“In many ways, it was far better to see Christendom shrunk down to a few genuine believers than to see it ballooned and enforced into a parody of itself”
“When Christianity came into the world the task was simply to proclaim Christianity. The same is the case wherever Christianity is introduced into a country the religion of which is not Christianity. In ‘Christendom’ the situation is a different one. What we have before us is not Christianity but a prodigious illusion, and the people are not pagans but live in the blissful conceit that they are Christians. So if in this situation Christianity is to be introduced, first of all the illusion must be disposed of.”
Soren Kierkegaard, Attack on Christendom
In his article “Against David French-ism” for the Christian outlet First Things, Sohrab Ahmari takes issue with liberal, Christian conservatism. In particular, he associated this position with the philosophy and “nice” disposition of National Review columnist and “Never Trumper” David French. Ahmari’s argument is that there is no “polite” way to fight a “cultural civil war” against the forces of liberalism and progressivism. In Ahmari’s agonistic understanding, various “cultural revolutionaries” have come to insist that the most important social good is “maximum autonomy” from moral and legal sanctions. This position, which Ahmari reacts against, holds that experiments in living are the highest good, and it disparages the effort to constrain this experimental disposition as prejudice. According to Ahmari, “Frenchism” is the liberal conservative philosophy which holds that this emphasis on maximum autonomy and individual experimentation should be countered—but only using gentle means. One should encourage personal spiritual devotion, promote a better work-life balance, which will enable individuals to invest time in religious practices, and so on. Ahmari regards this as entirely insufficient, given the stakes of the current cultural civil war. Instead, he intends 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.” This is where Ahmari reprimands French and others for failing to support Donald Trump. Perhaps solely through “instinct,” President Trump—devout paragon of moral behavior that he is—recognized the need to use the state to reinforce traditional authority and order. His election was a rejection of a depoliticized politics, and it was emblematic of an embrace of an all-encompassing culture war where “civility and decency are secondary values.” As Ahmari put it:
“In the United States, this great ‘no’ culminated in 2016’s election of Donald Trump. With a kind of animal instinct, Trump understood what was missing from mainstream (more or less French-ian) conservatism. His instinct has been to shift the cultural and political mix, ever so slightly, away from autonomy-above-all toward order, continuity, and social cohesion. He believes that the political community—and not just the church, family, and individual—has its own legitimate scope for action. He believes it can help protect the citizen from transnational forces beyond his control.”
Ahmari embracing a post-modern conservative like Trump as an answer to Christian decline is actually quite easy.
Truth and Untruth in Religious Belief
It is worth noting from the outset that Ahmari stakes out several disturbing or perplexing positions. First, he invokes Archbishop Charles Chaput’s 2007 book Strangers in a Strange Land to argue against the claim that faith-based positions are, “purely religious beliefs.” This is because if they are mere beliefs held by individuals—however sincerely they might be held—this by no means implies that they are true and rationally demonstrable. This suggests that any effort to enforce them as a sort of moral or ontological authority is a, “species of bias.” Now, I think Ahmari is correct in this position. Religious beliefs are indeed of a different quality relative to, say, Kantian subjective or inter-subjective judgements of taste. They involve what Paul Tillich in The Dynamics of Faith would call our commitment to what is of, “highest concern.” In this respect, it is asking too much for faith-driven individuals to adopt a distanced stance in regards to their religious beliefs. To do so would be to destabilize the conviction that they are based in moral and ontological truth.
The problem for the non-converted (or the apostatized such as myself) is, of course, that Ahmari himself has never given a sustained and convincing argument for why his traditionalist Christian beliefs are indeed true. In the majority of his pieces for First Things and elsewhere, he speaks to those who already believe, without providing arguments for why those beliefs are demonstrably true or even plausible. The problem is that if it turns out that the beliefs Ahmari holds are not, in fact, “rationally demonstrable” but are actually highly contentious along virtually every dimension, then insisting that everyone hold them is, in effect, quite close to a, “species of bias.” Ahmari cannot philosophically show why his beliefs warrant our commitment, and, therefore, he merely insists they are true, while threatening the use of state coercion. This is a disturbing position to take on an issue such as the existence of God—or the truth or untruth of various moral claims—about which very intelligent individuals disagree profoundly.
Second, there is a pronounced irony in Ahmari claiming that “civility and decency” must become secondary values in a cultural war for dominance of the American polity. He claims that, “progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions.” I think this is a remarkably skewed interpretation of progressivism, but, for argument’s sake, let us say that he is correct. Even were that true, Ahmari is essentially calling for the adoption of immoral tactics to advance an allegedly true moral cause. As Machiavelli might say, “let the ends justify the means.” But this disposition of realpolitik is radically opposed to authentically Christian doctrines going back to at least Augustine—and indeed further to Christ and Paul. The Christian disposition was to fight against evil with patience, love and hope. As Paul put it in Corinthians 13:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Christian practice is meant to be the embodiment of an ideal personified in the imitation of Christ. You cannot realize a religious ideal by compromising it through the worldly concerns of realpolitik. This brings me to the main point of this essay, which is how this desire for worldly authority (and the aim to triumph in a culture war) constitutes a far greater danger to sincere belief than do the demands of progressivism for tolerance and individual exploration. This is because they constitute a form of religious inauthenticity, which warps true belief into its opposite.
