Illustration by Mike Ellis
It’s no surprise to anyone anymore that much of the common ground once shared by conservatives and liberals is now a battleground. We’ve been told countless times, and have seen with our own eyes, that people are angry and confused, and that those on one side of an argument rarely listen to those on the other.
But there is also a restless sense among God’s people that Christianity has something to say about this; that Christians surely have some part to play in binding the culture’s wounds, despite our differences with “those on the other side.”
David French, a member of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, has been thinking and writing about these things for years, first at the Alliance Defending Freedom, then at National Review, and now at The Dispatch and in his recent book “Divided We Fall.”
Covenant College professors Jay Green and Kelly Kapic recently spoke with him about what that involvement might look like.
The Two Stories
As Christians wade into the cultural fray, French wants them to be aware of a “good story” and a “bad story.” The good story begins with the fact that when Christians advocate for biblical justice or godly values, there’s going to be pushback — period. It doesn’t matter how winsome we are, or how kind, or how humble — some segment of the population, and probably a large one — will fight us, not so much for what we do, but for who we are.
French thinks back to a personal experience at Vanderbilt University. In 2011, the university’s director of religious life placed Graduate Christian Fellowship (GCF), a chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, on probation. The university insisted that the group drop its requirement that student leaders must affirm its doctrinal statement. If GCF refused, the university would rescind its status as a registered student organization. French entered the fray, coming alongside Tish Harrison Warren (Tish Harrison at the time), then a GCF leader, to petition the university.
French grants that he doesn’t see eye to eye with Warren on everything — her politics, he suspects, are more progressive than his — nevertheless, he’s certain there’s no better Christian ambassador to the secular academy. In a 2014 Christianity Today article, Harrison wrote that she saw herself as, “an acceptable kind of evangelical.” She wasn’t a fundamentalist, she said. She enjoyed art, valued authenticity, racial reconciliation, and social and environmental justice. Even so, she and French hit one brick wall after another.
In their discussions with the university, “The word discrimination began to be used — a lot,” Warren recalled, “especially in regard to creedal requirements.” She asked if it was really fair to equate racial prejudice with “asking Bible study leaders to affirm the Resurrection.” The vice chancellor replied, “Creedal discrimination is still discrimination.”
There was this incredible coalition of Christians (including RUF) who simply wanted to maintain their right of association, French says. They wanted to gather together and spread their message on campus. But despite their good manners, respectful attitude, and reasonable arguments, Vanderbilt saw them as a threat. “We were presented with a united, decisive, and often vindictive response,” French says.
French encourages Christians to freely embrace Lewis’ concept of love of home, love of community, of seeking peace and prosperity for all citizens.
That’s what happens when you stand up for biblical justice and Christian values; the powers and authorities align against you.
That’s the good story.
There’s a bad story, too, and it’s been going on too long: hypocrisy in the church. We’ve seen it too many times, French says: Celebrity preachers fall; camp counselors become mired in scandal; youth pastors, sinfully and perhaps illegally, entice their young charges, boys and girls alike.
Such scandals, of course, tarnish the church’s reputation. But the damage is compounded, in French’s view, when we add “total partisanship” to it.
For context, we might frame our thinking about evangelical partisanship this way: Black Christians, French says, tend to be to the right of the Democratic Party. Mormons, generally, are slightly left of the Republican Party. Atheists are left of the Democrats. But there’s no light between evangelical Christianity and the Republican Party. That’s a problem, French believes, because the Republican platform isn’t divinely inspired. It’s got plenty of virtue, but there are problems, too.
So when the world looks at the church, it mostly sees highly publicized moral failures and absolute allegiance to one political party. We can’t be surprised, then, when those outside the church grow wary of those inside.
When they learn about abuse in the church, they’re justifiably angry, French says. But we need to see that this isn’t like their anger over our moral stance on abortion, or our support of traditional marriage, or our views on sexuality and identity. This isn’t the persecution the Bible warns us about. “It’s more like righteous judgment.”
So on one hand we need to be mindful that the world is opposed to us, to our values, morals, and beliefs. We’re wise to brace ourselves for their predictable attacks. On the other hand, we tend to lose sight of the fact that we’ve got some internal housekeeping to do.
