In March, First Things published a manifesto of sorts signed by several mostly youngish, mostly Roman Catholic writers, who argued that “there is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016,” that “any attempt to revive the failed conservative consensus that preceded Trump would be misguided and harmful to the right.”
Against whom, concretely speaking, was this declaration directed?
I don’t claim to speak for the other signatories. But as one of the principal drafters, I have given the question a great deal of thought, both before and since the document’s publication. And I can now say that for me, “Against the Dead Consensus” drew a line of demarcation with what I call David French-ism, after the National Review writer and Never-Trump stalwart.
What is David French-ism? As Irving Kristol said of neoconservatism, French-ism is more a persuasion or a sensibility than a movement with clear tenets. And that sensibility is, in turn, bound up with the persona of one particular writer, though it reaches beyond him to pervade a wider sphere of conservative Christian thinking and activism.
It isn’t easy to critique the persona of someone as nice as French. Then again, it is in part that earnest and insistently polite quality of his that I find unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing religious conservatives. Which is why I recently quipped on Twitter that there is no “polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war.” (What prompted my ire was a Facebook ad for a children’s drag queen reading hour at a public library in Sacramento.)
I added, “The only way is through”—that is to say, to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.
French prefers a different Christian strategy, and his guileless public mien and strategic preferences bespeak a particular political theology (though he would never use that term), one with which I take issue. Thus, my complaint about his politeness wasn’t a wanton attack; it implicated deeper matters.
Such talk—of politics as war and enmity—is thoroughly alien to French, I think, because he believes that the institutions of a technocratic market society are neutral zones that should, in theory, accommodate both traditional Christianity and the libertine ways and paganized ideology of the other side. Even if the latter—that is, the libertine and the pagan—predominate in elite institutions, French figures, then at least the former, traditional Christians, should be granted spaces in which to practice and preach what they sincerely believe.
Well, it doesn’t work out that way, and it hasn’t been working out that way for a long time—as French well knows, since he has spent a considerable part of his career admirably and passionately advocating for Christians coercively squeezed out of the public square. In that time, he—we—have won discrete victories, but the overall balance of forces has tilted inexorably away from us, and I think that French-ian model bears some of the blame.
To take one of numerous instructive examples, when the progressive clerisy launched an inquisition against the actor Chris Pratt in February over his membership in the wrong kind of church, French appealed to a fictional pluralism. “A core (and very basic) tenet of pluralism,” he wrote,
is the notion that people of diametrically opposed belief systems can live and work side by side so long as they treat each other with dignity and respect. I’ve spent my entire career working with people who believe that my religious beliefs are wrong, that my stance on sexual morality is wrong, and that my political judgments are deeply misguided. Yet even in the case of profound disagreement, it is easy to treat people well. It is easy to treat people fairly.
Conversely, it is the height of intolerance to believe that it is somehow problematic — absent any evidence of mistreatment on the job or on-set — that a person disagrees with you on matters of faith. And if it is an obligation for colleagues to go beyond “welcoming” each other to “affirming” each other’s deepest beliefs, where is the affirmation of faithful Christians?
French is, in effect, telling the cultural revolutionaries: We will grant your autonomy in the neutral institution (in this case, Hollywood). Won’t you grant us ours? Though culturally conservative, French is a political liberal, which means that individual autonomy is his lodestar: He sees “protecting individual liberty” as the main, if not sole, purpose of government. Here is the problem: The movement we are up against prizes autonomy above all, too; indeed, its ultimate aim is to secure for the individual will the widest possible berth to define what is true and good and beautiful, against the authority of tradition.
Only, the libertines take the logic of maximal autonomy—the one French shares—to its logical terminus. They say, in effect: For us to feel fully autonomous, you must positively affirm our sexual choices, our transgression, our power to disfigure our natural bodies and redefine what it means to be human, lest your disapprobation make us feel less than fully autonomous.
They have a point: Individual experiments in living—say, taking your kids to a drag reading hour at the public library—cannot be sustained without some level of moral approval by the community. Autonomy-maximizing liberalism is normative, in its own twisted way. Thus, it represents the interiorization, and fulfillment, of French’s worldview. And this is how David French-ism gets trapped.
The more that conservative liberals like French insist on autonomy, the more they strengthen the bullies’ position. This far with autonomy, they insist, but no farther. But why should the other side stop? Why shouldn’t this new, aggressive vision of maximal autonomy not overtake the old?
