I enjoyed reading David French’s columns and musings at National Review and looked forward to reading his perspective on everything from law to religion. I still enjoy reading much of what he writes.
However, the 2016 presidential campaign and election had a demonstrable effect on French; it changed him. It changed a lot of us, truthfully. Many thought and felt that the country had two less-than-desirable choices on the ballot for president. Frankly, for the center-left, voting for its candidate was a no-brainer. For the center-right, the decision was not so easy. In addition to his recent conversion to Republican politics, there were legitimate questions regarding Donald Trump’s understanding and commitment to what remains of Republican principles as well as questions concerning his personal character, his temperament, and his ability to lead in a role that was outside of his purview.
Despite these and other legitimate concerns regarding the costs of a Donald Trump presidency, he won the election — thanks in large part to the support of white Evangelicals. Christian support for Donald Trump has wedged itself deeply under David French’s skin and he’s (figuratively) spilled loads of ink letting everyone know about his disgust for his fellow white Evangelicals.
Writing at The Dispatch, French has penned a number of pieces castigating his fellow Christians for supporting and defending Donald Trump. In full transparency, I share some of his concerns regarding the unwillingness and apprehension of Evangelicals (and MAGA world, generally) to publicly hold President Trump accountable when he errs. Over the last four years, it would’ve been in the best interest of the president — and our country — had both groups spoken up sooner and more frequently to let the president know their support didn’t equal a blank check. It would have made President Trump a more reliable and consistent leader.
Having said that, French has taken a professional Never Trump stance to use as a bludgeon against fellow Christians. He misses few chances in letting the public know his feelings about white Evangelicals that continue to support Donald Trump.
Here’s a recent piece posted this past week on The French Press.
The first portion is fairly legit. Though I think the video announcement is fairly clear, French questions how Albert Mohler, the potential next president of the Southern Baptist Convention, could endorse Donald Trump in this year’s election — specifically when he didn’t support Donald Trump in 2016.
In 2016, he was consistent with his denomination’s clear and unequivocal statement about the importance of moral character in public officials. He has now decisively changed course.
In 1998—during Bill Clinton’s second term—the Southern Baptist Convention declared that “tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment” and therefore urged “all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office, and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.”
Mohler so clearly recognized the applicability of those words that he said, “If I were to support, much less endorse Donald Trump for president, I would actually have to go back and apologize to former President Bill Clinton.” I do wonder if Mohler will apologize. He absolutely should.
Though Mohler discusses the overall character deficits of both Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, I think French misses a few things in this comparison. French doesn’t clarify the difference between the evangelical condemnation of former President Bill Clinton and the lack of evangelical condemnation of President Donald Trump.
The personal fouls and unforced errors committed since President Trump has been in office, though not excusable, are not of the same standard as those committed by Bill Clinton when he was in office. It’s a distinction with an important difference. The comparison, here, is with the moral offenses committed while in office (hence, the citation of Bill Clinton’s second term). To be consistent, we have to then compare both presidents to what they’ve done while in office.
Among many, many other indiscretions, Bill Clinton had an extramarital relationship and deliberately lied to the public about it. Clinton also lied under oath during his civil case — he denied the affair, the relationship, and that he had sexual relations with his intern; he lied under oath during grand jury testimony about his sexual relationship with his intern; he obstructed justice and persuaded his former intern to lie under oath, and was also guilty of witness tampering.
Many of the offenses that Donald Trump has committed in office haven’t (or haven’t yet) reached Clinton’s level of sinfulness (if one can use that term). Again, I’m not excusing the current president for the growing list of transgressions he’s committed (macro or micro). I’m simply highlighting the difference between the two, demonstrating why the comparison fails. All sins aren’t the same. For good reason, the Bible goes to great lengths to educate its readers about the gradations of sins — the severity of which, if not immediately obvious, are seen in the varying consequences of and responses to those sins. For example, the penalty for murder is death. Conversely, the penalty for unintentional killing (negligence that leads to killing, manslaughter) is expulsion to a city of refuge — ending only when the high priest in office at the time of the killing dies.
Additionally, I don’t remember reading French conceding the difficulty of choosing between Donald Trump and Hillary in 2016. He has repeatedly minimized or ignored the inconvenience many Christians endured as they thoughtfully contemplated and ultimately decided between the two broadly unlikeable candidates. However, in this particular piece, it’s the closest French has come to acknowledging that struggle. He says,
The role of the people of God in political life is so much more difficult and challenging than merely listing a discrete subset of issues (even when those issues are important!) and supporting anyone who agrees to your list. The prophet Jeremiah exhorted the people of Israel to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.”
Yes, David, it is, and thanks for finally acknowledging the obvious. It was a challenge and it remains a challenge. Many Evangelicals, realizing that if they voted, had a choice between bad and worse. Consequently, many thoughtfully prayed, fasted, read their Bibles, studied Christian history, sought counsel from clergy and fellow believers — and still, prayed more. In essence, for many white Evangelicals, choosing Trump, warts and all, was “seeking the welfare” of the country so that they may also “have welfare (or as the NIV translates it, “…Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”).
