French has been unfairly caricatured — but the caricature is worth defending.
Near as I can tell, the David French controversy revolves around allegations that the man is too much of an accommodating pragmatist on social issues. The charge is amusing to me, given that one of my defining experiences here at NR occurred when French denounced a column I wrote last year about the need for conservatives to pragmatically accommodate transgender Americans.
What the strange war over “David French-ism” says about the right.
In March the religious journal First Things published a short manifesto, signed by a group of notable conservative writers and academics, titled “Against the Dead Consensus.” The consensus that the manifesto came to bury belonged to conservatism as it existed between the time of William F. Buckley Jr. and the rise of Donald Trump: An ideology that packaged limited government, free markets, a hawkish foreign policy and cultural conservatism together, and that assumed that business interests and religious conservatives and ambitious American-empire builders belonged naturally to the same coalition.
This consensus was never as stable as retrospective political storytelling might suggest; even successful Republican politicians inevitably left many of its factions sorely disappointed, while conservative intellectuals and activists feuded viciously with one another and constantly discerned crises and crackups for their movement. But the crisis revealed or created (depending on your perspective) by our own age of populism seems more severe, the stresses on the different factions more serious, and it is just possible that the longstanding conservative fusion might be as dead as the First Things signatories argued.
Among them was Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor at The New York Post, whose public career embodies some of those shifts and stresses: An immigrant whose family fled the Islamic Republic of Iran, he began his career on the right as an ex-Marxist secular neoconservative at The Wall Street Journal editorial page and has since become a traditionally inclined Catholic (a journey detailed in his striking memoir, “From Fire, By Water”) and also more Trump-friendly and populist into the bargain.
In the last week Ahmari has roiled the conservative intellectual world with a critique of something he calls David French-ism, after David French of National Review, another prominent conservative writer. This controversy, like the debate over Tucker Carlson and capitalism earlier this year, has been a full-employment bill for conservative pundits. But it probably seems impossibly opaque from the outside, since superficially Ahmari and French belong to the same faction on the right — both religious conservatives, both strongly anti-abortion, both deeply engaged in battles over religious liberty (where French is a longtime litigator). Indeed it is somewhat opaque even from the inside, prompting conservatives engaging with the dispute to wonder, “What are we debating?”
I’m going to try to answer that question here. We’ll see how it goes.
Basically the best way to understand the Ahmari-French split is in light of the old fusion, the old consensus, that the First Things manifesto attacked. French is a religious conservative who thinks that the pre-Trump conservative vision still makes sense. He thinks that his Christian faith and his pro-life convictions have a natural home in a basically libertarian coalition, one that wants to limit the federal government’s interventions in the marketplace and expects civil society to flourish once state power is removed. He thinks that believers and nonbelievers, secular liberals and conservative Christians, can coexist under a classical-liberal framework in which disputes are settled by persuasion rather than constant legal skirmishing, or else are left unsettled in a healthy pluralism. He is one of the few remaining conservatives willing to argue that the invasion of Iraq was just and necessary. And he opposes, now as well as yesterday, the bargain that the right struck with Donald Trump.
Ahmari, on the other hand, speaks for cultural conservatives who believe that the old conservative fusion mostly failed their part of the movement — winning victories for tax cutters and business interests while marriage rates declined, birthrates plummeted and religious affiliation waned; and appeasing social conservatives with judges who never actually got around to overturning Roe v. Wade. These conservatives believe that the current version of social liberalism has no interest in truces or pluralism and won’t rest till the last evangelical baker is fined into bankruptcy, the last Catholic hospital or adoption agency is closed by an A.C.L.U. lawsuit. They think that business interests have turned into agents of cultural revolution, making them poor allies for the right, and that the free trade and globalization championed by past Republican presidents has played some role in the dissolution of conservatism’s substrates — the family, the neighborhood, the local civitas. And they have warmed, quickly or slowly, to the politics-is-war style of the current president.
But what, specifically, do these conservatives want, besides a sense of thrill-in-combat that French’s irenic style denies them? I don’t think they are completely certain themselves; in a useful contribution to the Ahmari affair, R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, describes their animating spirit as a feeling that something else is needed in American society besides just classical-liberal, limited-government commitments, without any certainty about what that something ought to be.
Still, you can see three broad demands at work in their arguments. First, they want social conservatives to exercise more explicit power within the conservative coalition.
This may sound like a strange idea, since, after all, it is social conservatism’s growing political weakness, its cultural retreat, that led the religious right to throw in with a cruel sybarite like Trump. But there’s a plausible argument that even with its broader influence reduced, religious conservatism should still wield more power than it does in Republican politics — that it outsources too much policy thinking to other factions, that it goes along with legislation written for business interests so long as the promised judicial appointments are dangled at the end, and that it generally acts like a junior partner even though it delivers far more votes.
No doubt some Christian leaders have gone too far in rationalizing Trump’s past personal behavior and excusing his offensive comments while in office. He is a deeply flawed man. But Trump does have one moral quality that deserves admiration: He keeps his promises.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump pledged to defend religious liberty, stand up for unborn life and appoint conservative jurists to the Supreme Court and federal appeals courts. And he has done exactly what he promised. The abortion-rights lobby NARAL complains that Trump has been “relentless” on these fronts, declaring his administration “the worst .?.?. that we’ve ever seen.” That is more important to most Christian conservatives than what the president may have done with a porn actress more than ten years ago.Trump’s election came as religious liberty was under unprecedented attack. The Obama administration was trying to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to violate their religious conscience and facilitate payment for abortifacient drugs and other contraceptives. During oral arguments in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, President Barack Obama’s solicitor general told the Supreme Court that churches and universities could lose their tax-exempt status if they opposed same-sex marriage.
