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For Sohrab Ahmari-ism

| Monday, September 2, 2019

A fire ignited on May 29, 2019, and it continues to blaze today.

No, I am not talking about the catastrophic conflagration in the Amazon. I mean to discuss the long-running but recently-intensified debate within conservatism over the virtues and vices of classical liberalism, the American founding and the decades-old conservative consensus, sparked by author Sohrab Ahmari’s First Things article entitled “Against David French-ism.”

Ahmari’s critique of progressive liberalism and its classical forebear is not especially new. Years and years of extensive scholarly work (Professor Patrick Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed” is the best book to read on this front) have interpreted the popular angst that has recently proliferated throughout the Western world as a sign that the supposedly values-neutral regime of liberalism has finally revealed its true nature. According to Ahmari’s diagnosis, modern-day progressive liberals have simply taken “the logic of maximal autonomy … to its logical terminus,” a logic that has trampled upon the specious idea of a neutral public square to which paradoxical liberal-conservatives like David French have fallen hook, line and sinker (the all-important John Locke excluded Roman Catholics from his ideal regime of “toleration,” after all).

Thus, Ahmari believes that genuine social conservatism cannot be reconciled with the classical liberalism of Adam Smith or John Locke. It also cannot simply be blended today into a consensus with economic libertarianism or interventionist foreign policy, as post-Reagan “fusionist” conservatives like Paul Ryan or George W. Bush have explicitly or implicitly argued, without losing its grounding in the more ancient Christian tradition. A rightly understood Christian politics aspires to orient society according to man’s highest good and final end, objective standards which are foreign to the liberal project.

The novelty of Ahmari’s article was to implicate, of all people, David French, a minimally prominent conservative writer for National Review, as the epitome of conservatism’s wrong intellectual turn. Now, French himself is no slouch; before his career as a prolific National Review columnist, French has defended numerous clients in religious freedom cases. Strictly speaking, Ahmari and French are on the same team when it comes to the outcome of these cases, as both of them (and virtually all consistent conservatives, nowadays) support broad protections for people of faith, Christian or otherwise, to carry out their work in medicine, cake-baking, etc. without being coerced by leftist ideologues to violate their religious beliefs.

However, the word “conservatism” inherently begs an essential question: What must be conserved? On this point, Ahmari and French profoundly disagree. Ahmari in particular sees within French’s classical liberal fideism a hopeless naivete that conservatives can somehow negotiate a compromise with the left by accommodating their “libertine ways and paganized ideology” and in turn expecting that the left refrain from active hostility toward traditional Christian beliefs and practices. For Ahmari, this expectation ignores reality; the left does not want to play this game, and it has not been remotely interested in doing so for quite some time. The lack of consciousness that fusionist, liberal-conservatives like David French possess about this fact is part of the problem. As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre might say, conservatism does not need another Reagan, but a new, and doubtless very different, St. Benedict.

Such is the overall framework of the broader debate within conservatism which, in my view, is absolutely necessary for conservatives in such turbulent political times, the roots of which run far deeper than the election of President Trump (although this is undoubtedly a key factor). And if my inaugural column has already interested you enough to read up to this point, you’re in luck: Ahmari and French will have a debate right here at Notre Dame on Friday, September 13 at 11:30 am inside 1030 Jenkins-Nanovic.

From my perspective, Ahmari’s critique is compelling because it is rooted in a broader Catholic worldview which I wholeheartedly share, a philosophy which is quite different from David French’s evangelical predilections. Ever since Martin Luther, Western politics has become increasingly detached from their theological roots in St. Paul, Augustine and Aquinas. A myriad of faithful Catholics today, especially intellectuals like Ahmari, are recognizing the need to return to the beautiful tradition of the Church to find the resources that can help resolve our present sociopolitical ills.

That is not to say that there is no crossover among Catholic and Protestants within this crucial debate; Professor Philip Muñoz (a Catholic liberal-conservative) and Senator Josh Hawley (an evangelical Protestant postliberal) immediately come to mind in this regard. Nevertheless, there is a clear tendency within Catholic intellectual circles to place far more emphasis upon classical philosophy’s quest for man’s highest good and final end on the scale of society as a whole, whereas evangelicals like David French are generally at peace with promulgating Christianity purely within the marketplace of ideas to convince others of their sincerity. Although well-intentioned, both myself and Ahmari would agree that this strategy is doomed to fail. Christians must think and act differently.


Brennan Buhr is a senior Juggerknott from Albany, NY who studies theology, political science (but really, just theory) and history. He loves drinking cold glasses of skim milk and eating salad for dessert when he is not consuming “the living bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51) at the Basilica. He can be reached at [email protected] or @BuhrBrennan on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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