By Thomas Holmes
Catholic University hosted a monumental debate in Heritage Hall about the future of classical liberalism in American politics moderated by Ross Douthat. The event revolved around the ongoing debate between Sohrab Ahmari, journalist and editor for The New York Post and author of his memoir From Fire by Water, and David French, and attorney and senior writer for the National Review.
This event was hosted by the Institute for Human Ecology (IHE) on Thursday September 5. The discussion, moderated by New York Times Columnist and IHE fellow Ross Douthat, was the largest event the IHE has ever hosted, with more than 600 RSVP’s.
The crowd was made up of several students, professors, and professionals from many different fields concerned about the disappearance of classical liberalism in American politics.
“Classical liberalism is the values and principles modeled by the American founding documents,” said French.
The debate took place, in part, to reconcile a feud between Ahmari and French that was sparked by an attack on what Ahmari calls “French-ism.” Ahmari first criticized French with an article in the journal, First Things, in May.
“‘French-ism’ is a program for negotiating Christian retreat from the public square into a safe, private sphere, and I’m not ready to retreat,”said Ahmari.
Douthat introduced the two prominent authors by saying that this debate was, “an argument about the future of social and religious conservatism.”
After Douthat’s introduction, Ahmari was given the opportunity to speak first, but not after giving French a gift to show his goodwill toward his opponent.
Ahmari mentioned issues like the abortion rate in his home town, New York City, and the number of Christian men addicted to porn. He feels that these issues need to be addressed more aggressively by Christians.
French was insulted by Ahmari’s definition of “French-ism.”
“I feel the same way about that terse description of ‘French-ism’ as I felt about the extended description in First Things,” said French, “you torched a mighty nice strawman.”
French went on to explain how he felt that he has used American classical liberalism to “maintain and extend a Christian witness in hostile places in American higher education.”
The two author’s original argument stemmed from Ahmari’s reaction to an ad for “Drag Queen Story Hour” and the topic was brought up again on Thursday night. The two argued over whether or not the ad for the event was a pressing issue. Ahmari claimed that this was an important issue that needed to be addressed while French claimed there were more important problems to take care of.
At the heart of the argument, there was a discrepancy between the two authors’ interpretation of the First Amendment right to religious freedom and freedom of speech. French’s viewpoint neutral approach to the First Amendment allows for events like “Drag Queen Story Hour,” which he ideologically opposes, but it also allows him and all Christians to live their lives freely. French makes the claim that putting a ban on events that he finds immoral, like “Drag Queen Story Hour,” would encroach on local control over libraries to limit what events they hold.
Ahmari raised the point that the political right puts too much focus on lawyers and that he thinks the cultural battles need to be fought outside of the courtrooms. This point was followed by applause from the crowd.
The debate remained civil, until the question and answer portion when Ahmari made a snide comment about French’s military service. The large crowd in Heritage hall responded with booing. French,defending himself, went on for a few minutes about his service in the military and how uncalled for Ahmari’s comment was.
Ultimately, the event emphasized two different opinions on the future classical liberalism in American politics. Although the majority of people in attendance were faculty and staff, this debate marks a new way of thinking about conservatism for all Americans, including Catholic University students.