Hillary Clinton promised to escalate those attacks. In 2015, she declared at the Women in the World Summit that “religious beliefs … have to be changed” — perhaps the most radical threat to religious liberty ever delivered by a major presidential candidate. Had Clinton won, she would have replaced the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia with a liberal jurist, giving the Supreme Court a liberal judicial-activist majority.
The impact would have been immediate, as the court prepares to decide two cases crucial to religious liberty.
In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Court will soon determine whether the government can compel a U.S. citizen to violate his conscience and participate in speech that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs.
In National Institute of Family Life Advocates v. Becerra, the Court will decide whether the state of California can compel pro-life crisis pregnancy centers to advertise access to abortion to their clients, in violation of their conscience.
.. The president is moving at record pace to fill the federal appeals courts with young conservative judges who will protect life and religious freedom for decades. He also fulfilled his promise to defend the Little Sisters from government bullying, by expanding the religious and conscience exemption to the Obamacare contraception mandate to cover both nonprofit and for-profit organizations.
.. Trump ordered the creation of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division at the Department of Health and Human Services to protect the civil rights of doctors, nurses and other health-care workers who refuse to take part in procedures such as abortion, reversing an Obama-era policy that required them to do so. And his Justice Department issued 25-page guidance to federal agencies instructing them to protect the religious liberty in the execution of federal law.
While Clinton promised to repeal the Hyde Amendment barring federal funds for abortion, Trump has been a pro-life champion. He became the first president to address the March for Life when he spoke by satellite video from the White House’s Rose Garden. He reinstated and expanded the “Mexico City policy” — which prohibits U.S. foreign aid from going to groups that perform or promote abortion. He signed legislation overturning an Obama-era regulation that prohibited states from defunding abortion service providers.
.. Indeed, Trump has arguably done more in his first year in office to protect life and religious freedom than any modern president. Little wonder that religious conservatives stick with him despite the Daniels revelations. This is not to say that Christians don’t think a culture of fidelity is important. But the culture of life is important too. So is a culture that is welcoming to religious believers rather than waging war on them.
No one upholds Trump as moral exemplar. He is not the most religious president we have ever had, but he may be the most pro-religion president. Christian conservatives are judging Trump not by his faith, but by his works. And when it comes to life and liberty, his works are good.
Mr. Trump took a car ride with Mike Pence along with Billy Graham’s son Franklin and Tony Perkins, a leading figure on the Christian right, during the Louisiana floods of 2016. Impressed by what Franklin Graham’s Christian ministry had done for flood victims, Mr. Trump told him that he was writing it a six-figure check, which Mr. Graham told him to send to Mr. Perkins’s church. Both men were moved by his impulsive kindness, and a bond was formed.
.. When Mr. Trump exited the car, he gave Mr. Robison a hug, pulled him up against his chest firmly and said, “Man, I sure love you.” A small gesture, perhaps, but heartfelt, real and so unlike the caricature of the president most of us see. And practically every evangelical leader I interviewed has a similar story.
.. Critics say that the Trump-evangelical relationship is transactional
.. evangelicals take the long view on Mr. Trump; they afford him grace when he doesn’t deserve it. Few dispute that Mr. Trump may need a little more grace than others. But evangelicals truly do believe that all people are flawed, and yet Christ offers them grace. Shouldn’t they do the same for the president?
.. The Bible is replete with examples of flawed individuals being used to accomplish God’s will. Evangelicals I interviewed said they believed that Mr. Trump was in the White House for a reason.
.. Bishop Wayne Jackson, who is the pastor of Great Faith Ministries International in Detroit and calls himself a lifelong Democrat, remembers Mr. Trump’s campaign visit to his church. He told me that the moment Mr. Trump got out of the car, “the spirit of the Lord told me that that’s the next president of the United States.”
.. I’ve watched Mr. Trump through the lens of the faith community for years, and he has delivered the policy goods and is progressing on the spiritual ones.
.. Donald Trump is on a spiritual voyage that has accelerated in recent years, thanks to evangelicals who have employed the biblical mandate of sharing and showing God’s love to him rather than shunning him.
.. This president’s effect on our cultural norms has been shocking. His critics would call it appalling; evangelicals say it’s immensely satisfying: They’ve seen a culture deteriorate quickly in the past decade, and they’re looking for a bold culture warrior to fight for them.
Showing that God does indeed have a sense of humor, He gave them Mr. Trump. Yet in God’s perfection, it’s a match made in heaven.
Mr. Trump and evangelicals share a disdain for political correctness, a world seen through absolutes and a desire to see an America that embraces Judeo-Christian values again rather than rejecting them.
.. Finally, why in the world wouldn’t evangelicals get behind and support a man who not only is in line with most of their agenda but also has delivered time and time again? The victories are numerous:
- the courts,
- pro-life policies,
- the coming Embassy in Jerusalem and
- religious liberty issues
, just to name a few. He easily wins the unofficial label of “most evangelical-friendly United States president ever.”
.. But the goal of evangelicals has always been winning the larger battle over control of the culture, not to get mired in the moral failings of each and every candidate.
.. For evangelicals, voting in the macro is the moral thing to do, even if the candidate is morally flawed. Evangelicals have tried the “moral” candidate before.
- .. Jimmy Carter was once the evangelical candidate. How did that work out in the macro?
- George W. Bush was the evangelical candidate in 2000: He pushed traditional conservative policies, but he doesn’t come close to Mr. Trump’s courageous blunt strokes in defense of evangelicals.