On Twitter and in essays at The American Conservative, Sohrab Ahmari has argued that the debates about liberalism, post-liberalism, and integralism are “exhausted,” and that what he calls “political Catholics” are taking “these battles in other, more concrete dimensions.” In his most recent essay, coauthored by Gladden Pappin and Chad Pecknold, Ahmari argues for the revival of “cultural Christianity.” America should follow the example of Hungary and other European countries and publicly embrace Christian culture in the public square. Cultural Christianity, they argue, is relevant “not for the further extension of liberalism, but for the protection of traditional Christian life,” and to provide a model of how to lead a good life even for those who may not share Christian belief.
Cultural Christianity has dominated the Western world for the better part of two millennia, and we believe it is very much worth defending once more.
If I understand Ahmari, Pappin, and Pecknold correctly, we don’t need to wait for everyone to convert to Christianity for this to take place. Most Americans do not affirm “woke” dogma, despite its becoming the official cultural position of the United States. It is not hypocritical, and in fact much preferable, to have a Christian culture that actually helps people live well.
The public square is not neutral. It will be filled with something. It is currently dominated by secularism, individualism, transhumanism, and the sexual revolution, none of which are neutral. I completely agree that a culture grounded in the Christian vision of the human person and society is much preferred to a culture that encourages a dysphoric, disembodied individualism that brings only unhappiness, envy, and cultural decay While I worry about the politicization of religion, which can lead to unbelief, a Christian culture can be, in fact, conducive to belief because it creates what Peter Berger called “plausibility structures.” As Carter Snead writes, our laws are currently dominated by an anthropology of expressive individualism. This institutionalizes injustice for the weak, infirm, elderly, and unborn. It also encourages a certain way of seeing the world and living in community. It has empowered the powerful, but has deeply harmed families, society, and human flourishing. As Snead notes, if you want to live life as a radical individual denying mutual indebtedness, that is your choice, but you should get nowhere near the law.
What exactly a Christian culture would look like and how we can get there are important questions. For example, America lacks the Catholic traditions of Austria and Italy, as manifested in a calendar of holidays, processions, and festivals. A growing number of Catholics are revitalizing these traditions, true, but they are still a small part of Catholic and American life, which is increasingly secular. And while I agree that political and cultural changes do not necessarily require widespread belief, we cannot underestimate the role of faith, and conversion of the heart and intellect especially in the American political context. It takes a lot of energy and commitment to build and maintain a Christian culture. As Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin noted, it was sincere Christian believers aligned with other interest groups who created the pressure to implement Christian culture: stopping Sunday mail delivery and the temperance movement. Nevertheless, I think the point that law and politics influence culture is correct, and I am not here to nitpick because I know they take the conversion of heart seriously.
I do, however, still have a number of questions about how all this relates to and builds upon Mr. Ahmari’s liberal/post-liberal debates and ultimately what he means by political Catholicism and the move to recover the “classical legal tradition,” “imagining alternative political economies,” and “anti-liberal formations in theology and politics.”
Is this proposal of a cultural Christianity a departure from his earlier analysis of liberalism, or is it derived from it? It seems that much of what he and Professors Pecknold and Pappin are arguing would be amenable to tens of millions of American voters and falls in line with much of what was said by the “moral majority” Reagan conservatives and Christian leaders as diverse as Jerry Falwell and Fulton Sheen. It seems like they are saying that America should be more like it was when Christianity shaped our culture, before socialist mores, the sexual revolution, education breakdown, and welfare weakened communities, families, and the moral ecology of the nation. How does this all relate to liberalism and to a specifically “political Catholicism”?
In reading Mr. Ahmari’s “upshot” summary of the liberal/post-liberal/integralist debates, I found myself confused about what is being debated and who actually holds the positions of Mr. Ahmari’s conservative interlocutors.
