David French is typical of a kind of Christian thinking that New York Post opinion editor Sohrab Ahmari calls “French-ism.” In a takedown of the Dispatch writer for First Things, Ahmari describes French-ism as “more a persuasion or a sensibility than a movement with clear tenets.” Whatever you call it, I call it problematic.
For the uninitiated, David French, formerly of National Review, is currently senior editor of the Dispatch. He is the intellectual armory for a type of Christian that has done — and continues to do — a great deal of damage. French associates himself with “principled conservatism.” This is a pandering term the Left employs for those conservatives who are useful to them because they attack other conservatives, and it is a term people like French use to imply that those who disagree with him and his ilk are without principles.
Yes, French makes much of his principles. Indeed, he has insulated himself with them, appearing to take a very principled Christian position. Permit me a story to illustrate why his principles are the problem:
In 2009, my wife and I adopted a little girl named Sasha from Ukraine. Along the (deliberately grueling) way, all but one of a myriad of government officials involved in the process demanded a bribe. I paid them all without hesitation. Bitterly, yes, but without any pangs of conscience. When I wrote of this experience in a book about Sasha and the dehumanizing influence of socialism, many were the Christians who mounted their high horses to lecture me on how wrong I was to pay such bribes. Their principles, they said, would never let them do it.
Think about this for a moment. It’s a monstrous pride that says such a thing. Sasha was not an abstract point of argument who existed merely for the self-righteous to demonstrate their virtue by denying her a home. She was a human being who could not afford their warped notion of principles. With 60 percent of girls who “graduate” from these orphanages becoming prostitutes, 10 percent committing suicide, and another 30 percent of those with severe disabilities dead by the age of 18, it’s not a stretch to suggest she would be dead now. (Happily, Sasha, a blessing to everyone she meets, was just married.) And who among my interlocutors wouldn’t pay a king’s ransom to liberate one of their own children from captivity were it necessary to do so?
I give you David French, the celebrated “principled conservative.” I find French’s principles offensive because they are a self-made crown adorning a colossal vanity to rival that of the former president he so loathes. (Even in defending French, PJ Media calls him “a bit pompous.”) If French, for the sake of his principles, wants to fall on his own sword, I’ll not stop him. But it’s the unborn who are impaled instead. French can sacrifice them in the principled conviction that it is the right thing to do because they are, like Sasha to my critics, an abstraction. But they are human beings who cannot afford his principles.
Of course, French would argue that he is fiercely pro-life. And he is — in the abstract. However, in campaigning hard for Trump’s defeat with his tiresome harangues on the president’s alleged lack of character and his relentless assaults on those who planned to vote for him, he worked at cross purposes.
Of all the miserable political takes in this miserable political age, here is one of the worst–that it was somehow “pearl-clutching” or “naïve” to demand character and competence in the presidency.
— David French (@DavidAFrench) August 25, 2021
French’s response to criticisms like mine is to say that Trump is not pro-life even if his policies and judicial appointees were. This is, to quote French, a “miserable political take.” I’ve long heard similar arguments about the Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and the Edict of Milan which he issued in 313 A.D. declaring his chosen faith a religio licita (“tolerated religion”). He wasn’t really a Christian, some historians say. That may be. But for the sake of his soul, the point is irrelevant. The fact is, Constantine’s policy ended almost two centuries of Christian persecution. Yet in French’s moral universe, Constantine is no better than Nero, and Trump is not to be preferred to Biden.
So incensed was French by the prospects of a Trump presidency (not a Biden presidency if word count is any indicator) that he considered his own presidential run. Since Trump lacked “character and competence,” French decided America needed a man like, well, himself. This is a bit like Marshal Philippe Pétain saying he would give France “The gift of his person.” Don’t be fooled by the niceties. French has just the sort of monumental hubris he decries in the former president, it’s just that Trump makes no effort to hide his own. In the end, French decided to forego the Oval Office and instead use his platform at National Review to attack Trump and his supporters — not Biden and his. (You know, the ones who were burning cities and sentencing your grandmother to a lonely death in isolation.)
In an article titled “How to be Pro-Life in Biden’s America,” French wrings his hands over the now-imperiled Hyde Amendment, which prevents an estimated 50,000 additional abortions per year. 50,000 human lives, not abstractions. In the column, he tries to reassure Christians disturbed by what a Biden presidency means for the unborn:
“In the days and weeks since Biden’s election, I’ve heard a number of Christians express genuine anguish about the prospects for defending life during the Biden administration. Make no mistake, there is cause for deep concern about the administration’s policies.”
