An Interview with David French, Senior Editor at The Dispatch and Time Columnist
Mr. French is a senior editor at The Dispatch and a columnist at Time. Before his recent career transition, he served as a staff writer for National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute. Before then, he served as senior counsel for the American Center for Law, a politically conservative, Christian social justice and anti-corruption organization, and senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit which supports issues of religious freedom, sanctity of life, and marriage and family. Mr. French was also a lecturer at Cornell Law School and former President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a former major in the United States Army Reserve, and a Bronze Star recipient. He is the author or co-author of several books including the No. 1 New York Times bestselling Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore. He plans to release his next book, Divided We Fall, in September.
The Politic: I’m curious about your experience studying at Lipscomb!
David French: I was there in a very different era. It’s still a wonderful, faithful Christian school. It’s also much more religiously and ideologically diverse now. Back then, I would say 95 percent of the students were from one particular denomination called the Church of Christ. In fact, the Church of Christ doesn’t really call itself a denomination. But Lipscomb was conservative. The students were mainly from the South and generally Fundamentalist. We had 11:00 P.M. curfews most nights except for the weekend. Even then, on the weekend, there was no drinking, no dancing, no shorts, no public displays of sexuality, and there were daily bible and chapel classes. So… basically just like Yale! [Laughing] So I grew up in a small town in Kentucky and then went to this small, very strict Christian college, and then went from there to Harvard Law School. It was quite the educational journey!
How racially diverse was Lipscomb?
At the time, it wasn’t diverse at all. It was overwhelmingly white and Church of Christ–a reflection of the sect itself which was overwhelming white. Not universally. Not 100 percent. But, our college was not a diverse place. It was a college organized around the advancement of a particular faith view, which is grounded in the particular existence of a particular church.
Lipscomb is far more diverse now. It’s way more diverse, in fact, on the power curve of diversity compared to many of its sister schools in the Christian college world. That’s in large part because Lipscomb has intentionally sought out greater diversity, and in part because it’s not so focused on one particular church tradition in the United States.
Was your high school experience similar?
I went to public school in rural Kentucky. [Laughing] So very different. We had a saying, “Thank God for West Virginia, because without West Virginia, we’d be #50 in everything.” Kentucky public schooling in the mid-80s was nobody’s model of American public education.
That being said, I got a good education there. It did me well in college, and it didn’t hinder me from getting into law school. But, I also had a lot of teachers who took a special interest in me, and who gave some of their personal time to reach out to me and to provide me with additional opportunities. So I don’t want to say anything bad about my Kentucky public school education. But, let’s just say… it wasn’t going to be on anybody’s list of top public school districts in the U.S.
You’ve talked elsewhere about how much the students at Lipscomb appreciated dissenting opinions. But how much disagreement and dissent do you truly think there was?
Yeah! [Laughing] It’s interesting. If you encounter students from conservative Christian schools, there are lots of different categories. The first really, really believes in the mission of the school. Then there’s a big middle category, where people are keeping their heads down, basically checking the box and getting their college education, but are just as happy to be there.
And then, there are some people who are there because their parents made them go. [Laughing] They may disagree in really fundamental ways with the school’s mission; they may be actively atheist, for example, or agnostic; they might belong to a different denomination entirely; or, they might be progressive when most students are conservative. We didn’t have a huge number of those students, but particularly in the humanities, there were always a few students who were strong dissenters in every class.
At Lipscomb, we welcomed those conversations. We wanted to have those disagreements. It was interesting how lively many of my classes were, and with smart people who were in a minority but didn’t feel any hesitation about speaking at all. There wasn’t any sort of prohibition on any subject you wanted to bring up. Of course, you couldn’t curse, but you could bring up anything. You could challenge anything. And after it was over, we would hang out, grab coffee (well, not really… back in the ‘80s, coffee wasn’t a thing), grab a coke, and hash it out. [Laughing]
So my perception when I was heading to Harvard was, “Well, that’s just how college is, except it’s going to be even better now because there’s a wider range of views. And this time, I’m going to be in the minority, and people are going to want to hear from me in the way that I wanted to hear the minority voices at my college.” That was true for some people, but that was definitely not the general tone there at that time.
I imagine you still keep up with some of your Lipscomb friends.
Do you think those friends, and particularly your more progressive classmates, would say the same of their Lipscomb experience?
Yeah, I think they would probably say that it was… Look, any time you’re the minority in the midst of a strong ideological or theological majority, there’s going to be discomfort. It’s not going to be all happiness and light. I would be really surprised to hear anyone say that they felt bullied and intimidated. But I wouldn’t be surprised to hear someone say they felt socially isolated, or that they felt like an outsider. I think that would be absolutely true. Those students weren’t going to have the same opportunity to date, for example, because the girls at the school, by and large, only wanted to date Christians. And those kinds of things have a very socially isolating effect. For example, when I went to Harvard Law School, I didn’t go there thinking I would be “Mr. Popularity.” When you’re in an ideological or theological minority, you’re always going to be somewhat socially on the outside looking in.
Ultimately, though, I think they would say they felt socially isolated but not bullied or intimidated. That was alien to the culture of the school. I would actually say There was more anger not, say, between Christians and atheists, but maybe between different flavors of evangelical Christianity. Those disagreements would cause more contention in some ways. But I think there’s a difference between social isolation, that naturally accompanies minority status along an entire spectrum of different ideas and identities, versus actual, intentional intimidation or bullying.
What do you attribute such a vast cultural difference between Harvard and Lipscomb to? Do you think that’s a part of Christian faith–that, by and large, observers are supportive of disagreement?