Of course, some of Ahmari’s argument is clear: Key aspects of modern liberal thought are a Faustian bargain, promising liberty but leading to disillusion, enslavement, and ultimately to what C.S. Lewis called the “abolition of man.” The limitation of rationality to the empirical, which as Benedict XVI explains is not only incoherent on its own terms, it also sows seeds of violence, and relegates the fundamental human concerns of love, beauty, goodness, right, wrong, and justice outside the realm of reason. This is especially troubling for politics because it reduces politics to power, as we saw with the totalitarian move that redefined the biological and sociological reality of marriage.
Liberalism also comes with serious problems for human anthropology and freedom. A new ontology of the person based on sexual predilection is being written into law; freedom is either denied or reduced to a radical exercise of the will. The collusion of Big Tech, Big State, Big Education, and Big Culture are all real threats to political and religious liberty, and to human flourishing. The threats we face are real and have been addressed with clarity and prescience by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Augusto Del Noce, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and many others.
But there are other parts of Mr. Ahmari’s arguments I find elusive. Generally, it is unclear as to what he means by “liberalism.” Does he mean liberalism in religion, which St. John Henry Newman critiqued? The political liberalism of Locke? The political liberalism of Burke and the American Founders? The liberalism of John Rawls? Modern progressive liberalism? At different times, Mr. Ahmari equates liberalism with neutrality, free speech, and individualist religion, and then contrasts these positions to those held by what he calls “political Catholics.” I am highly critical of liberal and libertarian anthropology, and sympathetic to critiques of liberalism, but it’s hard to know what exactly he means by the term.
He asks: “Do you believe it’s possible to run a society without moral coercion (whatever the morality)? If yes … you are still a liberal.”
Does Mr. Ahmari really know any serious Catholic who thinks society can be run without moral coercion? Law is the legislation of morality: Prohibitions against murder, theft, perjury, and so on all involve coercion or a restriction of power, and all derive from moral positions. If Ahmari is critiquing legal positivists who hold to incoherent views of reason and morality, I share his critique—but his actual position remains unclear.
Regarding religion and liberalism, Mr. Ahmari asks: “Do you believe faith has to be sustained solely individually, without a substrate of material and political support?”
A Catholic, by definition, cannot hold that position. The sacramental order requires matter (bread, wine, water, oil) and a ministerial priesthood, and as discussed above supports a moral culture. Again, I’m unsure what the exact debating points are with those who do not identify as “political Catholics.”
On the issue of culture, he asks: “Do you still believe politics is downstream from culture?”
This question, too, provides only vague definition of what constitutes a “liberal.” Christopher Dawson argued that the driving force of culture is cultus: religion. Would Mr. Ahmari characterize Dawson as a liberal? Is he arguing, contrary to Dawson, that politics is the driving force of social life and culture?
I agree that politics is not simply downstream of culture. Politicians make laws and establish policies, which, as noted above, not only legislate morality but create plausibility structures and incentives to influence behavior. St. Thomas Aquinas and the tradition are clear that law is didactic—a teaching force. Bad economic policies create negative incentives; good policy creates better incentives. But the interaction between culture and politics moves in both directions. Culture and politics shape one another. The institutions of justice—such as the protection of private property, the rule of law, due process, free association, the limited state, and commutative and distributive justice—are not just political. They are cultural. They emerge out of Jewish and Catholic theology, culture, anthropology and the medieval Catholic tradition. The Fabians, the Frankfort School, Antonio Gramsci’s “long march,” and the sexual revolution began as intellectual and cultural movements that led to political power, which further influences culture. I think there is mutual influence, but I give a priority to culture. Would Mr. Ahmari see that as characteristic of liberalism?
I am also still confused about the meaning of the term “political Catholics.” Does this describe Catholics who propose a “cultural Christianity?” That a Catholic view of the person, society, and the state should influence politics? Or does it mean something more—a politicized Catholicism? A specific Catholic political party? An officially Catholic State? By “anti-liberal foundations in theology and politics,” does Mr. Ahmari mean a repudiation of the liberal, heterodox Catholicism that has seen millions of American Catholics leave the Church? Or does he mean limiting political participation to professed Catholics or using political power to compel belief in Catholic doctrines like the real presence and the Assumption?