“Cause for deep concern.” Ya think, David? This is the political and cultural Armageddon that people like French have given us. They brought us here. His whole article reads like it was written by someone who aided arsonists in burning your house down but who now wants to offer you the comfort of his counsel, all the while never comprehending the hypocrisy of his actions.
Lest I be misunderstood, I am not a moral pragmatist. I believe in the same God of the Bible as David French and subsequently believe in the absolute, universal principles that flow from that God’s existence. While I have occasionally, in my own sinful nature, violated those principles, I have never worshipped them or paraded them as an emblem of my own virtue. And I certainly don’t expect others to suffer for my convictions, be they unborn children or children languishing in orphanages, and that is the practical outworking of principles like those of David French.
Principles, like anything else, can be perverted. In this case, they are an idol, a Golden Calf that has supplanted the God to whom they must be tethered. Unmoored from that Fixed Point, as Blaise Pascal put it, French’s principles take on a dangerous character because they have been harnessed to a deeply unprincipled end.
But isn’t French’s position rooted in Scripture?
I don’t think so. Take, for example, French’s “character” argument that serves as the basis of his Never Trumpism. (Which is, by the way, the only tenet of “French-ism.”) French uses a lot of Christian language and biblical references, but that’s as far as it goes. If French means to apply the standards of ancient Israel, a theocracy where there was no separation of church and state, he can’t à la carte those standards. He has to take it all the way, but that won’t work for his purposes:
- The Lord, a “jealous God,” required the people to worship him and him alone, and he certainly required it of kings: Exodus 20:3.
- And the Lord had a very low tolerance for critics of his anointed leaders, that is, for people like David French. (See the terrifying story of Dathan, Korah, and Abiram in Numbers 16.)
So, why does French stop at the character argument? Because it suits the sole tenet of “French-ism.”
The fact is, the God of the Bible used not merely ungodly kings, but outright pagan ones like Nebuchadnezzar and Darius to render justice on behalf of his people. In Esther chapters 4-8, we see Mordecai, a Jew, appealing to King Xerxes through Queen Esther to save the Jews from the plot of the wicked Haman. In reading the story, I don’t get the impression the Jews were much over-worried about the fact that Xerxes was a pagan king who slept with a whole host of virgins before deciding which one he would marry. As the story unfolds, Xerxes responds decisively to the Jews’ plea for help and destroys Haman and the plotters.
There is a difference between private sin and public policy, and it is foolish to confuse the two. Does French make the same “character” demands of his barber, his mechanic, his accountant, or his surgeon? Or does he look for someone who can do the job competently?
The word “competent” is significant here given French’s tweet (see below) “demand[ing] character and competency in the presidency.” Turnabout is fair play, and one might also demand it of journalists. For two years, French, blinded and bamboozled by his own hatred for Trump and a media conspiracy to unseat him, incompetently championed the discredited (and ridiculous) Trump-Russia collusion narrative. “Let the implications of that statement sink in.” If Trump was to be indicted were the allegations proved true, what should the consequences be for French for promoting a scurrilous story we now know was not true? Here’s a biblical argument: “For in the same manner you judge others, so shall you be judged.” (Matthew 7:2)
As we close this day, it may well be the case that the only reason Trump hasn’t been indicted is that he’s president, the leader of the free world. Let the implications of that statement sink in.
— David French (@DavidAFrench) August 21, 2018
French is a subtle thinker. As such, one would think that he could see that Democrats and their media allies have, in Pavlovian fashion, conditioned a portion of the public to foam at the mouth at the mere mention of Trump’s name. Having accomplished that, they now label any conservative platform that is hostile to the radical Left’s agenda as “Trumpism.”
Are you pro-life? You’re a misogynistic, anti-heathcare Trumper!
Do you favor a sensible immigration policy? You’re a xenophobic Trumper!
Do you believe COVID passports are a massive infringement of freedom and privacy? You’re a genocidal Trumper!
That Christian author/speaker Beth Moore might fall for this media narrative, I understand. I doubt she’s ever heard of Saul Alinsky, much less read him. But French is too smart and has too much media experience not to see the (Marxist) playbook the radical Left is following. Or so I thought. French has eagerly devoured and broadcast practically every conspiracy theory regarding Trump right up to the January 6 nonsense. No anti-Trump propaganda was too outrageous. Meanwhile, he characterized Biden, a man ready to prostitute himself to the highest bidder, as a unifier and healer. Go figure.
