My seven-year-old son, Peter, is a bit mischievous — and this means he occasionally finds himself in trouble at the private Christian school he attends. Second grade started a few weeks ago, and I wanted to provide him with an incentive to create a good impression on his new teacher. He is a budding guitar player, and we share a deep love of rock music. Like any good American boy, he loves the band Kiss. Conveniently, the current (last?) Kiss tour came to our city this week. The possibility of going to the Kiss show helped him get through the first weeks of school without any behavior issues. He earned the tickets that I bought.
Last weekend, at lunch, he and I wondered where Kiss would be playing before they came to our town. I whipped out my smartphone to check. As he sat beside me, I typed in KissArmy[dot]com. “Kiss Army” is a term that the band uses for its legions of fans, and I thought I remembered that they used the phrase in their web address. Imagine my surprise, then, when KissArmy[dot]com brought me to a well-known porn site called YouPorn[dot]com. Angered that my seven-year-old had received quite an eyeful (even if only for a moment), I wondered: Why would YouPorn register that particular address, knowing full well that people of all ages would likely type it into their browsers, looking for the beloved rock band? Of course, that is the reason that the porn company registered that web address: to continue to normalize hardcore pornography and to expand its exposure to everyone, regardless of age or interest. Sadly, a society that sees the porn empire as an inviolable exercise of the First Amendment is a society that doesn’t care much about its children.
This experience dramatized the contrasting views that were expressed at last week’s debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French at the Catholic University of America. This event served as an opportunity to sort out their beef, which began earlier this summer with Ahmari’s essay “Against David French-ism.” There, Ahmari argued that a politics of politeness and accommodation simply plays into the hands of an increasingly radicalized Left — especially when it comes to religious liberty and the future of the Christian ideals that have guided the life of our nation. The disagreement between French and Ahmari (at least as characterized by the latter) is essentially an argument over whether we should want an active or passive mentality on the political right. French-ism represents the cautious, deliberative, incrementalist attitude that patiently works to build consensus and win over opponents. Ahmari calls upon conservatives to understand that our opponents cannot be won over; he says we have no choice but to fight the culture war.
Porn was a topic of discussion in their debate, as were the Drag Queen Story Hours that have occurred at a number of public libraries across the country. It seems evident that French won the debate. He appeared better prepared, which makes sense given that he clearly saw Ahmari’s essay not simply as an attack on his way of doing political business but also as a rejection of the prevalence of his voice in intramural conservative debates. So, French’s rhetorical skill won the day, but that doesn’t mean his claims are better or truer. Ahmari rightly took French to task for his refusal to concede that internet porn and Drag Queen Story Hour are not isolated instances; rather, they are part of a much larger cultural project orchestrated by elites to advance a new radical set of sexual, political, economic, and spiritual values.
Ultimately, Ahmari is correct that to fail to acknowledge the ultimate aims of this cultural revolution, to fail to recognize it as a coordinated attack on conservative Christian values, is an abdication of duty. We cannot choose to live and let live — because YouPorn won’t let me enjoy rock and roll with my seven-year-old over lunch. Like French, we can valorize “viewpoint neutrality” all we want, but the most powerful forces in our culture are not neutral. They want to eliminate the Christian values that have guided Western life for a millennium and more.
The irony, of course, is that Christianity itself is indirectly responsible for creating the culture that now works to eradicate it. And this is something neither the Catholic Ahmari nor the Protestant French seem to realize. Both men denounce the way that our society fetishizes individual autonomy as the highest value of liberal democracy. And there is no question that the liberal democratic understanding of autonomy requires a rejection of Christianity. But what neither Ahmari nor French acknowledge is that the West’s sanctification of the self is itself a product of cultural Christianity. As Nietzsche documented in On the Genealogy of Morality, the ancient world had no conception of universal human dignity. The Greco-Roman world honored an ethic of power: virtue was located in one’s ability to impose his will to satisfy desire. Those who couldn’t were worth less — and, in many cases, worthless. The teachings of Jesus Christ were the origin of the modern politics of autonomy.
Jesus insisted upon the divine value of the individual. Speaking to those who dwelled at the bottom of the social hierarchy, he called them to reflection on their worth: “See the birds of the sky — that they neither sow nor reap nor gather into granaries; and your heavenly Father feeds them; are you not more excellent than they?” He continues, “But if God thus clothes the grass of the field, which exists for today and is thrown into an oven tomorrow, will he not much more clothe you, men of little faith?” The other instances of Christ’s radical egalitarianism are too numerous to cite. Of course, these affirmations of human dignity are consistently tempered by an unwavering call to individual sacrifice on behalf of others. In imitation of Christ’s sacrifice, Christian freedom was to be accomplished through kenosis — an emptying out of the self. But the Reformation and the Enlightenment ensured that the selfless themes of the New Testament were silenced in favor of a liberal politics that understood personal freedom as self-fulfillment.