Here French and others fall back on religious liberty. French has done yeoman’s work in defense of Christians and other people of faith persecuted in America. But in the long term, religious-liberty absolutism will put Christians and other traditional believers in a bind. If the moral law is merely a matter of ancient, if sincere, conviction, then of course it must give way to the demands for autonomy of people in the here and now.
Archbishop Charles Chaput made this point in his 2017 book, Strangers in a Strange Land. If traditional moral precepts are “purely religious beliefs,” he wrote, then “they can’t be rationally defended. And because they’re rationally indefensible, they should be treated as a form of prejudice. Thus two thousand years of moral truth and religious principle become, by sleight of hand, a species of bias.”
Again and again, French insists on the sincerity of the believers whose causes he takes up, as if asserting sincerity of belief can move the heart of an enemy who finds you and your beliefs repulsive: “The biblical sexual ethic is based on a sincere conviction. . . .” “Evidence of devout faith is frequently evidence of a sincere commitment to fairness, compassion, and the faithful discharge of one’s constitutional duties. . . .”
But they won’t listen. Tub-thump long enough about your sincere but irrational (in the eyes of the reigning ideology) views, and soon opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, polyamory, kids in drag, and much else of the same kind will come to resemble the wrongheaded and indeed irrational opposition to vaccination mounted by ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York. Sorry, Pastor French, but your superstition will have to give way to public health and the smooth functioning of the autonomy-maximizing society.
So what long-term strategy, if any, does David French-ism offer? In a word, culture.
Conservative liberalism of the kind French embodies has a great horror of the state, of traditional authority and the use of the public power to advance the common good, including in the realm of public morality. That horror is a corollary to its autonomy-maximizing impulse.
This goes back, I think, to its roots in English non-conformism. In Culture and Anarchy, his great Victorian critique of this mode of thought, Matthew Arnold says of the nonconformist that, because he has encountered the Word of God by his own lights, he sees no need for the authority and grand liturgies of a national church (still less the Catholic Church).
But as Arnold notes, while the nonconformist vision of an austere, no-frills, solitary encounter with God might be suitable in one context, it doesn’t satisfy other necessities, such as collective public worship befitting public needs. Or again, while free trade might have provided for growth in Britain’s urban cores, something middle-class liberals welcomed, it also created public misery and overcrowding that needed to be addressed—and not by individual initiative alone. And so on.
Mutatis mutandis, David French-ism. Forced to reckon with the fact that autonomy unbound hasn’t yielded freedom but new and insidious forms of digital tyranny, French treats as a nonstarter conservative proposals to intervene (“I oppose government efforts to regulate social-media speech policies”). Instead, he urges essentially a cultural solution. Silicon Valley should voluntarily adopt First Amendment norms, per French, and I wish him good luck persuading our programmer-kings to go along.
How do we counter ideological mono-thought in universities, workplaces, and other institutions? Try promoting better work-life balance, says French. How do we promote the good of the family against the deracinating forces arrayed against it, some of them arising out of the free market (pornography) and others from the logic of maximal autonomy (no-fault divorce)? “We should reverse cultural messages that for too long have denigrated the fundamental place of marriage in public life.” Oh, OK. How do we combat the destruction wrought by drugs (licit and illicit), by automation and globalization and other forces of the kind? “We need to embrace the vital importance of religious faith in personal renewal.” Thanks, Pastor French.
For French, the solution to nearly every problem posed by a politics of individual autonomy above all is yet more autonomous action. But sentimentalization of family life won’t be enough to overcome the challenges posed to it by the present economy. Calls for religious revival are often little more than an idle wish that all men become moral, so that we might dispense with moral regulation.
Government intervention will not be the answer to every social ill. In many instances, free markets and individual enterprise can best serve the common good, albeit indirectly. But I take issue with David French-ism’s almost supernatural faith in something called “culture”—deemed to be neutral and apolitical and impervious to policy—to solve everything. Questions that are squarely political—that is, that touch on our shared quest for the common good—become depoliticized by this culture-first strategy. The libertine camp prefers the same depoliticization, of course; they’re much better at winning in the realm of culture than David French will ever be.
Voters across the developed world have had enough of depoliticized politics. In the United States, this great “no” culminated in 2016’s election of Donald Trump. With a kind of animal instinct, Trump understood what was missing from mainstream (more or less French-ian) conservatism. His instinct has been to shift the cultural and political mix, ever so slightly, away from autonomy-above-all toward order, continuity, and social cohesion. He believes that the political community—and not just the church, family, and individual—has its own legitimate scope for action. He believes it can help protect the citizen from transnational forces beyond his control.
