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The End of the Liberalism Debate

November 16th, 2021 | 13 min read

By Jake Meador

We now seem to be at the end of a debate that has roiled the American Right for the past several years, or so says Sohrab Ahmari, one of the chief figures in that debate.

But before we get to that, it may help to briefly sum up the debate to this point. You might tell the story of this debate in three parts, at least is it took place popularly—the academic roots, unsurprisingly, go back much further.

Briefly, Rod Dreher brought about a significant shift in how Christian conservatives thought about their place in America with his book The Benedict Option. Though much misunderstood and misrepresented at the time, the core of Rod’s argument is simply that many elements of mainstream American life and culture had become hostile to Christian doctrine and corrosive of Christian piety, which calls for a necessary change in how the church approaches its life in the west. Specifically, Rod called on Christians to begin taking catechesis, spiritual formation, and communal life far more seriously than we had been up to that time.

While the book had its critics, I think many of them weren’t actually understanding Rod’s chief complaint, which is quite old and well-sourced amongst many notable modern Christians. Of course, Rod’s book had a political edge to it — but the edge largely presupposed that ongoing Democratic political triumph was inevitable. Indeed, the book was released in February 2017, which would have been an ideal release date for a book catering to alarmed religious conservatives, coming as it did a month after Hilary Clinton’s inauguration. That, of course, did not go quite as planned, on which more in a moment.

Not long after that, Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed became a surprise bestseller, catapulting Deneen to a new level of celebrity in the process. Deneen took Rod’s critique and escalated it, arguing that it wasn’t simply that modern liberalism was corrosive of religious life, but that this liberalism was actually hostile toward communal life of all sorts because of its understanding of the good life and, in particular, of freedom.

These two books, taken together, had the effect of happily awakening many religious conservatives to the dangers the contemporary regime posed toward religious life and toward the ongoing health of the western world. This was a welcome and needed wake up call as it exposed many of the failings and shortcomings of the 20th century regime and of post-Cold War America.

Then in the summer of 2019 First Things published Sohrab Ahmari’s bombshell essay attacking what he termed “David Frenchism.” By this term, Ahmari meant the limited-government liberalism of many older social conservatives that wedded a small-government political vision to a socially conservative cultural vision. Ahmari claimed that this vision hollowed out public life by creating a political and market arena that was broadly unanswerable to religious claims and, thus, tended toward the naked public square that Neuhaus had long warned us about.

However, the undercurrent to Ahmari’s claims was an embrace of Donald Trump and of Trumpism more generally, which rather discredited Ahmari’s supposed concern with restoring virtue in the public square. The chief point of Ahmarism, rather, seemed to be the promotion of an authoritarian right-wing socially conservative populism that embraces elements of left-wing revolutionary philosophy in order to advance right-wing goals. This was and remains my chief concern with Ahmari-style post-liberalism — that it would render virtue functionally irrelevant if vicious means turn out to be useful in the pursuit of power, which, of course, they have.

Indeed, if anything my concerns have been sharpened since that time. Ahmari’s allies have, amongst other things, argued that clerical sexual misconduct should be handled exclusively by the church, a claim which the past 20 years suggest will result in the protection of countless abusers in the Roman church. They have embraced a vision of political authority that would leave no real limiting mechanism to protect against plain tyranny. This is likely why Ahmari and co. are these days happy to align themselves with the Claremont Institute, even as Claremont itself elevates figures who have, amongst other things, endorsed polyamory and rape and whose politics are obviously vicious and should have no place in any meaningfully Christian political coalition. Thus when Ahmari says in his TAC piece that he and his friends have moved on from the debate, I agree with him. But I desperately wish they would go back to it, if only to keep themselves corralled to the domain of theory and somewhat removed from the actual possession of real power, a calling for which they seem, on the evidence so far, to be unqualified and unfit.

Of course, this raises a question: If the dead consensus—Ahmari’s “Frenchism”—is truly dead and if Ahmarism largely seems to be little more than Nietzscheanism by another name, then neither of these can be viable options for Christian conservatives. So where ought social conservatives to turn? This is my answer, for whatever it is worth.

There is a certain sort of story about American life that white Christian conservatives like to tell themselves. In this story, America is a spiritual battleground, a war zone in which forces of unbelief, secularism, and revolution are constantly striving after supremacy with Christian conservatives serving as the chief obstacle to their triumph.

At times, this narrative has had some credibility to it. During one particularly significant moment in the life of American Protestantism in the early 20th century it really was the white conservatives taking a significant role in combating heretical teachings that sought to undermine faith in scripture and belief in the resurrection, amongst other things.

And yet on the whole I find that story increasingly hard to maintain today. It seems to me, rather, that the American story is far more complicated than that and that white Christian conservatives have played the role of villain at least as often as they have the role of protagonist and hero. There are any number of ways we might prove the point.

