For much of their debate, hosted on Thursday at Catholic University of America, David French and Sohrab Ahmari were talking past each other.
When it comes to “civility and decency,” for instance, the two continue to operate on different wavelengths. Ahmari seems to believe “civility” is morally vacuous, often a euphemism for a woke manners system—one that requires conservatives to follow the PC rules set for them by elite liberal society. But French interprets “civility” as synonymous with “love” and “kindness.”
“The idea that civility and decency are second-order values . . . that’s not biblical,” French told Ahmari. “The command to love our enemies, the command to treat people with kindness, these things are not tactics to abandon in the face of a Hillary Clinton presidency.” Ahmari does not deny we should love our enemies (we should “love them, but also recognize them as enemies,” he said on Thursday night), but seems to suggest that loving our enemies can require being “uncivil” in the eyes of society—refusing to use preferred gender pronouns, or protesting Drag Queen Story Hours—in order to communicate difficult truths. Civility that is not ordered to actual virtues like justice and charity is no good at all.
The highlight of the debate came near the end, when French backed the seemingly “Ahmarist” positions on pornography and school prayer. Pressed by moderator Ross Douthat, French admitted that the First Amendment right to free speech does not extend to obscenities such as pornography, and that even classical liberal principles of viewpoint neutrality can protect public expressions of Christianity (prayer in the public square).
“I don’t think porn would fall inside the original intent of the First Amendment,” French said. “I think if you went to the founders and said, ‘Does the freedom of speech that is protected by the First Amendment protect pornography?,’ they would look at you like you had grown horns out of your head.” He added: “The school prayer cases are garbage jurisprudence.”
But as Douthat pointed out: “That’s Ahmari-ism, in a sense. . . . Your argument there is that the originalist interpretation of the Constitution allows for morals legislation that reflects a Christian worldview about pornography.” When all is said and done, he continued, French allows “for a much larger zone for potentially state power to regulate public morality and promote Christianity than is allowed under the current classical liberal reading of the constitution.”
“In certain areas, I would say yes,” French admitted.
The logical follow-up: If obscene pornography is not protected under the First Amendment, then why is Drag Queen Story Hour—the original issue that prompted Ahmari’s back-and-forth with French—protected? If the founders would hold that pornography should not be protected speech, would they not be similarly appalled at drag queens interacting with toddlers in public spaces funded by taxpayer dollars?
According to French, apparently not. He continues to maintain that Drag Queen Story Hours are protected under the First Amendment, that challenging them would upend the constitutional order, and that they do not violate even old-school obscenity laws. “Feel free to test it,” French said. “And you’ll find that I don’t surrender and will fight against viewpoint discrimination and public accommodations, and you’ll lose 9–0.” “Okay, go to war for Drag Queen Story Hour,” Ahmari retorted.
A larger question lurks here. If French can admit that the founders’ purportedly “viewpoint-neutral” liberal system can permit judgments regarding the good (prayer in schools, good; porn, bad), is it actually as value-neutral as classical liberals today claim? Ahmari raised this issue at one point in the evening. The documents of the founding, he said,
Assume a kind of religious horizon . . . their fundament is a view of man that is explicitly religious. From the founders to Lincoln you constantly hear talk of God and of the highest good, though they may not put it in that particular set of terms. So if that is directly attacked by the other side, which has become an explicitly secularist party . . . then you don’t have a social consensus. Let’s talk about the good. Let’s we as conservatives put forward a vision of the good that includes what the best of the founding included in it, which is that ultimately we’re subject to God and the best things come from God and ultimately we owe him a debt of gratitude—including by creating a sufficiently moral order. I don’t think the founders and the people who wrote these documents would look at the fact that hardcore pornography is a click away from my son, or the fact that children interact with drag queens and it’s celebrated . . . I don’t think they’d look at that and say, “Ah, the procedural norms we’ve set in place have worked out really well.”
When Ahmari said this, he hit on the center of the entire dispute. If the founding was not, in fact, “value-neutral,” if the founders and Lincoln referred government to a specific conception of good, then perhaps obscenities like Drag Queen Story Hour cannot be defended by invoking founding principles and purported “viewpoint neutrality.” If this question had been more central to Thursday’s debate, it might have been a more fruitful discussion. It should be central to the conversation going forward.
Ramona Tausz is associate editor at First Things.