The pace of online discourse makes life difficult for those who wish to think seriously about Christianity and politics. By now, the takes have begun to cool regarding the recent fracas between Sohrab Ahmari, David French, and their respective factions within the conservative movement. Heads have cleared somewhat, slights and overstatements were walked back, and, thousands of online words thrown into the void later, we await the next contentious spectacle. The significant danger in the heat of these moments is getting trapped in our own heads by the current controversy, and failing to situate it with a larger context; we can be so wrapped up in the debate that we fail to notice the world around us.
Of all that could be observed about the recent brouhaha, the simultaneous insularity and publicity of it may be the most striking. While these men may have considered themselves to be charting a new course for America’s conservatives (or defending a course that may have grown endangered), it seems unlikely that the vast majority of self-identifying “conservative” voters could identify either author or their respective publications, much less articulate the general shape of their dispute or the competing ideologies of their opposing factions. Perhaps they assumed their ideas—like public wealth is assumed to in one manifestation of the political system in question—would simply trickle down.
Despite their likely disconnection from most of the country, the initial salvos were followed by widening conversation that took place largely on Twitter, the most public space currently available to those who wish to engage in political sparring. And here, the debate did not go unobserved. In fact, a large portion of the commentary was not from conservatives of one stripe or another, but from writers from other outlets, watching with fascination (and no little derision) while two keyboard armies went to war over political theology.
This is not merely relevant for reasons of populist idealism (in the case of the former observation) or the simple embarrassment of dirty laundry airing (in the latter). Rather, the juxtaposition of these two postures—total isolation from the average conservative, total exposure to the elites of the media—may reveal something about the nature of the debate itself.
The Players on the Field
Matthew Continetti recently published a helpful article in the Washington Free Beacon that serves as a taxonomy of the new American Right.
He breaks down the Right into three groups—the wide variety of Republican voters, single-issue special interest groups, and the conservative intellectual punditry—showing that the fusion of individuals, interests, and ideas that has held for the past few decades is fragile and fracturing.
Within this unstable milieu, Continetti identifies four emerging ideological trends that may play into the political future:
- populist Jacksonians
- moderate, family-oriented Reformicons
- non-interventionist, quasi-communitarian Paleos
- Post-liberals, who have begun to question (or have already dismissed) the broader ideology of liberalism.
Continneti’s breakdown is a good summary of the players on the conservative field right now, and he observes trenchantly that the American Right is not monolithic, but contains multitudes; the factions intersect in sometimes unpredictable ways, and while the views of particular pundits may be easy enough to discern, it’s hard to find widespread coherence amidst such a divergent coalition. Continetti admits that “the relation of ideas to political action is difficult to measure and often haphazard.” Of the groups he identifies, “the conservative intellectual movement exercises the least power of all. You could fit its members into a convention hall or, more likely, a cruise ship.” Yet his analysis does focus primarily on the intellectual leadership of the movement, examining young Senators and writers at the forefront of each faction.
As such, the trends presented avoid parsing the multivarious motives of millions of voters, many of whom are not Extremely Online or particularly interested or educated in politics; if pundits and politicians are conservatism’s players, these are the people are in the stands, or lukewarm fans not watching the game. They don’t include the hundreds or thousands of federal, state, and local level politicians who, while potentially falling into some Venn diagram of the new factions, really represent relics of the old fusionism.
These trends don’t represent distinct movements, either: many Jacksonians are implicitly critical of liberalism, for instance; some Paleos could be mistaken for idiosyncratic Reformicons. And Continetti’s trends sides-step the misogyny and white nationalism of the so-called “alt-right” as well. With these influences factored in, we can begin to appreciate the difficulty of finding conservatism’s true pulse.
At this writing, it was mere weeks ago that the Twitterverse roiled with a different strain of conservative controversy, aimed at Alabama’s heroic or tyrannical new abortion law. While backlash from the pro-choice Left was predictable, the severity of the restrictions instigated an illustrative debate on the Right over incrementalism.
Conservative intellectuals asked each other: should pro-life policies draw hard lines to protect unborn lives, or should they work slowly, to gradually accomplish the work of cultural persuasion? Should the pro-life movement be narrow, focused exclusively on abortion prevention, or broad, comprising a holistic approach to family policy, immigration, environmental care, and so on?
