A Complaint Against Liberal Modernity, and a Solution: Faith

This crowded menu is set out in short chapters headed by punchy questions: “Is God reasonable?” for example, or “Is sex a private matter?” Ahmari answers each with the help of an exemplary life. This can work well when his subject’s biography bears visibly on the topic. On the need for daily prayer and sabbath observance, we meet an American professor of Jewish mysticism; on ritual and religion, we are introduced to a British cultural anthropologist. The device works badly with great philosophers or religious thinkers whose subtle works are cherry-picked for counter-liberal ammunition. Augustine’s thoughts on church and state, Aquinas’s on what theology owes to philosophy, Newman’s on freedom of thought and papal authority. These topics are not illuminated, even in summary form, by relying on the potted life story.

Keen as he is to fight, there is much that Ahmari’s foes, whether liberal progressives or liberal conservatives, can warm to. He sees that ideas matter in politics and regrets intellectual over-specialization. He invokes religious traditions beside his chosen one, notably Judaism and Confucianism. He includes a progressive Christian, Howard Thurman, author of “Jesus and the Disinherited” (1949), which Martin Luther King admired. Ahmari opens and closes, touchingly, with a staple of moral homily: the proper upbringing of the young.

The book’s virtues, however, struggle throughout with a damaging vice: the abuse of tradition. In this, Ahmari is at least evenhanded. He caricatures not just liberalism but his own faith by attributing to it more unity, simplicity and authority than historically it has ever possessed.

He mangles the divisive 1870 Catholic battle over papal infallibility, for example, by leaving out the vocal minority of dissident bishops from France, Germany, England and the United States. He misrepresents recent Catholic neo-Thomism, a flourishing tradition well represented by the philosopher John Finnis, who taught the Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch. Finnis, like Aquinas, accepts that believers must argue with nonbelievers.

As for political liberals, Ahmari relies on parody to represent what they believe. Liberals do not set liberty against authority but against submission to arbitrary, unchecked authority. They do not set a person’s sense of themselves against community roots but against unchosen, often subordinate membership in a clan or social group. Liberal reluctance to police morals by law does not rob morals of their authority. Ahmari urges us to respect tradition but exploits it himself with polemical disregard.

Why belabor such flaws? “The Unbroken Thread” is unlikely to edify or divert readers not already persuaded by its claims. It earns notice, however, as a telling specimen of significant opinion on the American right. To steal a phrase of Newman’s, it is a “tract for the times.” After so much high-level acrobatics, it is worth returning to earth with Ahmari’s party-political vision and who he sees as his allies.

In a manifesto that bears another read, “The New American Right: An Outline for a Post-Fusionist Conservatism” in First Things (October 2019), Ahmari looked to “populist and conservative-nationalist movements on both sides of the Atlantic” to help the new right “re-erect lost barriers” after “decades of liberty without end.” The new right’s greatest priority was “to resist efforts by liberals, both progressive and conservative, to oppose by underhanded procedural means the desire voters are expressing for a politics of the common good.”

That echoes not Augustine, Aquinas or Newman but the mood music of the hard right from the past two centuries: the people in thrall to deceitful elites, awaiting deliverance by those who know and tell the truth. “Bad theology has consequences,” Ahmari tells us. So have bad ideas.

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