Start with something recent and theological: Have white evangelicals championed orthodoxy on the doctrine of God? Plainly no — as Carl Trueman observed in conversation a number of years ago, white evangelicals have frequently been happy to compromise on the heart of Christian theology for the sake of political expedience. Indeed, Owen Strachan has repeatedly doubled down (quadrupled down, at this point I think?) on his quasi-Arian Christology — and yet despite this alarming embrace of plain heresy, John MacArthur was quite happy to endorse his recent book. Strachan is clearly the worst offender here, but given that other proponents of a similar view have included a one-time president of ETS and the author of the best-selling evangelical systematic theology of his generation, one can’t really argue that Strachan’s error is an isolated one or one without serious mainstream acceptance amongst many white conservative Protestants. So on the question “have white conservative Christians upheld orthodoxy against the threats of an unbelieving nation?” the answer, on the very subject of all theology, is “not really.”

Or consider another question: Have we modeled the heart and concern of Christ for the weak? The Roman Catholic church plainly hasn’t — that is why we have spent much of the past two decades being regularly confronted with that communion’s frequent indifference to the abuse of children by her clergy. This, of course, is precisely what made Pappin’s criticism of The Pillar so shameful. Conservative Protestants have often been plagued by similar failings and a similarly shameful indifference to the victims of clerical sexual abuse.

But we might also consider the problem of public justice more broadly — the giving to a person what they are owed. If a person is owed a certain standard of treatment by neighbors, government, or employers, then plainly we have failed here, as any history of our nation’s treatment of African Americans, immigrants, and Native Americans makes plain. People are owed honesty. Native Americans received an endless stream of broken promises. People are owed a fair wage for their labor. African Americans received slavery while many immigrants received (and receive) sub-standard wages and brutal working conditions. People are owed safety in their own homes. African Americans and Native Americans alike were (and are!) harassed at home.

No, it seems to me that David Walker said it best nearly 200 years ago when he said that America, far from being a city on a hill, is a country whose wickedness cries out to heaven for judgment and whose evil God cannot and will not forever ignore.

Even if one argues that America’s affronts to justice are not unique, one still must confront America’s inability to confront the reality of her past and present sins, a point that Eddie Glaude and Dante Stewart have both powerfully made in recent works:

This is the reality before us, it seems to me: in the imagining of the white American church, we are the heroes of the story, we are the people who stand in the gap, the people who stand athwart history saying “stop.” To borrow a concept deployed by both Daniel Dorman last week and Willie James Jennings in his work, we have made ourselves the center of the story.

But this is a false story of America. A truer story recognizes that the white church’s place relative to virtue, relative to the heart of God for the world and for his people, has most often been ambiguous at best, with rare bursts of light bursting through amidst much darkness and infidelity.

This is what makes the shifting in the liberalism debate wrought by Ahmari so sad. Prior to 2019, there was a real movement amongst Christian conservatives to begin seeing themselves apart from the American regime. They (we!) were learning to see a gap between what we wanted our communities to be and what America was. We wanted to see ourselves apart from the order that is responsible for the killing of hundreds of thousands of babies and for mounting a direct assault on the sanctity of marriage. And, potentially, we might also have learned to see ourselves apart from that same nation that also was responsible for literal centuries of race-based injustice perpetrated against millions.

But when the liberalism debate became tied to Donald Trump, as Ahmari linked it in his opening salvo, it inherently became connected to this other story of America that believes our nation once was great and should be again. Certainly, there are times in our history that we have done great things.

Yet even our triumphs are tinged with the persistent evils that beset our nation — defeating the Nazis while interning Japanese Americans and firebombing Tokyo, fighting anti-Jewish hatred all the while allowing segregation and vicious attacks against African Americans at home. (The book to read on this is Thomas Borstelmann’s The Cold War and the Color Line).

So whither Christian conservatives now? There are two answers:

First, toward the work we ought to have been doing all along: toward a fierce advocacy for justice. Yes, justice for the unborn and justice for the many children who are owed the chance to grow up in homes where they see themselves as enduring icons of their parents’ love. The Religious Right was right on both these points and we shouldn’t abandon this element of their legacy. But we must also advocate for justice for African Americans victimized by lawless police officers and systems of prejudice and theft that deny them the fruit of their own labor and justice also for the Native Americans whose lands we have stolen and whose cultures we have destroyed.

Until we begin to recognize, name, condemn, and resist the injustices that pervade America’s common life we will never, we will never, overcome the spirit of our day. The expressive individualism that so many on the right now lament is merely the next evolution of the colonial spirit that set our nation on the path it has continued down to the present. Those who say today that liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence and meaning apart from the dictates of unchosen communities are merely learning the lesson taught them by so many white Americans. It is they, after all, who have persistently refused to allow nature, custom, culture, or religion constrain their own behavior toward people of color and toward the land.

If we would reject that story, in both its progressive and conservative iterations, then we must recover the indivisible relationship between righteousness and justice.