Questions like this are important, particularly at a time when old alliances are falling apart. A question not asked in this debate, though, was where any of the politicians who actually passed the controversial laws in question stood. What was their goal in passing these laws: A straightforward protection of the unborn? An attack against perceived enemies? A step taken towards a larger vision of rejecting individualistic liberalism? For conservatives satisfied with the status quo, it was easy enough to avoid these questions; for those interested in advancing a different vision, the situation offered a perfect opportunity to map pre-existing notions and goals onto a substantial set of policies.
But were the state legislators really committed post-liberal theorists advancing a view of a society founded more deeply on a substantive common Good? More likely, such a vision had no part in their considerations; while a combination of these general motives may have factored into their decisions, most evidence indicates that these policies were simply intended not as legislation, but as litigation, with the goal of reaching the Supreme Court. Furthermore, the lawmakers’ more detached constituents surely viewed the news of the bills with interpretations more unpredictable and heterogeneous than the legislators themselves. The disconnect from the theoretical visions and the values of actual voters is disconcerting.
Like the conservative intelligentsia seeing their intellectual trend of choice in these developments, commentators on the Left were also happy to view the abortion laws as a blank template for projecting their most shadowy perceptions of conservatism, without regard for the nuances and mixed motivations shown above. It was theocratic regulation of sexual autonomy, policing of female bodies, plain and simple.
Easy as it would be for some to dismiss such trivial caricatures, we should first acknowledge that there is probably some aspect of truth to these accusations; as Katherine Anne Porter famously observed, there’s no such thing as an unmixed motive. It just simply isn’t the whole truth, or the truth that is most true.
No accounting of the players on the field would be complete without an accounting of the other team. Though it is clearly outside the scope of Continetti’s analysis, the Left also demands more than a passing glance in understanding the current state of conservatism, particularly as the past few decades have seen conservatives define themselves more and more by their opposition to their enemies. And as it happens, similar debates about the legacy of liberalism and paths for the future are occurring on the anti-capitalist Left.
Learning from the Left
One of the sharpest political essays in recent years is Gabriel Winant’s n+1 review of Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days, Not Every Kid-Bond Matures. Harris’s book recounts the Millennial experience through the lens of neoliberalism, chronicling a generation exploited by the ad absurdum conclusions of the capitalist economy and liberalism’s conception of the self. Harris’s Millennials see themselves and their actions as quantifiable financial assets. Every decision, from pre-K through post-grad, is a “human capital” investment, hoping the slot machine of ambition will pay out with another token of discipline inserted.
Harris writes: “From our bathroom breaks to our sleep schedules to our emotional availability, millennials are growing up highly attuned to the needs of capital markets…Efficiency is our existential purpose, and we are a generation of finely honed tools.” In Millennials’ lives, the cultural contradictions of modernity all intersect. Aspirations are sky-high while expectations are plummeting; this most educated generation struggles to find a job that uses their skills or pays the bills, all the while seeking a greater sense of fulfillment for which its elders have failed to provide a coherent vision. The daily pressures of this desperate reality shape Millennials’ relation to institutions, intensifying their perception of the myriad failures of organizations and beliefs seen as outdated.
As Winant summarizes, “Harris’s politics are revolutionary, and he dismisses any lesser mode of collective response to the thoroughgoing crisis as—to use his simile—akin to playing with a toy.” His essay continues by examining two factions on the Left, which are distinguished not just ideologically, but generationally. “The halves of the anticapitalist left, embodied on the one hand by Harris’s anarchism and on the other by the emergent democratic socialism of Jacobin, became incompatible.”
When the systems of oppression become so massive that any program of individual action is rendered wholly insignificant—or further, commodified and sold back to you by the very system you oppose as a form of purchasable dissent—it’s easy to dismiss working for gradual change or incremental reform within the system. It becomes obvious to embrace radicalism.
In opposition to this revolutionary view, older activists (shown at a 2011 panel discussing the Occupy movement with Harris and others) scoff at Harris’s naïve idealism. The intensity of the moment as Occupy Wall Street peaked made it seem like anything was possible; a new vision was being advanced by radical direct action. But an older man asks a crucial question: ““What happens when the occupation ends? What happens when the tumult and the shouting of the ecstatic moment dies? Who remains? Who maintains the continuity? Who draws the lesson?”