In light of those realities, how might Christians narrow the nation’s political divide?
French begins with what he sees as our “indispensable role in shaping the intended culture of our republic,” namely “ordered liberty.” The concept comes from two statements made by two of America’s founders, he explains. Thomas Jefferson wrote that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights; among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson went on to say that governments are instituted among men to secure these liberties. “That’s the big mission statement of the American republic,” French says.
Later, John Adams wrote to members of the Massachusetts militia. He told them about the merits of the Constitution and famously warned that, “It was made for a moral and religious people. It was wholly inadequate for the governance of any other.”
These statements complement one another, French argues. The responsibility of government is to secure liberty. The responsibility of the people is to exercise that liberty for virtuous purposes through virtuous means. If the government denies liberty, the country doesn’t work. If the people tend toward iniquity, the country doesn’t work.
Christians, therefore, have an essential role. When we’re in positions of authority, we’re responsible to secure liberty and fight for the rights of all people, ensuring that everyone enjoys the rights we want to exercise, including our political opponents and those at the margins of society. If government fails in the mission, that’s our fault. At the same time, if we fail to meet our responsibility as citizens, that’s our fault, too. That’s how the puzzle fits together.
In “The Four Loves,” C.S. Lewis walks readers through three aspects of patriotism, French says. He starts with a very basic love of home and neighbor. This is the patriotism that moves us beyond self-love and even love of family to embrace love of town, love of neighbors, love of community. “It’s how you feel when you land in an airport after you’ve been overseas for a while,” French says. You get wrapped up in the warmth of the community around you. You feel affection for other people, you understand their love of home. It’s something you have in common. This is patriotism that forges unity.
But Lewis also warned against creating a “valorized version” of our history. This, Lewis said, was a misremembered story that exalts some communities, denigrates others, and is, therefore, ahistorical. Lewis rightly worried that such a history might lead to racism.
So, while we guard against the valorized version of history, French encourages Christians to freely embrace Lewis’ concept of love of home, love of community, of seeking peace and prosperity for all citizens. That concept, French assures us, can be a wonderful vehicle for biblical justice.
Diverse People and a Centralized Government
Such feelings of kinship are harder to come by these days. The tension, French believes, stems from the fact that we are an increasingly diverse nation dominated by an increasingly centralized government.
America is becoming more diverse religiously, ideologically, and ethnically. Which means “common culture” is becoming a thing of the past, French says. There may be things about that we don’t like, but thankfully, our system of government is built to handle it.
In Federalist Paper 10, French tells us, James Madison deals specifically with how to handle “the violence of faction.” Madison wanted to leave room for “many factions to bloom” so that no one faction would grow so strong or so aggressive that it would threaten the survival of the others. He was, French suggests, making an early argument for pluralism. Not relativism, but pluralism.
We can hold fast to our Christian beliefs and still favor a pluralistic society, French says. Biola University President Barry Corey puts it well: “firm core, soft edges.” We maintain a hard core of conviction, but we also maintain an openness to the world. That’s one way our community — the church — can grow. It’s our openness to others that allows us to share the gospel, to bring people from the outside into our community. But we have to understand — and accept the fact — that others will form communities around competing visions.
That’s the heart of the First Amendment. Government must protect these communities, knowing that they compete theologically, intellectually, and culturally. But the problem with a highly centralized government, French says, is that it’s tempted to dominate its competitors rather than accommodate and protect them.
In recent years we’ve seen this on the right and on the left, he says, with both sides seeing how the awesome power of the federal government might be used to impose their version of the “common good” or social justice from the top down.
That won’t work in a diverse country. Each community — each faction, Madison might say — demands liberty and freedom of conscience. And we ought to give it to them, especially if we expect the same in return. “We don’t have anything to fear from the liberty of our neighbor,” French insists. In fact, their liberty is just.
Liberation and a Sense of Calm
The state of our politics is worrisome, and yet God rules. Even so, French insists, we’re not to be passive. With respect to his own life, French says, “I haven’t slowed down where I believe God is calling me to engage with the culture. I work hard. But I know the results are firmly in the Lord’s hands.”
For him, and it is hoped for all God’s people, that brings liberation and sense of calm.