The Real Difference Between Ahmari & French (I think…)

 

I thought I was taking a risk by ignoring the ongoing “debate” between Sohrab Ahmari and David French over the last few months. After watching their recent debate at Catholic University, I feel much better about my willful ignorance.

Warren Buffet often says the challenge with investing is to wait patiently for the right pitch to come, even when people in the stands are yelling,”swing, you idiot!” My sense is that French is the guy at bat and Ahmari is the guy in the stands yelling in exasperation. I guess the punditry would be like two sports commentators trying to tease out a game strategy based on that guy’s outburst. It was difficult to identify two positions and I think that’s because there weren’t two different views, certainly not competing visions of the future of conservatism.

As bewildering as the debate was, I was able to notice a clear line of distinction about how they view Christian engagement in the public square, and the metaphor of ancient Rome was helpful in bringing that to light. Ahmari has this view that Christianity became a religion for the masses only after Constantine gave it the official sanction of the empire. (I’m intrigued about why he believes this because I find it completely wrong and backwards.) But on this view, he sees his mission as forestalling the Colosseum and its persecution of Christians. Interestingly, Ross Douthat asked at this point whether Ahmari wasn’t just trying to protect its privileged status, defending Constantine. French, by contrast, sees the public square as neutral-to-hostile space in which Christians do their best to influence and change it in light of the implications of the gospel. This was the only clear disagreement I heard in the debate.

Mark Tooley, at Juicy Ecumenism, put it another way:

The divide between French and Ahmari is maybe not so much Protestant/Catholic as Thomist/Augustinian. The former school, focused on natural law and church authority, often has more confidence about building the semblance of a righteous society. The latter, more focused on humanity’s fallen nature, is less trusting of church or state reliably sustaining virtue and true religion in society.

While I’m skeptical of Ahmari’s historical view of the church’s development I’m sympathetic to the argument that if you have the privileged status then you should use it. But, at best, it’s just a means to an end. As Jesus said, His kingdom is not of this world. So, I think I side more with David and I think it’s in keeping with the biblical examples we have in people like Joseph, Daniel, and the Apostle Paul. If Christians are supposed to win the culture wars, using state power as a means, then God has made a huge oversight in leaving that out of the New Testament.

This is an interesting topic of much needed debate and there is a lot to say on it. I’m reminded of Rod Dreher’s recent book on The Benedict Option. I think this shows that we need to be aware that we are heading into a new era not unlike late antiquity in the Roman Empire. We find ourselves in a pagan culture with little awareness of Christianity (even hostility to it) and a variety of beliefs and practices around “spirituality.” Hopefully more people become aware of the trend and work through how to navigate these challenging times.

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There are 13 comments.

  1. Aaron Miller Member

    There’s a difference between “using state power” to advance Christian goals and accepting that a majority-Christian society’s laws will reflect Christian assumptions and priorities. 

    No public square can be value-neutral. Representative government, when functional, will represent majority views. Theologically informed ethics are as valid as any other. 

    On the other hand, a theological or philosophical worldview which necessitates active interest in one’s neighbors (as Christianity does) need not and should not translate those interests into political coercion. Unlimited, centralized authority is not a natural implication of “love thy neighbor” and other Christian ethics. There are endless ways to help and engage our neighbors aside from government. Nor must every sin be attacked by force of law. 

    Indeed, since at least Pope Pius XI, the principle of subsidiarity has been formal Church teaching (if not the ethical compass of political priests). Whatever can be accomplished by individuals and voluntary cooperation should be.

