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Why this debate between Christian conservatives matters for everyone

The debate between Sohrab Ahmari (left) and David French (right), chaired by Ross Douthat (center) at Catholic University of America (screenshot)

In an age of increased hostility, should Christians simply defend 'viewpoint neutrality', or must they do more?

Last night, Ross Douthat told a packed hall at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. that the heated disagreement which emerged this past summer between Sohrab Ahmari and David French looks to The New York Times reader like a mere squabble “between radically Christian conservatives.” But Douthat cautioned that in an age of secularism which is increasingly hostile to both conservativism and Christianity itself, the arguments between Christian conservatives matters for everyone.

On a surface level, the dispute is occasioned by the election of Donald Trump, and whether Christians must or must not support him. Several times, David French highlighted this aspect of the dispute, stating in so many words that Christians who support Donald Trump have “compromised Christian witness” in the public square. “Don’t wreck your moral public witness for Trump,” French counseled Ahmari. But Ahmari repeatedly refused this way of framing the debate, highlighting that Christians should not sit idly by while neighbors use cultural and legal power to force Christians to accept false and immoral sexual standards.

A deeper level of the dispute was clarified, however, around French and Ahmari’s discussion of “Drag Queen Story Hour” which uses public library resources to teach transgressive and disordered accounts of gender and human sexuality to children. Ahmari wants conservatives to use the administrative power of the state to enforce obscenity laws, and defend a substantive vision of the good. Conservatives should not be afraid to advance a politically serious vision of what is good for all people, and they shouldn’t be afraid to use cultural, political, and legal means to do so. But French repeatedly refused this idea as “stupid” because it undermines “viewpoint neutral access to public facilities” which he considers absolutely bedrock to the nation. “Viewpoint neutrality is what we must defend,” French insisted. “I want drag queens to come into a relation with Jesus Christ, but I am not going to usurp the Constitution to do this. The price of wiping out Drag Queen Story Hour is too high.”

It’s an odd thing to hear a Christian conservative insist that drag queens teaching your kids about twerking in libraries is just the kind of freedom that the American Constitution protects. But French believes it. Near the end of the debate, French said again that Ahmari’s vision is a threat to the “viewpoint neutrality” which is so central to the Constitution. French said that “churches depend on that for their defense. All we have is the First Amendment and God’s help to soften hearts. Viewpoint neutrality is bedrock.” In other words, French believes that Ahmari is undermining the very thing which a lawyer like French would use to protect Christians in the courts.

French was eloquent on the need to love one’s enemies. At times he touted his ability to use legal procedures to carve out conscience protections, and praised the First Amendment for granting Christians “co-equal space” in the public square. But at other times, French seemed ambivalent about whether Christians even need this space, or much of it. “Christians don’t need co-equal space. Christianity spread without any space. I don’t need co-equal space, and I certainly don’t need better than co-equal,” French said, implicitly criticizing what he sees as Ahmari’s desire to reorder the public square in a way which privileges Christianity.

Ahmari was eloquent, too, on recognizing the disconnect between the American founders — and the religious assumptions they shared with the American people — and the use to which their thought is now put in defense of sexual degeneracy, often putting Christian views at a legal disadvantage. Ross Douthat intervened to see a point of commonality here: French and Ahmari could both agree that the founders never envisioned that the First Amendment would protect porn. But where Ahmari thinks this gives us every reason to advance things like bans on porn, French thinks there is simply too much “market demand” for “the product.”

French’s view often returned to the power of 18th century political principles as our best tools for dealing with the sins of an imperfect nation. Wherever Ahmari wanted Americans to think about how to curb things which are morally false or evil, French wanted to invoke “viewpoint neutrality” and remind everyone that “no country is perfect.” We are a nation of sinners. But the problem is that this reduces every political discussion to a kind of moral indifferentism that is only ever resolvable in the private sphere when, as Ahmari noted, Christianity is an emphatically “public religion.”

There’s no such thing as a view from nowhere, and there is no such thing as moral neutrality.  French’s consistent concern with “viewpoint neutrality” in the debate frequently met Ahmari’s observation that the secular liberal, hostile to Christianity, is not at all satisfied with “viewpoint neutrality.” Secular liberals are working with great efficiency — marching through the institutions — to ensure that their viewpoint is not neutral but normative for all. They are not satisfied with carve-outs for special rights under a protected class. The secular liberal wants things which are morally wrong, and objectively contrary to nature, to be deemed perfectly good, and even praiseworthy. And they successfully use the coercive force of law to do so. This is not “viewpoint neutrality.” When 4% of the population can force the history of the LGBT movement to be taught in public schools as the moral equivalent of the civil rights movement, that is not “viewpoint neutrality.” Obergefell was not an effort to “persuade” fellow Americans with reasonable arguments.

Ahmari is right. Defending Drag Queen Story Hour as “freedom of viewpoint” is a kind of moral indifferentism that doesn’t really redound to Christian witness either. French is right that Christians ought to be in the business of “loving our enemies,” praying for the conversion of our neighbors, and defending their intrinsic dignity as bearers of God’s image. I want David French in the courtroom defending Christians. But I think that Ahmari has the more fundamental truth on his side. Namely, that we cannot afford to settle for procedural freedom, but we must advance a substantive vision of the good. Christians might suffer either way. It has sometimes been our lot in God’s good providence. But if Christians are to suffer, it shouldn’t be for “viewpoint neutrality.” It should not be because we failed to stand for what is right and just for all men, but because we did.