Sohrab Ahmari and David French finally faced off live at Catholic University of America Thursday evening, moderated by Ross Douthat.
In debating terms, it was no contest: French cleaned up. In fairness to Ahmari, his wife had a child on Wednesday, so he had things on his mind more important than a mere livestreamed national debate of sorts.
But again and again, French, in good Evangelical style, spoke of the freedom to preach the Gospel in a content-neutral public square, to lead drag queens to Jesus, and such. That’s pretty consistent with the forward-facing values of ADF, the Evangelical-leaning public-interest law firm for or with whom he formerly worked.
It started to sound as obsessive as Ahmari’s concern over Drag Queen Story Hour. So I was glad to see Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy argue for something a bit thicker than mere neutrality:
For most of the … campus ministries at Nebraska, …universities were convenient social institutions because they rounded up a large number of demographically similar young people into a single place where they would have broadly identical routines, all of which made it very easy to evangelize them. Many of these groups did not think anything of taking their students away from campus regularly on retreats, heavily programming their weeks (thereby cutting into their time to give to their studies), and even sometimes suggesting that their academic work was of mostly incidental importance. The real life happened in Bible studies and when you prayed and over coffee with your discipler or disciplee. College, much like one’s eventual career, was mostly a necessary evil that simply secured material goods for you.
While watching the French-Ahmari debate last night it occurred to me that French seems to have a fairly similar vision of the nation—it’s an incidental good that is useful for advancing certain strictly material goods but it pales in significance when set next to the work of the church …
The point is not necessarily that French should endorse some species of integralism, although it is worth noting that in his handling of rights and the nature of religious doctrine as it relates to public life French is far closer to the Baptists than he is the traditional views of the reformed tradition to which he belongs. But that point aside, French could preserve many of the rights he cares about preserving while anchoring his account of the political in something more real than the pragmatic adjudication of disputes within a pluralistic society.
… That the government could be something more than a mere arbiter who threatens to hit you in the head with a brick if you don’t play nicely with your neighbor seems to be unimaginable ….
There’s much more Jake wrote, but you can go read it yourself readily enough.
By lifelong habit and inititating into the solemn mysteries of “thinking like a lawyer,” I don’t suppose I’ll ever be able to leave the camp of classical procedural liberalism, but the Ahmaris and Meadors of the world at least drive home that there are trade-offs in our pluralistic experiment.
* * * * *
[O]nce you say you are ashamed,
reading the page they hold out to you,
then such light as you have made
in your history will leave you.
They will no longer need to pursue you.
You will pursue them, begging forgiveness,
And they will not forgive you.
There is no power against them.
It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach ….
Wendell Berry, Do Not Be Ashamed
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