Sohrab Ahmari, who once described Semiduplex as “a WordPress blog,” has an essay at First Things criticizing National Review writer David French. Or, more precisely, Ahmari criticizes what he describes as French’s strategy for dealing with hostile left-liberals in public spaces. Ahmari’s point is that Christians should adopt the tactics of left-liberals in enforcing their orthodoxy and order; more precisely, Ahmari holds that Christians should, instead of trying to use liberal institutions to carve out breathing room for Christians, use public power to “advance the common good, including in the realm of public morality.” Ahmari also rejects the idea that the battle between right-liberals and left-liberals should be fought in the realm of culture, arguing that that battle depoliticizes fundamentally political questions and does so in a way that favors left-liberals. After all, left-liberals have proven themselves extremely adroit at capturing cultural institutions.
It is cheering to us to see First Things once again expressing skepticism of liberalism. However, Ahmari is far from the first person to speculate on the uses of rightly ordered state power. Gladden J. Pappin, writing earlier this year at American Affairs, made a compelling case for what he calls the party of the state. Pappin, prescinding from personalities and the question of how rude one can be to one’s political rivals, laid out a clear argument in favor of state power in support of the common good. Moreover, Pappin offered some clear advice for people thinking and writing in a post-liberal context. Advise the state on how to use its power, he argued. “For conservatives,” he explained, “this may mean learning to advise on the use of the administrative state rather than plaintive, nostalgic, and counterproductive calls for its abolition.” Pappin’s piece is well worth reading in full, especially if one has qualms about Ahmari’s strategy of framing his argument as a condemnation of one writer.
David French has responded to Ahmari at National Review. French points to his successes as a public-interest lawyer in defending conservative Christian voices on college campuses. He also suggests that Donald Trump would not recognize the Donald Trump that Ahmari briefly sketched in his essay. He then pivots to a pretty standard defense of pluralism, including both the Founders and a parade of horribles. He concludes, “There is no political ’emergency’ that justifies abandoning classical liberalism, and there will never be a temporal emergency that justifies rejecting the eternal truth.” Michael Brendan Dougherty has taken a break from touring in support of his memoir to come to French’s defense, too. Dougherty, an infamously bilious Twitter presence, sort of agrees with Ahmari, but wishes Ahmari could be nicer to French.
Dougherty is in a sense a little more generous than Ahmari. Dougherty points out that Ahmari’s line of attack on French has a genealogy that really goes back to Brent Bozell’s epochal “Letter to Yourselves” in Triumph magazine. It is a shame that no one thought to link to Incudi Reddere‘s presentation of Bozell’s column. In a sense, the Ahmari-French debate is simply moving the clock back to 1969. Bozell stated, “The public life is supposed to help a man be a Christian. It is supposed to help him enter the City of God, and meanwhile it is supposed to help him live tolerably, even happily, in the City of Man.” This is not so far removed from Ahmari’s contention that Christians should not shrink from using state power to advance the common good. Bozell acknowledged that “[t]o state the problem in this fashion is to plunge into the Christian dialectic; it is also, given the state and contemporary political theory, to enter a new world,” and to that end he pointed to Jean Danielou’s Prayer as a Political Problem.
Once again, Incudi Reddere proves its value. A while back, the first part of Danielou’s book was posted there. One passage that Bozell doesn’t quote, though it follows passages that he does quote, is this:
It is sufficiently clear that Christians ought to be trying to change the shape and pattern of society so as to make possible a Christian life for the whole of mankind. It is also obvious that such a transformation must in any case be slow and may sometimes be ruled out by circumstances. However that may be, somehow a start has to be made, and this can be done by creating oases in the prevailing secularism where the Christian vocation can develop. This thought inevitably raises the question of those Christian institutions would provide services not of themselves within the church is competence, but which the church might be brought to provide: schools, unions or employers and workers, etc., which bring Christianity into social life not merely at the level of individual witness but at that of a community.
This passage underscores Bozell’s point that a truly Christian politics is different than the liberal politics that has ruled in the west for some centuries now. As Bozell put it,
The first is that Christianity sees the public life, which is the responsibility of politics, as an extension of the interior life. As Danielou puts it, “there can be no radical division between civilization and what belongs to the interior being of man.” Liberal politics, by contrast, is indifferent to the connection. John F. Kennedy became the liberal par excellence by announcing that his religion would not affect his presidency because it was “a private affair.”
