The discussions surrounding Sohrab Ahmari’s salvo against David French have generated much heat—but whether they have produced much light is debatable.
While I agree with Ahmari and First Things colleagues and friends that expressive individualism lies at the heart of our current problems, I do not think there is any clear way out of this dilemma. Expressive individualism is a universal condition in the West. As “gravity” is an accurate explanation of why the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11 and yet offers no real insight into the events of that day, so decrying individualism does not explain why some identity choices—homosexual or transgender—are acceptable, while others—traditional Roman Catholic or conservative Protestant—are not.
We are all now subject to expressive individualism. To be Roman Catholic today is a choice, even for cradle Catholics. Ahmari’s own story is remarkable and one for which I give thanks. But at its heart lies a choice: the decision to express himself as an individual through a Roman Catholic identity. He happens to have chosen an identity that is increasingly unacceptable in our world, but he has nonetheless made the choice.
As Charles Taylor has argued, the rise of expressive individualism is connected to the breakdown of old, honor-based medieval hierarchies and the rise of an egalitarian emphasis on the universal dignity of all human beings. Christians should welcome this. The idea that we are all made in the image of God is vital to Christian ethics, especially in connection to the unborn, the vulnerable, and the infirm. This should temper any nostalgia we have for the pre-modern world, where such universal dignity was not practically acknowledged, and also lead us to reflect on how we might affirm such universal dignity without the problems of expressive individualism.
I suspect that expressive individualism merely provides the general plausibility structure of the specific problems we face. That it has taken on the aggressive form of sexual identity politics is not a necessary concomitant of such but rather the result of a confluence of various social, cultural, and historically contingent conditions. The real problem is the abolition of the pre-political, that we now operate in a society where everything has been politicized and where (in the United States at least) this total politicization of culture finds its resolutions not through the ballot box, but through the judicial branch of government.
This has two obvious effects. First, it renders the idea that we can have a confident pluralism of the kind advocated by thoughtful and decent men such as David French and John Inazu a practical impossibility. The politicization of everything means that all disagreements will be cast in moral terms, a simple clash of good and evil, which makes dialogue impossible.
Second, the increasing focus on the judiciary makes for an atmosphere where politeness, respect, and decency simply carry no weight. When the judiciary plays the decisive role in the most pressing social decisions of the day, this fuels further social division by effectively bypassing the democratic process. When five Supreme Court justices can decide the fate of a nation on divisive issues, then those issues simply become yet more divisive as the “losers” lose all confidence that their voices will be heard. When one side loses at the ballot box, accepting the result is the price of living in a democracy. When one side loses in the Supreme Court, it feels utterly disenfranchised.
Another aspect of the Ahmari-French clash is the suspicion that there is a cabal of Roman Catholic intellectuals who want to take America back to the European Middle Ages, where the Church and state operated hand-in-glove. Some Roman Catholics have aspirations in that direction, but there is no cause for widespread secular alarm. A Church that has proved incapable of persuading most of its baptized membership (and even members of its own hierarchy) to take its Catechism seriously is scarcely on the brink of a theocratic coup.
And Protestantism is no better. The mainline churches are merely a reflection of secular values in religious dress (albeit typically a day late and a dollar short). Conservative evangelicalism as a national movement is, at leadership level, a battleground of competing egos and, at institutional level, wrestling with abuse scandals. In a democracy, groups need to be plausible to the electorate to win votes; neither Roman Catholicism nor conservative Protestantism have that kind of public plausibility and likely will never have it. Further, the social, cultural, and technological conditions that made medieval Christendom possible are long gone. Integralism is an intellectual’s pipe dream, not a practical political vision.
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.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor in the Calderwood School of Arts and Humanities at Grove City College, Pa., and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.