Traditional Christians provoke debate within a new conservative coalition

Despite a public space rigged against their version of the good, traditional Christians do manage to convince people with very different views of the truth of their claims.

David French and Sohrab Ahmari. (Screenshot via MSNBC / Fox News)

(RNS) — For decades now, though major media has spoken and written about “the” Republican Party as if it were a fixed, coherent thing, it has been unclear exactly what has been holding this ideologically diverse group of people together. Indeed, one may need to go all the way back to the middle of the 19th century — when the party was founded explicitly to fight slavery — to find Republican ideological coherence.

For most of the latter half of the 20th century, and especially since the Reagan revolution, the party has claimed to be skeptical of big government — while at the same time insisting on a monstrously large, powerful and unaccountable government program in the form of an empire-sustaining military.

The party also argued for a government robust enough to regulate the most intimate decisions a human can make about sex and reproduction: from contraception, to homosexuality, to the creation of embryos, to abortion.

In response to the so-called “war on terror,” a party that was supposedly skeptical of government authority gave huge amounts of money to a largely unaccountable surveillance bureaucracy through the cynically named “Patriot Act.”

The election of a Republican president like Trump has made the question of GOP identity even more perplexing. Long in favor of markets unencumbered by externalities like tariffs and social programs, the president’s party now sits by as he makes tariffs the administration’s primary foreign relations tool.

At home, meanwhile, Trump is pushing for a huge infrastructure plan that would put more than a trillion dollars on the U.S. credit card, saddling my children and their children with a maddeningly large debt.

Trump’s new Republicanism is supported by many conservative talk show hosts and public intellectuals.

Fox News’ Tucker Carlson bemoans the “usury” of credit card and payday loan companies (because they hurt the country’s poorest), which has caused him to agree with the big government thinking of Democratic candidates like Elizabeth Warren. First Things editor Rusty Reno has also called for robust government action against the so-called free market:

“Pro-family tax policies are needed, as are industrial policies that encourage the expansion of high-wage jobs that help working-class people escape the two-income trap. We must break up the tremendous concentrations of economic and cultural power in the Silicon Valley giants. We need to phase out tax deductions for lifetime donations in excess of one billion dollars. These are properly political goals, properly conservative goals. If they run afoul of the preachments of Milton Friedman, then so be it.”

What manner of Republican Party is this?

The answer lies in the fact that, for the last century and a half, the GOP has not been one thing but actually a strange mix of folks held together by little more than an overlapping consensus about who the bad guys are. Asking what “the” Republican Party stands for is a bit like asking to what species a manticore belongs. Both are hybrid mishmashes that resist singular characterizations.

The Republican monster is made up of at least three main political factions: (1) the small-government, libertarian free-marketers, (2) the empire-maintaining military hawks and (3) religious traditionalists.

But as Ross Douthat recently put it, “an ideology that packaged limited government, free markets, a hawkish foreign policy and cultural conservatism together, and that assumed that business interests and religious conservatives and ambitious American-empire builders belonged naturally to the same coalition” was not very stable.

Trump’s arrival was not a cause of this instability but a symptom. Religious conservatives, tired of feeling like a junior partner, blew up the coalition by electing Donald Trump in the hopes he would actually work for their goals.

Indeed, religious traditionalists like Sohrab Ahmari have been outspoken in their criticism of conservatives whom they perceive as trying to hold onto the old party consensus.

These traditionalists believe religious conservatives will continue to be hamstrung by the assumptions of what they call the “liberal order”: a commitment to small government, free markets and individual autonomy.

They also criticize those who bow to a liberal order for participating in a supposedly neutral public square, where facts and arguments are laid out to convince a majority of Americans of their point of view.

Ahmari, a Catholic and the editor of the New York Post’s oped page, is convinced that their commitment to playing by the rules is why religious conservatives are losing the culture wars so badly. Look around, he says: the existence of a “children’s drag queen reading hour” at a local Sacramento public library — or that refusing to bake a cake can be considered a kind of violence — shows that by following the rules, his side is getting whipped.

Progressives, Ahmari says, are not beholden to the liberal order. Rather than make arguments in a supposedly neutral public sphere, his opponents focus on discrediting religious traditionalists and weakening or even destroying their intuitions.

His side, he argues, ought to approach the culture war with a similar kind of aggressive realism — abandoning the commitment to small government and the pretext of a neutral public square. They should simply admit that they, like the left, are trying to “enforce our order and orthodoxy” by whatever means necessary.

David French, senior writer for National Review, took the brunt of Ahmari’s critique. An Iraq War veteran, French supposedly personifies the conservative “niceness” that needs to go away. French admirably responded, however, by pointing out the many times he has convinced progressives of his position in court or in another public venue.

I feel for French, as my own calls for civility and honest, open debate (and even solidarity with our ideological enemies) has been criticized from the left by some of my academic colleagues.

Among other things, these progressives claimed it is only from a position of privilege that one can make such calls: Pleas for open debate with someone who has his foot on your neck aren’t a serious position. Free and open debate on a so-called neutral playing field, on their view, empowers the oppressor.

But maintaining mutual respect is the only way the two sides in our national division can avoid the escalation of the culture war that is threatening to destroy our institutions. Enforcing orthodoxy from one side or the other will lead to violence.

I understand the struggle, though. In the last decade-plus I’ve been wrestling more and more with the views of Catholic intellectuals influenced by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. They have helped me see that there is no such thing as a neutral liberal order or neutral public space. The notion that we should focus on the rights of autonomous individuals in public and private spaces presumes a view of civil society that is at odds with relational understanding of the human person and of the nature of community found in traditional Christianity.

Simply put, there is no neutral public space. There is no view from nowhere on the political spectrum. Liberalism cannot be neutral.

And yet — despite a public space rigged against their version of the good — traditional Christians do manage to convince people with very different views of the truth of their claims. On the issues that matter most to such Christians, there is reason to think that not all is lost. Quite the contrary.

In the past 15 years, for instance, traditional Christians have not lost ground on the public debate about abortion.

Assisted suicide has also been fertile ground. In a span of five months in 2012, Massachusetts residents went from overwhelming support for a referendum legalizing the practice to a vote against it. Remarkably, many liberal US states (especially on the East Coast) continue to defeat pushes for legal assisted suicide. In the U.K., arguments against assisted suicide moved Parliament to ban it.

Ahmari is correct that religious traditionalists’ opponents do not fight fair (and in so doing have managed to make it close to impossible to make arguments about matters of sex and gender). But the culture war is not a rout. It is a complex mix of some battles won and others lost.

Even if traditional Christians were not winning any battles, they should refuse to abandon their principles — including Christ’s command to love one’s enemies. Such Christians can and should try to be effective at this level. Only the idol of nationalism could confuse this with their true source of ultimate concern.

At bottom, it is God who will make things come out right in the end. Traditional Christians are called to be faithful to the gospel — even when, to the world, it seems like foolishness.

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