    • #1
    • September 19, 2019, at 3:39 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  2. Mike Rapkoch Member

    There was a second debate on September 13. The audio is low for the first, but is restored at about the 15 minutes.:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmkCVb9S3fo

    • #2
    • September 19, 2019, at 4:42 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  3. Jim Beck Member

    Evening Bereket, Aaron, and Mike,

    I watched the second debate which included Charles Kessler. I did not find it satisfying in almost any regard. The basic question; are we in a crisis Ahmari says yes, Kessler a maybe, French no. French recalls that the year he was born 1969, there were four bombing every day that year. I was 22 in 69, Mike, I think we are close in age, and I agree with Kessler that there was less in question then than there is now. Kessler noted that Johnson won with 60% vote, and Nixon won with 60%+ and suggested that this represented a society in which there were more common beliefs that there are now. I would like to ask the three panelists, if our culture is at risk, how would we tell? Or what are the elements of our culture are foundational and what responsibility does the govt have in insuring those elements remain healthy? The question of crisis or not needs deeper thought than was presented. Concerning French, his body language is reflective of what I think of as a non-supple mind. He does not look or rotate his body when other speakers are talking and he pronounces his interpretations as if they are comprehensive and conclusive. His brittle pronouncements are not convincing, they persuade me that he is, without justification, convinced he is right, and that concerning 1969, his interpretation is lacking.

    • #3
    • September 19, 2019, at 5:16 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  4. ExcitableBoy Member

    It’s hard to tell exactly what Ahmari’s perspective is sometimes. He admits as much. He uses revolutionary rhetoric, but would probably have a more convincing case if he used the language of reform. 

    I skipped the first debate, but enjoyed the second. Would be interested in your reflections on that one! To me, the fundamental question about whether we’re in a crisis can be rephrased as: Is liberalism a neutral framework or does it tilt evermore toward progressivism? Some on the more Frenchian side of this argument usually admit that functioning liberalism depends on a pre-liberal inheritance of Christian-influenced values. I think Sohrab sees liberalism as destroying the very inheritance that makes it possible. He is willing to bend the rules a little bit to sustain those values, given that progressives are willing to break the rules to attack those values.

     

    • #4
    • September 19, 2019, at 7:18 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  5. Stina Member

    Bereket Kelile: Ahmari has this view that Christianity became a religion for the masses only after Constantine gave it the official sanction of the empire. (I’m intrigued about why he believes this because I find it completely wrong and backwards.) But on this view, he sees his mission as forestalling the Colosseum and its persecution of Christians. Interestingly, Ross Douthat asked at this point whether Ahmari wasn’t just trying to protect its privileged status, defending Constantine.

    What I find quite frustrating in the “culture war” is probably rather complex, but let’s see if I can do it justice.

    I have this idea that the American founders designed a constitution that allowed for The People to form governments that suited their characteristics, while being decentralized enough that a variety of governments could take shape and people who didn’t like the shape where they were could find one easily that was. State sovereignty, Locke and the Commons, the religious backgrounds of the various states all kind of culminate in this idea of a nation made of many mini nations that are easily traversed, but not non-existent.

    My basis for the purpose of this lies in the First Ammendment – that we should be free to Express ourselves according to our conscience, typically informed by religious beliefs.

    This was a country formed for Christians to express themselves. I think cutting Ahmari some slack there is warranted. He is rightfully in mourning for what once existed but doesn’t exist any longer.

    French is annoying because while he purports to be conserving the constitution according to the ideals of the founders, he’s left the henhouse door wide open and the foxes are having a feast. And French doesn’t believe his chickens are being devoured. French rejects nations, nationhood, the concept of people forming their own identity. It’s only proper for the Amish and the Jews. All the rest of us are individuals that need to stop thinking collectively.

    However, French does appear to be better situated to accept persecution of Christians in this country. I’m not certain if that’s because he doesn’t think it will affect him or because he’s at peace with it.

    I’m not sure where I fall in this… I expect persecution, I am prepared for it, but at the same time, I am a citizen of Rome and DO have the rights of one that I can harness for myself.

    • #5
    • September 20, 2019, at 5:38 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  6. Stina Member

    Stina (View Comment):
    I am a citizen of Rome and DO have the rights of one that I can harness for myself.

    I should add that I’m not entirely certain these rights exist any longer.

