Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Political Christianity

I appreciated Sohrab Ahmari’s generous review of my book Live Not by Lies (“Resist in Truth,” November), and I credit his observation that what I deem “authentic liberalism”—­tolerant and pluralistic—is difficult to sustain. But it’s hard to see any realistic alternative for social and religious conservatives outside of a liberal framework—which only goes to show how deep the problem is. Political Christianity is only possible when a culture is robustly Christian, but we are very far from that condition. In my 2017 book The Benedict Option, I wrote about the post-1960s decline of doctrinal Christianity into what the sociologist Christian Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic ­Deism.” What’s more, the collapse of traditional religious faith and social conservatism among Millennials and Generation Z has been widely documented. How can we have political Christianity in a polity where most people aren’t meaningfully Christian, and in which the definition of what Christians believe is so contentious, even among Catholics?

One only has to look at the recent mass anti-government upheaval in heavily Catholic Poland against a constitutional court ruling outlawing eugenic abortion to see that political Christianity of the sort that Ahmari and I both would welcome treads on thin ice. When I was in Poland in 2019 doing reporting for Live Not by Lies, I was shocked by young Polish Catholics telling me that within a decade, Poland would go the way of Ireland. They meant that traditional Catholicism had become dangerously weak in Poland, and that the post-communist generation would abruptly walk away. That depressing claim was difficult for an American of the John Paul II generation to grasp, but the large and quite angry protests of this past autumn seem to bear out the Gen Z ­Polish Catholics’ grim prophecy. If political Christianity can’t work in Poland, where in the West can it work?

Finally, I disagree with Ahmari when he writes that the Catholic Church “retains important strengths, not the least of which is clarity about moral truth.” I wish this were true, but the last thing theologically conservative Christians (not only Catholics) associate with Pope Francis and the leadership of the contemporary Catholic Church is clarity about moral truth. Lamentably, in this age of darkness and the disintegration of authority, this grievous fault is truly ecumenical.

Rod Dreher
baton rouge, louisiana

Sohrab Ahmari replies:

I thank my friend Rod Dreher for his thoughtful letter. Let me grant, for argument’s sake and because they strike me as basically correct, his observations about the dismaying state of contemporary Western culture, which is very far from “robustly Christian.” The question is what to do about that. For many Christians, the answer has been to retreat behind the procedural defenses offered by liberal states (though these seem to be getting thinner by the day) and, meanwhile, to attempt to “evangelize the culture.”

Far be it from me to reject the great commission. What I argue, however, is that this work must include the evangelization and conversion of political power, without too much fretting about the vagaries of mass culture. This is the lesson of the French Jesuit Jean Cardinal Daniélou and his pathbreaking 1967 book Prayer as a Political Problem (just reissued in a beautiful edition by the good folks at Cluny Media): namely, that Christianity remained an elite phenomenon, inaccessible to the great multitudes, until the Constantinian conversion, after which the Christian share of the Roman Empire skyrocketed.

In other words: Only after Christianity was enshrined as a legal religion, and then the official religion, in the Empire was the Church able to attract the great masses of ordinary men and women. By converting power and enmeshing itself with a great civilization, the Christian religion became “more fully itself,” as Daniélou put it: a religion of the masses, a Church of the poor (the material poor, as well as the spiritual). I simply don’t see why a similar dynamic shouldn’t bear fruit for the Church today.

Perhaps this is a chicken-or-egg problem. But I remain convinced that the politics-first side of the debate rests confidently on Christian history.

Ecclesial Thinking

From one student of Webster’s to another, I wish to thank Michael Allen for his analysis of Webster’s contribution to the theological enterprise (“Theological Theology,” November). As Allen rightly notes, Webster was an expositor and dogmatic theologian. His own creativity stemmed from his position that “theology is not free speech but holy speech” bound to the gospel and under the authority of the church, the communion of the saints.

Yet Allen seems to miss Webster’s constant attentiveness to the church as the locus of theology. Ecclesiology ties together Webster’s 1996 lecture on “theological theology” and his later attentiveness to exposition and commentary as theological genres developed within the communion of saints. He defined the church as “Christian culture” in his 1998 lectures and then refined this definition over the course of his career. Exposition and commentary are not so much major themes as theological genres cultivated within the realm of the church as the place of holy reason. Webster’s 1996 lament over the loss of Bildung as formation through a canon and within a culture has its counter in his development of holiness and his claim that Christian theological reasoning is an exercise in holiness with a view to the contemplative vision of God.

