Many of those who have come to know Sohrab Ahmari over the past few years from his populist turn toward Donald Trump and his assaults on the establishment conservative movement—a turn he took after working for COMMENTARY and upon joining the New York Post as its op-ed editor—have done so in the course of the day-to-day controversies on social media in which he has become a peculiarly acerbic presence. Those Ahmari fans will surely be surprised by his new book, The Unbroken Thread, a triumph of intellectual hagiography that leads the reader confidently into deep waters.
Its chapters are structured around the life stories, intellectual journeys, and spiritual trials of a variety of protagonists. Many of them become Christians, such as Augustine of Hippo, or the 20th-century anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner. But Ahmari also draws on Confucius and even the feminist radical Andrea Dworkin. In some ways, The Unbroken Thread is Ahmari’s sequel to his 2018 memoir of immigration and conversion, From Fire, by Water. That book traced Ahmari’s life journey across the world and a series of worldviews—a life story that exists in a paradoxical tension with the message of The Unbroken Thread.
Throughout his memoir, a change of location or profession leads almost immediately to a shift in worldview, in which Ahmari always places himself in conflict with his surroundings. From Fire, by Water begins with a childhood in revolutionary Iran. Ahmari found it backward and censorious. He sought out even the slightest hint of liberation from his native theocracy. Memorably, he smells liberation in the suitcases his grandparents brought back from their trips beyond Iran. Just a whiff of a department store called Ahmari away from the scent of stale rosewater and sand at home. He yearned for the adventure and freshness he saw portrayed in movies like Star Wars.
Then in adolescence he found himself transplanted to Utah. There he becomes dissatisfied with the climate of do-gooding cheerfulness and slight clannishness of the Mormon world. He turns to atheism and Communism. He joins Teach for America, and there he becomes a neoconservative. He goes to modern London and writes for the Wall Street Journal, and in the one Western European nation with an Established Church, he joins the minority Catholic faith. By the time he finished From Fire, by Water, Ahmari was hanging a portrait of St. John Paul II above his desk at a leading journal of Jewish conservatism, this very magazine in your hands.
In The Unbroken Thread, the new place Ahmari now occupies is existential: He has become the father of two. And it is fatherly concern that effected his most recent transformation into a public controversialist. Living in the center of Manhattan, Ahmari came across an example of the kind of cultural formation that some of the upwardly mobile, educated urbanites in America are providing to their children: an ad for Drag Queen Story Hour at a library in California. This kind of event has been popping up across America. You know what it is just from the name itself: A cross-dressing man vamps around at the public library, reading a children’s book while also telling, to the parents mostly, the kind of stale double-entendre jokes that are a normal feature of a drag show.
Drag Queen Story Hour is, I think, staged not for the edification of the young, but for the elevation of the cross-dresser or the transgendered performers. Their behavior isn’t just the sort of thing that makes for a bawdy lark at a nightclub; no, it’s educational, even uplifting. By making an audience for you of our children, we’ve proved we accept you. Look how open-minded we are.
Ahmari focused his ire over Drag Queen Story Hour on a seemingly unlikely target: David French, the conservative evangelical, lawyer, and free-speech activist who was then my colleague at National Review. French was, in Ahmari’s telling, an avatar of a conservatism that had compromised too much with philosophical liberalism and was therefore unwilling to use authority in the public square on behalf of the good.
For Ahmari, the liberal conservatism of David French is a form of unilateral disarmament, the abandonment of our posts. It also leads to an unfavorable asymmetry in America’s culture war. Progressives hate racism, believing it corrupts young minds and warps society. And so they seek every means of extirpating it, through federal statute, social stigma, and the implementation of anti-racist education at schools. But in Ahmari’s view, when liberal conservatives come upon Drag Queen Story Hour, which in their heart of hearts they too believe corrupts youth, they throw up their hands, mumble something about separation of powers and the blessings of liberty, and call it a day, before cashing their checks from a conservative nonprofit.