    • #6
    • September 20, 2019, at 6:01 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  7. Old Bathos Member

    I find Ahmari annoying, quite frankly. I say that as one steeped in Catholic moral tradition and whose political and social issue sentiments are invariably found on a political spectrum somewhere between Moses and William McKinley. Sacrificing habits and modes of freedom (economic, constitutional) to make room for top-down moral re-ordering is inherently self-defeating for all the reasons the Founders understood–it will inevitably be used by those seeking the extermination of religious influences and it does not do much to change hearts and minds even when wielded by the good guys.

    All this just demonstrates the depth of wisdom available to us in the “Render unto Caesar” advice. At that moment Jesus was confronted by some smarty-pants MSM type who wanted to trap Jesus into either (a) being squishy on independence from Roman rule and this alienating the nationalist constituency or (b) taking a pro-zealot position likely to result in arrest. The reply was that policy and forms of governance ultimately matter less than the consciences and interior life of both those implementing them and those who must live under their rule. 

    In a similar but more secular context, the founders, on the one hand, designed a system of government that does not require nor assume virtue and goodness of those in power and on the other hand expressly conceded that if the people lost their moral fiber, none of this will matter and we’re toast anyway.

    There are drag queens reading children’s books in the public library not because of some inherent defect in the Constitution or capitalism but because everyone knows that collectively we have insufficient confidence in our own morals, our morally informed esthetics, and each other’s moral fitness to exclude this depravity as we would a Klan-sponsored blackface minstrel show or wearing buttless chaps to a Kindergarten graduation ceremony (at least for now).

    Catholic intellectuals toying with an anti-freedom agenda (restricting capitalism, recreating guilds, regulating immoral speech and action, etc) are offering a fantasy solution while ducking the real issue as to how one should address the hearts and minds of people living badly and to do so without relying on the muscle of a benevolent Christian monarch or some stupidly conceived statutory equivalent.

     

    • #7
    • September 20, 2019, at 7:23 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  8. Western Chauvinist Member

    Jim Beck (View Comment):
    His brittle pronouncements are not convincing, they persuade me that he is, without justification, convinced he is right, and that concerning 1969, his interpretation is lacking.

    Brittle is a good word. 

    https://www.crisismagazine.com/2019/the-uncivil-civility-of-david-french

     

    • #8
    • September 20, 2019, at 7:34 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  9. Sabrdance Member

    Given that Ahmari, later in the same debate, discusses the origins of Christianity as a low-class phenomenon pre-Constantine, I think he just misspoke there. (The history is complicated: the Roman aristocracy isn’t particularly Christian pre-Constantine, but the Roman aristocracy is a joke. The Roman bureaucracy, on the other hand, which actually runs the empire, had switched back and forth between Christianity and paganism a few times, and would do so again before settling into Christianity long-term after Theodosious.)

    On the substance of the debate -I continue to find David French’s insistence on volunteering other people for martyrdom obnoxious, and would respect him a whole lot more if he just flatly said “of course they’re coming for you, and it’s your duty as a Christian to let them, or do you think the Apostles were fools?”

    • #9
    • September 20, 2019, at 7:59 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  10. Jim Beck Member

    Morning Western,

    That was a great article. The description of French even more clearly described how unpleasant it was to listen to French hector his audience (us) into being as noble and self-sacrificing as he is. Let us blow trumpets to honor his bravery and accomplishments, and especially his civility.

    Morning Old,

    If you recall Kessler compared Trump to a historically Republican president in his policies, for example tariffs, and regulation of immigration. The nub of the problem is can the govt shield the culture from the type of turbulence which could lead to more serious problems? Do you think the govt can and should it act in such a way. If we are going to think of living as disciples we might not have any interest in govt or culture other than what may influence our being ambassadors for Christ. In this we would not even consider the “Benedict Option”, we would just totally depend on God to sort out the problems of the world and let Him guide us in our lives. But if we are going to bring our faith into contact with culture and govt then that means we will not turn our faith into a private belief and being “salt and light” might involve thinking about policy. Should we have open borders and in faith welcome the stranger, or should we like Republican presidents of the past think that the culture can only successfully assimilate a limited number of “strangers” at a time. You seem to suggest that relying on our understanding of the founders and keeping our religion separate will give us an answer. If I am missing your point, sorry.