This only makes sense in light of Webster’s constant assertion that theological thinking is “ecclesial thinking and knowledge.” Even in his final publications, Webster continued to talk about a “theological culture” or the church as a society with a common life and culture established by God’s self-­communicative presence. Thus, what Allen describes as Webster’s turn to tradition and a theology of ressourcement is a feature of his decision, over against Keith Ward and others at Oxford, to ­define theological theology as a science that gazes upon the active presence of God and occurs within a culture that “precedes and encloses reflective theological inquiry.” To see ecclesiology as an overarching theme in Webster’s theology is to particularize him as an Anglican (of a Barthian bent) who sees his own theological discourse as emerging from the living communion of saints that is Christian culture, whether patristic, medieval, or reformed.

Dale M. Coulter
virginia beach, virginia

Michael Allen replies:

Dale Coulter says that ecclesiology was an “overarching theme in Webster’s theology” and is missed in my introductory essay. I surely agree that this is a recurring theme in Webster’s work, appearing explicitly as the focus of quite a few essays and serving as a consistent assumption even when it at other points remained implicit.

Webster would speak frequently to theology as an ecclesiastical activity, and even his reflections on how theology functioned in the university (another frequent concern) assumed that such theologians brought their ecclesiastically formed identity to bear on their vocation in the wider academy. That remains an important emphasis in contemporary theology, though we now face the challenge that oftentimes ecclesiastical settings have been so shaped by nontheological disciplines that they lack much of a doctrinal voice to offer to the academy. All the more reason to consider the calling of “theological theology” for both academy and, yes, within the church. We will surely benefit from further engagements with Webster’s ecclesiology; I’ll mention that Joseph Mangina has prepared an excellent essay on the church for a forthcoming book, A Companion to the Theology of John Webster.

I’ll add only that matters are far worse than Dale Coulter suggests in terms of what my essay does not cover. Not only ecclesiology but also a distinctly theological anthropology runs through Webster’s corpus. Further, a cluster of commitments regarding Holy Scripture (understood in a Protestant vein) also shape his work in each of its phases. My essay gives but meager nods in any of these three directions, but that’s the nature of introductions and, of course, Webster himself regularly noted that one needn’t say everything every time one seeks to say something. For those who might wish a ­lengthier and more textured entryway to Webster’s theology, I would suggest a volume I’ve just published, The T & T Clark Reader to John Webster, which includes essays on ecclesiology, anthropology, and Scripture. I’m grateful, meanwhile, to hear others such as Coulter highlight aspects of ­Webster’s witness, which was so distinctive and moving.


We compliment “Postconstitutional America” by Nathan Pinkoski (November) for taking our teacher Harry Jaffa and West Coast Straussianism seriously. Yet Pinkoski makes certain mistakes that invite correction.

Pinkoski says that Jaffa and his students “hold” that the American constitutional regime is committed to “natural human equality.” This view was also “held” by ­Lincoln, ­Jefferson, the authors of the Federalist Papers, and indeed all of the Founders. Universally taught in American schools until recently, the principle of natural human equality animated figures from both ­Roosevelts to Coolidge to Kennedy to King. Contrary to Pinkoski’s claim, Jaffa did not “establish principles around which to rally and restore the best of the American regime.” Jaffa’s scholarship is distinguished, not by establishing, but by examining the meaning of equality within American politics.

Pinkoski also alleges that Jaffa “was less clear-eyed about what America had already become, and how it had gotten that way. Nor did he have much to say about what Americans should do to fix their country.” But Jaffa anticipated what America was becoming long before many others on the right, who contented themselves with gentle (and feckless) resistance to the left. In a 1989 essay, “The Reichstag is Still Burning,” Jaffa unmistakably describes a failing American regime.