French’s response to these developments on the right has been predictable: He has spent two years promoting the now-discredited Russian “collusion” theory; moralizing and pretending we don’t face enemies who seek our personal destruction (just ask Justice Kavanaugh); and haranguing his fellow evangelical Protestants for supporting Trump, as if they were the only American voting bloc ever forced to compromise. As an activist, French has benefited from the Trump GOP’s ascendance, but he has kept his hands clean, his soul untainted. As anyone familiar with the Amelia Sedley character in Vanity Fair knows, a kind of airy, above-it-all mentality can supply its own vain satisfactions.
But conservative Christians can’t afford these luxuries. Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post. He is at work on a book, exploring 12 fundamental questions our culture doesn’t ask.
There are few public thinkers the Holy Post cites more often than David French, and he’s finally here in person! (Well, in person via Zoom.) French is the Senior Editor of The Dispatch, a columnist for Time, and a pro-life conservative attorney. Although many Christians are worried about the erosion of religious liberty, French says, “We have never enjoyed more religious liberty than we do right now.”
The problem is that Christians are losing cultural power, and our attempts to retain it are often doing more harm than good. He helps us understand recent Supreme Court rulings about religious liberty and LGBT rights, why conservatives who are against face masks aren’t really pro-life, and how both the Left and Right get racism wrong. French explains why he will not vote for Trump, and why evangelicals have gone from holding their noses to enthusiastic support of a president who lacks both character and competency. Plus, what is “David Frenchism” and should we be worried about it?
Shrinking in the face of challenges to career and reputation communicates fear, not faith, to a broken world.
Back when I was in the religious liberty litigation business, I’d sometimes give my clients—especially my college student clients—a little talk that went something like this: “Your lawsuit is likely going to get more media attention than anything that your group does for the next 10 years, but that gets the importance of this moment exactly backward. Winning your religious freedom and maintaining your presence on campus is far less important than what you’ll do with that liberty. Your witness will ultimately define you on this campus, not your rights.”
I’ve thought often about those talks in recent years. The reason is simple—Christian liberty is largely secure, yet Christian fear is harming the Christian witness and damaging the culture of the nation we love.
A moment’s historical reflection should demonstrate that few political and legal movements have been more successful in the last 40 years than Christian conservatism. Through a combination of activism and litigation, Christian conservatives have not only achieved veto power over the electoral fortunes of one of America’s two great political parties, they’ve erected a veritable thicket of laws that protect religious expression in public (and even private) spheres.
Court decision after court decision has held that churches and religious organizations enjoy enormous autonomy (greater autonomy than secular organizations) in hiring and firing employees, and that autonomy is nearly absolute when it comes to hiring and firing ministerial employees. They enjoy rights of equal access with secular organizations to public facilities and (in some cases) taxpayer funding. Employees of private companies enjoy broad federal, state, and local protections against religious discrimination. Many of these freedoms aren’t protected by fragile 5-4 Supreme Court majorities. Instead, they rest on precedents decided by 7-2 and even 9-0 margins.
At the federal level, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act secures religious Americans extraordinary protection against infringements on religious liberty through federal law. A total of 21 states have enacted similar provisions.
Decades of patient pro-life activism (protected by many of the court precedents referred to above) have resulted in hundreds of pro-life laws in states across the nation—including 288 laws passed between 2011 and 2015 alone—and are drivers in the extraordinary drop in the American abortion rate. The abortion rate is now lower than it was before Roe was decided, when abortion was actually illegal in multiple American jurisdictions.
Yes, I know there are challenges. I know that threats to religious conscience exist, especially for Christian institutions that engage in heavily regulated professions like foster care, adoption services, and health care. But it’s hard to think of a single developed country in the entire world that more robustly protects religious freedom than the United States of America.
Yet in spite of this liberty and power, all too many Christians are afraid. Once again a time of social upheaval is elevating illiberal voices, and those illiberal voices have disproportionate power in America’s leading cultural, educational, and corporate institutions. Right alongside an extraordinarily welcome wave of reflection and anguish about the reality and legacy of American racism is a disturbing wave of intolerance for dissent from the most radical and divisive anti-racist ideologies.
