to the widely known tenets of their faith.
That period may be at an end. Churchgoing has diminished. Those who have no faith are at historic highs. In this context, what were once essentially arguments internal to Catholic, Protestant, and evangelical cohorts now lack the shared language of underlying belief that has given us structure for so long. That change is disconcerting for some.
It’s in this context that a skirmish has broken out between two traditional conservatives—Sohrab Ahmari and David French—about the best way to respond to movements they both feel threaten their interests in the public square. French preaches more of a message of tolerance, while Ahmari advocates for a view that is more aggressive and confrontational.
Both are concerned about creeping steps they view as antagonistic to people of faith, though French’s concern seems rightfully less cataclysmic. But our principle concern ought to be with liberty, which Ahmari’s view does not give its due.
In his First Things essay, “Against David French-ism,” Ahmari treats “libertinism” (and implicitly, libertarians, with a side of “pagans” for good measure) as a dirty word. The truth is that many libertarians have participated in a decently pleasant alliance formed against the looming, paired enemies of socialism and suppression of free thought. It’s fine (albeit personally objectionable) to hold that perspective in private, but Ahmari extends it to an idea about what form the public square should take, and apparently wants us all to be along for the ride.
Ahmari says: “‘The only way is through’—that is to say, to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”
But who will enforce this re-ordered public square, and what does it look like? The theocratic undertones are clear and troubling here. We face a new, different reality than the high religiosity America of before, and in that context, those of us who favor liberty should explicitly reject any attempt to re-order our public square toward the Highest Good, especially when those determining the Highest Good cannot always (perhaps ever) be trusted with such power.
The attempts by Christian conservatives in America to drive many people toward what they believe to be better way of life have hardly been raging successes. They’ve failed as often, perhaps more often, than they’ve succeeded. Given that lesson of human nature, isn’t the better way to allow people to determine for themselves what their own pursuits of happiness and meaning entail? Can’t we hope people gravitate toward that of their own volition, while understanding that any attempt to impose a particular vision would undermine deeply held American values of autonomy and free choice?
Government intervention will not be the answer to every social ill. In many instances, free markets and individual enterprise can best serve the common good, albeit indirectly. But 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.
Ahmari is right that culture is an incomplete prescription, and one conservatives are wont to lose. Last night, I watched “Meow Wolf: Origin Story” about a Santa Fe, New Mexico, art collective of cigarette- and joint-smoking, skinny jeans-clad dudes and ladies who were disillusioned by the establishment art world. They pooled measly paychecks together to rent a warehouse space where they could paint on the walls at all hours of the day.
This snowballed into something more—the strange, acid trip funhouse of Meow Wolf, a not-quite-museum with a sci-fi plot line at its core. (Basically a temple where libertine pagans could worship.) But the collective realized, after a period of barely restrained chaos and one successful art show, that they needed some form of order and structure for their community to stave off atrophy.
Conservatives will never be able to penetrate cultural institutions—the art world, entertainment—because conservatives provide balance, with an emphasis on order, stability, and creating something lasting, not fleeting. Whimsy isn’t their strong suit. Confronting a culture war that seems increasingly incapable of leaving Christians alone, Ahmari turns to an answer that sounds of Boromir urging the Fellowship to use the ring. In this, he underestimates the gloriousness of spontaneous order, and the capacity of humans to learn from their mistakes, and to seek balance where it is missing.
Cultural change isn’t an ideal solution. It is long and slow and requires much. But it might also be the answer with the fewest negative side effects. Even Santa Fe art collectives can slowly, over time, see the value of order and structure. What leads to Ahmari’s pessimistic view that these things must be imposed, instead of naturally sought and sorted out, far from the state’s clutches? I fear that imposition, as well as the imposers.
One of the best parts of conservative circles is the emphasis on the true, the good, and the beautiful. There’s a pursuit of excellence and moral virtue, of not being atomized beings floating all alone on desolate, brutalist-architecture city blocks, afraid of speaking to our neighbors, but on forming families, communities, delightfully nosy groups of people who care not just about whether you live or die, but also whether you prosper. Attempting to force this will inevitably kill people’s burgeoning and slow-moving interest in seeking it out. It would have for me—a former libertine pagan.
Perhaps what I’m reacting to, and what Charles C.W. Cooke was reacting to over at National Review, is the lack of specifics. Ahmari does not clarify what enforcement mechanisms would be used; how theocratic (or not) our society would or should become; what cost we can expect, in terms of our freedoms being curtailed, for the elusive “common good” to be sought.
Instead, Ahmari anticipates our reactions: “Conservative liberalism of the kind French embodies has a great horror of the state, of traditional authority and the use of the public power to advance the common good, including in the realm of public morality.”
But of course this is the case. Part of the reason we have not sought an acceptable-enough common good might simply be because we cannot agree on what that means and what price we’re willing to pay for it. The current leftist dominance of certain institutions does not disqualify or diminish any of those concerns. It’s a time-honored, beloved American tradition to curtail freedoms in times of war, due to alleged imminent danger. The more we look at the culture war as an actual war, the more we justify doing foolish things to restore the public square as it once was, but is not now.
I’m not sure I’d enjoy the spoils at all.