“Where do I fit politically?” That’s a question more Christians are asking as faith convictions feel at odds with party affiliations and partisan mindsets. Feeling at home with one particular political party is met with increasing discontent. “Political homelessness” seems to be setting in, and our guest today, David French, doesn’t think that’s a bad thing. In fact, he thinks it’s a spiritual blessing (link to dispatch article in link section above). Join Rick, Tim, and David as they discuss “political homelessness” and the ways media can undermine charting a “politically homeless” path.
David French: If you look at some of the theologically rigorous definitions of evangelicalism, Barna Group, for example has one you're talking about in the Protestant world, the people who broadly agree with evangelical Christianity are less than 10% of the population.
Rick Langer: Thank you for joining us for the Winsome Conviction Podcast. It's part of the Winsome Conviction Project, that's hosted here Biola University that takes a look at the challenging problems with communicating within our contemporary culture, particularly the polarized conversations we're having. How can we communicate with love and respect, cultivating convictions that differ, but are respectfully held and lovingly communicated? My name's Rick Langer and I'm one of your hosts here along with Tim Muehlhoff, the co-directors of the project. And here's an interesting question we'd like to think just a little bit about, what is it that Christians should expect from the world in which we live? How do we expect to be treated? How do we expect to fit in? The biblical answer it seems is that we should not expect to fit very well. We are in this world, but we are not of it Jesus says.
Rick Langer: We are aliens, exiles, sojourners, all terms that identified people who by definition do not belong in the place that they are. We are ambassadors from a distant land, and we will one day return to our homeland, which is in heaven, not here on earth. In the meantime, we should expect to be hated because the world hated Jesus first. In this world, we will know persecution. So our only hope ultimately is our ultimate hope that Jesus will come and overcome this world. Indeed, we might even expect that friendship with this world means enmity with God. So if that's how we expect to fit in the outside world in general, why would we expect to fit any better within our political world? Is it uniquely different than the rest of the outside world? Is it not the realm of quote, Gentile leadership as Jesus describes it, rules it over other people, and are we not called to do it completely different?
Rick Langer: Be servants of all. Doesn't Paul contrast the wisdom of this age and the power of this age, the wisdom and power that the Greeks and the Jews seek. And he describes that as the polar opposite of the Christian version, calling one wisdom and the other foolishness. And he just saying that the two groups just views their labels oppositely, so what the one group thinks is wisdom the other group thinks is foolishness and vice versa. What one group thinks is power the other group thinks is weakness and vice versa. You can see the complete sense of disconnect that one would think one would have not only with the world in general, but with the political realm as well. So we wouldn't expect to fit in very well. So that's a bit of an intro to our guests for today's podcast, David French. And when he talks about this phenomenon, he talks about it as political homelessness.
Rick Langer: And he describes it by asking us to imagine that we've affiliated ourselves with a "political team" but we're beginning to feel tensions. Eventually he says you might reach a breaking point. Perhaps someone on your team does something terribly wrong, and it's just too much. Or perhaps you'd see a profound injustice, but only the other side seems truly motivated to address it. You're pro-life and that's the reason why you want to join a throng of thousands of people and say words that are necessary and true Black Lives Matter. But the instant you do that, you get questions and critiques. Are you a cultural Marxist now? Don't you know about critical race theory? Have you read the official BLM website? When all you wanted to do was stand against racism and brutality, a cause it seemed unquestionably just. More and more thoughtful and often young Christians are saying to me, I'm, pro-life, I believe in religious freedom and free speech.
Rick Langer: I think we should welcome immigrants and refugees. And I desperately want racial reconciliation. Where do I fit? The answer is clear nowhere. And that truth is a blessing if you embrace it, so writes David French. And then he goes on to say, so what should we do when contemporary political alignments do not match Christian moral imperatives? He says we should declare independence. Know that doesn't mean that we always vote for third parties. He goes on to say, nor does it mean refusing to work for a politician or run for office yourself. But it does mean holding that political affiliation very, very lightly. To put it differently your commitment to Christ is permanent and eternal. Your commitment to a party or a politician is transient and ephemeral. On a surface, this feels like a hard road to walk in a highly polarized time. So that's some of the perspective that David French gives.