In his great book A Secular Age, the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor responds to Ahmari-type anxieties with great power and wisdom. He points out that—as the course of secularization deepens—many traditionalist Christians can be convinced that only worldly power can prevent the world from sliding into irreligious darkness. They become convinced that the state or social institutions should be re-organized to enforce Christian mores and establish doctrinal homogeneity as a guiding political theology. Taylor opines that this is a tremendously dangerous temptation. This is because the insistence that individuals be forced to believe—ironically echoing Jean Jacques Rousseau’s injunction that deviants from the General Will should be “forced to be free”—brings with it the possibility of inauthenticity. In this illiberal setting, individuals are compelled to adopt practices and beliefs they do not actually hold. They may parrot the words and actions of Christianity, but they do not actually believe in the truth of Christian teaching and feel little spiritual connection to God. But their acquiescence is nevertheless demanded by earthly authorities. Throughout A Secular Age,Taylor insists that this is far too high a price to pay, even to get a few more individuals to nominally convert and mime the actions of Christian morality.
He observes that the greatest danger to Christianity is, in fact, Christendom.
Taylor’s point echoes one made generations earlier by Soren Kierkegaard. In a series of essays compiled as an Attack on Christendom, the melancholy Dane makes a characteristically striking claim. He observes that the greatest danger to Christianity is, in fact, Christendom. This is the state-mandated and organized form of belief that parrots the spiritual dimensions of Christian teaching but is thoroughly dependent on the application of legal and social force to demand compliance. In this context, many people came to regard Christianity in thoroughly human terms. It was both a convenience and a threat. Nominally obeying the slenderest interpretations of Christian moralism, going to Church on Sunday, and politely nodding to millennia old rituals was the easiest way to get along. One could even commercially profit from giving off the appearance of virtue. Underpinning this was the understanding that to deviate from these expectations—to be like Christ in not maintaining the peace—would bring about public reprisal and ridicule.
For Kierkegaard, the middling and enforced homogeneity of Christendom was the greatest danger facing genuine Christianity. In many ways, it was far better to see Christendom shrunk down to a few genuine believers than to see it ballooned and enforced into a parody of itself. It was designed, in his famous phrase, to “make the way [to Christianity] easier” when, in fact, the genuinely faithful must always make the way harder. And this is where I think French demonstrates far more understanding than Ahmari. Despite the latter’s ridicule, French’s efforts to change people’s mind by appealing to the individual’s need for spiritual fulfillment is hard. It involves understanding each person as a unique being whose relationship to what is of “highest concern” is mediated by a huge number of complex factors. Ahmari embracing a post-modern conservative like Trump as an answer to Christian decline is actually quite easy. It involves abandoning what makes Christianity challenging, namely the demand to always approach any conflict with love and patience. It instead looks to state authority to resolve the problem of secularism. Abandoning what makes Christianity challenging in order to win the culture war and enjoy “the spoils” means abandoning Christianity.
None of what I’ve written here should be taken as an endorsement of either Frenchism or Ahmarian agonism. I am ultimately of the conviction that the experiments in living and autonomy denigrated throughout the article are the future. The philosophical and scientific developments of modernity and now post-modernity have so undermined the foundations on which traditional Christian doctrine is built that it can have little claim to our convictions. That this opens up many nihilistic possibilities in Western civilization is undeniable—and was acknowledged even by figures like Nietzsche who largely celebrated the death of God. Here the Weberian injunction to choose between facing up to the challenge of modernity or retreating into the churches comes into play. I feel that we must advance, and the way to do so is to embrace the possibilities of experimentation in human life. The ambition should be to organize society so individuals can more effectively realize what Slavoj Žižek would call our creative potentials. The best kind of social organization for this project would be, I believe, a robust social democracy characterized by far greater political participation and equality than what we see today.
My purpose in writing this was to defend French against the claim that he is somehow adopting a softer or easier position than those of his rivals. Figures like Ahmari might remember that when Hobbes wrote Leviathan his point was to insist that the “mortal God” was to serve in the place of an immortal God whose will and being we could never know. Turning to the mortal God of the state to service the immortal God of Christianity is a dangerous temptation which leads down the road to inauthenticity and a willingness to compromise ideals for the gains of realpolitik. It may be more difficult to seek to enact change through personal spiritual revival and setting an example, but faith shines brightest when it is sincerely practiced through all of life’s trials.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.