Fear of Persecution is Not an Excuse for Christian Statism
Back at the end of May, New York Post opinion editor Sohrab Ahmari wrote the essay that launched a thousand debates when the religious journal First Things published his anti-liberal polemic entitled “Against David French-ism”. While David French is certainly no libertarian, Ahmari identified him as the poster-boy for the classical liberal ideas that he believes have led to America’s spiritual collapse and are on the verge of bringing about a wave of Christian persecution. Ahmari recently went so far as to say that Bernie Sanders, if elected president, would bring a return of “the colosseum,” a reference to the state persecution of early Christians by being fed to lions in gladiatorial games. The answer, according to Ahmari, is that Christians should work to seize the reins of state power, eliminate tolerance under the law, and then use the state to crush Christianity’s secular enemies. All of this in the name of establishing a common good that will supposedly allow for the flourishing of all.
However, there are many reasons to argue that Christian statism is not within the tradition of orthodox Christianity.
I brought Ahmari’s illiberal conservative vision to the attention of Mises readers earlier this year, and warned that attempts for Christians to seize state power would lead to disaster for themselves and everyone else due to the corrupting nature of power. However, Ahmari and his allies have only grown more agitated and vocal. Ahmari and French recently met in person for a debate to hash out their differences. As was to be expected, given the personal nature of Ahmari’s attack on French, the debate became deeply personal. Aside from the fire and fury, Ahmari once again openly demonstrated his illiberalism, with a shocking call for Christians to seize state power and abolish the legal doctrine of viewpoint neutrality when it comes to the use of public spaces. Ahmari also made known that “I am willing to ban things. Let me put it that way.”
As was inevitable, this latest exchange prompted a wave of essays and editorials for and against one side or the other. In particular, two essays at the American Conservative provides some important context that libertarians should be aware of as this deeply illiberal strain of conservatism continues to garner attention.
Responding to Ahmari, my friend Emma Ayers, the managing editor of Young Voices (a media shop I frequently write with), argued that the root of the divide between French and Ahmari is theological, rather than political in nature. French is an evangelical Protestant while Ahmari is a recent convert to a rather traditionalist form of Catholicism. Ayers pointed out that Ahmari’s vision of the role of religion in government is highly colored by his Catholic beliefs, and that such a vision for society clashes with many of the beliefs of Protestants, especially those from the Appalachian region of the south where she grew up. Inevitably then, an attempt to impose a Christian conception of the common good would be difficult since Christians themselves disagree about what exactly that would look like.
Not to worry, though, taking to Twitter, Ahmari responded to Ayers’ claims with scorn and derision, mocking Ayers and the types of Protestants she talks about as being ignorant hicks who clearly don’t know what is good for them. Such a response to criticism is emblematic of the libido dominandi or lust for power that inevitably tends to corrupt even the best intentions when it comes to using state power. Ahmari clearly believes he knows what is best, and everyone, including fellow Christians who disagree, better get in line or prepare to face the consequences once he and his ilk have (somehow) managed to take power.
In response to Ayers, Emile Doak, a development associate at the American Conservative argued that Ayers is incorrect in trying to separate theology from politics, a claim that was also raised by many of Ahmari’s Twitter compatriots. Doak argues that all politics is inherently theological in nature and that, in effect, the secular left is merely following a different liturgy and attempting to impose their own religious views upon everyone else and that they are able to do so because of the vile “individualism” that has apparently “polluted” our society. Thus, he calls for conservatives to establish a state-managed industrial policy, tariffs to protect American workers, and bans on pornography and other things that Christians disapprove of. Doak concludes that “conservatives need a better answer than proceduralism and individual autonomy—and that starts by recognizing that politics and theology are unavoidably connected.”
There can be no doubt that Christianity has historically be involved in politics, as the hundreds of years of political power and influence held by the Catholic Church demonstrates, not to mention the role that mainline Protestant denominations historically had in American politics (which ironically was used to oppress Catholics). However, this historical precedent does not necessarily translate into Christian statism being accepted as orthodox Christianity.
Indeed, Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity seems like the last person one would look to when it comes to attempts to justify establishing a Christian state on earth. For one thing, Jesus explicitly said that his “kingdom is not of this world” and that if it was his followers would have taken up arms and rebelled in order to prevent his arrest at the hands of state authorities. Jesus instructs Christians that this unearthly kingdom is supposed to be their first priority, and that as citizens of this kingdom the world will reject them and hate them as the world rejected and hated him.
Completely rejecting the forceful and implicitly-violence filled rhetoric of people like Ahmari, Jesus goes so far as to instruct his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This does not sound like the basis on which to justify seizing state power and using state violence to force people to behave and act as you think they should.
Ahmari and other illiberal Christians argue that a theocratic state is necessary for Christians to defend themselves from persecution. Yet, as mentioned above, Jesus made clear that Christians should expect to be persecuted. The apostle Peter, believed by Catholics to be the first Bishop of Rome and therefore the first Pope, even instructed Christians to be thankful that they get to suffer as Christ suffered.
In calling for his followers to be separate from this world, Jesus certainly was not calling them to engage in societal revolution to impose a common good based on the moral order. Ahmari complains a great deal about contemporary immorality, bemoaning things such as “drag-queen story hour” at libraries, abortion, and pornography. No doubt many Christians are concerned about such things. Yet, during the time period of early Christianity, the Roman Empire was filled with numerous practices that would be considered to be immoral, ranging from pederasty and slavery to brutal and cruel gladiatorial games. Yet, we do not see the early Christians launching attempts at society-wide revolution to take control of the empire and purge all immorality from public life. And in later centuries when Christians did come to hold positions of political power we see that such power tended to lead Christians astray, rather than the other way around, as the numerous scandalous Popes and various inter-Christian religious wars have amply demonstrated.
Later thinkers also rejected the idea that Christians are required to take over and enforce morality. As has been noted by Ryan McMaken, St. Augustine and St. Aquinas both rejected arguments that it was the role of the civil government to regulate private morality, with both notably rejecting the state prohibition of fornication and prostitution.
More recently, Christian humanist thinker and author C.S. Lewis summed up the issue quite succinctly when he argued that “the practical problem of Christian politics is not that of drawing up schemes for a Christian society, but that of living as innocently as we can with unbelieving fellow-subjects under unbelieving rulers who will never be perfectly wise and good and who will sometimes be very wicked and very foolish.”
Libertarian Christians should be aware that they are not compromising their beliefs or somehow acting in a way divorced from Christian history and orthodoxy when they do not join Ahmari and other illiberal Christians in their quest for power and control over non-believers. Ahmari’s clear disdain for even his fellow Christians who disagree with him should be a clear warning of the danger his Christian statism poses to not only society at large, but even other Christians.