At this point, it is worth stating that I did not vote for Trump in 2016. I voted for Cruz in the primaries and, knowing Trump would carry my state, against Hillary anyway. I wrote in a candidate in the presidential election. This was my bit of principled pomposity. I did not believe he would govern as a conservative. I did not believe he would take Christian concerns seriously. I believed, like French, that evangelicals were compromising themselves in supporting him.
But I was wrong.
Trump did govern as a conservative. Moreover, he had — dare I say it? — the strength of character to stand against a bullying, lying, truly toxic Left. There would be no cuddling here. I have a hard time imagining any other Republican doing anything but wilting under the obviously false, vicious, and incessant media assaults that Trump weathered, to say nothing of the politically motivated impeachment hearings. These things turned me from a “probably not” Trumper to a Trump voter.
So, what gives? How does a guy like David French, thoughtful, educated, and a man who takes his faith in Jesus Christ seriously, not repent of this folly as Erick Erickson and I did?
Historian J.M. Thompson observed, “A man is never so dangerous as when he can identify a private grievance with a matter of principle.” French has made both the grievance and the principle variants on a theme: Trump and Never Trumpism. It has become his raison d’être.
What ostensibly started as a well-intentioned Never Trumpism has progressed to a sneering, pompous elitism that couches itself in a holier-than-thou Christianity. Babylon Bee CEO Seth Dillon nailed it (see below) when he sarcastically suggested we should just defer to David French on all questions pertaining to Christianity. One senses that French has gone so far in his Never Trumpism that he simply can’t turn back. That has put him in the intellectually untenable position of blaming the debacle in Afghanistan on the American people instead of the Biden administration; justifying lockdowns, vaccine passports, Gen. Mark Milley’s insubordination if not outright treason; denying his belief in “generational white guilt” but lending his support to a kind of “institutional racism” that ends in generational white guilt; and, perhaps most bizarrely, he attacks opponents of Critical Race Theory, an idea rooted in Marxism which is, in turn, atheistic to the core.
The most powerful nation in the world *chose* to leave behind 250 of its own citizens. Unconscionable. https://t.co/WXmCr0LQXY
— David French (@DavidAFrench) August 31, 2021
Somewhere David French is furiously writing “The conservative case for unvaccinated internment camps”
— Auron MacIntyre (@AuronMacintyre) September 10, 2021
I can’t believe we wrote a whole book titled “How to be a Perfect Christian” when we could have just hyperlinked to David French’s Twitter. https://t.co/CCrWitKWmk
— Seth Dillon (@SethDillon) August 29, 2021
David French’s complaint of the last 5 years was conflation of Christianity and politics. Yet he has done more to try to bind the consciences of Christians on elite priorities than anyone in the country.
Should God judge him by the standard by which he has judged the church? https://t.co/Xp0fsmQW0c
— Nate Fischer (@NateAFischer) August 29, 2021
I disagree with many Biden policies, but on a human level, I’m happy for him. He’s suffered such heartbreak in his life. He was mocked for running after two bad losses. He ran a campaign focused on unity and healing. And a record number of Americans put him in the Oval Office.
— David French (@DavidAFrench) November 7, 2020
Perhaps you think he is “woke,” but that accusation is false. That said, you might think of his writings as a shoehorn into that agenda. He’s an unwitting collaborator with an enemy hellbent on the destruction of America as we know it, it’s Judeo-Christian heritage most of all.
David French’s collaboration is that of Alec Guinness’s Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, priding himself on the preservation of his principles and good manners as he aids the enemy in the building of a vital bridge that will enable them to continue to kill his fellow countrymen. One wonders, however, if he’ll ever have Nicholson’s revelation:
Larry Alex Taunton is a freelance columnist with contributions to USA Today, Fox News, First Things, the Atlantic, the New York Post, CNN, Daily Caller, and The American Spectator. He is also the author of The Gospel Coalition Arts & Culture Book of the Year The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, and the recently released Around the World in (More Than) 80 Days: Discovering What Makes America Great and Why We Must Fight to Save It. You can subscribe to his blog at larryalextaunton.com and find him on Twitter @larrytaunton.