A debate billed as a major showdown between competing visions of religious conservatism Thursday night revealed, more than anything, the profound fear that drives the “culture war” on the right: that Christians will face literal extermination at the hands of Democrats if Republicans lose power.
That’s not just a metaphor: One side, represented by a prominent Catholic journalist, warned, in apparent seriousness, of a future in which Christians are thrown to the lions, as in ancient Rome, with Bernie Sanders playing the role of the emperor Nero.
Several hundred people packed a large hall inside the Catholic University of America in Northeast Washington, D.C., to hear National Review writer David French face off against Sohrab Ahmari, the editor of the New York Post’s op-ed page.
“This is a big deal,” said moderator Ross Douthat, the well-known conservative columnist for the New York Times, as he opened up the evening, dubbing it the “melee at CUA.” (The other nickname for the event was “The Thrilla at the Basilica.”)
Douthat emphasized that the disagreement between Ahmari and French — which began as an online spat in late May — might seem academic or inconsequential. But as often happens, the fiercest debates take place between those with similar beliefs who disagree over how best to advance them.
Ahmari, a 34-year-old Iranian immigrant who converted to Catholicism three years ago, has adopted an apocalyptic approach to the culture war against secular liberalism. He wrote in May that “progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions.”
“Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values,” Ahmari wrote, and he wrote in that column that French’s approach was a defeatist’s strategy.
French, a 50-year-old constitutional lawyer, a recipient of the Bronze Star for his military service in Iraq, and a fierce critic of President Trump, has argued that civility and free speech are central values to American flourishing and are in fact a part of Christian duty.
It wasn’t a sleepy affair. The debate between the two “discussants,” as Douthat called them, reached a fever pitch that ultimately led to a heated personal exchange.
But Ahmari was not an equal match for French. And so the most revealing moment came when Ahmari complained about conservatives who oppose Trump and claim that support for him damages the credibility of the Christian message.
“In a certain kind of ‘What about our Christian witness all the time,’ behind it the unspoken assumption is we should take this because that’s the path of martyrdom,” Ahmari said.
By “take this,” he was referring to the central question of the night, which was how Christians should respond to those who disagree with their views, and who in their view often try to bully, intimidate and coerce them into disavowing their beliefs on cultural issues.
Ahmari talked about “martyrdom” in the United States as if the execution of Christians for their religious beliefs was a real danger. “Now there are people who are called to that, and they’ll face it when it happens and they should,” Ahmari said of martyrdom. “And there are also religious people here … priests and so forth, who are called to this sort of heroic life. But we shouldn’t want that for all Christians while we have political agency.”
Ahmari referred to the practice in ancient Rome of Christians being led into the Colosseum to die at the hands of wild animals. “We should try to forestall the Colosseum. So that means not Bernie Sanders,” he said.
French was amused. “Do you think Bernie Sanders would bring the Colosseum? He doesn’t even have a plan to deal with Mitch McConnell,” French said, referring to the Republican Senate majority leader.
But apparently, at least one member of the audience agreed with Ahmari. The first person to ask a question said, “I think socialism is the Colosseum. Rounding up Christians.”
It was an uncommonly frank window into the pronounced fears of religious conservatives that led many to overlook Trump’s personal conduct and his lack of preparation for the presidency, seeking safety behind his pledges to protect them from the left.
French has been one of the most outspoken critics of this approach. He even considered running for president against Trump in the 2016 Republican primary. French argued throughout the night that he had personally fought in the courts for years on behalf of free speech rights that extended the rights of conservative Christian groups around the country, and that his Christian faith — and pragmatism — compelled him to defend these rights for all points of view.
He also charged that the “idea that civility should be a second order value is not biblical.” The commands of Christ to love one’s enemy and to show kindness and charity to others, he said, “are fundamental moral obligations that have eternal resonance.”
And French said that those like Ahmari, who have supported Trump to protect them from a supposed coming persecution, are like those who charge the cockpit of an airplane, believing the pilot intends to use the plane as a weapon of terror, and kill the pilot, only to find out the plane was merely experiencing a little turbulence.
Throughout the night, French cited specific legal cases and laws to buttress his arguments, while Ahmari brought up anecdotes such as a news article about a “drag queen story hour” at a public library in Sacramento, Calif.
Ahmari said “drag queen story hour” was “a global movement” that “is a threat and it is demonic.” He described in detail how children in Britain were instructed in “twerking” at one such event, quoting the drag queen who ran it: “You just move your bum up and down like that.”
This was evidence, Ahmari said, of a “cultural crisis and a moral emergency.”
Ahmari proposed that Republican senators hold a hearing “on what’s happening in our libraries” and “make the head of the Modern Library Association or whatever sweat.” (There is no such thing as the Modern Library Association. He most likely meant the Modern Language Association, a frequent target on the right.) And he proposed the passing of “local ordinances” to make it illegal to hold “drag queen story hour” events in public spaces.
French said this would run afoul of the First Amendment, and ridiculed Ahmari’s claim that he wanted to go on offense rather than simply adopt a defensive posture.
“That’s not offensive. That’s stupid,” French said.
At the end of the night, Ahmari provoked a bitter personal exchange that drew outrage from French. Ahmari charged that if French had been president when Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was nominated, he wouldn’t have stood by him like President Trump did.
“You talk to me about courage when you’ve walked with your boots on Iraq sand,” said French.
Ahmari responded with the implication that French was exaggerating the danger he had faced as a judge advocate in the U.S. Army Reserve. “You were a JAG right?” Ahmari said.
French called this attack “disgusting” and continued to berate Ahmari after the event ended a few minutes later.
Ahmari apologized on Twitter a little over an hour after the event ended.
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