May 30, 2019


Blasted Are The Meek: On First Things and Sohrab Ahmari. (ADAM WHITE  MAY 30, 2019, The Bulwark)

It has been interesting, then, to watch the post-Neuhaus First Things take the lead in elevating and amplifying illiberalism on the right. To be fair, the magazine has not spoken with one voice in this respect. For instance, so far only one of its writers has argued in favor of the kidnapping and forced baptism of Jewish babies, and editor R.R. Reno assures us that First Things hasn't adopted this as an official editorial position.

But First Things' jarring change in style and substance, and the broader move by many conservatives to adopt increasingly illiberal views, has been worrisome enough to spur others to urge them back off the ledge. Yes, the moderates argue, modern American politics offers no shortage of impositions upon (and even threats against) traditional religious beliefs and practices. But it would be a mistake to despair, and a still further mistake to let such despair lead one to reject the American liberal tradition outright.

As one eloquent conservative wrote not long ago:

[T]here have been genuinely alarming encroachments against conscience, religious freedom, and the dignity of life in Western liberal democracies in recent years. Even so, despair is an unhelpful companion to sober political thought, and the case for plunging into political illiberalism is weak, even on social-conservative grounds.

Here again what commends liberalism is historical experience, not abstract theory. Simply put, in the real-world experience of the 20th century, the Church, tradition, and religious minorities fared far better under liberal-democratic regimes than they did under illiberal alternatives.

That was Sohrab Ahmari, writing in Commentary in late 2017. So it is with much surprise to find Ahmari, now writing at First Things, leading the charge against the "liberalism" of David French. Or, as Ahmari calls it, "French-ism."

(How lucky that his target has a name like "French," and not like, say, mine. An attack on "White-ism" might be mistaken for something quite different, especially among the alt-right.)

It is hard to grapple with Ahmari's attack on "French-ism," because, in the first instance, it's hard to see how "French-ism" is anything other than a caricature of a few passing lines in French's broader body of work.

But Ahmari's attack on French moves beyond simply an attack on French's support for religious liberty, and moves to an attack on French's civility: embroiled in "culture war," Ahmari asserts that "conservative Christians can't afford [the] luxuries" of political civility and republican virtue. "Civility and decency are secondary values," Ahmari announces. (It's still jarring to see such things in First Things, an ostensibly Christian magazine. I guess they're scratching "Blessed are the clean of heart" off the list, too.)

Posted by at May 30, 2019 4:00 AM