The introduction gets into Ahmari’s fears that the “American order enshrines very few substantive ideals I would want to transmit to my son.” He envisions himself and his wife meeting their adult son, who has become a “winner” at life, just back from Davos, thinking of joining a big firm and getting a bit more out of his workouts. Ahmari would at once feel proud and ashamed. Most parents would not even notice if their son listened to TED Talks for life hacks and tips on productivity. But for Ahmari, this is a nightmare worth avoiding. And this is why he named his boy after Maximilian Kolbe—a Polish priest who died in Block 11 of the Auschwitz death camp, having volunteered to take the place of a father selected to be executed in an act of collective punishment. Kolbe’s last gesture was to raise his arm willingly to the needle bearing the carbolic acid that euthanized him.
So Ahmari’s book is a statement of the most vertiginously counter-cultural conviction of all. The gesture of this name and the book itself are like the legend of Blanche of Castile, the 13th-century queen who reputedly told her son, Louis, “I love you, my dear son, as much as a mother can love her child; but I would rather see you dead at my feet than that you should ever commit a mortal sin.” Her son, the king after whom St. Louis is named, would be known for his personal devotion, his association with beggars and lepers, as well as his expansion of the Crusade against the Cathars in France, and the imposition of mutilation of the tongue as a punishment for blasphemy.
THE BOOK’S 12 essays are elegantly written and tend to get stronger as the book goes on. One of the best is “Should You Think for Yourself?” It tells the story of the debate between Prime Minister William Gladstone, a 19th-century liberal par excellence, and England’s most famous Catholic convert, Cardinal John Henry Newman. In response to the first Vatican Council’s definition of papal infallibility, Gladstone wrote a blistering pamphlet charging the Roman Church with thieving the civil and moral freedom of Catholics, “stifling conscience and conviction.” For Gladstone, the conscience had to be free of such prior claims of authority in order to apprehend for itself moral and religious truths. The aged Newman’s task was to show, according to Ahmari, “that absolute freedom of thought of the kind advocated by Gladstone and other leading liberals was an illusion—and a pernicious one at that.”
Newman proceeded by divining the duty of men to submit to the divine law—the standard of right conduct that is a part of human nature, the law written on man’s hearts. The conscience is “the mental agent of the law that gauges our conduct according to the law’s standard and tries to get us to comply with its precepts.” Newman’s countercharge was that Gladstone’s vision of freedom tended to vitiate the human conscience, licensing men to ignore the obligations and restraints that are against their self-interest. For Ahmari, the genius of the pre-moderns evoked by Newman was to recognize that, like the mother correcting her child, authority helps to tutor and form the conscience. A “firm, dynamic alliance between conscience and authority” forms “a bulwark against unjust power, including power over the mind.”
For me, Ahmari’s book is at its best when he tells the story of Hans Jonas, the German-born American Jewish philosopher and contemporary of Hannah Arendt’s at the University of Marburg. Jonas became a student of the existential philosopher Martin Heidegger and the modernist Scripture scholar Rudolf Bultmann. A simple homework assignment led him to become a pioneering scholar of the ancient Christian heresy of Gnosticism, which contradicted the orthodox faith on many points, but most hotly on the goodness of Creation itself. In this, Jonas spied a spiritual precursor to Heidegger’s own existentialism, which placed the human will at odds with the limitations of human existence. Across the variety of Gnostic cults Jonas found the same spiritual impulse, a “revolt against the world and its god in the name of an absolute spiritual freedom.”
Jonas, a proud but nonobservant Jew, was at this time coming to detest the rising anti-Semitism of Germany. In 1933, he emigrated and vowed to return only as part of a conquering army. This was a vow he kept. In that same year, Heidegger joined the Nazi Party. Ahmari traces how, after the war, Jonas finally connected the world-picture of Gnostics and existentialists to the moral vacuum of Nazi Germany. The longing to let an inner authentic spirit express itself fully, even against the constraints of the created world, led to the disdain not just of social convention but of human morality altogether. Heidegger’s emphases on “willing and becoming” left him unanchored in reality and ultimately unable to resist the murderous tide of the time.
