What Sohrab Ahmari Doesn’t Understand about Evangelicals and Conservatism

What Sohrab Ahmari Doesn’t Understand about Evangelicals and Conservatism May 30, 2019

The essay at First Things by Sohrab Ahmari against National Review’s David French may be way too far into the weeds of political conservatism for many evangelical Protestants since both magazine’s draw many readers from the conservative movement and Roman Catholicism, spheres where born-again Protestants are not prevalent. (Indeed, the ties between post-World War II political conservatism and Roman Catholicism remain strong even if not always obvious.) What may interest Protestant readers, even Reformed ones, is that David French, an attorney and writer at National Review, is an evangelical and even a member of the Presbyterian Church in America.

Ahmari’s piece “Against David French-ism” seems to be an unprovoked attack since it does not mention one particular article by French but documents from a variety of sources a specific style that ultimately places civility and decency above a recognition that conservatives are in a war with Americans on the left. Instead of looking realistically at the current situation, French tries to play by the rules of liberal toleration and moderation in hopes that liberals will treat conservatives the same way. In other words, for Ahmari, French is too darned nice:

It isn’t easy to critique the persona of someone as nice as French. Then again, it is in part that earnest and insistently polite quality of his that I find unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing religious conservatives. Which is why I recently quipped on Twitter that there is no “polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war.” (What prompted my ire was a Facebook ad for a children’s drag queen reading hour at a public library in Sacramento.)

I added, “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.

French prefers a different Christian strategy, and his guileless public mien and strategic preferences bespeak a particular political theology (though he would never use that term), one with which I take issue. Thus, my complaint about his politeness wasn’t a wanton attack; it implicated deeper matters.

Such talk—of politics as war and enmity—is thoroughly alien to French, I think, because he believes that the institutions of a technocratic market society are neutral zones that should, in theory, accommodate both traditional Christianity and the libertine ways and paganized ideology of the other side.

Defenders of French have suggested that Ahmari may be veering into that strange world of conservative extremism or that French’s liberal moderation is precisely what allows him to see injustice clearly. What such defenses may miss is that French’s apparent conservatism comes from an outlook that is really more evangelical and moral than it is political and conservative. French often opines on political developments (especially President Trump) from a perspective of moral indignation but he does so without wanting to start a fight. After all, how is jumping on the bandwagon of elite journalism’s condemnation of Trump all that aggressive or extreme? My own sense is that French wants to provide a morally consistent perspective on current affairs but in a way that is agreeable, one that will not force him to give up a seat at the table.

The big-tent, play-nice side of French was evident in a column he wrote about the sex scandal in Roman Catholicism from the summer of 2018. Ironically, he played so nice that he pretended to stand with Ahmari’s Roman Catholic communion:

one of the mightiest battleships in the fleet, the Catholic Church, is taking torpedoes left and right. It’s now rocked by allegations of wrongdoing that go all the way to the Vatican, to the pope himself. . . .

None of us has the luxury of believing “our” institutions are safe or that “our side” of the Christian divide has adequately guarded itself against the demonic spirit that stalks the land.

Ships in the Christian armada are ablaze. We must not simply sail on and leave them to their fate.

For French, evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics are in a struggle against liberal secularism because Christians stand for morality and traditional beliefs while the other side dismisses Christianity and older morality as a vestige from the past. What French failed to notice was the major divide between Roman Catholics and Protestants over morality itself — the relationship between good works and faith, for instance. Instead of looking at the matter from the perspective of his Presbyterian identity, French decided to stand with the big tent of culturally conservative Christians (Roman Catholic and evangelical). That was a moderate position compared to a reactionary denominational one.

French’s desire for a bigger tent that avoids controversies among those taking shelter is one that Tim Keller has popularized in the PCA. In a paper from a decade or so ago, the popular PCA pastor who has articulated a Protestantism moderate enough for columnists at the New York Times and editors at The New Yorker, praised the diversity of his denomination in ways that resembled French’s appeal to Christian (of all stripes) conservatives:

Each branch of Presbyterianism needs the others in order to escape its own inherent blind spots and weaknesses. But the conflicts that arise between the branches often accentuate and stimulate those very weaknesses. Richard Lovelace used to say doctrinalists are like white corpuscles, that are better at defending the faith (against heretical ‘infections’) than propagating the faith. The pietists and reformists are like red corpuscles that in their pragmatism do a better job of propagating the faith and yet often lay it open to doctrinal indifference or decline. Too many white blood cells over red blood cells is leukemia; too many red blood cells over white blood cells is AIDS. We need each other. We can’t live comfortably with each other, but we are much less robust and vital apart from each other. (Keller, “Why I Like the PCA)

For non-Presbyterians, Keller’s ideas may sound eminently sensible. But for those with some experience in Reformed Protestantism, some of the differences that Keller wants to paper over have been matters of conscience — sort of like differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics at the time of the Reformation. Instead of fighting against each other, Keller and French want political conservatives and conservative Presbyterians to get along. This is the strategy of evangelicals since World War II during the career of Billy Graham — accent the positive, avoid the negative. Meanwhile, for those who think Presbyterianism has much more to offer than evangelicalism, going along with born-again Protestantism’s kinder, gentler ways has meant sacrificing important pieces of Presbyterian devotion on worship and the Lord’s Day.

Keller and French do sound reasonable. And Ahmari sounds extreme. He overdoes the culture war business, as if we have two armies with the one on the left trying to eliminate the one on the right. But he has a point if only by reminding French that being nice and moderate will not secure a seat at the table with liberals, whether political or religious. Just remember what happened to the moderate and eminently likable Keller at Princeton Theological Seminary:

As I indicated in my previous letter, it is not my practice to censor the invitations to campus from any of our theological centers or student organizations. This commitment to academic freedom is vital to the critical inquiry and theological diversity of our community. In talking with those who are deeply concerned about Reverend Keller’s visit to campus, I find that most share this commitment to academic freedom. Yet many regard awarding the Kuyper Prize as an affirmation of Reverend Keller’s belief that women and LGBTQ+ persons should not be ordained. This conflicts with the stance of the Presbyterian Church (USA). And it is an important issue among the divided Reformed communions.

For that reason, Princeton refused to give an award to Keller.

A similar lesson is there for David French, though Sohrab Ahmari is not the best teacher. Being fair minded in applying morality to liberals and conservatives is not going to advance political conservatism. That does not mean that conservatives should bend the truth or compromise moral integrity. It simply means that being honest and moral is not all it takes to be conservative.

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