I share Mr. Ahmari’s concerns on many levels, but it is difficult for me to pin down what he actually means, and who, especially his conservative interlocutors are.
I suggest there may be two issues that could be driving this so-called debate. First, we are in difficult times. It’s hard to find solid, never mind common, ground. Mr. Ahmari writes that he used to be a “liberal of various sorts,” but his positions changed when grew up, got married, had children, and converted to Catholicism. The responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood give us awareness of social complexity, embeddedness, and our reliance on tradition and moral limits. And the Catholic tradition has a wealth of insight into social and political life, as well as the errors of modern thought. I have no critique whatsoever of his changing his mind. I commend it. We should always be learning, refining our positions, and correcting them when they are in error. But I wonder if the real debate here is more with his former liberal self.
Second, I wonder whether Mr. Ahmari may have erroneously equated impartiality with neutrality. I was speaking recently with a talented young writer who said to me that he no longer thinks of politics in neutral terms. “That’s good,” I responded. There is no neutral position. Secularism is not neutral. Nor is the affirmation of political liberty and a limited state. Positivists or other thinkers who claim neutrality lack self-understanding and are in error. They are so deeply embedded in invisible cultural capital that they take it for granted. Every political position comes from some deeper position about the nature of the human person and what constitutes a good life.
Impartiality on the other hand is different from neutrality. The idea of impartiality in justice is not a neutral position. It comes directly from the Bible (Leviticus 19:16 and James 2) and is part of the patristic and medieval tradition. We may think this normal, but in some societies where the standard view of justice is to reward one’s friends and punish one’s enemies, impartiality is radical. The American political tradition, which affirms the separation of powers, the rule of law, due process, private property, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom of religion, are not neutral claims. They are moral claims that come out of a tradition and a specific vision of society and what it means to be human. St. Thomas, for example, makes a detailed defense of the rule of law and due process, and in 1226 argued in Contra Impugnates for the natural right of freedom when he defended the mendicant orders against the usurpation of bishops. Leo XIII used this argument in his encyclical Rerum Novarum in defense of the rights of labor unions.
I think the confusion of impartiality with neutrality is a common problem across the spectrum that prevents us from addressing social and political challenges, from reining in morally corrosive activities, and from thinking clearly about the role of political liberty. I strongly affirm impartial justice and reject the sexual revolution’s new ontology of the person. I strongly affirm private property for all citizens and reject markets for persons, organs, or pornography. I affirm religious freedom not because I believe all religions are equally valid but because the state shouldn’t compel doctrinal belief. Some relationships fall under the realm of commutative justice (cars, phones, cabbage) and others belong to distributive justice (families, monasteries). These are fully coherent positions. Politics is in the realm of reason, and the purpose of politics, as Augustine teaches us, is peace and justice. Private property and free speech are just and should be protected. Drag queen story hour is an injustice to children and should be prohibited.
Good Catholics can disagree on a host of things, and most political and economic questions fall into the realm of the prudential. Recent encyclicals are clear that the Church offers principles and an orientation, not a policy program. I support promoting a Christian vision of the person and society. After all, it is the Jewish and Christian tradition that is the source of political liberty in the West. We are undoubtedly in a political/anthropological battle over marriage, family, education, and what it means to be a human person. There is no neutral vision. We lose the Christian vision at our peril. So please do “recover the classical legal tradition.” Go ahead and imagine “alternative political economies.” But don’t make the error of thinking that Catholics who support a limited state, rule of law, free speech, freedom of conscience, and a proper place for commutative justice are somehow outside the tradition. And perhaps most important, don’t make the error of identifying Catholicism with a particular political platform. That’s been done before in France, Spain, and Ireland. And as we’ve witnessed, and as Benedict XVI has warned, it generally leads to unbelief.