En route to the Sohrab Ahmari/David French debate at Catholic University last eve, I had my own brief debate with the Uber driver over legalized prostitution. The Washington, D.C. city council is debating a legalization proposal. Street walkers and open brothels, although illegal, operated very openly in DC for decades. The Uber driver recalled that the first mayor succeeding the corrupt Marion Barry greatly increased the fines for prostitutes, which incentivized their departure from DC streets.
But the driver said he’s asked frequently by out-of-town passengers for referrals to call girls. He declines but says other drivers oblige. Since prostitution continues regardless, although now largely out of sight, the driver favors legalization, regulation, and taxation.
I disagreed, saying much of prostitution is about the trafficking of underage girls. It’s exploitation, not commerce. And although prostitution will always exist, its criminalization helps contain it. No less importantly, it messages societal disapproval. The law is a teacher.
Neither of us persuaded the other. But the exchange was an appropriate preamble to the Ahmari/French debate. Ahmari wants Christians to wage culture wars more fiercely, envisions the state more assertively enforcing morality, and is not confident that liberal democracy is best suited for seeking the highest societal good. French advocates civility, believes liberal democratic institutions are best suited for protecting what Christians cherish on earth, and is less confident in the state’s capacity to legislate morality reliably and helpfully.
Ahmari has highlighted as modern decadence Drag Queen Story Hours, in which drag queens read children’s books to juveniles at public venues including libraries so as to mainstream gender bending. Last eve he warned that this movement now has 35 chapters in America, which French dismissed as hardly a major force in a nation of over 320 million. America has always had unsavory groups, he said. More importantly, he said, viewpoint neutrality by government legally protects Christians and others having their own access to public venues. Ahmari derided such neutrality, preferring government partiality towards traditional religion and morality.
From Ahmari’s perspective, French wants an open market place society in which religion and morality are treated neutrally alongside unbelief and vice. From French’s perspective, Ahmari unrealistically wants government to safeguard and promote religion and morality.
In actual policy, French and Ahmari are not that far apart. They both want legal protections for the unborn. They want religious freedom protected. Neither thinks the law should protect pornography. Both disapprove same-sex marriage. Both likely approve the civil religion tradition of state reference to God as author of justice and liberty.
French denied his differences with Ahmari reflect Protestant/Catholic theological disagreements. But Ahmari insisted they did, asserting that historic Christianity is more willing to mobilize state power. Yet French also favors state action against vice. Although not discussed, no doubt French and Ahmari agree prostitution should be illegal, both because it entails trafficking minors and is intrinsically degrading to human dignity, as biblical religion teaches.
The divide between French and Ahmari is maybe not so much Protestant/Catholic as Thomist/Augustinian. The former school, focused on natural law and church authority, often has more confidence about building the semblance of a righteous society. The latter, more focused on humanity’s fallen nature, is less trusting of church or state reliably sustaining virtue and true religion in society.
Too bad the Uber driver did not attend last eve’s debate. Presumably he’d have sided with French’s preference for the liberties, within limits, sustained by liberal democratic institutions. And he would see that perspective affirming his belief that prostitution, although unfortunate, is inevitable and so should be legalized, regulated and taxed.
But I would counter, with which French presumably would agree, that even liberal societies, to sustain humane values, which are ultimately derived from biblical religion, must discourage and contain vice, even while admitting that vice is persistent in our fallen world.
Ahmari believes American society is more prone than ever to vice, with Drag Queen Story Hours in mind. But like the Uber driver, I recall DC in the 1980s, when only a few blocks from the White House, brothels and bath houses openly and uncontroversially hosted anonymous trysts at mid-day, as indifferent downtown office workers streamed by outside.
The old days were not necessarily better or worse. They were different, but they also were like today, as vice and virtue always dwell together, so long as Providence permits.