Rick Langer: He raises this, I think super important question about how we connect our convictions and express them in the realities of the circumstances we actually find ourselves in. We don't get to just live in an abstract world. We have to figure out how to live out our life and the time that we actually are called. There's a famous line from Charles Dickens that opens the book, A Tale of Two Cities. And he says it was the best of time and it was the worst of times. Our book, while the famous columnist added a phrase to that, it doesn't matter if it's the best of times or the worst of times, all that matters that these are your times. And that's exactly what we're confronted with in our situation. We have to figure out how to navigate these waters. And so we've invited David French to help us think just a little bit more about that.
Rick Langer: He's an attorney, a political commentator, a New York Times bestselling author. He's also a graduate of Harvard Law School and spent much of his career representing religious liberty cases in various courts in context throughout the country. He's a senior fellow at the National Review Institute. And he's currently the senior editor of The Dispatch and a columnist for Time. In his latest book released in September 2020 is, Divided We Fall: American Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation. So David French has spent a lot of time thinking about this, and we're really thrilled to be able to have him here as our guest. One thing is that I would love to talk to him and hear a little bit from him about, is an issue that he's raised before called political homelessness. Here's the question I'd love to have you answer. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
David French: It's a good thing.
Rick Langer: So talk to me about that. Unpack that for us.
David French: Yeah. First we have to say in a previous podcast, I talked about that the biblically Orthodox position in the United States is a distinctly minority position. We've had this idea that a lot of people say America is a Christian country. Well to America has been a country disproportionately populated by Christians. It is also a country that is increasingly secularizing and it's not secularizing at the same rate everywhere. And Christianity is not going to disappear anytime soon in this country, we're still a very religious country. But if you look at some of the various definitions of evangelicalism, the theologically rigorous definitions of evangelicalism. Barna Group, for example, has one you're talking about in the Protestant world, the people who broadly agree with evangelical Christianity are less than 10% of the population. Less than 10% of the population.
David French: So if that's a true number and I believe that it is a true number, neither political party is going to... And by the way, that less than 10% is a race neutral. That's not white evangelical or black evangelical. It is white, black, brown, you name it. And so in a nation where more than 90% are going to disagree with us on some pretty fundamental theological issues, neither political party is going to be an instrument of biblical truth. There will be elements of the party that may be biblically aligned, but as a whole, they're not going to be biblically aligned as a whole.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
David French: Now there might be a lot of principles that are neutral and prudential, is there a biblical position on whether Puerto Rico should be a state? For example. I haven't been able to discern one, but it's a certainly legitimate, debatable issue between Christians. So if neither political party in a nation where around less than 10% are what you would call evangelical Orthodox, then you're going to be ultimately pretty darn homeless. If you're trying to adopt a holistic biblical approach to your engagement with culture. And maybe even increasingly homeless as the culture grows more secular. I think that's just a realistic view. And so in a very real way, that's liberating.
David French: And the key thing that it liberates you from is what Tim Keller calls packaged deal ethics. And so a packaged deal ethics is essentially saying, okay, let's say I'm a Republican because I really feel strongly about life and religious liberty. I'm not as strongly interested in defense policy. I'm not as strongly interested in tax policy or net neutrality or regulatory reform. I'm going to have opinions, but that's not what gets me up in the morning. What gets me up in the morning is life and religious liberty. Well, it's a day-to-day base and I may not even have a strong attachment to the particular politicians. But then the way the world works is the character and actions of the politicians become very important to the success of the party. And so you find yourself defending the character and actions of the politicians, even though you might disagree with them.
Rick Langer: You feel obliged to support them because you are on that team.
David French: Because you are on that team, because that other thing that you care about it's not being talked about is at stake. And so what ends up happening, and I see this time and time again with Christians is their day to day interaction with the world is not about life and religious liberty. It's not, it's about defending the Republican party and defending some things and actions or our policies that either contradict their values in some ways, or they don't really care about, for the sake of values they're not talking about. Does that make sense?
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.
David French: And so this is what ends up happening when you become all in, in the partisan world is that you will often find you're down, you're say you're four to five years down the road, and let's say you have a public voice in, and you look back and you say, how many times did I write or speak about or go and television or posts on social media about the things that I really cared about? And how much was it defending the party over things I didn't really care about? And the public didn't really hear me say what I really cared about. And that's one of the problems of falling into that partisan mindset is that packaged deal ethics. And I thought, Tim Keller articulated it in the 2018 New York Times op-ed, I thought beautifully.
