David French and the Chimerical Flibbertigibbet


The United States has a written Constitution, as in, written down, which has been a wonderful firewall and blessing. But America also has, as all nations do, an unwritten constitution. That unwritten covenant is the only thing that makes the Constitution itself worth anything more than the paper it is written on. There are certain assumptions embedded in our national psyche that have to be taken into account if you want to understand what our radicals are attacking with such ferocity, and what our conservatives, still being their lovable and bewildered selves, are dimly trying to defend.

We shall get to all of that near the end of this hard lesson. 

The Ahmari/French Debate

This summer’s series of collisions between Sohrab Ahmari and David French culminated in a debate last week, and you can find a summary of what happened here.

One of the things that had set the whole thing off initially was Ahmari’s deficient sense of respect for Drag Queen Story Hours at public libraries. French’s basic response to Ahmari’s outrage was to argue that if we want the secularists to respect our liberties in the public square then turnabout is obviously fair play, and so we have to respect their liberties. In the linked summary of their debate above, notice how crucial the idea of “viewpoint neutrality” is to French. “Viewpoint neutrality is what we must defend.”

The problem—and it is kind of a big one really—is that there is no such thing as viewpoint neutrality. Like Maria in The Sound of Music, viewpoint neutrality is a, is a . . . how do you say it? . . . it is a flibbertigibbet. How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?

Let us take a moment to ponder and reflect. How do you defend a phantasm? How do you circle the wagons around an ignis fatuus?  How do you rally to the wraith of an idea? When you rally to that point, you find that the banners of your ghostly regiment are snapping smartly in the breeze that blows in from the Void.

Allow me to explain why this is so.

First, why is it not possible to have a “neutral viewpoint” concerning viewpoint neutrality itself? Why do we have to insist on neutrality in public libraries when it comes to issues like drag queens reading to the kiddos, but we don’t have to insist on neutrality when it comes to the possibility or impossibility of viewpoint neutrality? Viewpoint neutrality is a good and necessary thing is not itself a viewpoint neutral sentiment. It is therefore not validated by its own criterion—which is kind of like pragmatism not working, or rationalism going mad. We cannot really say that every view must make an allowance for all the others, except for David French’s view of constitutional neutralities. That view need not make any allowances for anybody.

Whenever anybody sets forth a particular, defined cultural value, like viewpoint neutrality, even though I am seated in the back rows here, I still want to stand on my chair and shout at the moderator, “Ask him by what standard?!” And if permitted a follow-up, I would ask if the standard assumed or appealed to is in any way neutral.

Second, David French is not really trying to do this thing Even Steven. If he were fighting for a closer approximation of a consistent viewpoint neutrality—which is impossible, but we can try, can’t we?—what he would be after is Drag Queen Story Hour on Fridays, and What God Did to Sodom on Mondays. Equal time, in other words. We could ask the Fruity Boys to host the events on Fridays, and some fundamentalists with skinny neckties, pockets full of Chick tracts, with black floppy Bibles, and hailing from Antioch Baptist, to do Bible Story Hour on Mondays. If a librarian can invite one offensive group, then wouldn’t it be viewpoint neutrality for her to be able to invite another different kind of one?

But no. What is actually happening is that cultural conservatives are being actively defenestrated through the Overton Window. So to speak. You are not exactly fighting for viewpoint neutral religious liberty when you are balancing the right of perverts to proselytize in public spaces as over against the right of Christians to continue to exist in their private spaces. If viewpoint neutrality were possible, then we would be arguing for the right of all groups to proselytize during Story Hour.

Third, as I never tire of repeating, religious liberty is itself a religious value. Not all religions value it, and those that do value it do so at different levels of commitment. Conservative Christianity, the kind that believes the Bible, is the kind of faith system that can sustain the most robust forms of religious liberty possible. No other worldview comes close. So to say that you want all the different faith systems, with which America teems, to respect and honor religious liberty is to say that, on this point at least, you want them to defer to the Christian pattern. Being a Christian, I don’t mind making that a requirement. What I do mind is the pretense that we are not doing so.

A neutral and aggressively secular state will not preserve religious liberty. The content of the conclusion is not contained within their premises. An ostensibly neutral state with an accumulated reservoir of historic Christian moral capital can preserve religious liberty, but only for a time. But run it out a few decades. You cannot make Herbert Marcuse the Secretary of Free Speech at Animal Farm without finding out, to your chagrin, that some animals are more equal than others. Religious liberty for Christians is not a principle that can be derived from the premises of an aggressive secularism. NOT going to happen. Totalitarian systems of thought do not generate liberty of any kind, especially a religious liberty that leaves room for untrammeled gospel preaching and church planting.   

Fourth, French insists that somehow the Constitution requires this of us, but is that really the case? For more on this, see below. When the Constitution was adopted, and for the first couple hundred years after that, our cultural center of gravity included general respect for that Constitution, coupled with an awareness of the cultural principles assumed in and by the Constitution. That culture-wide spirit of give and take, and mutual respect, that shared center, is a spirit that David French is assuming as somehow still operative. But that mutual respect is long gone, as in bye-bye.

About half the electorate wants to pitch anything overboard that gets in the way of whatever results they are currently demanding. You ask for an example? Okay. The Electoral College. And look at how the current crop of Democratic candidates is pandering to the envious half of our electorate’s id—their platform can be summarized as free chocolate milk for everybody coupled with ban all the things. There is not the shred of constitutionality anywhere near any of them.

It is one thing when the country is divided, say, over whether or not to buy Greenland. That would be an old-school policy disagreement, and brings Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase to mind. It is quite another thing when one half of the electorate says the Constitution should be read with an originalist understanding, while the other half is saying the Constitution should be thrown into a cauldron, melted down, and shaped into something that looks more like the Altar of Damascus. 

