To read the news the morning after Christian writers David French and Sohrab Ahmari’s Thursday night debate, you’d think the question of how American Christians can resist government persecution is over: Courtroom wrangling trounced a proposed broader role for government power on questions of morality. The battle is won.
But outside Washington, D.C., that just doesn’t seem the case.
Take the infamous case of Sweet Cakes bakery, which was forced to close after the state levied a $135,000 fine for not decorating a cake for a gay wedding. Six years later, they’re still fighting the state to be made whole. This, after the currently conservative Supreme Court kicked the case back to Oregon to reconsider. In August, they began their fight to be granted a “religious exemption” from the state to be Christians in America. Their business is still shuttered. “The [state’s] goal is to rehabilitate” them. Now this is their life.
Sitting senators are testing Christian nominees for their faith in Christ. The Knights of Columbus are labeled an extremist organization by elected federal officials. In Massachusetts, Illinois, California and Washington, D.C., Christian adoption services have already had to close their doors to children and families in need. Maybe New York, where an adoption agency is suing, will win a merciful exemption to be Christian in America.
The federal government sued a Christian funeral home that fired a funeral director who said they’re transgender, a case now pending before the Supreme Court.
A municipal agency investigated a Christian battered women’s shelter that refused to admit a man who identified as a woman. The shelter prevailed in court, but it is foolish to ignore that they, like all the other victors here, should not have to sue for this day.
Tired of all the winning?
And why are the once-proud-owners of Sweet Cakes still fighting after their case got to the Supreme Court? Because they had the grave misfortune of reaching the Promised Land two months after the left had shifted from record-mining to Christian-testing to full-fledged character assassination against Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and eight months after the court had ruled on Masterpiece Cakeshop. So the court wanted to lay low, keep their poll numbers up, maintain credibility.
It makes sense. In an age when authority of nearly all kinds is polling abysmally low, the weakest branch doesn’t really, truly, actually have much power beyond its perceived credibility, which is being severely tested by progressive ideas for “rehabilitating” them next.
And so Aaron and Melissa Klein, who wanted to bake cakes, will face two more years of grueling, losing court battles in the hope the ivory gates will be open next time.
So did Jack Phillips over at Masterpiece, at least, get some of this winning?
Narrowly, kind of, sort of. The court said a Colorado bureaucrat behind their troubles had displayed explicit animus toward Christians during official proceedings, so the state’s case against Christianity was tainted. If you didn’t catch that, there’s a lesson in there for municipal state agencies: Hide your bigotry. And literally three weeks after the Supreme Court ruling, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission began preliminary proceedings against him for refusing to make a cake celebrating a gender transition. He sued them in federal court, and the two reached a deal half a year later.
That’s two further rounds of litigation for Jack Phillips after he had reached the Supreme Court of the United States of America.
None of this protects him from LGBT patrons suing him for being a Christian. He estimates he’s lost 40 percent of his business. He may be in litigation for the rest of his life as a baker.
And he was a winner. For every man and woman willing to spend their youth, their prime, their dreams, their business, their privacy and their peace to be publicly scourged for Christ, how many practice their religion in private for fear of being thrown into the pit for, who knows, six years before they’re mercifully granted simple exile from the city?
But you wouldn’t know about all these “wins” in court from the coverage of Thursday’s title match debate between David French, a National Review writer, Protestant lawyer and firm defender of the classical liberal American order, and Sohrab Ahmari, a Catholic writer and opinion editor of the New York Post, and proponent of more aggressively Christian governance. (The basis of that fight is best summarized in Ahmari’s opening salvo, “Against David French-ism,” and French’s critiques of his critiques.)
“Sohrab Ahmari Is a Joke,” libertarian magazine Reason rejoiced in the morning.
“David French DESTROYS Sohrab Ahmari (and the idea of ‘illiberal conservatism’),” blared The Bulwark, a blog for under-employed tweeters.
“Sohrab Ahmari gives a great reason not to reelect Donald Trump,” wrote a young lady who graduated from college one year ago but now writes opinions at the Washington Examiner.
Case closed, bakers.
Sitting in the front row of the big fight, it was indeed hard not to see that the much more experienced French demonstrated a mastery of his own resume, which the audience was treated to in dramatic fashion. And it’s true, a sleep-deprived Ahmari, whose wife had given birth to their second child in New York City the day before and who was still wearing his hospital bracelet, didn’t make the verbal case for his thesis as forcefully as his writing does. But is this the end?
Judging simply by the few questions asked before the debate devolved into exacerbation and bruised egos, absolutely not. But stepping outside the beautiful hall at Catholic University of America and into the real world of pain, unending government-led public persecution, ruined lives and silenced faithful, it’s hard to see how French’s insistence on the courts as an impenetrable wall defending Christians holds the key.
While French has been quick to fight in courts, and keen to point to the victories won (and also write extensively on ongoing battles listed above), he seems slow to admit that the courts have their own institutional interest in self-preservation, an interest on full and terrible display in the Supreme Court’s retreat after their own tepid Masterpiece Cake ruling, and an interest felt by any victims of government repression with the ill-fortune of prostrating before the court’s mercy in months and likely years afterward.
Even Ahmari’s proposition that the U.S. Senate begin with public hearings was met with scorn by French and his allies. Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and even Big Tech might differ. But is it really laughable that the millionaire and billionaire leaders of American business, who today routinely threaten to boycott the American people, would shudder if the warm bath of peer approval was accompanied by public hearings on their anti-Christian bigotry? What if the government treated them like a company that fired someone for being, say, gay? Federal power would surely neatly raise its sword for that fight.
It’s hard to answer why, exactly, Christians who are every day the victim of government repression could not count on representation for the majority of the country at least as vigorous as an LGBT community that consists of a far, far smaller number of citizens. Does our system of federal government now demand we go beyond protecting the minority to also persecute the majority?
The soft-spoken Ahmari and a good deal of his defenders are correct on this: The defense of Christianity in America has too long been led by lawyers. The courts are dramatically insufficient to face alone the Crisis of Regimes we are experiencing, where the left and right don’t agree on the reasons for our founding, the motives of our founders, the nature of the Declaration and Constitution, a future that is just, or if America is even good at all.
To imperfectly compare ours with our country’s previous Crisis of Regimes, it’s clear that Ahmari’s defenders share certain weaknesses with slavery’s Abolitionists in their hurry to push aside established laws and even the Constitution to undo the very real wrongs in our country. But French’s defenders resemble the president who left office just before the opening of the Civil War, protesting that outside the courts, the Constitution did not give him the necessary tools to defend it.
Abraham Lincoln, of course, did not buy that the Constitution was a suicide pact, and believed leaders who value the very things both French and Ahmari cherish must move dramatically to save those things. On things legal and moral, he considered himself the Supreme Court’s equal in our constitutional structure, marshaling that co-equal authority while relentlessly laboring to persuade his countrymen on the issues of right, wrong, good and evil. He was, and still sometimes is, called a tyrant. He was not, and he was right.
Why do Christians seek “exemptions” from persecution, as if our religion holds the same moral and legal weight as the “Drag Queen Story Hour” that started the most current debate? Is what has been taken from us truly lost, or is there a real chance ground can be regained? We would do well to look to look at the suffering around us, and also to look to how Lincoln, rather than shirking the fight, aggressively defended the American Union by all just means necessary. A path of moral relativism will lead only to disaster.
America is not where it was when Lincoln assumed the presidency, but the seeds of that terrible war, the complete and total breakdown of a shared national history, documents, meaning and symbols, are ripe. Far from settled last week, I fear the real war hasn’t begun.
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