Winant draws out the bigger dilemma from this interaction:
[Can] the political impulses that Harris represents, the ones that come out of our generation’s distinctive experience, mature into potent collectivity? Or are they individualist from the root, bound to decay into posture and then a racket—absent the guidance of more seasoned activists, or without connection to struggles more deeply historically or socially grounded? …What is the proper relationship to the past for those of us who want to make a new future? [emphasis mine]
Of course, this is not a new problem in politics. As Winant later describes it, “If you kill your parents, you won’t hear their warnings, and then you’ll eventually just become them without realizing it. If you listen to them, you’ll become them on purpose.” Unwittingly or not, Winant nearly echoes Edmund Burke’s commentary on the French Revolution, in which he “[looked] with horror on those children of their country, who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent”—i.e., France itself—“in pieces, and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds, and wild incantations, they may regenerate the paternal constitution, and renovate their father’s life.”
This tension between revolution and continuity, between younger idealists and older stalwarts, plays out on the Right as well as the Left, and conservatives (who have traditionally tended toward the gradualist view) would do well to ask what they might learn from the Left’s approaches to the quandary. But as the Left seems no closer to resolving the tension than the Right, a more pressing question is what conservatives have learned already by osmosis.
Engaged Leftists span an ideological range much like the conservatives above, from old-school centrists flirting with nominating another neoliberal Hillary Clinton-type (the Left’s own manifestation of the “dead consensus”) to antifa activists who consider Nazi-punching and milkshake-throwing to be worthwhile political tactics. Certain conservative factions (Jacksonians and Post-liberals, specifically) have begun to see the limits of market capitalism and ostensibly meritocratic elitism the socialist Left has long criticized. However, the lenses through which Right and Left view liberalism’s flaws are typically oriented more towards seeing the ways liberal shortcomings have infected the opposition’s arguments, rather than identifying their own corruptions.
Sohrab Ahmari, in his screed against David French, states that his ire was first ignited by a Facebook ad for a “Drag Queen Story Hour” at a local library. Ahmari is allowing his agenda to be dictated by the actions of the Left, and defining himself defensively; talk of higher Goods notwithstanding, Ahmari’s arguments are presented primarily as opposition to his enemies. Reading charitably, Ahmari likely sees the DQSH as part of a Tocquevillian “immense and tutelary power,” manifesting here as the soft indoctrination of local children into modern gender assumptions, further unmooring a new generation from traditional norms. As Tocqueville argued, political equality could lead to a passive citizenry that would easily grow reliant on a despotism no less absolute for its mildness. Such a power would fully provide for its complacent citizens, even supplying morals and meaning if these goods were lacking; such a populace would lack also the virtue and concern for others to conceive of opposition towards this power.
There is some truth to this, even more so than the accusations of the Left towards the motivations of pro-life lawmakers. But Ahmari’s response is not the classically conservative tactic of staying the course and working to gradually advance a contrasting vision of the Good. Rather, he—like Harris—recognizes a need for radical action, for revolution. The old fusionism is so much dead weight, an expendable aged parent ready to be hacked to pieces. Ahmari’s conclusion has received the most attention:
Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.
Is that what conservatives are learning from the Left: the past be damned; cautious change be damned; civility be damned? It may be becoming acceptable after all to throw a milkshake—or a punch?—at an opponent if it’s in the name of the greater cause.
Allies and Converts
Beyond Ahmari’s newfound (for conservatives) strategy, the other baffling aspect of his essay is his choice of subject: David French, of all people? A religious liberty litigator who shares Ahmari’s conservative view of sexual ethics, by all appearances French should be an ally, if not to post-liberal politics, then at least to the more transcendent Good to which Ahmari believes society ought to point.
French, however, beyond his affiliation with the old fusionism, was a staunch Never Trumper who never backed down, even as his home publication grew more comfortable with the administration. It’s difficult to believe that Ahmari’s essay against him, with its inclusion of a defense of Trump and derision towards French’s continuing stance, is not motivated in part by an allegiance to a leader who shares both his enemies and his willingness to belittle them. (There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive.) Trump provokes the rage of the Left with misspelled tweets and Supreme Court judges just as the drag queens incited Ahmari. If the President is willing to put civility on the bench and really deal with the Right’s enemies, perhaps he makes a better ally than the endlessly civil but ideologically milquetoast French.