HAVING RECENTLY published a book that, like The Unbroken Thread, sought to uncover a demanding cultural inheritance I felt was in danger of being lost before my children could receive it, I’m risking the wrath of the gods and my peers by raising objections to a co-religionist doing the same. But I must. In a chapter asking, “Does God Need Politics?” Ahmari writes,
We thus come to perhaps the biggest question that diverts modernity from the great stream of traditional thought. Moderns, from celebrated philosophers to ordinary people across the political spectrum, are certain that religion and politics don’t, and shouldn’t, mix. Since we can’t agree on the highest end or ultimate meaning of human life, their thinking runs, politics must be “neutral” ground, where citizens can vie over questions of “secular” public policy without God’s sticking his nose into how much taxes the wealthy pay, how we treat immigrants and refugees, how we organize health care, and so on. Spiritual concerns thus belong to a private sphere: Each citizen can hold fast to her own private account of ultimate meaning—including, crucially, the belief that life has no meaning at all.
Ahmari is right that there are constitutional hurdles and common prejudices against some religious ideas—and that there are double standards here. The unprovable metaphysics behind egalitarianism may reign in politics, but the reason an anti-abortion argument fails to triumph is that it is associated with religious citizens. This rankles the same way that it rankled Newman when Gladstone preached a free conscience but also endorsed some forms of censorship as salutary. From John Locke’s second treatise proposing that human existence begins with us as a “blank slate” to Anthony Kennedy’s rulings about the sweet mystery of life, there is a void of meaning.
But the overall picture he paints of God and spirituality vacuumed out of political debate I think is simply not correct. To take one example, the legal changes in marriage and the attempt to raise the esteem of unusual sexualities in law was preceded by religious bodies—particularly the Mainline Protestant bodies—effecting these alterations in their theology. The advocates for these changes may occasionally try to undermine the confidence and standing of their religious opponents, but they try to clothe their claims in the Christian moral imperative to love, to show reciprocity, and not to judge hastily. Their desire to censor us is in some ways their inheritance of King Louis’s determination to mutilate the tongue of blasphemers.
Liberals—even atheist progressives—are not shy about testing Christians and conservatives for their fidelity to God in their politics. Sometimes this is done cynically, but often it is a genuine curiosity or bafflement: Jesus was clearly on the side of the poor, so why are you so often on the side of Wall Street?
And where Ahmari sees the dissipation of all authority in a cacophony of individual egoisms unable to coerce for the common good, I see a public square that is overflowing with such efforts, with contrasting claims of authority, meaning, and demands for cohesion, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea that private consciences can simply reject capital-S Science, or the moral duty to be masked or vaccinated, was utterly rejected by progressives.
Like Ahmari, I worry for my children. And I realize now my own book may have betrayed me as much as this one does its author. Our worries appear to others like an unresolved tension in the father projected onto the son. Mine was guilt for not honoring my mother enough during her life. Ahmari’s is a conflict with his own story and his own ambition.
God has led the author from Iran through Utah and London and half a dozen worldviews in a rather short time. Almost any effort to bind our society with the unbroken thread he describes here would have made the author’s journey to his current life circumstances entirely impossible. Like Ahmari, I suspect his son will be capable of being at Davos or its equivalent someday. And even if he appears to his father to be too interested in his career, God may even then be calling young Max to do some hidden work there, even if it is just consoling one of his peers. If Ahmari’s exhortation of the unbroken thread of our duties as humans is to be bearable, it must be wound with another, a mature faith in Providence. It is that image G.K. Chesterton gave us in his Father Brown books—the image of that “unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”
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