As Bozell explains, the consequences of this idea are far reaching. But in the context of the Ahmari-French debate, it is clear that the idea of using liberal institutions to carve out “oases in the prevailing secularism,” as Danielou put it, is only the beginning of a Christian politics.
The other important point is this, and it cuts squarely against French. A Christian politics, at least as Danielou and Bozell understood it, does not seek to divide man into spheres, a temporal man and an eternal man. Indeed, it seeks exactly the opposite: the integration and harmonization of the temporal with the eternal. After all, man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end by reason of the infinitely surpassing excellence of the eternal end. And even if one, per impossibile, sought to make such a division, it would not exclude religion from the life of the temporal man. As Danielou explains:
religion of itself forms part of the temporal common good. Religion is not concerned solely with the future life; it is a constituent element of this life. Because the religious dimension is an essential part of human nature, civil society should recognize it as a constituent element of the common good for which it is itself responsible. Therefore, the state ought to give a positive recognition to full religious freedom. This is a matter of natural law. State atheism, which stifles religious life, and laïcisme, which ignores it, are both contrary to natural law.
Now, we admit that this points to the complex argument about Quanta cura, Leo XIII, and the Second Vatican Council, but we will bracket that argument for another day. The point is simply this: one cannot ignore the question of religion—and the question of right and wrong that necessarily attends religion—in service of making room for competing voices under a theory of liberty. Still less can a Christian, who ought to be striving to make a Christian life possible for all nations, ignore these questions.
Danielou also explains the risks of permitting others to create this division between the temporal and the spiritual:
The Church has an absolute duty to open herself to the poor. This can be done only be creating conditions which make Christianity possible for the poor. Therefore there is laid upon the Church a duty to work at the task of making civilization such that the Christian way of life shall be open to the poor. Today there are many obstacles standing in their way. In a technological civilization men tend to be absorbed in care for material things. Socialization and rationalization leave little room for personal life. Society is so disordered that large numbers have to live in a poverty which makes a personal life impossible. The result of the secularization of society is that God is no longer present in family, professional, or civic life. A world has come into being in which everything serves to turn men away from their spiritual calling.
For Danielou, then, the secularized world becomes not a world in which it is possible for everyone to get something. It is a world “in which everything serves to turn men away from their spiritual calling.” A Christian politics, as Danielou and Bozell conceive of it, rejects the obstacles to the spiritual life imposed by civilization and commits itself to working to overcome them.
Bozell explains that in this concept of politics, there is an antidote to the depoliticization Ahmari complains about:
The second advantage of the Christian conception is that the public life is not confined to what the state does, or what government does. The public life is whatever is not the interior life. This means that Christian politics is free to regard family and school, play and work, art and communication, the order of social relationships and the civil order, as integral parts of a whole: as integral and therefore mutually dependent aspects of civilization. (Which, of course, every reflective man knows they are.) But more: Christian politics is obliged to take this view of the matter, for the sake of the poor. What point is there in encouraging virtue in the family, and having it undermined in the school and on the street? What point in passing on truth by the unadorned word, only to have it repudiated by art? What point in arranging the departments of government to assure concord and liberty, when the arrangements of the social and economic orders forbid concord and liberty? All of the public life is the proper concern of politics because the poor live in all of it and need the support of all of it.
In other words, Christian politics expands its scope to consider all aspects of public life to ensure that no aspect of public life becomes an impediment to the Christian way of life, especially for the poor. This may be what French and other might describe as Christian statism, but it does not appear that French and his defenders have considered the very real possibility that Christian statism is precisely what Christian politics have always required and will always require.
A word about Donald Trump. It seems to us self evident that Donald Trump, whether or not he could articulate his position in these terms, believes that it is possible to use state power to pursue a vision of the good. He is, as others have noted, inconsistent in this. However, it seems as though Trump has a few fixed ideas about what the common good of the United States requires and he is willing to exercise state power to achieve those ends. One can disagree with Trump’s concept of the good or his handful of fixed ideas or his implementations of state power in service of those ideas. But it seems to us beyond dispute that Trump is, in a way most presidents before him since Jimmy Carter have not been, willing to use state power to achieve these goals.