Ahmari’s faction isn’t alone in its opposition to modern liberalism, and it isn’t merely Leftist anti-capitalists there with them. He’s joined as well by large segments of the alt-right, white nationalists, men’s rights activists, a motley panoply of modernity’s discontents. Like the coalitions of the Right or the Left, the post-liberal movement broadly considered contains within it a vast range of backgrounds and objectives. Presumably, there must be some discernment to determine who is and isn’t an ally; Ahmari seems unlikely to lock arms with a secular socialist or a neopagan or a drag queen if only they speak poorly enough about John Locke.
But identifying those who will never be allies is the easy part; what about the more challenging case? Take, for instance, the notorious pickup artist and men’s rights activist Roosh V, who, according to a widely reported post on his online forum, has converted to Orthodox Christianity. Roosh’s motivations here are surely mixed—he cites his sister’s recent death, growing knowledge of Sin (both through his life of hedonism and through the evil observed in the world), as well as a trip on psychedelic mushrooms with leading him to God—but his conversion has not been without at least initial fruit: he unpublished 11 of his pickup artist books and banned talk of casual or premarital sex on his forum.
The angels rejoice when a sinner repents, but religion writer Tara Isabella Burton complicates our joy. Examining Roosh’s conversion for the Washington Post, she describes a disturbing “trend within far-right Internet-based groups: Some of their members come to embrace a highly conservative, traditionalist version of Christianity as a bulwark against what they see as the decadent, liberal modern world. In the minds of many would-be Internet transgressives, conservative Christianity has become the biggest troll of all.”
Burton shows that this development is far from unnatural:
[The] anti-feminist and alt-right movements…already function as quasi-religions. These movements gain adherents precisely because they tap into young men’s existential hunger for the kind of things that also underpin religious observance: a narrative of meaningfulness in the world, a sense of purpose within that narrative, a community to share that narrative with, and rituals to both demonstrate and intensify commitment to that narrative.
Is Roosh V a natural ally for the Post-liberals? Realistically, it’s too soon to say, but Ahmari’s acceptance of Trump connects him not just to a powerful leader but also to an unsavory constellation of online trolls—including those who harassed David French and his family for his opposition to Trump. Are these anti-modernity transgressives potential converts to the Post-liberal movement, or is it the other way around?
The subject of conversion finally raises the real question of this essay. Ahmari and French are, before any differences of ideology or faction, Christians, and the question of the conservative movement’s future course is not (popular perception notwithstanding) wholly synonymous with the mission of the Church. Nuanced as the makeup of Right or Left may be, Christians may fall on either side, and should not be able to commend any social movement unreservedly. To what, then, do we wish to convert people—a political party or the Church of the living God? Moreover, our spiritual worship in this world is marred by the persistence of Sin; because of our perpetually divided devotion, we must be wary of the danger that, in any alliance with worldly power, we may be the ones being converted. Finally, with talk of civility being sidelined for power, we must ask whether we’re really interested in converting anyone after all.
The World We Want
Christian political action is not primarily about a program or party. It is part of our discipleship, how we serve the reigning King (Matt. 28:18, cf. Col. 1:13), how we constitute His people (1 Pet. 2:9-10), and how we love (and learn to love) our neighbors (Lev. 19:9-18, cf. Matt. 22:37-40, Gal. 5:14). Through politics, we discipline our bodies (1 Pet. 2:11-12, cf. Rom. 12:1, 13:1-7); we do battle against the powers of Sin that have infiltrated the world’s systems and structures of power (Eph. 6:11-17); we seek the good of the place we’re in (Jer. 29:7, cf. Heb 11:13-14). Christian political action, therefore, is primarily about a path to be followed.
The advancement of God’s Kingdom is inseparable from the enactment of the Kingdom. There is no aspect of walking the political path that can be discrete from personal ethical conduct. As Jake Meador, Francis Schaeffer, and others have said, we must do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way. Meador glosses Schaeffer succinctly: “It is not enough…for us to accomplish the things that Scripture calls us to accomplish. We must accomplish them using methods that also agree with the teachings of Scripture.”
Katherine Anne Porter’s axiom about unmixed motives also identifies another nonexistent item: an exact synonym. In Imagining the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith posits a similar idea when he warns of “the heresy of paraphrase” in Christian worship. Comparing liturgy to poetry, he writes:
The “meaning” of the poem is not some distillable content or idea of message that can be neatly paraphrased and summarized in prose form; what the poem means is bound up with how the poem means…. [The] same is true with respect to the meaning of Christian worship: the logic of the practice cannot be paraphrased because there is an “imaginative coherence” that is undistillable and yet incredibly significant…. Form matters because it is the form of worship that tells the Story (or better, enacts the Story).
