A Response to Kevin O’Brien
I appear to have hit a nerve with the remarks I made about Dale Ahlquist in the lengthy prelude to my review of Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion. The purpose of the book review was not to bash Ahlquist so much as to praise Douthat for his strenuous engagement with modernity. Nevertheless, a link from the American Chesterton Society Facebook page stating that I am a “dishonest blogger” who says “dishonest things about Dale Ahlquist” has won me scores of hostile readers.
Certainly, I welcome debate as to the legacy of GK Chesterton. What concerns me is the way in which my critics elevate tribalism–which as a rule imputes ill-will and moral failing to ideological opponents–over reasoned inquiry. As I remarked in a combox discussion with Kevin O’Brien:
It would be dishonest for me to knowingly make false claims about Dale Ahlquist. If I have misrepresented Ahlquist, I have not done so willfully; I gladly accept correction as to my factual assertions. What I was trying to do in the post is contrast two distinctive ways of presenting Chesterton to new audiences: that of Ahlquist and that of Ross Douthat. This seems to me a legitimate matter for debate.
The distinction between dishonesty and wrongheadedness is, I think, an important one. To call someone “dishonest” is to direct attention away from the question at hand and toward the motives and moral character of that person. It is a mode of argumentation that, I’m afraid, has become all too common on all sides of our political and theological debates these days.
Thus far, O’Brien has been a respectful and charitable debating foe. Still, his comments on my post this morning deflect attention away from my critique of Ahlquist, instead raising questions as to my tribal identity:
The only background you need is that this blogger likes Chesterton, but tries to square that with his admiration for and defense of Obama, contraception, Andrew Sullivan and Buddhism.
One of the key points I tried to make in the book review was that liking Chesterton need not entail agreeing with him in all instances. In that context, O’Brien’s list seems exceedingly arbitrary, like saying “this man says he likes Abe Lincoln, but then tries to square that with his admiration for Newt Gingrich, Ezra Klein, line dancing, and Judaism.”
If O’Brien means to imply that I am not a political or theological conservative, I plead guilty as charged. If he means to imply that I am therefore beyond the pale of Catholicism, I respectfully disagree. Let me clarify my position on each of the “heresies” O’Brien cites. My defense of Obama does not entail a defense of the Culture of Death. For the record, I am not pro-choice and do not support stem cell research or euthanasia. Nor do I assume that politically conservative Catholics necessarily support militarism, torture, the death penalty, or unbridled capitalism. Voting is a matter of prudential judgment. As for contraception and homosexuality, I do not dissent from Church teaching. What I assert is that all of the arguments I have come across in defense of Church teaching are exceedingly weak. I am obedient but deeply agnostic on these matters, which are admittedly a great source of difficulty for me. Third, it is true that I read and admire greatly Andrew Sullivan’s blog; how, exactly, is that a problem? Finally, I think Catholics can learn a lot from Buddhism but reject syncretism. Having studied Buddhism extensively, I find Chesterton to be a very unreliable guide to the religion.
If all of that somehow disqualifies me from tribal membership among orthodox Chestertonians, so be it. But I hope it doesn’t exclude me from rigorous, but respectful debate.