To our mind, then, Trump represents, among many things, the beginning of a return to a vision of state power in American life that was last clearly represented by Richard Nixon. But Nixon’s vision stretches back through Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt all the way to Abraham Lincoln. That is, before Carter, there was a sense that the New Deal consensus permitted the federal government to act to further a vision of the common good. With Carter and then Reagan this sense was replaced by the idea that the last thing the federal government should do was act to further a vision of the common good. Instead, the consensus went, the federal government needed to get out of the way to let the states and private actors work out these problems, ideally in a free-market sort of way.
Catholics routinely bought into and served this consensus, usually by talking about “subsidiarity” and Centesimus annus. In so doing, Catholics forgot the lesson Pius XI taught in Quadragesimo anno, when he articulated the principle of subsidiarity:
The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.
In other words, the state ought to let subordinate grounds handle “matters and concerns of lesser importance,” which, if it attempted to address them, “would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly.” The state, therefore, will be free to do things it alone can do more effectively. Subsidiarity, then, in Pius XI’s vision is not the same thing as American federalism, and still less is it a call for the government to get out of the way on matters of great importance.
This is to say that Catholics ought not to mourn a return to the vision of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon about the role of the federal government. If the arguments of Bozell and Danielou do not convince, the arguments of Pius XI ought to convince. There are some problems—many problems, in fact—that only the federal government can address meaningfully. Donald Trump seems to have a dim understanding of this reality. Whether he has correctly identified these problems or correctly addressed them is another question for another day.
Finally, French misrepresents the sweep of the American tradition when he suggests in his rebuttal to Ahmari that this content-neutral pluralism is somehow the American tradition. Consider, for example, Abraham Lincoln’s repeated condemnations of Judge Douglas’s liberalism in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. Lincoln repeated the charge that Douglas did not care whether slavery was voted up or voted down. In the fifth debate, held on October 7, 1858, at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, Lincoln skillfully dissected Douglas’s claim, arguing that it was impossible for Douglas to hold that slavery was wrong and that it did not matter whether a population voted to adopt it or not. To do that would be to profess that the voters had a right to do a wrong. Or, as Lincoln pointed out, maybe Douglas did not think it was wrong. And in the seventh debate, held on October 15, 1858, in Alton, Illinois, Lincoln demonstrated the folly of the rhetoric of the “personally opposed,” which becomes the only rhetoric available under liberalism:
And if there be among you any body who supposes that he, as a Democrat can consider himself “as much opposed to slavery as anybody,” I would like to reason with him. You never treat it as a wrong. What other thing that you consider as a wrong, do you deal with as you deal with that? Perhaps you say it is wrong, but your leader never does, and you quarrel with any body who says it is wrong. Although you pretend to say so yourself you can find no fit place to deal with it as a wrong. You must not say any thing about it in the free States, because it is not here. You must not say any thing about it in the slave States, because it is there. You must not say any thing about it in the pulpit, because that is religion and has nothing to do with it. You must not say any thing about it in politics, because that will disturb the security of “my place.” There is no place to talk about it as being a wrong, although you say yourself it is a wrong.
This, too, is part of the American tradition. Lincoln’s moral clarity about the evil of slavery, his logical clarity about the contradictions inherent in a liberal attitude, and his practical clarity about those who claimed to be personally opposed to slavery while remaining Democrats are all just as much part of the fabric of America’s public life as the Framers and the Declaration of Independence.
Can we say that Lincoln’s points have lost their force with the passage of time? Has it become less incoherent to tolerate something one believes is wrong? More to the point, has Lincoln’s analysis of the effects of such a belief lost any of its force? Can it be said that it is possible to discuss as a wrong certain features of public life today that are incompatible with orthodox Christianity? Even those who are personally opposed to various things today find themselves either “evolving” to the secular orthodoxy or bullied into silence along the lines Lincoln sketches. It is possible that Lincoln and his arguments against Judge Douglas do not get a warm reception in the National Review offices. Yet it cannot be denied that Lincoln’s arguments form a major component of the unwritten constitution of the Republic, and a major component that is wholly consistent with the arguments of Jean Danielou and Brent Bozell. In other words, it is impossible to dodge, as French tries to, the arguments of Danielou and Bozell about the ends of a Christian politics by claiming that America’s founding principles prohibit that sort of political action.