The Church Needs Both the Winsome and the Winners

The Baptism of Kievans, a painting by Klavdiy Lebedev.

By John Zmirak Published on June 10, 2019

The battle between David French and Sohrab Ahmari is proving productive. Each has a piece of the truth. French clings to the useful elements of the moderate, Scottish Enlightenment that infused the American founding. Ahmari rightly insists that the long heritage of Christendom that came before it (and planted its seeds) also has much to teach us. Last week, I registered my complaints about some of Ahmari’s First Things allies, who (unlike him) reject private property, our founding and religious freedom. In my last column, I pointed out how French makes a clay-footed idol of classical liberalism in its current, degenerate form.

So I’m just here to tick off everybody, ain’t I?

No Catholic Sharia, Thanks!

Well, I do feel called to correct my allies when they lurch toward self-caricature. Or grab one piece of a complex truth and mistake it for the whole. (A very human failing, of which I’ve been guilty, too.) I am glad that my warning seems to have echoed in one or two places. Jonathan Last at The Bulwark used the term “Catholic sharia,” which I coined here at The Stream to warn against “Catholic integralism.” And Rich Lowry took seriously the ugliness of that ideology in his recent column. He raises some thoughtful criticisms of Ahmari and pro-Trump Christians.

In practical terms, that means that the church claims the right of Cardinal Cupich to lock up Franklin Graham for heresy, any time he visits Chicago. We just choose not to exercise such a right, for the moment.

I want to take time here to offer Lowry a serious answer.

Lowry is right that it’s ludicrous for Catholics to imagine that an intolerant form of our faith could ever dominate America. It’s not clear that our faith right now even dominates Vatican City. The U.S. Catholic vote is not reliably pro-life, unless you define “Catholic” narrowly enough that the numbers quickly plummet. As I told my friend Eric Metaxas a few weeks ago, the arguments of conservative Catholics have as much influence on the “Catholic vote” as the writings of monks on Mt. Athos exert on Greek voters in Queens.

Let’s leave aside the practical question, however. Is it even right morally to fantasize about imposing Catholic orthodoxy by force? The brainiest integralist, First Things’ Thomas Pink, thinks he has found a loophole in Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty. The state can no longer coerce all baptized Christians to hew to Catholic doctrine on pain of imprisonment. But the Church still can! Catholic bishops, in theory, have the right to silence non-Catholic preaching using force. In practical terms, that means that the Church claims the right of Cardinal Cupich to lock up Franklin Graham for heresy, any time he visits Chicago. We just choose not to exercise such a right, for the moment.

Yes, this all sounds nuts. And it’s alarming that an intellectual magazine like First Things is giving a platform to people who seem to have misread the novel A Confederacy of Dunces as a political manifesto.

Time to Defend and Enforce the Natural Law

Lowry is right to point all this out. But he goes too far, as David French does habitually. Lowry writes:

[Ahmari] argues that conservatives should give up on defending a neutral public square and instead “impose our order and our orthodoxy.”

This would seem a fierce rallying cry in the culture war, but really — like the denunciations of the American political order from a smattering of Catholic writers — comes from a place of despair that, if acted on, would promise only futility.

The animating insight of the “post-liberal” writers and their allies seems to be: We are losing the culture war so badly that the only option left is to impose our values on everyone else. How will they do that? Good question! We’ll get back to you after we are done savaging our allies. …

This hardly sounds like a winning formula.

Two things Lowry misses. It’s hardly his fault, since Ahmari’s integralist allies miss it too.

It’s one thing to use the force of law to impose truths that only faith can grant, as a gift of grace from God. Truths like, for all Christians, the Trinity, and for Catholics, the authority of the pope. We cannot demand that all men recognize such truths, since we can’t read God’s mind. We don’t know which men got the grace of faith, or when they got it. So it violates simple justice to demand of someone what you can’t know he’s capable of offering.

It’s quite a different kettle of fish to demand, and use the law to impose, basic truths of natural law. Jews, Catholics and (most) Protestants all agree that the laws “written on the human heart” are knowable to all. So it’s our job to make the case for them, and where fitting write laws that assert and support these truths. Such as, most obviously, the sanctity of innocent life. And, as was obvious till five minutes and a 5-4 court decision ago, the nature of marriage.

Natural Law Is Our Only Anchor

There’s nothing “dogmatic” or un-American about doing that. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. cited natural law as his basis for flouting immoral Jim Crow statutes. The abolitionists cited natural law (alongside the Bible) in arguing against slavery. The American founders spoke of “nature’s God” and “nature’s laws” to justify independence from Britain.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. cited natural law as his basis for flouting immoral Jim Crow statutes. The Abolitionists cited natural law (alongside the Bible) in arguing against slavery. The American founders spoke of “nature’s God” and “nature’s laws” to justify independence from Britain.

So we must indeed impose order and orthodoxy on the public square. But it’s unjust to go any further than natural law takes us. It’s equally unjust not to go far enough. Yes, atheists and materialists and heretical post-Christians will reject many tenets of natural law. But we know a) that they’re wrong and b) that they should know better, since that law is already written on their hearts. Religious freedom as our founders conceived it doesn’t cover rejecting the natural law. If it did, then we’d have had no good moral arguments against slavery or segregation.

Winsomeness or Winningness?

Now we get to the real sticking point, which is Donald Trump and pro-Trump Christians. David French seems to think that the only way it’s right for Christians to advocate the natural law is through winsomeness. We have to win our enemies over by gentleness, warmth, and persuasion. If we show too much grit, or steel, we’ll just make ourselves repulsive.

But that’s not true in politics or even in Church history. Yes, the winsome example of the civil rights demonstrators helped dismantle American racism. Up to a point. Beyond that point, it required federal marshals, the National Guard, and the blunt force of law. Because people aren’t only won over by winsomeness. They’re equally drawn to winners. And once it was clear that the anti-segregation forces were winning, people didn’t want to be left with the losers.

This is also true in the history of the Church, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. The Franks rejected Arianism which denied the divinity of Christ … once they saw their king do so. The Russians rejected human-sacrificing paganism, once their Prince Vladimir chose baptism. They flocked into the river after him. (See this column’s illustration.) Why? Because they saw that Christianity was winning. They were drawn to the charisma of what seemed like a conquering force.

As long as we stay far short of compelling people to make acts of faith, there’s nothing wrong with this strategy, either. God made us to follow leaders, and be drawn to the truth when it prevails.

So if we align with Donald Trump because he helps us defend certain key tenets of natural law, and he wins because his populism and nationalism attract people? That makes natural law appealing to people, as the bite of the Civil Rights Act made racism repulsive. If Trump were to finally resolve the immigration crisis, that would be a great win for America as a nation. It would also cast a little reflected glory on his Christian allies.

We must count in the balance the potential benefit of appearing as winners, and actually winning some battles. Men like French seem to write all that off, and only concern themselves with the possible scandal of being linked to a rough-and-tumble politician. To which I’d answer that the Church benefited hugely from its happy link with Constantine. The Reformers and Counter-Reformers didn’t think their witness vitiated when blood-stained knights took up their causes. (This is true even though those worldly rulers and warriors sometimes overstepped the moral law.)

As Christians we’re called to contemplate Jesus on the Cross. But also, and finally, Jesus victorious at the Second Coming, as the Just Judge of the Universe.

In the end, he’s a King, not a victim.


John Zmirak is Senior Editor at The Stream. And co-author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration. Follow him on Twitter @jzmirak. Follow The Stream @streamdotorg.

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