David French is at it again. The conservative commentator whose screeds against white evangelical voters have become as commonplace on Sundays as hymns and communion has been busy lately doing what he does best: chastising Christians and blaming Donald Trump for America’s woes.
Within the past five days, French, the father of what I call “drag queen conservatism,” came out in favor of the deceptively titled “Respect for Marriage Act,” urged the pro-life movement to break from “Trumpism,” and characterized the evangelical “far right” on Twitter as being a “broken” mishmash of insurrectionists and sex abuse apologists.
As is often the case, his critics – many of whom I know and respect – pushed back on his new policy positions and old cultural critiques. I agree with many of their core arguments, but the trajectory of David French’s public profile provides a much more important lesson for Christians.
French is probably the only person who thinks about Donald Trump more than the former president himself. The result is that he has made an idol – adorned in a cloak of self-righteousness – out of anti-Trumpism. This obsession has transformed his distinct “salt and light” Christian commentary in the public square into a dim, bland version of cultural engagement marginally distinguishable from the secular writers in corporate media.
His belief that drag queens in public libraries are a “blessing of liberty” is the most infamous example of his tendency to defend the indefensible in the name of morally neutral constitutional protections. I have yet to hear him offer a hypothetical defense of “blackface story hour” on similar First Amendment grounds and highly doubt he would ever make such an argument.
French sees differing opinions on drag queens in libraries and schools, the redefinition of marriage, and the castration of confused children as normal in a functioning democracy. But somehow he believes refusing the COVID shot and believing there was a “shadow campaign” to influence the 2020 election – the official position of Time magazine – each constitutes a mortal threat to our neighbors and an attack on our democracy.
Like many conservatives who are preoccupied with being respected by the left, French focuses on secondary legal issues as opposed to first-order fights about defining reality when it comes to our most contentious political battles.
Is religious freedom a concern for Christians who don’t want to codify Obergefell? Absolutely. But the bigger issue for these believers is Congress’ attempt to redefine an institution that predates civil government.
The same principle holds in other areas as well. The main issue with making “gender identity” synonymous with sex is not the threat to girls’ sports or the violation of parental rights in schools. It’s understanding that a country that can’t define the words “man” and “woman” won’t be a country for long.
It is impossible to communicate, reason, and create laws without clearly defined terms. Christians who cede ground on “Genesis issues” related to sex, sexuality, life, and marriage for the sake of political convenience or reputation management delude themselves into thinking they are more just, loving, and kind than God.
French is a virtuoso when it comes to the conservative slander two-step. He starts by tying mainstream conservatives to fringe elements on the right who actually have made an idol out of Trump. Then he deftly sidesteps legitimate criticism by ignoring people who challenge the substance of his arguments and amplifying the personal attacks he receives online. This allows him to simultaneously paint himself as a victim and avoid defending his ideas.
He has also become quite skilled in the art of triangulation. He articulates the types of views on sexual ethics and abortion that grant him legitimacy as a conservative commentator while using his access to regime liberal platforms like the New York Times and the Atlantic to flog conservatives for their ignorance and incivility. French’s default position is always the same: tickle to the left and throw haymakers to the right, all while lecturing the hoi polloi about their tone.
Donald Trump (aka “the Orange Menace”) had the same effect on David French as he did on Ta-Nehisi Coates. Both men used to be insightful social commentators who challenged convention and made readers think. Now both are shells of their former selves.
For Coates, the election of Trump was a “whitelash” from “deplorables” in direct response to eight years of black power embodied by Barack Obama. Now he has a far less prominent place in public discourse, evidenced by attempts to equate Jordan Peterson’s appeals to young men about ordering their lives with Nazis.
For French, evangelicals who voted for Trump betrayed their religious convictions and discredited the faith in front of a watching world. It appears he sees his ministry as putting those people in their place for as long as it takes for them to repent of that sin.
Everyone can see what is going on now, and many believers are tired of being attacked in public. They realize that a man who accuses Christians with different political beliefs of sowing seeds of political violence is the last person who should be giving lectures on winsomeness and gentle speech.