[This is part two of Michael Warren Davis’s two-part reflection on the Ahmari-French debate on the future of Christian conservatism. Read the first part here.]
The second major point of contention between Sohrab Ahmari and David French is on the question of civility. To again quote from Mr. Ahmari’s first shot across the Frenchists’ bow:
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.
During the debate Thursday, Mr. French argued that, as Christians, “love thy enemy” must be integral to our conservatism. Mr. Ahmari responded brilliantly, pointing out that civility isn’t a synonym for charity—that, quite often, the demands of charity compel us to be positively uncivil.
Indeed, “Civility” strikes me as one of those silly pseudo-virtues you could buy for a nickel in the 19th century. It’s part of that cloyingly bourgeois moral code adopted by the Victorians, which stood the old Christian morality on its head. For instance, when the middle class stopped believing in monogamy, they began to extoll propriety: do what you like, so long as you’re not waving it in your poor husband’s face. By the same token, “civility” is just a cheap substitute for charity.
C.S. Lewis has a terrific line about charity in Mere Christianity. “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did,” he advises. “As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”
Many of those who profess “civility” believe we must do just the opposite: we must try not to love our neighbor. It’s wrong to feel such a sharp concern for his wellbeing, since it may compel us to do something unseemly, like help him back to the straight path when he’s wandered off. Much as we hate to see him languish in confusion and sin, we must cultivate a sophisticated indifference to his plight.
The Emperor’s subjects were all very civil when he strutted down Main Street showing off his new clothes—all, that is, but one: a boy, who loved his sovereign enough to tell him the truth.
Can we have a politics of charity, then? Can our legislatures conform their laws to the law of love? And can we manage the feat without succumbing to the false charity preached by hedonists and heretics—those who make no distinction between lust or sentimentality, which are nothing more than self-indulgence—and true love, which demands self-sacrifice?
I suppose we don’t have much of a choice.
For a decade or so (right up to the election of Donald Trump, in fact) “love” was the Left’s watchword. “Love is love” was a slogan commonly used by those advocating for same-sex “marriage.” There’s no meaningful difference between the love of a man for a woman, or the love of a man for another man, or the love of a woman for another woman. All should be recognized as equal under the law.
There were all sorts of little inconsistencies in that line that should have given thinking people pause. If marriage is simply about a couple’s love, how does the government ensure that love is authentic? Why, for that matter, should the state be in the business of certifying two people’s love for each other in the first place?
Anyway, the Left’s love-in didn’t last long. Three years after the Obergefell decision, when President Obama lit up the White House in rainbow colors and declared that #LoveWins, self-proclaimed anti-fascists were in the streets cracking MAGA-capped skulls. Whosever side love was on, it didn’t win that round.
The only Democrats who still go on about that love stuff now are fossils like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Her slogan “Lead with Love” doesn’t quite jive with the Trump-era Democratic Party, who seem more inclined towards Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s decidedly NSFW rallying-cry. The Democrats have embraced a politics and a rhetoric of envy, resentment, and hatred.
Granted, there are a few on the Religious Left who still talk about love a great deal. In the extremity (think America magazine) it has to do with LGBT issues. More often, however, it pertains to immigration. The “charitable” position, they insist, is to throw open the gates to our southern border. Allow anyone and everyone to settle in the United States who cares to do so. In fact, that may be putting their position a bit too mildly. They don’t simply argue that this is the charitable position: they maintain that anyone who disagrees is positively uncharitable, despite all evidence to the contrary. Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, an unlikely hero of the Christian Left, has gone so far as to say that it’s “hard to look at [President Trump’s] actions and believe that they’re the actions of somebody who believes in God.”
Christian Leftists like Mayor Buttigieg and liberal conservatives like Mr. French have this much in common: their idea of charity is virtually indistinguishable from mere niceness. It’s not nice to forbid gays from marrying. It’s not nice to turn back immigrants at the border. It’s not nice to take an aggressive tone with one’s political opponents.
There’s a long history of non-Catholics wildly misunderstanding the virtue of charity. In the 1930s, Fr. Ronald Knox was already poking fun at those progressives who nevertheless admire St. Francis of Assisi (“what meekness, what cheerfulness, what love of animals! … not a bit like a Roman Catholic.”).
Whatever our political creed—whether we’re left-wing or right-wing, liberal or illiberal—this is wrongheaded, and dangerously so. The definition of charity as civility, of charity as niceness, is foreign to the Apostles and Fathers of the Church. Yes, St. Paul says that Christians must “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” We could all do better in this regard—again, myself included. But he also says that, “if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” It’s as much our duty to hate sin as it is to love the sinner.
Those who cut themselves off from the tradition of the Church’s political doctrine, be they Protestants or progressives, are abandoned to their own genius. Juan Donoso Cortés, writing in the middle of the 19th century, lamented that the “petulant sophists of today… cannot even lift from the ground the formidable weapons which these holy doctors, in Catholic ages, easily and humbly wielded.”