    • #10
    • September 20, 2019, at 8:09 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  11. Max Ledoux Admin

    While Amari and French are arguing about how many conservatives dance on a needle point, President Trump is getting conservative agenda items done. I have no interest in their debate.

    • #11
    • September 20, 2019, at 10:14 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  12. Old Bathos Member

    Jim Beck (View Comment):

    Morning Old,

    If you recall Kessler compared Trump to a historically Republican president in his policies, for example tariffs, and regulation of immigration. The nub of the problem is can the govt shield the culture from the type of turbulence which could lead to more serious problems? Do you think the govt can and should it act in such a way. If we are going to think of living as disciples we might not have any interest in govt or culture other than what may influence our being ambassadors for Christ. In this we would not even consider the “Benedict Option”, we would just totally depend on God to sort out the problems of the world and let Him guide us in our lives. But if we are going to bring our faith into contact with culture and govt then that means we will not turn our faith into a private belief and being “salt and light” might involve thinking about policy. Should we have open borders and in faith welcome the stranger, or should we like Republican presidents of the past think that the culture can only successfully assimilate a limited number of “strangers” at a time. You seem to suggest that relying on our understanding of the founders and keeping our religion separate will give us an answer. If I am missing your point, sorry.

    My point is that government is a lousy tool for repairing culture or reinvigorating moral vitality. I do not advocate passivity as some Christian version of inshallah but I do think we need to know the limits of government. We can and should play defense against militantly stupid and immoral policies but should not kid ourselves that we can implement policies that will increase our numbers (ideologically speaking) to bring about social and moral betterment. That kind of initiative is inherently private, personal and local. And if it is not taking place, then political defensive victories (like keeping Hillary out of power) are just delaying the inevitable.

    Even if, for example, we could immediately undo all of the government programs and policies that are anti-family and morally deformative, the damage is such that the recovery may not begin on its own. A bare patch in the forest will regrow. A deforested newly formed expanse of desert probably will not.

    • #12
    • September 20, 2019, at 10:34 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  13. Jim Beck Member

    Afternoon Old,

    I agree that the govt is generally our biggest hazard and that limiting the size an power of the govt would be beneficial to our culture, because those institutions outside of govt would become more important as govt shrank. But there are things that govt policy can help often by giving individuals greater choices. For example the increase in the child dependent deduction has been beneficial to families I know. Also if we allowed any child in the large metropolitan areas to go to any school they chose, public/ private/ charter the power of the teachers unions would be diminished and the quality of ed would improve, to the benefit of the inner city students which would be a benefit to our culture. I think govt policies can influence the choices that child bearing couples make, increasingly the likelihood that young couples might have children and that govt policies can improve the quality of ed. There are many who belief that open borders is a Christian act and that we, as Christians, should subvert the actions which close the borders. I think open borders like the open ones we have had for years is destructive to our culture, our nation, and that our nation may have policies which conflict with some believer’s interpretations of faith, but the govt policies to limit immigration are beneficial to our culture. We Christians are told that the leaders of the countries of the world are placed there with God’s permission and that we are to follow the laws of the land in which we live, but we admire Bonhoeffer who at minimum knew of the assassination plot. This religious problems with immigration demonstrate how divided we are even as Christians. I would suggest that this reflects how divided we are as Americans, in that we feel little obligation to our neighbors, commmunity, or country, and that we feel our path to righteous behavior is pure and simple.

    Afternoon Max,

    I agree that we can be pleased that Trump with his built in Rhino hide is getting things done. But, politics is a moral arena, those policies Trump is doing please us because we think they are good policies and are beneficial for society. It is true that debates like the the Ahmari/French debate may have little value, and the foundations of human culture weren’t built as the result of debates or think tanks, they were built via an evolutionary trial an error (those human arrangements that worked thrived, those that didn’t failed). However, the rules/laws by which we live have a moral/religious underpinnings and if we could present the moral logic which supports our anti-progressive governmental choices, if we could solidify support for our policies.

    • #13
    • September 20, 2019, at 2:26 PM PDT
    • 3 likes