Rick Langer: And that's a great point about our lack of homelessness leads us directly almost into this trap of package ethics, because we feel so attached. We feel obliged to defend. Whereas we had a higher measure of detachment and say, look, I may still vote Democratic or Republican, whatever it is that you're voting. But the point is, I am not deeply patched in the language we'd love to use for planet earth of, Hey, this world is not my home, I'm only passing through. That we have that sense of attachment say, Hey, at the moment, I'm voting this way because of key issues that align, but this is not an allegiance I have to defend. Number one and number two, there's no reason for me not to raise a prophetic voice against the elements of my team, my party, that seemed problematic because, I'm not invested that way. I must speak with a prophetic voice to things I think that are going wrong.
David French: We know the perfect example of this dichotomy is the contrasting responses to sexual misconduct by Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
David French: So Bill Clinton was a pro-choice politician who had an affair with an intern and obstructed justice about it. And at the time, I'm living in Christian world at the time and we're outraged by the pro-choice position. And we're outraged by the infidelity and the perjury. We're both outraged and people wrote these eloquent statements about the importance of character in politicians. The Southern Baptist Convention wrote one in 1998, that if you read it to this day, it's actually quite indicting. And it's very serious. And it's very-
Rick Langer: Well, it's very thoughtful. It's very biblical. It seems like a wonderful position paper.
David French: I think it's a statement of theological truth. So then you have somebody who's pro-life who engages in sexual misconduct, writes checks to pay off a porn star while he's president. And somebody is in jail for that scheme right now. And then the response is quite different. The response is quite different. And what you end up realizing with the benefit of hindsight is the attack on the character of Clinton was really a means to an end. The means to an end was perhaps... This is maybe the best read on it. This is the most charitable read. The means to an end was to try to get a pro-choice politician out of office.
David French: On of the defense of Trump's infidelity or the minimization of it, or the rationalization of it is also a means to an end. And the means to an end is preserving a pro-life politician in office, but what you end up doing is appearing to be a complete and utter hypocrite, because what ends up happening is you're not talking about the main thing, the thing that's really motivating you, you're talking about the other thing, the thing that doesn't really motivate you, but you're wielding as a weapon.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
David French: And that's a problem.
Rick Langer: We were working on a voter's guide to help people think of both character and policy issues. And one of the things I wanted to do for character things is give people some things to think about. So we listed some virtues, but then as collecting some resources could say, here's some things you can read to think about it more deeply. And I ended up deciding, I can't use material either that's super recent or from the 1990s, because it is so polarized by those two things. And so I picked up a couple of pieces that were from 2008, which by the way, pretty still read like 1998.
David French: Yeah.
Rick Langer: But nonetheless, it was not quite as attached to these distorting visions, but it seems to me like it's like a black hole that bends the light that goes around it. So we have this weird distorted vision that comes once the person becomes on our side. We can't see things that we saw so clearly a few minutes ago about someone who's on the other.
David French: I'd say for the average person, given our polarized media environment, it becomes almost impossible to see things clearly. People all the time, ask me how is it that so many Christians, normal average, everyday American evangelicals, unreservedly support president Trump. And I've two answers, one is, well, a lot of people who answer to the exit poll question that they're evangelical Christians, quite frankly, they're nominal in their faith and they're mainly Republicans and Republicans vote for Republicans. That's just life, no matter what.
Rick Langer: Go figure who would have thunk it.
David French: The other is, there's a lot of truly theologically Orthodox, biblical Christians who support Trump. And my argument to some of these guys who were just mystified by it, as I say, if you consumed their news, you would be a Trump supporter too. That if you were in their media environment, you would absolutely believe that it was the right thing to support president Trump. Because the media environment they're in has filtered out a lot of damaging information, has amplified and sometimes exaggerated the good and has amplified, and sometimes exaggerated the malice of Trump's opponents. And so you don't have a proper view. And one of the things I said, this was last summer, there was this essay written called Against David French-ism. It caught fire.
Tim Muehlhoff: Congratulations being an ism. Well done.
David French: It was not intended as a compliment. And I wrote in my response to it, look, if I believe that was an accurate depiction of me. And if I believe that, that was an accurate depiction of Trump, I would be against David French-ism them also, but they was not an accurate depiction of me. And it was not an accurate depiction of Trump. And so like, what's the old computer saying garbage in garbage out. We have a problem with consuming information that produces flawed thinking and flawed reasoning. And so for an awful lot of people, quite frankly, if your news source is Primetime Fox, and your news source is Talk Radio, you have a particular picture of the president that is at odds with reality.
