I was going to title this piece Another French & Indian War, but when I looked it up I discovered that Sohrab Ahmari is of Iranian descent. So that didn’t work out, and let us hope that things improve a bit for me from here.
And besides, this issue is not really about those two gentlemen. Rather, the skirmish between them is actually the great issue of our day in microcosm. This affects everything that is happening to all of us, on a daily basis. It is all here—from Ahmari’s pungent observation about our apparent inability to object to library hour trannies to French’s concern that “if we clobber them with our values when we have the upper hand, have we not given them permission to clobber us with their values when they have the upper hand?” Well, maybe it is not all there. Just to keep things festive, we also have to throw in those evangelicals who have no problem with the library hour trannies, but who are deeply hurt and offended by my use of the word tranny.
Define upper hand. Define values. Define festive. By what standard? Define clobber.
The Conclusion First
Modern life is hectic, and so there may be those out there who just want the central takeaway point right off. Well, here it is.
Religious liberty is itself a religious value, and it is not a religious value that all religions share equally, or even at all. And the implications of this for the secular forms of classical liberalism are pretty dark. The implications for the Christian forms of classical liberalism are not dark at all, and I promise to explain further.
So if you want religious liberty for Christians, and if you want religious liberty for non-Christians, then you must have an overarching cultural worldview that values that kind of thing. That value must be transcendentally grounded. It cannot be successfully grounded on a pragmatic deal that we cut with religionists whose religion at bottom hates religious liberty, just as it hates all forms of liberty.
If you didn’t quite grasp all that, do not fret. I am going to say it over and over again in a number of different ways.
A Reductio Right Up Front
Before Utah could be admitted to the Union, the Union (at that time) insisted that the dominant religion of that territory obtain themselves “a revelation of convenience,” one that that would do away with all their polygamy business. The Mormons acquiesced. But times have changed, and we are not nearly so set in our monogamous ways, which means we are not about to make the same demand of the Muslims. And they are not about to acquiesce if we did. Now what?
The Christians say that monogamy is the creation design that we as a people should live by. The prophet Muhammad says that each man can have up to four wives. What does a thoroughbred secularism say that marriage is? As best as I can determine, they say that marriage is like playing a game of Mr. Potato Head, with or without the potato. Marriage is whatever the sovereign and atomistic individual identifies it as being, and home is where you hang your hat. A family is any set of bipedal carbon units that have decided to like each other for the time being.
So take a relatively simple, straightforward cultural question, like, what is marriage? When we ask a society to define this, remember that it is like asking an omelet for a definition of an egg, a wall for a definition of a brick, and a lawn for a definition of a blade of grass. And our society as a society does not know what a marriage is, and has therefore kicked the question over to the atomistic individuals involved in it. Right now we still are limiting it to two people, but that is just old-fashioned inertia. That will last about as long as you can hold your breath.
The tide is coming in and the west tower of heterosexuality for our sand castle tower is already gone, and since the sand castle is only a couple feet across, the outmoded restriction limiting marriage to two people has had it in principle. It will be flat sand, suitable for walking on, in just a few minutes.
How Could Secularism Work at All?
Secularism appeared to work for as long as it did because it was a heresy that took root in a culture that still retained enormous amounts of Christian capital. It worked for as long as it did for the same reason that the prodigal son was able to buy drinks for all his party friends for more than just a couple of days. And so that is what he did, but what he was doing was spending his father’s money as though it were money he had earned himself. As long as he was buying, he could tell everybody in the bar that he was a self-made man. But then, when his father’s money ran out, and there was a famine, and there he was, staring at the pig food, he started to realize that more is required to sustain a free republic than to provide your buddies with free beer.
David Bahnsen is exactly right that there is no neutrality. But this truth extends beyond private agents, beyond individuals. There is also no neutrality for corporate actors either—whether we are talking about corporations like Google, or nations like the United States. Each individual must give an account of himself, and each corporate entity that acts in the world must also give that same kind of account. By what standard? So of course David French fights for religious liberty in the way he does because there is no neutrality in his life. But we need to do more than that. We need to point out that there can be no neutrality in America’s life either. We make decisions with moral implications, just like individuals do, and we have to give an account for them, just like individuals do. It is therefore our responsibility as Christians to call America, in her corporate capacity, to repentance and faith.
