Trueman on the Ahmari-French Dust-Up

Carl Trueman has a good take on the latest intramural debate among American conservatives. I’d quibble with a few minor points, but the conclusion is spot-on:

So while I agree with Ahmari that French’s strategy of politeness is unlikely to prove politically successful, I still believe it is worth considering. If the Middle Ages are not the analog to the church in the twenty-first century, the second century might be. At that time, the church was a misunderstood minor sect in a vast empire.  It was not subject to widespread, coordinated persecution but it was often suspected of subverting the public good. So the Greek Apologists of that time taught Christian doctrine and ethics, and they made it clear to the pagan authorities that they intended to be good citizens and should therefore be allowed to function as members of Roman society. They spoke respectfully of emperors and made sure that any offense caused was demanded by the gospel, and not by some other ambition or agenda.

This captures the New Testament emphasis on blessing when cursed, turning the other cheek, and speaking well of those who speak evil. Of course, Paul was capable of polemical sharpness (typically directed against enemies within the church, not the secular authorities) and he was quite happy to use the civil rights that he possessed as a Roman citizen. But at no point does he say that it is legitimate for Christians to be as brutal and ferocious in opposing pagan enemies as those enemies are in opposing the church.

French’s strategy of decency and politeness may well be doomed, as Ahmari indicates. But Christians do not do things because they think they will succeed. They do them because the New Testament tells them that this action or this way of speaking is the right way to reflect the character of God to the world.

Just so.

Of course, none of this implies that doing the right thing won’t succeed, but at the same time we need to calibrate our understanding of ‘success’ to the goals and priorities emphasized in the New Testament by Christ and the apostles.

Perhaps one (admittedly reductionistic) way to view the present debate is in terms of the difference between a consequentialist conservatism (Ahmari) and a deontologist conservativism (French). The former prioritizes securing results (in this case, something like a society where Judeo-Christian moral values are respected, protected, and reflected in the law) even if that means adopting new rules (or breaking the old ones), whereas the latter places the priority on following rules (in this case, principles of proper conduct in the public sphere) even if that doesn’t secure the desired results, at least in the near term. On French’s view, one could “win the culture” but lose one’s soul in the process. Results at the expense of rules is a de facto defeat for the Christian conservative.

BTW, Trueman’s take on Brexit is also a must-read for Americans who are trying to make sense of current political events across the Atlantic.

1 thought on “Trueman on the Ahmari-French Dust-Up”

  1. I wish that critics of the post-liberals would choose folks like MacIntyre and Deneen as their sparing partners rather than Ahmari. The former two present more robust arguments and would actually be in agreement with most of what the classical liberal critics of post-liberalism have been and are saying (including some of what Trueman says–and the problem they identify is not in individualism per se, so they would agree with him there too but point out the broader context (philosophical history in the case of MacIntyre) and type of individualism).

    In that respect, the present debate is much broader than Ahmari’s ‘Against David French-sim’ and is not consequentialist by any strech . Deneen and MacIntyre do promote following the rules of our liberal society (Deneen more explicitly, MacIntyre more implicitly by discouraging a sort of Jacobin revolution). Their means to their end is through rebuilding civil society–which is exactly what classical liberals have been arguing–while at the same time acknowledging and appreciating the goods that we’ve achieved through liberalism. And the end goal looks much more like the sort of federalism that Jonah Goldberg ironically suggested after mocking post-liberal totalitarian theocracy, which they also don’t want.

    They also probably wouldn’t like to be considered deontologist conservatives though :)

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