Last Thursday night, New York Post editor Sohrab Ahmari and National Review contributor and civil liberties lawyer David French had a debate at Catholic University of America about the future of conservatism.
They were hashing out in person a dispute that has divided social conservative pundits for months: should Christians seek a more directly interventionist engagement in politics for the purpose of creating a more Christian-friendly public square (Ahmari’s position), or should Christians primarily seek to ensure a neutral public square and basic constitutional order, confident of our ultimate eschatological victory, and trusting that these constitutional rules are our only defense against progressive attacks (French’s position)?
It’s an interesting discussion, and Ahmari and French are both big personalities with a lot to say. The debate became quite heated by the end, and there has been plenty of punditry about who won and who lost.
But the real loser was Christians in America, as two first-class minds tackled the essential question of our times, how Christians should exercise their vocations as citizens in an increasingly secular and hostile world, without really offering any answers.
There Are No Easy Good Answers
To be clear, French’s lifelong record of aggressively advancing the rights and interests of religious people afforded him a remarkable fluency in the technical particulars of religious liberty in the public square. But for a Christian parent who lives in a leftist town for his job, and who can’t afford private school, and thus whose child is, quite literally, indoctrinated into a progressive worldview, French has no strategy to offer. Do extra Bible studies at home, or perhaps just move.
To French’s credit, for Christianity to survive and thrive under any policy regime, we will need to do better catechesis at home. We are where we are today largely because of the milquetoast doctrinal fusionism of the last century of Christian religious leadership. Undoubtedly Ahmari and French would both agree that without a renewed commitment to the determined catechesis of the next generation, and forthright, bold evangelism to all people, no policy regime can save the church in America from extinction.
But here’s a key question: What is to be done? French can speak eloquently about what has been done to secure Christian liberties (and much has been), but Ahmari is right to point out that, nonetheless, Christianity in America is in decline. Most Christians feel on some level that something more than doubling down on personal piety is needed, that it is reasonable to ask that the public sphere at least vaguely support the religious beliefs that have characterized a plurality of Americans for our entire history. This means implementing policies that, explicitly or implicitly, make it easier to be a Christian.
So fair point to Ahmari. French doesn’t seem to have a lot to offer Christians on that front, and seems frustratingly cautious to admit that there may be a space for the state to act here. In the debate, moderator and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat pressed French a bit and got him to admit that legal restrictions on pornography may be constitutional, and that school prayer should be allowed: but even those concessions seemed perplexingly begrudging.
Government Power Has Major Downsides
But there’s a problem with Ahmari’s critique: he has no solutions either! He repeatedly dodged basic questions about what he wants policymakers to actually do. How should we respond to sexual indoctrination in library programs? He says: Hold a congressional hearing.
Come on. It doesn’t get much wimpier on policy than “Have a committee meeting.” He suggests “local ordinances” with no suggestion what they may be, or how to defend them constitutionally. He argues for restricting porn, but offers nothing on how impossible it would be to enforce such a restriction. Plus, there’s no evidence of any kind that regulations on public obscenity or public morality would actually result in more Christians! The United Kingdom has pornography restrictions, yet a much smaller and politically weaker Christian community.
Thus, while Ahmari raises a fair general concern, that’s all he does. He’s walked up to a burning building and astutely noted, “Hey, this building is on fire. Somebody should do something.” His repeated failure to advance a vision for the common good and explain how his policy preferences would advance that vision left his debate performance anemic.
The truth is, conservative leaders of all stripes have failed to provide a useful blueprint for how to create a society more supportive of our values. As the last few decades have shown, the things that have been tried have mostly failed. We’ve been losing for decades. Some of us would like to start actually winning.
Here Are 4 Policy Ideas
The crazy thing is, it’s not a mystery what policies could have a real shot at making American friendlier to conservative values and priorities. There are a limited number of policies that we can say have a good probability, based on observed history, of actually making Americans more socially conservative, and even more religious.
I am aware of four such policies where the argument is pretty clear-cut. Anybody serious about winning the culture war of the 21st century should be laser-focused on these concrete, constitutional, politically winnable policy battles.
Re-Instate Blue Laws: Banning alcohol sales, or even non-essential retail sales generally, on Sundays, has been academically shown to reduce alcoholism, reduce drunk driving deaths, increase voter participation, and increase church attendance.
Sunday closure rules used to be common in America. Today they are increasingly rare. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that Sunday closure laws are perfectly constitutional. This policy is constitutional. It is actively debated in many localities. It is empirically demonstrated to move the needle on religiosity, and on alcohol deaths, which are currently exploding to near-record-high levels.
It also benefits from support from many labor groups and progressives, who see it as a way to provide service workers guaranteed time off. In other words, if conservatives commit to fighting this battle we can win it. Boycott Sunday consumption and ban boozy brunches! The effects are small, but they are at least something.
Remove Marriage Penalties: Current federal tax laws and welfare rules punish working-class people for getting married. When two people of modest incomes get married, they can easily lose up to half of their total income because eligibility rules for welfare literally punish marriage.
Our government effectively “pays” dads to stay out of their kids’ lives, and moms not to marry their children’s fathers. No surprise, working-class marriage rates have plummeted as the welfare state has expanded. Conservatives should commit to fixing the marriage penalties built into our welfare programs. I am testifying on this subject this week before Congress’ Joint Economic Committee. That is to say, it is a live issue with bipartisan interest.
It’s constitutional. More to the point, academic research gives decent reasons to believe that getting married makes people more religious! Worried about the decline in religion? Stop taking away working-class peoples’ benefits when they marry each other!
Support Parents: Many conservatives and progressives alike are worried about falling birth rates in America, for many reasons. I’m a demographer, so I worry about falling birth rates a lot. It’s widely known that religious people have more kids: but what is less widely known is that having kids causes people to become more religious and more socially conservative.
So there’s a simple solution here: provide a parenting wage! When people have babies, give them money. We should everything we can to increase fertility rates for all Americans, because when even secular Americans have kids, they become less radically progressive.
Encourage Immigration: This one is slightly more challenging, but nonetheless important to consider. Immigrants come from a variety of religious backgrounds: but the vast majority are more socially conservative than the median American. To the extent any religious bodies in America have avoided decline, it has been by evangelizing to or otherwise incorporating immigrants.
More generally, conservatives need to stop espousing ridiculous and unfounded “replacement” theories of immigration, and start wielding the levers of immigration policy to recruit moral reinforcements. Ethiopians, Nigerians, Indians, and Indonesians are not your political opponents: they are the people who will be tithing to your church if it is to have any future at all.
In other words, with all due respect to Ahmari, the path to winning the culture war doesn’t run through a congressional hearing about library programming policy. Without offense to French, debating “viewpoint neutrality” in the ivory tower of American universities isn’t the solution either.
It’s not about public morality, obscenity, or “Christian values” at all. Trying to force Christian values on Americans will not work, and very well may backfire, accelerating secularization. Countries like Sweden that have official, legally established churches are nonetheless extremely secular.
The solution is to think seriously about how we can win the political fight to nudge more Americans into a life full of the thick cultural institutions that making Christian life work. That means re-instating Sunday closure laws. That means spending some money for babies. That means removing government-imposed obstacles to marriage. That means encouraging immigration, and welcoming immigrants as valuable allies in the effort to strengthen all families.
It means thinking about what policies will actually move the needle on religiosity, not just scoring debate points.