Moreover, Christians and Evangelicals thought about the ramifications of voting for either candidate or not voting at all. French generally flouts this process. He’s flippant when it comes to why white Evangelicals, despite the president’s personal flaws, continue to support him. He disparages his fellow Evangelicals in ways that demonstrate a clear and consistent lack of Christian grace but also in ways that he hasn’t nor wouldn’t address black Christians regarding their vote for — and support of — former President Barack Obama.
And that’s one of the areas where he’s undermined his witness on Christian political activity and accountability — his differing standards between black and white Christians. French holds black Christians to a much lower moral standard than he does white Evangelicals. Black Christians deliberately and recurrently have escaped his admonitions. In this post, he stresses black Christian religiosity but only as a cudgel against white Evangelicals and the latter’s support of Trump.
Again, French has never taken black Christians to task for supporting Barack Obama (or Hillary Clinton) the way he does with white Evangelicals and Trump (if he has to the same extent, my apologies to him). I would like to know why — specifically in light of the fact that he openly speculated as to what Obama’s true “religious” beliefs were.
Obama was a self-identified Christian who sat in Jeremiah Wright’s church — Trinity United Church of Christ (Chicago, Ill.) — for 20 years. Barack and Michelle Obama were married by Wright; Obama had his daughters baptized by Wright, used Trinity’s congregation to launch his political career, and who — again, as a self-identified Christian — passed and supported policies and positions (gay marriage, abortion, transgenderism, politics of envy and redistribution, etc.) that stood in clear and direct contradiction to the Bible and orthodox Christianity.
Why didn’t David French loudly and consistently question or condemn black Christians for continuing to support Barack Obama? Why didn’t French rebuke black Christians for forming a cult around him and his leadership? Did he ever implore black Christians to speak up and hold Obama accountable? Did he write numerous pieces on why black Christians were obligated to forfeit their support of Barack Obama or risk losing moral and religious credibility? Did black Christians abandon “the character test” like their white Evangelical counterparts? Were they ever in danger of forfeiting their “competence” like white Evangelicals?
I think French would have established more credibility (again, on this issue) had he held his fellow Christians who’re black to the same religious standard he holds white Evangelicals. There would’ve been some consistency in his condemnation.
Then, there’s this:
And please Christians, do not run back to arguments about “binary choice.” When I walk into the voting booth (or mail in my ballot), I will see more than two names. I’ll also have a choice to write in a name. I will not have to compromise my convictions to cast a vote for president.
This has always been a less than persuasive argument to me. Of course, one can write in and vote for Mickey Mouse on the ballot.
But there are certain variables that exist that one must take into consideration if one wants to throw away one’s vote to maintain, in this case, a sense of moral superiority. One variable is who’s also on the ballot running for office, here, the presidency. This is particularly important if and when a notable third-party candidate is running and from whom this third-party candidate will siphon votes. Not actively voting for one of the two major candidates is passively a vote in favor of the other.
If you do, however, want to revert to the language of “binary choice,” we need to examine the larger context. In January the nation faced a different kind of binary choice. It was, quite simply, “Trump or Pence.” When the president was impeached after he clearly attempted to condition vital military aid to an ally on a demand for a politically motivated investigation of a political opponent and on a demand to investigate a bizarre conspiracy theory, white Evangelicals had a decision to make.
They chose Trump.
They chose Trump when they would have certainly sought to impeach and convict a Democrat under similar facts.
This, too, is unpersuasive. His position underlies many assumptions that Trump was deserving of impeachment based on information contained in the transcript of a phone call between him and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. In my opinion, and not having voted for Donald Trump, I didn’t think there was enough in that transcript that qualified as a “high crime” or “misdemeanor,” and I certainly didn’t think it justified impeachment, much less conviction and removal.
Second, David French is right: it was a binary choice, but not between “Trump or Pence.” It was between supporting the flagrant use of impeachment as a political tool to remove an elected president for partisan reasons and not using impeachment for politically partisan reasons, full stop. To use that embarrassing episode to reinforce an already flimsy argument against the “binary choice” argument, and to further diminish white Evangelicals, missed the mark.
Look, I get it. David French has a severe loathing for Donald Trump. In the professional and credentialed class, he’s certainly not alone. But his animosity for Donald Trump has negatively affected his judgment and conduct toward his fellow white Evangelicals.
On this issue, he lacks distinguishable Christian love when addressing them but particularly when mocking them. I admit that French may be sincerely concerned with the reputation and credibility of white Evangelicals and Christian political witness. But the way he communicates his concern looks like a white Evangelical more concerned with self/moral preservation — actively trying to distance himself from the stigma of Donald Trump. In doing so, his critiques come across as if to be saying, “I’m not like those Evangelicals. I’m a real Christian because I condemn Trump and those so-called Evangelicals who support him.”
When white Evangelicals have called him out on social media for his lack of objectivity and incivility toward them, he seems reluctant to address these objections maturely. Several times, even after respectful inquiry, engagement, and push back asking him to defend or clarify his position(s), he’s un-friended them. I’ve seen it and have been disheartened by it.
In his critiques going forward, as I’m sure there will be more, I hope David French offers a bit more Christian charity as he challenges his fellow white Evangelicals.