Charlie Dates has said it well:

Righteousness is the root of justice and justice is the offspring of righteousness…. The notion of righteousness is related to justice. This is what makes the claim of the Gospel so scandalous. It is that we who are sinners are now through the shed blood of Jesus Christ made righteous before God and have peace with God. We have been justified. That is, righteousness has been credited to our sin depleted accounts. At the cross, God got justice and we got righteousness. So now in the church we who are righteous ought to be found fighting for justice. Throughout the Scripture the notions of righteousness and justice are not to be separated so why have we?

No church ought to be found declaring something righteous that is not justice. How is it that for so long American Christianity has had its finger on parsing the language of righteousness but its feet far from fighting injustice?

Now today we are witnessing the emergence of a new generation of Americans that are fascinated with justice but they haven’t met the author of righteousness. They are trying to get justice on the streets apart from understanding righteousness taught in our churches. And they will never find it. And at the same time we have a church that are preaching righteousness but will not fight for justice. Both of those are insufficient. Both are incomplete. Neither represent the full scope of God’s plan upon us.

When our preaching of righteousness is wed to advocacy for justice, perhaps then we might credibly claim to be upholding goodness against the wickedness of the American regime. But in that fight we will find ourselves waging war not merely against secularism, progressivism, and liberalism, but also against much that now goes under the name of conservatism. Where do we go? We go toward justice and we oppose those who work against justice, regardless of what letter they have next to their name or what political movement they align themselves with.

Second, we accept the possibility of exile. The great strength of The Benedict Option was that it assumed that martyrdom is a valid Christian vocation. Put another way, it assumed that there are times where Christians are given a binary choice between compromise and death and that, in such times, the correct choice is death. This is something many of us once knew.

Certainly, one finds the idea everywhere in the work of Tolkien, a man much loved amongst many American Christian conservatives. Though less explicit, it is also central to C. S. Lewis’s fiction as well, to say nothing of The Abolition of Man, a book entirely built upon the assumption that there is a natural order and that it would be better for a person to die than to violate it.

A friend recently shared an excerpt with me from a biography of Rushdooney in which the member of a hardline Christian conservative group reflected on the fruit of that group’s “ministry”:

The things of greatest emphasis at Westminster are money, personal power and influence, infiltration of other churches, government, social associations, paramilitary equipment and training, an elite inner core group and other cultic trappings. They talk constantly of the Law, humanism, the coming collapse of all economies, governments, etc. but never of love of God for a sinful people. The fruits of the Spirit are not evident in them, nor has a single soul been won to the Lord by their ministry. What happened is that some, coming out of other error or bad experience, are banding together in semi-secret hatred of all established orders.

You would need to change some of the specific references here, but that sounds like an alarmingly accurate description of many conservative Christian groups at present. But rejecting that obviously bad vision will mean embracing the sort of piety and politics that will make us both unpopular and vulnerable, in the likely event that God does not bless us with unexpected revival.

In short, the choice before us today is likely to either become like the Christians described above or to become martyrs of a sort. I hope and pray there are more than those two choices afforded us. But if there are not, then the choice should not be difficult, nor should it trouble us.

We should not naively romanticize what this will mean, to be clear. Nor should we positively desire exile as a good in itself. Exile will almost certainly mean the closing of churches, shuttering of colleges and universities, and a persistent hostility to the Gospel that will take many years to overcome, if it is overcome at all. All of this in turn means many people being lost, barring God reaching them through some other miraculous means — which he can, of course, do. No, we should not desire exile.

But we should be open to exile if the only other choice set before us is to betray the sober calling of Christian discipleship and the yoke of Christ put on us that calls us toward love of God and love of neighbor. If the cost of contending for our neighbors, all our neighbors, is exile then so be it. We might be pariahs for a season in the halls of American power, but given what those halls do and promote, is that such a loss? If a man gain the whole world and lose his own soul, what does it profit him? If the cost of fidelity to our Lord is exile, even martyrdom, then that is not a cost too high for the reward set before us.

This is where we should go after the liberalism debate. I have little hope that we will, for the inability of our churches to confront their own part in the persistent injustices of American life has proved far stronger than I once naively imagined them to be. And yet too I am reminded of something I heard Ross Douthat say once at a lecture, one in which he, perhaps ironically with the benefit of hindsight, shared the stage with one Patrick Deneen. Christians of all people should not be surprised by unexpected resurrection, Douthat joked.

And so I end here: There is no time so dark, no sin so deep, that those who look to Christ cannot still expect resurrection. So our hope endures, not because we forge political alliances that will protect us, but because we worship a King who has conquered already. We follow him. And if we follow him truly, we follow him to a cross—and then an empty grave.

Correction: I have revised the section regarding Gladden Pappin’s comments about The Pillar‘s recent reporting on clerical sexual misconduct to make the specific criticism I am making more clear.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).