As Luther demonstrated, the politicization of the church in the Middle Ages represented a departure from the personal and metanoic dimensions of Christ’s teachings. But in practice, Protestantism did much to relocate the God’s divinity to the private space of the individual. No longer was there any intermediary — no priest was needed to achieve salvation. Believers spoke directly to God. Is it any surprise that by abolishing the hierarchy, God’s response to the prayers of the individual started to sound like a mere echo (and therefore an endorsement) of his own desire? The Reformation inaugurated the self as the conduit by which one communicated with the divine. The Enlightenment took it one step further: the voice of the self was the voice of God.
Even before the Enlightenment truly got underway, thinkers like Montaigne were publishing thoughts like “I have my own laws and my own court to judge me, and I refer to these rather than elsewhere. I certainly restrain my actions out of deference to others, but I understand them only by my own light … Do not rely on their opinions, therefore; rely on your own.” This, in an essay called “On Repentance.” In a piece entitled “Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man,” the Marquis de Sade imagines a libertine who, on his deathbed, convinces a priest that the only thing he should repent of is imposing any restraint whatsoever on his personal desire. Persuaded, the priest joins the dying man in a farewell orgy. Later, Rousseau brought these ideas into the intellectual mainstream: “I have only one faithful guide on which I can count; the succession of feelings which have marked the development of my being.” And that brings us right up to 2019.
The success of the cultural Left is demonstrated by my own situation. It is not lost on me that only 40 years ago, serious Christians would more likely be protesting Kiss concerts than attending them with their children. But where does this “progress” end? The cultural permissiveness at which Christians often recoil is simply a layman’s articulation of Enlightenment philosophy. And it cannot be ignored that this philosophy was incubated in cultures that were deeply committed to Christianity. A survey of the world today shows that the societies most resolutely dedicated to individual autonomy are Western ones that were formed by Christian ideals. Can there be any doubt that the culture of autonomy that now threatens Christianity and other Western institutions is itself a product of Christianity?
In fact, the entire modern history of political thought in the West has been an attempt to institutionalize Christian ethics. One can draw a straight line from the Sermon on the Mount to the democratic dismantling of monarchy in the 18th century. Today, the entire ethical structure of leftism (relieving poverty, care for the strangers in our gates, generosity, sympathy for the afflicted, etc.) is drawn from Christianity. It remains to be seen whether those values can function in a secular context without an appeal to a transcendent God. But it is important to understand that the Left’s embrace of those values derives from a will to maximize the individual autonomy of those who have the least of it. Socialism, communism, capitalism, New Age religion, and all manner of wokeness — for better or worse, they extend from the same Christian impulse.
It is certain that the American Left’s pursuit of individual autonomy is a threat to both Christianity and the principles of the American founding. But it is also clear that contemporary liberalism (on the right and the left) has nothing to offer except individual autonomy. So what to do? It is important to note that individual autonomy isn’t a bad thing. But when it becomes the ultimate end to which everything — art, community, family, education, labor, Disney movies — must prostrate, we end up with a profoundly irreverent society. That society is one that is inhospitable to dignity, respect, and toleration as they have been traditionally understood.
Three centuries after the Enlightenment, we can see the frightening end of autonomy as a political project. The question for us is how to silence today’s liberal democracy in its shrill refrain: “Me, me, me, me, me, me!” For Christians, it is instructive to recall Jesus’s strident rejection of politics. This is summed up best in his call to “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” but it is also underscored by the fact that Jesus was acutely aware that his Messiahship looked much different than the political salvation the Jews had expected.
We find ourselves in a double bind. In fighting radical autonomy, Christians find themselves in opposition to a secular, political distortion of Christian doctrine. But, further, to assure a space for the exercise of their faith, Christians conservatives find themselves called to a fight that Jesus himself seemed to have little interest in fighting. I don’t have a plan for how to proceed, but the dimensions and stakes of these realities suggest that Ahmari rightly perceives a crisis that the Right must address with some urgency. The predictable, toothless, polite, erudite response to this moment — the kind that Ahmari rightly or wrongly ascribes to French — might feel like the moral high ground. But it is whistling past the graveyard. And it’s the job of the living to avoid being buried.
Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of rhetoric at the University of Houston — Downtown. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released in early 2020 by Penn State University Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.