Response to Brennan Buhr’s ‘For Ahmari-ism’
Letter to the Editor | Wednesday, September 4, 2019
Hiding behind Brennan Buhr’s artful prose in his op-ed “For Sohrab Ahmari-ism” is a startling worldview. More than just a critique of American liberalism, Buhr argues for a form of Christian illiberalism. In this sharply polarized era, Buhr contends that “conservatism does not need another Reagan… but [rather] a new… St. Benedict.” However, it seems like an American version of Francisco Franco, the Catholic-fascist dictator of 20th century Spain, might better embody Buhr’s frighteningly authoritarian vision of Christian conservatism.
For those who have not followed the French-Ahmari debate, the clash began with a tweet from Ahmari regarding an ad for “Drag Queen Reading Hour” at a public library in California. Such an objectionable event, Ahmari wrote, illustrated the weakness of the “polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war.” The David French approach, per Buhr’s column, involves “a hopeless naivete that conservatives can somehow negotiate a compromise with the left by accommodating their ‘libertine ways and paganized ideology.’” Buhr would presumably prefer a more robust confrontation of the left’s paganism, as embodied by the Drag Queen Reading Hour.
Let’s set aside the obvious point that our society faces much more pressing issues than drag queens reading to children at a public library, including of course the fires currently burning in the Amazon Rainforest (as Buhr mentions). Turning instead to the “Ahmari-ism” advocated by Buhr, a fundamental question must be asked: What would a “rightly understood Christian politics” do about the Drag Queen Reading Hour? Should the government deny the organizers of that event use of the public library? Given that the Reading Hour was a voluntarily attended event organized by private citizens in a publicly available space, such an intervention would surely violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to assembly. Imagine, as a counterexample, if the State of California were to deny a Christian book club use of a public meeting space. The conservative right would protest vociferously, and rightly so. A Drag Queen Reading Hour — abhorrent as it may be to some conservatives — should be no less protected by the Constitution.
Indeed, the central, most disturbing flaw in Buhr’s argument can be found in his aspiration “to orient society according to man’s highest good and final end, objective standards which are foreign to the liberal project” by way of a new Christian politics. His problem is ages-old and was recognized by our Founding Fathers — there is no single conception of the good. Each person has distinct sensibilities about what a good life looks like. Different faiths and denominations within faiths and parishes within denominations all preach different visions of the good life. And that’s OK. Buhr likely has a different conception of the good than I do, and that is fine. Liberalism, flawed as it may be, is founded upon a noble goal: ensuring that each person may pursue happiness as they see fit (with some obvious restrictions, such as the ability of a person to use heroin). After eons of bloodshed between factions in disagreement with each other on what makes “the good life” — Pagan vs. Christian, Christian vs. Muslim, Catholic vs. Protestant — the architects of liberalism sought to establish an uneasy but workable peace. In the United States, they did this by protecting each person’s right to conceptualize and express their worldview. Competing factions might go on hating one another, but they would do so — most of the time — without resorting to violence. No one group would be permitted to enforce its philosophy or creed upon the others. This is the essential promise of liberalism, and it has done much good for our nation and for mankind.
Buhr is correct to point out the challenges associated with liberalism. In our courts and legislatures today, tricky questions about competing rights and worldviews are being hashed out. Under what circumstances, for example, may an LGBT employee be fired by a religious employer? These clashes within our liberal order are emotionally charged for both sides. But the answer to the problems of liberalism is not illiberalism. That is, the Christian right cannot force its principles upon an unwilling society. Perceived overreaches by the left should be called out, but they should not become an excuse for conservatives to infringe upon each person’s right to self-determination. Buhr criticizes the comfort of French with “promulgating Christianity purely within the marketplace of ideas.” However, Buhr fails to appreciate that any alternative to this approach would be a perversion of Christianity — forcing Christianity upon unwilling people is not evangelization, but rather an Inquisition. The abandonment of liberalism in pursuit of a Christian society would surely end in suffering.
There are valid reasons to be concerned about the state of American Christianity. The percentage of young people who practice the faith has plummeted in recent years. However, the proper response to the wavering influence of the Church in America is not “Ahmari-ism.” Rather, the Church and conservative Christians specifically should return to the foundations of Christianity. They should point to the transformational nature of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In the era of disintegrating communities, they should celebrate the strength of a community grounded in the Gospel. And in debates about complex social issues, conservative Christians should argue vociferously in support of their beliefs while also accepting the legitimacy of the other side. Both conservatives and progressives can offer wisdom in our public deliberations — both perspectives will be necessary as our country and the world confront truly dire challenges.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.