As with Christian worship, so with Christian politics: the form does not merely follow the function; the form is the function.
It is easy, in our modern political milieu, to fall into the sorts of rationalizations that justify questionable means by pointing to an ostensibly holy end. Brandon McGinley has written against this “‘dirty hands’ thinking, which posits that general moral norms can and should be violated when an apparently worse evil can be avoided.” But this is to cave in to the very utilitarian consequentialism which Christian ethics deems so inadequate. McGinley continues: “A morality that requires immoral actions in extreme situations cannot be called Christian, and indeed it cannot be called morality at all.”
Such compromises arise from submergence in a culture that cordones “political” issues off into their own separate quadrant, comprising elections and bureaucracy and leaving the rest of life untouched; it’s no wonder so many people claim they “aren’t interested in politics.” Smith (in Awaiting the King) calls this “spatialized” politics, which results in “questions…focused on how to relate the ‘spheres’ of the church and state, for example; or how to move between the jurisdictions of two kingdoms; or how to create an ‘alternative’ polis that eludes the clutches of liberalism.” Christians have been all too willing to wall off their political commitments from their moral convictions.
Smith proposes an approach that seeks “to overcome [this] narrow fixation…and realize that much of what constitutes the life of the polis is modes of ‘life in common’ that fall outside the narrow interests of states and government—and certainly well beyond the purview of the cable news fixation on presidential politics.” He suggests a linguistic pivot to highlight these broader types of solidarity:
We collaborate in a common life insofar as we find goods to pursue in common; and we establish institutions, systems, and rhythms that reinforce the pursuit of these goods…. So a Christian account of our shared social-economic-political life might be described more properly as “public” theology—an account of how to live in common with neighbors who don’t believe what we believe, don’t love what we love, don’t hope for what we await.
Politics in this vein—theologically informed, publicly oriented—must operate under certain principles. First, we cannot be merely passive. Sin is active not just in our hearts, but in the world, and we must resist it actively (1 Pet. 5:8-9). In this, Ahmari is more right than French: the needs of the world, both material and spiritual, are truly dire. There is not space here to lay out a more robust case against the excesses of liberalism, but a Christianity that grows too comfortable with its manifestations on either the libertarian Right or the libertine Left will be left impotent by empty promises of abundance or autonomy. Passive complacence, continued quietly in the hope that the liberal order will allot the Church a meager measure of negative liberty to continue at least its private worship uninfringed, is not only naïve; it is a forsaking of the Church’s positive vocation.
Because beyond the fight against the Powers of Sin and Death, we are called “to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.” (Is. 61:1-2, cf. Luke 4:18-19) Human beings were made to be the image of God in the world, exercising God’s caring dominion over his creation (Gen. 1:26-28); in Christ, we are finally able to live out the task we failed in Adam (Rom. 6:9-11). Christians cannot fail to proclaim this good news in both word and deed, working to bring forth this reality (Jas. 2).
But this does not consign us to being revolutionaries. As Matthew Loftus has written, Christian politics is markedly different from the secular politics of urgency:
Once we have been loved and pulled out of our own wickedness by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we cannot help but see the needs of the world and be moved to act—and act in ways which address both the internal wickedness that drives sinful actions and the structural forces that perpetuate oppression. A materialist urgency demands immediate policy solutions for fear that any time lost is wasted, while spiritual urgency demands immediate proclamation of what is good and true for fear that any area of the heart not brought under subjection to God will keep us chained to sin and its powers.
Contrary to the radicalism that may be greatly tempting in view of the world’s great needs, the second principle of Christian politics is patience. There is again both a negative and a positive component here. Christians must be patient first because we know our own hearts; we are a people marked by repentance, and we know all too well where the road of good intentions leads. We know there are no unmixed motives, ours included; we affirm as always the old corporate confession: “There is no health in us.” This should temper any idealistic expectations about the idyllic society we might one day contrive.