In a searing newsletter published Friday, progressive journalist Matt Taibibi penned a cri de coeur against the illiberal left:
On the other side of the political aisle, among self-described liberals, we’re watching an intellectual revolution. It feels liberating to say after years of tiptoeing around the fact, but the American left has lost its mind. It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.
The leaders of this new movement are replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation. They are counting on the guilt-ridden, self-flagellating nature of traditional American progressives, who will not stand up for themselves, and will walk to the Razor voluntarily.
They’ve conned organization after organization into empowering panels to search out thoughtcrime, and it’s established now that anything can be an offense, from a UCLA professor placed under investigation for reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” out loud to a data scientist fired* from a research firm for — get this — retweeting an academic study suggesting nonviolent protests may be more politically effective than violent ones!
In this manic, Manichean world you’re not even given the space to say nothing. “White Silence = Violence” is a slogan chanted and displayed in every one of these marches. It’s very reminiscent of totalitarian states where you have to compete to broadcast your fealty to the cause. In these past two weeks, if you didn’t put up on Instagram or Facebook some kind of slogan or symbol displaying your wokeness, you were instantly suspect. The cultishness of this can be seen in the way people are actually cutting off contact with their own families if they don’t awaken and see the truth and repeat its formulae. Ibram X. Kendi insists that there is no room in our society for neutrality or reticence. If you are not doing “antiracist work” you are ipso facto a racist. By “antiracist work” he means fully accepting his version of human society and American history, integrating it into your own life, confessing your own racism, and publicly voicing your continued support.
None of this is particularly new. “Woke” culture has spawned years of cancellations, terminations, and boycotts. It has also created a sense of pervasive fear in Christian communities. I’ve heard from friends even in deep-red communities such as Franklin, Tennessee, who are afraid to share their thoughts on social media for fear of corporate reprisal.
Sullivan is correct that intolerance is very real, but he’s wrong that present conditions are “very reminiscent of totalitarian states.” There is a substantial difference between state censorship—enforced at gunpoint—and the professional and social intolerance that dominates illiberal institutions. The East German Stasi would leave your body in a ditch. That’s a different universe of oppression compared to the harms woke America inflicts on its victims today..
Yet excessive fear reigns. My friend Rod Dreher’s influential blog has become a clearing-house for frightened Christian professionals to (anonymously) express their deep fears. Comment after comment will begin with the notation that the authors feels they can’t identify themselves:
“I am a full professor in the humanities at a major private university. Everyone on this blog would likely recognize my name if I published it here.”
“From a reader I know personally, and who correctly says she cannot identify herself: ‘Very few of us have practical freedom of speech anymore. Sure, the constitution lets us say it, but what good is that if it gets us mobbed?’”
I get correspondence like this all the time. And expressions of fear like this aren’t all that new. I’ll never forget the professor who spoke to me in whispers about his faith lest anyone overhear and threaten his tenure bid. I remember an extraordinary case in Georgia where the university Christian community remained largely silent as a fellow believer faced racism, rape threats, and death threats for defending religious freedom on campus.
As a matter of law, Christians are free. As a matter of fact, in many contexts across the country, Christians are afraid—and many of the people who are most in the grips of fear are those individuals who have thoughtful and reasonable things to say.
Rod points out that millions of Americans, repulsed by “wishy-washy” religiosity are seeking purpose in the “strong gods” on the illiberal left and right. It’s riots vs. crackdowns. It’s left-wing intolerance versus right-wing aggression. The reality hearkens back to the lines from W.B. Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” that I wrote about two weeks ago: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The fear of the Christian “best” is harming this nation. Millions turned to Donald Trump to fight for them, forgetting that a church that is supposed to be a source of salt and light should not empower malice and lies. The result, in Gen. James Mattis’s words, is “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try.” Christians put in power—and sustained in power—precisely the wrong man for this perilous moment.
Others, in spite of Christ’s admonition to deny yourself and take up your cross to follow Him, are not willing to risk tweetings when the apostles braved beatings. Their jobs are too precious to risk. Though they enjoy greater freedom from actual censorship than arguably any people in the history of the planet, self-censorship suffices to drive too many thoughtful Christian voices from the academy, the boardroom, and the office. But shrinking back in the face of challenges to career and reputation communicates fear, not faith, to a broken world. While the fearful Christian would never say this out loud, they’re functionally treating the “strong gods” of the partisan political moment as greater and more powerful than the God of the universe they seek to serve.