David French: And so quite literally, these Christians in their own mind are not making the compromises that the rest of the world sees them as making. Because they don't perceive it, because they don't have the information. I'll quit monologuing in a second, but I've been in debates with a number of Christians about support for Trump. And what's fascinating to me is I've yet to debate somebody who had a full picture of the actions that Donald Trump has taken. I haven't yet.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.
Rick Langer: And that is part of this weird side effect of the echo chamber of the media that we have.
David French: Yeah.
Rick Langer: I remember I lived overseas in a few different places in Germany and India. And I lived there long enough that I would be reading their papers. And this is back in the early 80s or late 70s and there was no internet. So I was having the international version of this phenomenon, where all I would read would be information from this orientation we're completely different country. And then you come back to the US I get a letter from somebody I'm like, wow, this sounds really different. Well, nowadays you don't have to cross an ocean. You just choose whatever podcast you're subscribed to, you choose whatever media source and you get an even more actually, I would argue polarized viewpoint for your data.
Tim Muehlhoff: Let me mention something. I stuck my feet in the fire, and I want to get your impression on this. I was asked the question, what's the perspective of evangelicals? And I said, well, one enduring stereotype that we've wrestled with for a very long time, is that a being a hypocrite. And the host said to me, give me an example of it. Do you think that's a fair critique? And I said, let me give you an example I think it's a fair critique. I said, so I have friends who never talk about abortion, ever until it's election time. Then I hear about the abortion holocaust. Right. Which by the way, I agree that it's horrifying when you look at the numbers.
Tim Muehlhoff: I'm deeply pro-life, but I have friends who only revive that rhetoric when it comes every four years, because then it's an easy decision who to vote for. Because I'm tied to pro-life and I'm going to vote for most likely the Republican on this issue. Talk to me a little bit about how to navigate this. I have so many of my friends who say, obviously I'm voting for him because he's pro-life. So one about the hypocrisy part. I think there's something about that is listen, well, we can't just use the abortion statistics to get out of jail card of how to vote every four years. If we believe it's this bad, it ought to be affecting us every single year and put our money where our mouth is. So to us a little bit about abortion and is that I'm stuck. I'm locked into one party for the rest of my life.
David French: I'm so glad you brought this up. I've been pro-life for my entire adult life. I founded the first independent pro-life student club at Harvard Law School back in 1992. Pro-life lawyer, raised money for pro-life causes. I've helped raise millions of dollars for pro-life causes, litigated on behalf of pro-life students from coast to coast in the United States. And I'm cynical about pro-life politics. I'm really pretty cynical because here's one of the things that I've seen about the pro-life reality on the ground is I have seen crisis pregnancy struggle with funding, living on shoestring budgets, struggled to staff with volunteers. I have talked to pro-life leaders who talk about the difficulty of raising money for pro-life causes compared to raising money for just a political party or many other causes. I've seen it time and time again, this daily struggle of those folks who are on the ground in the pro-life movement to have any support, to get any traction, but they're doing heroic work.
David French: Crisis pregnancy centers are indispensable. And then I hear every four years, it's a genocide, it's like slavery. And one of my responses I've started to say is, I don't believe you believe that. I don't believe you believe that. Now are there people who I know believe that and by their actions? But I want to know, if you believe that, what have you done? Well, I've voted once every four years. You don't believe it. You don't believe it. What you're doing is you're using it as a rhetorical club to win a social media argument. That's what you're doing. I think at this point, it's like, if you've put your money where your mouth is, if you put your sweat equity where your mouth is, let's have a conversation. But if all you've done is vote and post, nah, nah, I don't think you're serious.
Rick Langer: Well, that's a really provocative and probably a helpful thing to stop and think about because-
David French: Provocative is an understatement.
Rick Langer: Well, but rightfully so, right? Part of what we want to do is take a mirror and look at our own heart, our own conduct and say, wow, that's right. And there's nothing wrong with being confronted and realize, man, I'm not living up faithfully to my own convictions. Thank you, David French so much for joining us for this time. It's been a delight to have you and I trust our listeners well, thoroughly enjoyed it and perhaps been just a little bit provoked by some of the things that they've said. If you enjoyed this, we encourage you to sign up, subscribe to the Winsome Conviction Podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or however it is that you get your podcasts. And we'd also encourage you to check out the winsomeconviction.com website for more resources, discussions, blogs, and things like that. Talking about how we can cultivate conviction, hold them deeply, and also have loving conversations with one another about these matters of conviction. Thanks again for joining us.
David French: Thanks so much for having me.