Such utopianism should also be tempered by the knowledge—indeed, the great hope—that we will not be the ones to construct the perfect world. Our hope is for a world not made with human hands (Heb 8:1-2, 11:16; Rev. 21:1-5), but by the Lord God, the maker of heaven and earth. He is not served by our work because he needs it (Acts 17:24-25), but because he desires communion with humanity, his partners and fellow workers in the world (1 Cor. 3:5-9, cf. Eph. 2:10, Heb. 3:14). It is through our hope in the work of God, inaugurated by Christ Jesus and ultimately to be completed by him, that we can have assurance that our work is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). This eschatological temperament is a gracious contrast to the futile nihilism of secular revolution, although it is no less challenging to cry with the psalmists and prophets, “How long, O Lord?”
The last two principles are related to people. As Christians, we cannot reject our own people, fellow members in the body of Christ. Because of our knowledge of our own limitations and the patience this prompts within us, we can learn to bear with people vastly different than us, knowing they have different gifts or areas of knowledge than us, and that we may well learn from them (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-31). This does not mean we superficially whitewash every disagreement; we are bound together so that we can build one another up in both love and truth (Eph. 4:11-16). Sometimes this means Paul has to rebuke an errant Peter (Gal. 2:11-14), but we cannot fall into the trap of saying, “I’m not one of those Christians.” The creedal confession of the communion of saints says otherwise. Jesus instructs us to love one another, and that it is by this very love the world will know whose servants we are (John 13:34-35).
Finally, it is the world itself that constitutes its own sort of constraint on us: we cannot forsake the long work of persuasion. When we are questioned, we must provide patient answers (Col.4:6). This does not mean we need the world’s permission to advocate for policies that advance the common good. But it does mean we must not assume that such policies, in themselves, are sufficient to change hearts (Col. 2:22-23)—though they may make it easier for hearts to be oriented towards the good. Because we cannot engineer and impose the perfect society, we must constantly strive towards it, and this means drawing others in as co-belligerents to work toward shared but limited goals.
Seeing the limits of legislation in this way is itself a gift. It reminds us that we are not merely calling people to support a specific policy or change their party affiliation; we are calling them to the path of righteousness. Alliances are temporal, and may fracture as times change, but Christians are commissioned to make disciples in the name of the Triune God (Matt. 28:19-20). The world we want will only be brought about through the grace of God in the conversion of hearts and minds.
With these constraints on our conduct in mind, we can return to the earlier question of whether civility and decency are “secondary goods,” as Ahmari claims. Remembering that the form of Christian political action is concurrent with its function, the goodness of civility does depend (as Alan Jacobs puts it) “on whether ‘civility’ is a useful shorthand proxy for a series of traits that certainly are Christian virtues: patience, forbearance, kindness, generosity, turning the other cheek, blessing those who spitefully use you, etc.” If it is a stand-in for a mere procedural politeness, it’s secondary to the extent that such procedures are rejected more and more by Christianity’s cultural opponents.
But if civility is only a good to the extent that it is ordered toward another, higher Good, how can it be so ordered if we reject the very constraints on our conduct that higher Good has placed upon us? If civility is about the type of society Christianity hopes to cultivate, if it is about walking in the Spirit and bearing the fruit of peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23), it is indispensable. The greatest of these spiritual fruits is love, without which, no matter how sound our doctrine or polished our policies, we are merely a clanging cymbal. Love prohibits arrogance and rudeness, and constrains us to endure all of the world’s challenges through an eternal hope. The long struggle of bearing with one another in this way is itself the passing glimpse of the world we want (1 Cor. 13).
Context suggests Ahmari is really rejecting something like timidity, and assured confidence is surely to be valued in the face of instability. But true power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9-10); Christians must be careful, in our boldness, not to forsake the meekness our Lord has called blessed, and which will inherit the world (Matt. 5:5).
Mary Karr harmonizes this tension in her poem “Who the Meek Are Not.” The meek are not just “peasants knee-deep / in the rice paddy muck, / nor the serfs whose quarter-moon sickles / make the wheat fall in waves / they don’t get to eat.” A Francisican nun points her to a different understanding:
To understand the meek
(she says) picture a great stallion at full gallop
in a meadow, who—
at his master’s voice—seizes up to a stunned
but instant halt.
So with the strain of holding that great power
in check, the muscles
along the arched neck keep eddying,
and only the velvet ears
prick forward, awaiting the next order.
The World We Have
Midway through Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter, the titular matriarch of Port William offers a sage observation: “The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have them, and about what people make of other people’s lives…but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else.”
