The Supreme Court building in Washington in May. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)
Columnist

If you want to understand the current fractures in the conservative movement, you should watch the Sept. 5 debate at the Catholic University of America in Washington between Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor of the New York Post, and David French, a writer for National Review.

The debate sprang from an essay, “Against David French-ism,” that Ahmari published in First Things in May. Ahmari attacked a style of politics he attributed to French as too focused on procedural niceties and compromise, rather than protecting civilization from its enemies. Ahmari wants to use the power of the state against the left, in the way that the power of nonstate institutions is now leveraged against the right. 

French, though personally a social conservative, made the classical liberal argument that any powers the right grants itself will eventually be deployed against it by the left. He wants a negotiated peace that would carve out space in American life for both religious liberty and secular progressive values.

There is little question that French won the debate; he was better prepared, with a better grasp of the mechanics of policy. Ahmari had little in the way of an actionable plan, other than suggesting that Republican senators could interrogate librarians who offer drag queen story hours. That isn’t a policy agenda, or even a skeletal framework upon which such a thing might be built.

Yet even agenda-less Ahmari-ism galvanizes many social conservatives, especially younger ones. Ahmari highlights the thing they most fear: the relentless leftward shift of virtually every culturally powerful institution, increasingly including corporations. These social conservatives believe the left will use that cultural and economic power to proselytize their children for a sort of hypersexualized secular faith — and to cleanse the resisters from both the public square and the economic mainstream.

Those fears are often exaggerated, yet not utterly unfounded. If you’d told me 10 years ago that same-sex marriage meant evangelical Christian bakers might be legally required to cater gay weddings, I would have rolled my eyes at such hysterical conservative propaganda. Post-Obergefell v. Hodges, the default left-wing position seems to be that you cannot shun gay weddings and continue to own a bakery, or work as a tech CEO

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union went after Catholic hospitals for refusing to provide abortions, and companies have threatened to boycott states that sided with conservatives in the conflict between LGBTQ rights and religious liberty.

So it’s not unreasonable for social conservatives to worry about a more European or Canadian future, in which nurses are told to supervise abortions or stop being nurses, doctors are forced to refer patients for abortion or euthanasia, and religious schools are told to give up either the religion or the school.

You can believe that French-ism is superior to Ahmari-ism in principle and practice, while also recognizing its utter dependence on a good-faith negotiating partner. For the center-right to hammer out a peace the religious right can live with, it needs a counterpart on the left that can stand up to its illiberal flanks and deliver a deal.

Today, that portion of the center-left is small and quiet. The large remainder too often goes along with the illiberals — either loudly out of conviction or quietly out of fear. As long as that’s true, and as long as left-wing hegemony persists over key economic and cultural institutions, many social conservatives will understandably view French’s procedural liberalism as a guide to losing gracefully.

A principled argument can be made that conservative Christians should be prepared for just such a loss, rather than trying to force what is now a minority opinion on the emerging secular majority. If the mainstream shuns them, they can withdraw into insular religious communities, as ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Amish have done, exchanging mainstream socioeconomic status for a space where their faith can thrive. This is hardly a prescription for doom; these are among the fastest-growing demographics in the country.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to argue persuasively that someone else should abandon the benefits of mainstream life in defending their convictions. Not when that argument just happens to be the one that will best endear you yourself to the emerging powers that be. Procedural liberals will ultimately be forced into a purely tactical argument: Given declining religiosity, if you make it “us” or “them,” “them” will probably carry the day.

Even more unfortunately, no one ever won hearts and minds by pointing out the best way to lose, no matter how empirically or logically impeccable the arguments for surrender. If we procedural liberals can’t bring our left-wing counterparts to the negotiating table, the future of the right probably belongs to a muscular populism that can hold out hope for social conservatives. Even if it’s a false one.

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