C.S. Lewis reminded us (in Screwtape Proposes a Toast) that Aristotle long ago made a distinction that David French needs to consider more deeply than he has yet done. There is a difference between behavior that democracies like and behavior that will preserve democracies. Erdogan, ruler of Turkey, put it succinctly when he said that democracy is like a streetcar—you ride it until you get where you wanted to go. Then you get off.

Reasoning in the same Aristotelean spirit, there is a difference between behavior that libertines like and behavior that will preserve liberty. French doesn’t see it yet, but he is actually defending the former, while Ahmari is urging a return to the latter. There is a difference between behavior that religious extremists demand (e.g. the freedom of drag queens to groom little kids on the public dime) and behavior that will preserve a genuine religious liberty. 

In short, David French’s approach to this whole religious liberty thing is a knotted tangle of epistemic inconsistencies, a fact that I have pointed out repeatedly. I have no doubt that he is a nice man, and I have no doubt that he has done many good things in his fights for the rights of Christians.

But he is dead wrong on the basic presuppositional issue here, and Ahmari is right on the basic presuppositional issue here. I am saying nothing about any personal jabs or insults, back and forth, and I am not going to, as they say, descend to personalities. All I am saying is that the Constitution that David French loves is a document that cannot survive for very long at all transplanted into the kind of soil we are currently trying to keep it in. And French cannot keep defending the new soil if he wants to keep the old plant.

As I say, and as I keep on saying, religious liberty is itself a religious value. Should it be imposed on those who do not share the religion that generates and values it? This question really needs to be, you know, like, answered. Now I know that it is de rigueur for important folks in the conservative empyrean to ignore input coming from such a tainted source as the grizzled solon of the Idaho panhandle, but still. Here I sit by my wood stove, whittling my epistemic shavings into the fire, wondering why the denizens of the firmament can’t see how the stick is eventually going to be gone. So my question remains a good question, and somebody really needs to take a crack at answering it. But I am sure there are some people who live in these big centers of influence who understand what the heck I am going on about. Maybe David Bahnsen could take French out for coffee or something.

Founded on an Idea?

I am about to say that American was formed as a creedal nation. But I am hesitant to bring this up for two reasons.

One is that this notion has been perpetuated by many who then go on to articulate a false version of what that creed or idea was. It is like hearing someone argue that Christianity is inescapably confessional, and you are nodding along in agreement, only to have them haul out some creed dictated by an illiterate Arian Goth. They are right about the first part, but everything actually rides on the second part.

The second reason I am hesitant to bring this up is because people ignore the fact that ideas have consequences, which is to say that ideas must instantiate. When a nation has a creedal foundation, which ours did, it still remains a nation for all that. The ideas take shape in the forms of that unwritten constitution I have spoken about, which includes our customs, language, sports, history, legacy, symbols, rituals, geography, and so forth. In other words, the idea does not remain chilled and isolated in the produce coolers in Plato’s realm of the forms.

So the false view of our great American ideal, as it is now touted, consists of a basic Ophrafication of the pursuit of happiness. Dream your dreams, girl. And those who ignore the historical instantiation are trying to say the ideal trumps the culture that grew up around that ideal, which is false.

Creationist America

I have said that all this is part of our unwritten constitution. But why would I say this when a central part of what I have in mind was written down—i.e. the Declaration. But though the Declaration was written down, it has no legal status. It is not part of the constitutional framework, and it is not included in any of our statutes. Rather it was woven into our culture because of how it has been honored, and because generations of schoolchildren memorized chunks of it, as did I as a boy.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

If anything is part of the American creed, this is. If any idea can be considered foundational to our way of life, this is. This is not one idea among many, competing out there in the American market place of ideas. This is the auditorium that makes all the other debates possible. And while this auditorium is friendly to debates, and genuinely encourages them, it will not accept certain resolutions to be debated, such as this one: “Resolved: the house steward should burn down this auditorium with everyone still in it.”

So here is the American creed in short form. All men have inalienable rights, granted to them by their Creator. Governments are supposed to secure and protect these rights, not bestow them. These rights include, but are not limited to, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

No Creator, no rights. No rights, no inalienable rights. If this Declaration is wrong, and if Darwin is right, then religious liberty, along with all other liberties, is a pipe dream. A free republic must therefore be a creationist republic. If there is no Creator, then society is simply a collection of millions of misshapen bags of protoplasmic water. And such would most certainly not have what a previous generation so quaintly called “rights.” It would be no great loss if somebody just turpentined the whole ant hill.

Chesterton for the Win

So I began by saying that America has an unwritten constitution, and at the foundation of that unwritten constitution, we find a creed. Chesterton, astute as always, pointed to it.

“America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature”

What I Saw in America, p. 7

Not surprisingly, the creed in its original Greek contains nothing about affordable housing or climate change.

“It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just. It certainly does condemn anarchism, and it does also by inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived”

Ibid., p. 7

In order for this system to work, there must be a system of shared cultural values. There must be boundaries, definitions, particular affirmations and denials. In short, as Chesterton put it, “The melting pot must not melt” (Ibid. p. 8).

Viewpoint neutrality, epistemic agnosticism, will preserve precisely nothing. Viewpoint neutrality melts the melting pot down.

“The original shape [of the melting pot] was traced on the lines of Jeffersonian democracy; and it will remain in that shape until it becomes shapeless. America invites all men to become citizens; but it implies the dogma that there is such a thing as citizenship.”

Ibid., p. 8, emphasis mine

It will remain in that shape until it becomes shapeless. Indeed. And David French needs to understand that defending the collapse into shapelessness is not the same thing as defending the original shape.

How could it be?