The principles of public Christianity exist in a world far more complicated than lofty theory implies. Political action is constrained by complex messiness of fighting factions, divided movements, mixed motives. As Hannah Coulter explains, we cannot ask for another world; this is the world we have. We have a greater vision of a world beyond this, and it is to this that all our strivings point. In the meantime, though, we must follow the advice Tolkien’s Gandalf gives the reluctant Frodo, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Returning to the most recent abortion debate, we can see how this disorder plays out. The mixed motives of the politicians made their bold moves seem like craven power grabs; this goes just as strongly for the lawmakers trying to ban abortion as it does for the ones illuminating skyscrapers with pink lights for expanding access to it. Both parties have become radicalized in different ways and to different extents on the issue of abortion, likely without even realizing it.
Furthermore, these shifts are part of a larger history of cultural change. People rallying to defund or protect Planned Parenthood probably don’t realize that “[for] much of its history, the fight to restrict abortion was a progressive cause.” Progressives try to ignore the past presence of “a dark racial component to pro-abortion and birth-control rhetoric,” and thus never imagine such a vile orientation could underlie their current approach. Conservative evangelicals likewise forget that their movement—and its mythological champion, Ronald Reagan—once ignored abortion, or even encouraged it as a way to reduce the number of welfare recipients; have their views on racism and poverty made a parallel shift with their views on abortion?
John Médaille recently observed that the pro-life movement is often presented as an isolated issue, divorced from the wider “moral matrix” in which it makes sense as part of a holistic approach to the preservation and care of all life. Worse, he argues, pro-lifers haven’t told the story of why they embrace life so fully. The form and the function of political action are inseparable; the act of removing abortion from a larger ethic of life enacts a story, but not the one committed whole-lifers want to tell. Pro-choice progressives can’t help but interpret Republican actions through the lens of The Handmaid’s Tale, because no one has ever suggested they read Hannah Coulter.
The hardest line drawn against abortion is still only an incremental step towards the world we want. A narrow pro-life movement conveys no comprehensive concern for parental support, health care, employment challenges, or housing discrimination faced by parents—not to mention ecological stewardship, immigration, and a whole related constellation of issues.
And yet, this is the world we have. These restrictions on abortion will prevent unborn babies from being killed. They will live. Their lives may be harder than they would have been if the state legislators hadn’t voted down provisions to increase maternal care in conjunction with the abortion ban, but they will have lives. Babies who survive due to this flawed policy might well cry, “O felix culpa! O happily flawed policy, that gave me this life.” It may not be the step we would have chosen, but it is the step that has been taken. And it will not be the last.
This, then, is the realpolitik that public Chrisitianity needs. It is not an “any means necessary” pragmatism or a dismissal of decency or call to dirty our hands with unholy alliances. It is to recognize that the means are not our own. God is not served by human hands, as though he needed them; he is served by human hands in ways we could never plan and that we struggle to perceive. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.
Living between the already and the not yet will always give occasion to complicate our joy. Elisabeth Rain Kincaid recently observed, “if living through Lent teaches us even a little about how Christ bears the world’s suffering, then our Easter enthusiasm should look different from our response to God’s arrival as a baby at Christmas. It should feel more seasoned, more aged, and more worn.” We rejoice with those who rejoice while weeping with those who weep; our praises in the world we have are frequently tinged with lament, waiting for the world we want.
This politics is not simply resignation to a halfhearted compromise; when the status quo is corrupt, few are drawn in by the messy middle. But neither is it identical the world’s push to extremes of radicalism or quietism, because Christian polarization embraces both as members of the same paradoxical body. G.K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy, relates his attraction to the extreme paradoxes of Christianity, which was not “merely sensible…temperate and respectable.” Instead, it contained “an element…of emphasis and even frenzy.” The nature of compromise guarantees its insufficiency: “Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things; neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full colour.”
Rather than viewing further division or mediocre compromise as our only options for hope, we should instead seek a vision in which the radical lions can lay down with the ambivalent lambs, without either losing their righteous ferocity or peaceful sanity. In Kids These Days, Malcolm Harris writes that in our time of compounded crises, “We become fascists or revolutionaries, one or the other.” But Christianity offers more beautiful options: knights of the Kingdom and monks in the cloister. As Chesterton describes it, the “fierce crusaders and meek saints might balance each other.”
This embrace between extremes (rather than mutually escalating antagonism) affords us a far better approach to public debate, as well as private conversation. The Ahmari-French debacles, along with battles over recent laws for or against abortion, have enacted a story about how Christians conduct themselves that could leave an outside observer wondering if we ever thought civility was a good, secondary or otherwise.