How do you respond to those “strong gods”? By showing them to be weak. Speak in the face of fear, but speak in the way that God desires. He has given His people a mission statement: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Each element is transformative. Each element is necessary. Any Christian movement that lacks justice, kindness, and humility is flawed.
America is at an important crossroads. There is a stirring in the American heart—men and women who were once hardened against the words and testimonies of their black fellow citizens are starting, at last, to listen. But extreme voices seek to hijack the debate, to take advantage of the moment to continue ripping this nation to shreds.
Are Christians prepared to be the instruments of justice, mercy, and humility that this nation so desperately needs? Not if they remain afraid. Not if in their timidity they continue to empower our worst voices or refuse to speak the truth with grace and conviction. Christians have immense liberty in this nation, but our witness ultimately defines us, not our rights, and presently the Christian witness is all too often a witness of fear.
A shameless plug …
My new book, Divided We Fall, is available for pre-order, and I just got my first review, from Publisher’s Weekly, and it’s good! The reviewer called the book an “incisive examination of contemporary political polarization” and said this “well-informed and often moving account provides an antidote to the ills of political partisanship.” I’m grateful! And I’d also be grateful if you pre-ordered the book, either at the Amazon link above or at Barnes & Noble (which needs your support.)
One last thing …
This new song, from Kristene DiMarco, has truly touched my heart. I hope it blesses you—in a time of uncertainty and fear, let Jesus rise:
Photograph by Robert Alexander/Getty Images.
I haven’t been a litigator since 2015. I haven’t conducted a proper cross-examination since 2014. But if I couldn’t walk a witness, judge, and jury through the transcript of Donald Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and demonstrate that a quid pro quo was more likely than not, then I should just hang up my suit and retire in disgrace. Far from being “scattershot” — as my esteemed colleague Kyle Smith declares — the actual sequence is extremely tight, and the asks are very clear.
First, right near the beginning of the call, President Trump signals his displeasure with Ukraine. He notes that while the United States has been “very good” to Ukraine, he “wouldn’t say” that Ukraine has been “reciprocal” to the United States. There’s nothing subtle about this statement. It’s plain that Trump wants something from Ukraine.
To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Nations strike deals all the time. It’s the nature of the proposed deal that’s potentially problematic, not whether two leaders bargain.
In the next paragraph, Zelensky responds with the key ask. He wants more Javelin missiles, an indispensable weapon system in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia. It’s an anti-tank missile that helps address the yawning power imbalance between the two countries. It doesn’t level the playing field, but it does help deter Russian aggression by raising the possibility of substantial armor losses on the battlefield.
Given the multiple layers of Ukrainian–American contact during the 2016 campaign cycle, a request for Ukrainian assistance in lawful American investigations of foreign interference is entirely proper. If that’s where the transcript ended, there would be no problems, and it’s entirely proper for Zelensky to respond “yes” and state that the matter was “very important to him.”
But then, in the following paragraph, Trump continues his ask. He says he is going to ask Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney, to call Zelensky, and he asks Zelensky to take the call. Then, Trump says this: “The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that, so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great.” He continues, “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it . . . It sounds horrible to me.”
And what is Zelenksy’s response? He pledges that the new Ukrainian prosecutor will be “100 percent” his person and that “he or she will look into the situation.”
I highlight the quid pro quo aspect of the transcript because the other published report — that Trump asked that Ukraine work with Giuliani to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden — is clearly and unequivocally established. The transcript provides proof that Trump made a completely improper request that the president of Ukraine work with Trump’s personal counsel to investigate a political rival. It provides strong evidence that this took place in the context of a quid pro quo for desperately needed military aid.
Trump’s comments to Zelensky should not be considered an offhand remark or word salad that’s merely “Trump being Trump.” Recall that Giuliani has been working on his Ukraine project for months. He has bragged that his efforts should be “very, very helpful to my client.” Trump has wanted to push Biden’s Ukrainian conflicts of interest into the center of the national debate.
More investigation is necessary. Congress needs to understand the full context of Trump’s decision to place a hold on military aid to Ukraine, it needs to hear the whistleblower’s complaint (though it appears that the whistleblower may have been mainly complaining about the call that we’ve now read), and it needs to determine what, if anything, Ukraine did in response to Trump’s requests. It also needs a full accounting of Giuliani’s odd actions on behalf of his client.
I’m honestly puzzled that Trump’s defenders online are claiming any kind of vindication over the contents of this transcript. It admits one profound abuse of power, and it implies another, even worse, violation of the public trust.