Just 20 years later, Leo XIII, the founder of modern Catholic social teaching, propagated his encyclical Libertas, arming the faithful once again with the weapons of the holy doctors. In it, he wrote:
The eternal law of God is the sole standard and rule of human liberty, not only in each individual man, but also in the community and civil society which men constitute when united. Therefore, the true liberty of human society does not consist in every man doing what he pleases, for this would simply end in turmoil and confusion, and bring on the overthrow of the State; but rather in this, that through the injunctions of the civil law all may more easily conform to the prescriptions of the eternal law.
This is the hard reality our Holy Mother teaches. It isn’t “nice” to leave our fellow man to wallow in error. It’s not “civil” to abandon him to degradation and sin. We can’t claim to love our fellow man if we leave him stranded outside the Kingdom of Heaven.
Nor, for that matter, do we do justice to our fellow believers. Russell Kirk, the father of American conservatism, placed this truth at the heart of his philosophy. “Conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn,” he wrote; “and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship, and Christians call love of neighbor.”
Society is a spiritual union, Dr. Kirk argued. Its members strive or straggle, flourish or falter, together. Unless we have an eremitic vocation, our job is to serve God out in the world. We’re citizens of Heaven in exile, navigating this massive ship of state back to our homeland. That ship is our day-to-day world—the world of emails, grocery stores, toll booths, and oil changes. It’s not a matter of indifference whether just a few of us in the back of the galley are pulling oars, or if the whole crew is rowing together.
Most of us, I think, are caught somewhere between Messrs. French and Ahmari. They feel liberal conservatism is inadequate, but they also recognize that orthodox faithful are such a tiny minority that we can’t hope to bring civil law into accord with the eternal law through democratic action.
Here we must admit that Mr. French is right: that there can be no substitute for real, supernatural faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, when I interviewed Rod Dreher for a piece on Catholic integralism, he made virtually the same point:
In the end, there is no substitute for serious religious revival. You cannot legislate that. I agree with integralists that in some sense a just political system will have to be based on a formal orientation to the higher good. I see no way for that to happen in contemporary America absent either authentic Christian revival or the imposition of tyranny. Then again, if we lived in a truly Christian country, we could accomplish most of the things that integralists want under liberal democracy.
That all seems perfectly obvious. Yet Catholics (myself included) and other orthodox Christians can lose sight of that fact. Why?
I think it’s part of their upbringing. The illiberals tend to be converts who came to the traditional Faith after being wounded or dissatisfied by the modern world. That’s as good a reason as any to turn to Christ, of course; but the way they think still tends to be quite secular. They see the vocation to public life in terms of debates, manifestos, elections, rallies, boycotts, retweets, and celebrity endorsements.
These are the tools the Left employs to advance their agenda. Why not us?
But look back at the last century or so. Who are the men most responsible for winning souls to Christ? They’re not political columnists or populist congressmen. No: they’re apologists like G.K. Chesterton and philosophers like Bl. John Henry Newman. They’re pastors like St. John Paul II and evangelists like Ven. Fulton Sheen. They’re missionaries like St. Teresa of Calcutta and martyrs like St. Maximilian Kolbe. There’s one king up for canonization (Bl. Karl of Austria) but no presidents. Chesterton’s cause has stalled, alas, but will go forward in God’s good time. I suspect He’s waiting till the “illiberalism” debate resolves itself, lest we should take the first canonization of a journalist as some sort of encouragement.
Theirs are the tools of a Christian: kindness, good humor, patience, humility, courage, and self-sacrifice. None of these virtues are evinced in our political or media classes, left-wing or right. They’re scant even among our own bishops. It’s time we picked them up again—even if it means logging off of Twitter, turning off the television, and ignoring the latest presidential debates. Our Blessed Lord made His expectations perfectly clear: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
There’s a political crisis in these nations once blessed to be known as Christendom; there’s no doubt about that. But it’s merely a symptom of a larger crisis that is, at bottom, spiritual. So it was that Chesterton, the great expositor of Leo XIII in the English-speaking world, praised Catholicism as “the only large attempt to change the world from the inside; working through wills and not laws.” So, in Second Chronicles, we’re promised: “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Conversion first; healing second. Or, as John Senior put it, “the restoration of reason presupposes the restoration of love.”
The most obvious symptom of this spiritual crisis isn’t the political crisis. Rather, it’s the crisis of alienation. Christians feel alienated from atheists. Progressives feel alienated from conservatives. Northerners feel alienated from Southerners. Workers feel alienated from employers. Blacks feel alienated from whites. Smartphone addiction, social media, hook-up apps, and pornography are only driving us further apart. We live in something very much like the Grey Town in C.S. Lewis’s Great Divorce: each of us dwells in our own private Hell, stewing in our own arrogance, fear, distrust, loneliness, hatred.
Before we can begin to address the political crisis, we must address the crisis of alienation. The first step is to recognize that man is a spiritual being, not a political one. I wonder if we could devote our magazines, think-tanks, podcasts, and Tweets to things that actually matter: the importance of strong families, real friendship, true leisure, honest patriotism, good manners, deep prayer… That’s something liberal and illiberal conservatives could work on together.
Who knows? We may find our other differences don’t matter as much as we thought.