Conservative Christians in the US are battling about whether to fight nice

Is it too late to save the American soul?
Is it too late to save the American soul?
Image: Reuters
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Jesus would probably not approve of the feud brewing in conservative Christian intellectual circles in the US.

The fight is essentially about whether to be nice when vying for the American soul in the culture wars. The squabble shows some believers don’t want to turn the other cheek or wait for the meek to inherit the Earth if it means yielding to fellow citizens who don’t share their religious values.

The battle began in earnest in late May when Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor at the New York Post, published an essay in First Things, a journal about religion and public life, entitled “Against David French-ism.” French is a National Review columnist who Ahmari admits is a nice guy but too polite for a politically and ideologically divided nation in troubled times. Ahmari, upset by the announcement that a Sacramento, California, library was hosting a children’s reading hour led by a drag queen, remarked that French’s “earnest and insistently polite quality” is “unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing religious conservatives.”

Ahmari, an Iranian immigrant who started out secular and is now Catholic, believes that to win the “cultural civil war,” and take back “the public square” Christians must be tough and be willing to fight ugly, which he contends the political left already does. He writes, “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.” According to Ahmari, Donald Trump understands this and that’s why he was elected president.

French, a Republican never-Trumper who abstained from voting in the previous presidential election to protest both candidates, then wrote a response in the National Review detailing what Ahmari got wrong. He argues that Christians abandoning their principles to take over the public square, where they feel they are not treated fairly, ends up undermining both Christianity and their arguments. After all, what’s left of religious principles if they are only ever employed when it’s convenient and easy?

Soon, a flurry of essays came out in support of Ahmari or French. Ross Douthat, a conservative editorialist at the New York Times (paywall) explained the debate as a fight between old and new views of Christianity’s role in the culture. Ahmari represents the new school, which wants to own the public square (and the libs).  Meanwhile French, although he shares many of the same positions as Ahmari on issues (he opposes abortion, for example) and also believes in fighting for religious freedom, sees this freedom as part of a liberal culture. In some senses then, he’s just being realistic, demanding that the culture respects believers and their practices but not necessarily trying to dominate the public space.

The spat got a little nastier as more people joined the fray, with conservative essayists calling French a traitor to the Christian cause and some even calling for him to be fired from his job at the National Review. On June 5, Tyler O’Neill at the conservative blog PJ Media explained that the personal fight is really a proxy for a larger battle for the future of conservative values in the US. The Ahmarists don’t want to share the public square with the godless and think the French types are naive for believing that pluralism will ever work for conservatives. They want to jettison liberal values altogether.

The reason all of this matters, even if you’re not a conservative Christian, is because the outcome of this debate may well influence the whole nation. In some senses this is a fight about Trump and the future of the Republican party. When Trump receives the vociferous support of religious intellectuals, he is further legitimized on the right. Those—like French—who believe the president doesn’t represent their values will be forced to become more militant or risk being entirely dismissed by their fellow conservatives.

If even fellow conservatives can’t agree on goals or the higher good, then who can? In other words, it will become more and more difficult for the ideologically divided to find pockets of agreement at all, if indeed there are any left.

Conservatives like Ahmari don’t want to compromise and they feel the right has already done so for too long. They don’t want to reach agreements with people whose beliefs they consider fundamentally wrong, whereas French supporters more or less accept that their beliefs can’t completely dominate the culture and can live with that as long as secular values don’t dictate how they and their coreligionists must exist. French appreciates and engages with some so-called liberal aspects of the culture, like Game of Thrones, which he reviews for National Review. He’s not willing to entirely purge the culture.

The details of the debate delve into opaque arguments about re-ordering society for “the higher good.” Ahmari ignores the fact that in a diverse nation, we don’t have one take on what that means, which is precisely why the culture is ostensibly at war. French concedes the latter at least. Either way, the essays don’t make for very fun reading.

Yet it’s a notable battle and one that matters as Americans gear up for the 2020 elections because it could very well influence the country’s direction. While more than 20 candidates on the left are vying for the Democrats’ attention, it seems the Christian right is willing to put ever more might behind Trump, their unlikely savior. Increasingly, they don’t care how he wins because fighting fair is old school and they want to throw out the rules that they claim otherwise guide their lives. Perhaps they’ll worry about Christian principles again once the nation is remade in their image.