Among other remedies, Jaffa insisted on rejecting legal positivism, which denies the natural rights foundation of the Constitution. He also believed that the regime could not be saved without the decisive victory of the Republican party over the Democratic party—and only then if the GOP readopted the principles of the Declaration of Independence, as ­Lincoln understood them.

Pinkoski writes that “West Coast Straussianism [which Jaffa founded], unlike its more circumspect East Coast counterpart, read Leo Strauss as wholly endorsing the truth of natural rights and the goodness of the American Regime.” Not quite. West Coast Straussianism did not merely follow the view of Strauss, nor is it unaware of Strauss’s subtleties. Strauss devoted his scholarship to the examination of the great thinkers in Western civilization. Jaffa applied his teacher’s insights to understanding America. He saw the crisis of the West embodied in the “Crisis of the House Divided.”

Pinkoski’s most serious error is to claim that Anton, unlike Jaffa, “­emphasizes prudence rather than principle.” Jaffa’s defense of the principle of equality deeply emphasized prudence and recognized the need for practical considerations in order to achieve justice—aptly distilled by Lincoln: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”

Glenn Ellmers
washington, d.c.
J. Eric Wise
greenwich, connecticut

Nathan Pinkoski replies:

I thank Ellmers and Wise for clarifying some generalizations in my essay. The upshot of Harry Jaffa’s scholarship examining the meaning of equality within American politics was to establish a way of understanding and defending the American Founding superior to other attempted defenses of the Founding. Jaffa exposed how many conservative “defenses” of the Founding relied on historicist assumptions. He coupled this with an accusation: Because these “defenses” were historicist, they were similar to the kinds of arguments made to justify two historicist regimes, the Confederate States of America and the Third Reich. Often, Jaffa’s polemical point was to connect these “defenses” to Calhoun and Hitler.

Perhaps our real disagreement lies in how we assess the weakness of Jaffa’s polemics. If his essay “The Reichstag is Still Burning” has a flaw, the title points to it. Jaffa’s reductio ad Hitlerum obscures the particular historicist political phenomena that transformed the American regime. Progressivism and the New Left are not the same as National Socialism. To equate them misconstrues their theoretical and practical objectives and hinders a proper response. In our own time, we see how vulgar public intellectuals misconstrue non-liberal political phenomena, because they monomaniacally compare them to National Socialism. We must be more precise. Fortunately, Jaffa’s students have for years finessed the understanding of progressivism; now, they are almost alone in grasping the revolutionary, anti-constitutional, and anti-American project of the New Left.

In contrasting prudence and principle, my point was not to suggest a separation, but rather to claim that Jaffa’s student Michael Anton focuses on what prudence requires in the changed circumstances facing America. Jaffa’s prudential considerations were not always accurate. For example, he denounced California’s Proposition 187, because he was enraptured by the mystique of Ellis Island. For Anton, this mystique and the corresponding prudential considerations were once appropriate, but no longer. While Anton’s goal remains the principle of justice, the paths to get there have definitively changed. The question Anton raises is whether Americans have the virtù to explore these new paths.


I very much appreciated Gary Saul Morson’s review of the new translation of Chekhov’s short stories (“Poet of Loneliness,” November)—not least for his clever panning of the translation, which gave me a chuckle—but also for his taking on such a large collection and giving us a glimpse of Chekhov’s depth and range as a writer.

In fact, I was particularly in need of such an overview this week, since I’ve been working on a syllabus for a class I’m teaching this winter for undergraduates on how to read fiction for its theological truths. I’m definitely going to include one of the stories Morson mentioned, though I can’t decide between “Misery” and “Enemies” at the moment. Either way, I hope my students will realize the same thing Morson gleans from the latter:

The worst evil arises not from wrong philosophy, or from ­economic exploitation, or from anything we do. No, as often as not, it arises from what we ­neglect to do, from the failure to put ourselves in another’s place when we might readily do so.

I can also imagine a lively conversation arising from a discussion of ­toska, that so-human longing for something or someone we can’t quite define but nonetheless can’t live without.

Sarah Clark
hanover, new hampshire

Gary Saul Morson replies:

Sarah Clark’s students are clearly lucky to have her as a teacher. If it is any help, my own students respond well to “Enemies,” with its appeal to seeing the world from the other’s perspective, an ability we seem to be losing.