In an age of extreme partisanship and constant outrage, one prominent Christian has staked out a distinct form of conservatism.
David French, a military veteran, religious freedom attorney, and current senior editor of The Dispatch, champions a conservatism without the rhetorical aggression and outrage of the Trump era. French routinely (though calmly) calls out hypocrisy on both the right and left, a practice for which he is routinely attacked. And he unapologetically supports his views in his online column, the “French Press.”
In 2016, French became known as one of the most resolute #NeverTrump Republicans. His own brand of conservatism, grounded in his Christian faith and the ideals of classical liberalism, has often put him at odds with the Republican Party.
French might be viewed as a moderate by those who equate conservatism with Trumpism. But he is in fact an evangelical Christian, unapologetically pro-life, and a strong constitutional originalist. French’s “moderation” simply describes his respect for American institutions and his commitment to upholding ethical and constitutional barriers that support a healthy democracy.
In a recent conversation with David French, I asked him how he defines decency in politics, and about whether people with opposing political beliefs deserve decency. “Decency is a term that’s difficult to define,” French reflected. “But I think I would define it roughly as treating opponents and friends with a measure of respect and courtesy. It’s a very baseline value. So I do think people can be wrong and still be decent.”
At the same time, French emphasized that decency is a low behavioral bar. He describes decency as the bare minimum, especially for Christians, who are called to “bless those who persecute you” and “love your enemies.” In Matthew 7, Jesus demands that his followers “remove the plank from their own eye” before they attempt to remove the speck from their brother’s, and French argues that, in the Trump era, many Christians who have attacked progressives for being indecent have viewed Christian teachings as tactics, rather than directives.
The “Flight 93 Election”
French has written extensively against the idea of a “Flight 93 election,” a term originally coined by the scholar Michael Anton in a 2016 essay, where he likened a prospective Hillary Clinton presidency to an al-Qaeda terrorist attack.
Polarized rhetoric is common on both the right and left, a phenomenon David French notes in his 2020 book, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation. “There is not a single important cultural, religious, political or social force that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart,” French writes, before describing two potential scenarios, “Calexit” and “Texit,” in which the Union could split along political and cultural lines.
Political extremism is not only driving Americans apart, French warns, but also undermining confidence in American democracy. If, as former President Trump claimed in June 2019, the other side wants “to destroy you and . . . our country as we know it,” then who can avoid a win-at-all-costs mindset? This explains why rioters on January 6 were willing to use deadly force to break into the U.S. Capitol, even after many of them had condemned similar violence during the Black Lives Matter riots of the previous summer.
While winning the White House is important for David French, winning the culture is far more important. In fact, French has claimed that Christian support for someone with Donald Trump’s character is far more damaging to the church and the Republican Party than a Democrat in the White House, both morally and politically.
“Any time you’re going to tie faith to ideas and people who do not . . . personify biblical ethics,” French warns, “you’re creating a real problem.”
Defending decency and unity might not sound controversial, but some critics have accused David French of “unilateral disarmament” in the political fight for conservative values. In 2019, the conservative writer Sohrab Ahmari bestowed on French the dubious honor of assigning his name to a political philosophy, when he published the op-ed “Against David French-ism” in First Things magazine.
In response to a story about drag queens hosting “story hours” at public libraries, Ahmari argued there is no “polite, David Frenchian third way around the cultural civil war,” making the striking claim that conservatives should “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”
The debates between Ahmari and French in 2019 offered French a chance to defend his views before a wider audience. French emphasized that the best defense against attacks on the church and on Christianity is the contemporary liberal order (and the viewpoint neutrality of the US government), points which Ahmari struggled to refute without casting aspersion on the very structure of American constitutional governance. As New York Times columnist Bret Stephens put it, Sohrab Ahmari’s declaration “is the voice of a would-be theocrat, even if he hasn’t yet mustered the courage to acknowledge the conviction.”
David French rejects the “win at all costs” mentality that has captured American elites. “What you’re beginning to see on the extreme edges of both the right and the left is a very similar revulsion at many of the basic institutions of American democracy,” French warned. “The very malady you decry on the other side, you adopt on your own. After all, if you have phrased these disputes in existential terms, then why would you comply with the niceties of liberal democracy? Why would you respect free speech if it means that wrong people get heard?”
After the January 6 Capitol riots, French’s concern about American democracy falling apart sounds less far-fetched.
When I asked David French whom he would support for president in 2024, he laughed. “Let me punt until June 2023. Put that on your calendar. . . . I want to see how key governors handle the rise of Trumpism in their own ranks, and how they manage their governorships as a pandemic continues.”
Both David French and The Dispatch represent an effort to steer the conservative movement away from partisan propaganda and outrage-based journalism but not to abandon core conservative values. French no longer identifies as Republican. But unlike others who have abandoned the party, he has never adopted the “burn it all down” mentality of, for example, the Lincoln Project. His goal is simply to remind conservatives that how people fight is sometimes as important as what they’re fighting for.
Jonathan Chew is a senior from Albuquerque, NM, studying math, economics, and political science. He is a current member of Baylor's AEI Executive Council and an active participant in Baylor's Model UN team. Outside of class, Jonathan loves playing volleyball, listening to jazz, and playing board games.