Perhaps it is time to expand our notion of civility. Philosopher Agnes Callard in a brief but brilliant essay describes the difference between how we colloquially define “civility”—basically, “respect for another person’s distinct perspective”—and how Socrates would define it: “persuade or be persuaded.” Callard remarks “that etymologically the word ‘civility’ comes from the Latin civis—citizen—and that the demand to think by agreement couldn’t be more citizenly: it proposes to settle all questions by the method appropriate to political ones.” The ancient Greek, no stranger to public debate, believed in a thorough exchange of viewpoints; contrary to the liberal view, there are truths, and not all opinions are right. “Persuade or be persuaded” does not mean to give up on our convictions, but to live them out with full courage.
Because Christians cannot just ignore the people we have been given—our families, our friends, our followers on Twitter—this more politically-minded civility must shape our conduct towards them. This is the world and the time that the Lord has made; we mustn’t wish for another one. Hannah Coulter’s advice concludes: “What you must do is this: ‘Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.’ I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.”
The End of the World
Even so, we do wish for another world. The balance between the world we have and the world we want continues to waver back and forth, intermixed in our blurry vision. It is a tension that may harmonize fleetingly, but is never resolved. It is the form of the world we know, but the present form of this world is passing away.
We believe our King is bringing his Kingdom into the world he loves, and will make this world anew. Our work in the world is bringing forth this Kingdom, participating in his Spirit, even as we know nothing we do can bring it about. Apocalypse is not a political program; it’s the telos, the proper end to which the world and all our work points. James K.A. Smith writes:
[It] is precisely our citizenship in the heavenly city that guides our commingling with the earthly city; it is our pilgrimage toward the heavenly city that helps us navigate the terrain of a fallen-but-redeemed creation. The politics of the city of God finds its center in an ecclesiology that becomes the space for cultivating what we might call a holy ambivalence or engaged distance, leaning into the hard work of loving our neighbors in the saeculum while remaining anchored to kingdom come.
Our faces towards the Kingdom, we are pilgrims even as we garden, stewarding the place we have been given.
There have been more apocalyptic times than these. Consider, as a conclusion, these words of the great Polish poet Czesław Miłosz. In Warsaw in 1944, he composed “A Song on the End of the World.” It is no formulaic threnody for the victims of the occupation of Poland, nor a political tract in support of the Warsaw Uprising. Instead:
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn.
It all continues, everything “as it should always be.” But this is not what was expected. We never thought it would end this way. This is not how we thought the King would come.
And those who expected lightning and thunder
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
Do we truly believe? Is it really happening? Our vision strains for the one coming in the clouds; the hour is at hand. But no one believes it is happening now.
Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.
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- If the reader has avoided encountering the debate, the New York Times‘s Ross Douthat and Vox’s Jane Coaston both offer good summaries. As Douthat writes, “Ahmari…speaks for cultural conservatives who believe that the old conservative fusion”—what First Things has labeled the “dead consensus”—“mostly failed their part of the movement.” While the debate centers on the future of social conservatism, particularly regarding its relation to the ideology of liberalism, the crucial area of controversy is Ahmari’s singling out of French as a specific representative of fusionism’s failure, and his argument that (in Coaston’s words) “civility was holding back the cause of social conservatism.” ↑
- For anyone still trying to place the players in their respective positions, Ahmari is a Post-liberal (albeit one who sees the Jacksonians as compatible fellow-travellers); French represents the coalition from which each of these trends hope to move forward, though he’d probably fall more or less comfortably in the Reformicon camp. A quick primer on post-liberal vision is Patrick Deneen’s essay After Liberalism; his Why Liberalism Failed is the most prominent book-length treatment. ↑
- Generational analysis can lead to oversimplified generalizations and sloppy assumptions, but Winant here is simply observing, rather than positing some essential difference, and it serves his purpose well. ↑
- To any cries of “Hillary Clinton is no true Leftist!” or “The Left disavows unprovoked physical violence!” or what have you, please patiently bear in mind that this is merely a broad generalization; if the coalition of “the Right” has to include for rhetorical purposes Donald Trump and Mitt Romney along with traditionalist religious nerds who just want to be left alone to read their Wendell Berry or Thomas Aquinas, the Left should be able to tolerate their own descriptive impurities. ↑