A lot of digital ink, and I mean a lot, has been spilled about the ongoing debate within conservatism sparked by the David French–Sohrab Ahmari conflagration.
Without rehearsing every angle of the conflict (the primary sources to read are here and here and here), the debate is about what posture religious conservatives should adopt in a society that is growing hostile to religious conservatives. And connected to this is the question of whether liberal democracy1 remains the best vehicle for securing a humane and moral political order. Has America gone off course from liberal democracy’s design? Or is liberal democracy itself flawed? The answers to the questions have enormous consequences for America’s political structure, religious liberty, and the relationship between church and state.
Before I get to the substance of my comments, let me say upfront that I know both David and Sohrab as friends, not simply online acquaintances. Where the temptation to divide and exploit may be present, let me just say that I think David and Sohrab are good men. I refuse to see them as anything less.
I will also say this upfront (which I’ve said to Sohrab): I agree more with David than Sohrab. (And to be clear, I’m only speaking for myself in this article. We’re in the realm of wisdom here.) As a Baptist and Protestant, I think the picture Ahmari paints of a public square ordered toward its ultimate end with an imagined consensus at its center is an over-realized eschatology—it’s more than we should expect in a fractured, divided age. So, in addition to the confessional state component to this discussion (which, as a Baptist, I firmly reject), I think the Ahmari position commits one to perpetual disappointment as the hoped-for goal of Christian hegemony is never fully realized. The practicalities of the Ahmari position seem untenable, and the past abuses of integrating church and state are too problematic for me adopt.
But the substance of this article is meant to address something related to this conversation: namely, the problems with Christian pragmatism or seeing Christianity as a vehicle for some instrumental good, such as enacting a desired moral ecology within a political order. While one detects in Ahmari the nostalgia for a Christendom united around a common good, the Baptist in me sees not only dead churches in its aftermath, but also a mass of unregenerate people as its byproduct.
Christianity and Pragmatism Don’t Mix
The French-Ahmari debate involves the question of whether there’s a byproduct of the Christian gospel that is worth just as much as the Christian gospel itself. As I hear some argue, it seems that Christianity is good because it produces a more humane culture. I think that’s true, of course. But to the extent that Christianity is repurposed for its social utility, Christianity becomes an instrumentalized force for some other end than humanity’s salvation.
Christianity isn’t the place for pragmatism. Our Lord’s earthly ministry ended on a cross, which means Christianity doesn’t expect worldly domination or triumph. The cross is both a place of salvation and also a paradigmatic expression of the Christian’s life within a fallen order. This doesn’t mean a church in exile is a church in retreat, either. But it does portend that misunderstanding, defeat, and suffering are knit into its DNA, and the promised judgment and eventual triumph of the coming kingdom won’t be enacted by man alone.
One doesn’t commit to Christ to get some temporal good out of it, whether personal favor, wealth, success, or power—or “Christian values.” That’s not to say that Christianity has never been used for this societal end, nor that it isn’t a welcome byproduct insofar as society must be guided by one morality or another; it is to say that it shouldn’t be the ultimate purpose. Stipulating the ultimate purposes of Christianity (salvation in Christ) must be kept separate from its penultimate byproducts (a society that’s humane and amenable to religion).
But here’s my question: What value is your Christianity when your culture seems lost? At that point does Christianity seems less successful or useful? Is the fear of alienation, second-class status, or outright marginalization worse than the prospect of hell?
This kerfuffle is reminding me that the Christian gospel and its fruits aren’t a tactic or a strategy for some greater end. The fruits of the Spirit are a character that we must become, not just practices to discard when their effect proves less viable.
In this world, we aren’t promised hegemony, a moral world, or a world that mimics the values of Christ. In fact, I think we’re promised a lot more of the opposite. But it means that while we look to the cross for our salvation, we look to it as a means of interpreting the world and the place of the Christian in it. Christianity isn’t fundamentally about restoring civilization to greatness. Sure, it can accomplish that. But it ought not be used for that particular end.
Evaluating Liberal Democracy
A huge portion of this debate has to do with evaluating whether liberal democracy is still a worthwhile vehicle. Spoiler alert: I think it is. I think it accords more accurately with the world that we live in, not the world we have. And that’s a world of pluralism, difference, and deep disagreement. It’s a Genesis 3 and Romans 8:18–27 world. It’s a reality that can’t be papered over.
I can’t, as of right now, see a better vehicle for living together with deep disagreements without resorting to violence. That’s not to say that I think liberal democracy is a good unto itself; it’s not. But it sets minimal procedural norms that allow discussion to exist, even if persuasion never occurs. I think Christians should champion this—not because we believe the world will be persuaded, but because we’re commanded in Scripture to conduct ourselves peaceably.
But let me say that, with Ahmari, I think things are bad for religious conservatives and bound only to get worse. The issue for me, however, is that the problems religious conservatives face aren’t because of liberal democracy’s flawed design; they’re because of a flawed humanity that rebels against both God and nature. Were we to have any other political system in place—and let’s imagine it’s one that some stripe of Catholic Integralism wants—I still think we’d end up with the same inevitability: a humanity bent on rebelling against God and nature. The difference for me, as a Baptist, is that I’m not willing to trade the Christian gospel for an amorphous “Christian culture” beset with its own problems, using Christianity as a prop for some greater purpose.
As I’ve written elsewhere, I advocate for what’s called an “Augustinian Liberalism” when it comes to how religious conservatives operate in the public square: We understand the inherent conflict of society as a constitutive element of our sinful world. But our aim and intent is to steward such pluralism in a way that’s non-coercive while simultaneously directing people toward their highest good, which is Jesus Christ.
Living in a Common-Grace World
At root, what can we say? We can say that regardless of political order, God preserves this world as a facet of his common grace. Our world isn’t as bad as it could be, all things considered. Natural law is one expression of his common grace. However fractured our society may be, and whatever the degree of humanity’s revolt toward God, he has enabled mechanisms that allow society to exist in perpetuity. We may not all agree on what constitutes “justice,” for example, but even the fallen mind seems to appreciate and demand an idea like justice.
Let me close by proposing a paradigm for us to consider as we navigate cultural conflict. As I understand Christian social witness, Christians must never transgress the witness of Christ. This means, in the least, we use his life and metaphors as both minimal and maximal boundaries. What do we see in Christ’s witness? He calls people to love their enemies, quite literally (Matt. 5:43–48). At the same time, he says he came not to bring peace, but a sword (Matt. 10:34). If we believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture, these truths aren’t in tension, which means there is a multifaceted self-conception to Christian witness. Christians fight a war, but it’s a different kind of war. It’s not a war of flesh and blood. The most powerful weapon in our arsenal, then, isn’t Constitutionalism; it’s a call to repentance.
1 Liberal democracy is a term that describes Western-style political order. It emphasizes the primacy—and in its most exploitative forms, the hyper-autonomy—of the individual, the rule of law, and a commitment to certain norms that allow for deliberation about law and political life to occur. At its best, liberal democracy is procedural, in that it allows for society to resolve conflict peaceably through constitutional mechanisms. In its worst forms, liberal democracy rests on a false idea of epistemological neutrality and impartiality that more often than not smuggles in secular progressivism.