In the grip of her conceit, secularism issued an invitation to all the peoples of the world. “Come, live here, in the realm of religious neutrality. The only thing we ask is that each of you—you Christians, you Muslims, you Hindus, you Jews, you all—set aside your ultimate values as being politically and culturally irrelevant. Live by our rules. We promise to play fair.”
Define fair. By what standard?
Now I do not believe these secularists, not at all. Some of them are deluded, and are sincerely attempting to make an unworkable deal work. Some of them are not deluded at all, and are laughing up their sleeves at the Christian chumps who have gone along with this, and bought into this unworkable arrangement.
America must have an official faith. At our Founding, it was the Christian faith. Over the years—our slide into apostasy was slow—it became a faith that pretended not to be a faith at all. Think of an etiolated Unitarianism that provided us with a place holder god, some vague higher power that we could refer to on our money. And now that the pretensions of this scam have been revealed, we are confronted with a choice that a lot of conservative classical liberals really do not want to make.
- Continue with the bankrupt secularism;
- Adopt a false religion;
- Adopt the true religion.
Now it should be pointed out that the longer we dither in the first option, the more we are opening the way for the second option. And we must choose the third option. Why? Because it is the true religion.
Yes, But . . .
Now here is the basic concern. If we Christians let go of our commitment to cultural neutrality, at a point where we have the upper hand, then what is to prevent the bad guys from letting go of their commitment to neutrality when they have the upper hand?
Well, nothing is to prevent them from doing that. They’re doing it now. They’ve been doing it for decades.
And they didn’t start doing this because of all our theocratic ways. Christians are about as allergic to theocracy as the secularists are, and that is saying a lot. The secularists have started doing this because that was the plan all along. The false pretense of neutrality toward Christianity was a preliminary move to the one currently underway, that of overt hostility to Christianity.
Remember what I have observed before. Our evangelical guard dogs, the ones that should have been barking a lot more than they have been, have four basic steps that they would have us go through.
- There will not be any need to fight.
- There may come a time when it necessary to fight.
- It is too early to fight.
- It is too late to fight. This is a post-Christian era.
The National Review Blind Spot
So here is where we get to the point of the title. I have been a subscriber to National Review for just shy of fifty years. It is a magazine I have profited from very much, and I still read it faithfully. The magazine was founded in 1955, which makes it 64-years-old. Do the math, and you will note that I have been a subscriber for 78% of their publishing existence. I am a loyal son, and so this is why they will need to take seriously what I am about to say.
National Review needs to come to Jesus. Whether or not it is possible for the United States to become a Christian nation again (it is), we should all agree that it possible for NR to become a Christian magazine. Throughout its existence National Review has been friendly to the Christian faith, and has had many Christians writing for her, as at the present. Why not make it official? Why not put a ring on it? National Review needs to become a voice advocating for the establishment of a mere Christendom.
National Review has also been a true friend of religious liberty. My argument is that such a move would not be a retreat from this commitment to religious liberty, but would rather put that commitment on a solid footing, on a sound foundation. Christians invented religious liberty. Trying to keep Christians as Christians away from governance for the sake of religious liberty is like trying to keep Christians out of architecture schools because you want to protect the tradition of cathedral building.
The original form of the Westminster Confession, as adopted in England, had a very robust view of the tight relationship between church and state. The American form, adopted in 1789 in Philadelphia, modified this take, and is what I would call the Christian form of classical liberalism. I am closer to the original understanding in my views, but I would take the American form as a vast improvement over what we have now. We should reject a classical liberalism that is built on the sandy foundation of individual autonomy, and accept a classical liberalism that is based on the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. This can be done. It has been done before.
“Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance” (WCF 23.3).