There are many, many different subcultures in the U.S. And, at that time in the late ‘80s and particularly in the early ‘90s, we were going through the first wave of political correctness, especially in the elite academy. There was a real subculture, not by any means in the entire progressive movement on college campuses, but in a very vocal and influential subset, a real move to suppress ideas that were deemed intolerant–sort of intolerance of intolerance. And this is going to sound familiar to you in 2020, but the idea that this intolerance is the pathway to welcoming people, like students of color for example, who might feel otherwise excluded. And so to include, we must exclude. To tolerate, we must be intolerant.
That was a very strong mood at that time, and there were behaviors in the ‘90s that in the Twitter era… I was just thinking the other day, I can only imagine what people would think of Harvard Law School in the Twitter era. If 1991-1994 Harvard Law School existed in the Twitter era, holy smokes! There were shout-downs in class, there was booing and hissing, and there was just really abusive behavior directed towards Conservative students, up to and including campaigns to get judges and future employers to either not hire them or to fire them once they were hired.
There was also photoshopping in the sense of cutting out pictures of the faces of Conservative students, pasting them over pictures of gay porn, and posting them around campus. I remember getting notes in my inbox, when I would share pro-life information, calling me a fascist, which was mild, but saying, “You should go die… Why don’t you go die?” It was an incredibly tense time, so much so that there was a big GQ article written in my 2L year that called Harvard Law School “Beirut on the Charles.” That was my era.
And then it changed when Dean Elana Kagan came in. She took some interesting steps that changed the school. I was sharing notes with a fellow Harvard Law School grad who graduated about 10 years after me, and it’s just a completely different place–a completely different place. So these things come and go in waves. I was there in one wave of political correctness, and I think a lot of students, particularly from 2014 to 2016, experienced another wave.
Was the wave of political correctness particularly antagonistic toward religious beliefs? What exactly was the target?
It was very antagonistic toward what they would call the “Religious Right.” But the religious presence at the Law School wasn’t that significant. We’re talking 15,000 students roughly. Maybe 1,300 to 1,400 at the law school and then 100 or 200 L.L.M. and S.J.D. students.
But the Harvard Law School Christian Fellowship that I was a part of… We might have had 30 to 35 people who would come to our Friday night gatherings. If you’re talking 30 to 35 people out of 1,500, that’s not a lot of people. Now that’s not the sum total of the Christian population on campus by any means, but that’s sort of the core of the most active Christian students on campus. And I would say that you could come and go as a Harvard Law student, in that era, without even knowing much more than that the Christian Fellowship existed. There weren’t many conservative Christians in their social circles, and most of my Christian classmates didn’t really speak up.
So a lot of those Christian students were sitting in there, and they were taking it all in, but they weren’t saying anything. And that’s what an awful lot of Christian students experience, particularly when there’s a wave of rising hostility and intolerance toward dissenting ideas on campus. It’s not that there aren’t Christian students, and it’s not that there aren’t thriving Christian communities on campus. I know for a fact that there are thriving Christian communities at at Yale. They just don’t necessarily make themselves intentionally known within these contentious political disputes.
That’s so interesting, and I find that to be the case with libertarian students, conservative students–really, as you mentioned, anyone in the ideological minority on campus. They certainly exist, but oftentimes don’t make themselves known. Do you think it’s then incumbent on those in the ideological minority to make their voices heard?
There’s a couple of things going on. Christian student organizations are ideologically diverse, and especially at college. No one should assume that just because someone belongs to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, or CRU, or the Reformed University Fellowship, or any of the big evangelical ministries, that they’re all evangelical conservatives.
Many of those students are actually quite progressive. For years, I represented InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, one of the largest Christian campus ministries in the U.S., and that is one of the most ideologically diverse groups of people you’ll ever find. So to the extent that an issue roils campus over a particular political issue, whether it’s an election, or climate change, or policing, or you name it–sitting right there in that Christian fellowship are students who agree and disagree with each other.
One of the things that we took great care to do, to maintain the much more important unity of that fellowship of believers, was that not one of us who was more politically active, as a Christian on campus, like me… I went out of my way to note that I was speaking for myself, and not for the Harvard Law School Christian Fellowship, and not as a representative for evangelicals on campus. I said, “I’m an evangelical, and I believe these things for these reasons”–but I didn’t try to hold myself out as the avatar of evangelical Christianity in the context of these political disputes.
And so, that’s one of the reasons why an awful lot of people aren’t nearly as aware of Christian student groups on campus as a separate interest group, as they are, say, of other interest groups that might be a lot smaller. The funny thing is, a lot of times when administrators would take action against Christian groups, they were actually surprised to know that they were taking action against the single-largest student group on campus. They had no idea. Because these groups had not made themselves visible, for good reasons, in the big political disputes that were always splitting these campuses. And that’s because their own ranks were split on these issues but united on a common faith bond.
I would be surprised, too!
Yeah, we’ve gotten a really distorted view of evangelical Christianity from the media as a result of this number of “81 percent of self-described white evangelicals support Trump.” The two key words there, of course, are “self-described” and “white.” The actual body of people who say they believe the central and fundamental organizing principles of evangelical Christianity are far, far more racially diverse, and far, far smaller than the roughly 25 percent of Americans who self-describe themselves as evangelical without reference to a particular belief.
We have some Christian groups on campus, and in my limited experience, they do feel a bit removed–a bit more private as you mentioned. But I remember walking by a meeting one time, and on second reflection, they were definitely there in numbers!
Yeah I would bet you… I don’t know which group is most active on campus, but if you went to one of their weekly meetings, I bet you would be surprised at how many students are there. For instance, I used to teach at Cornell Law School, and nobody would say that Cornell was some sort of bastion of Christian practice.
But I got invited to speak to all of the major Christian undergraduate groups, from Chinese Bible Study to the Korean Christian Fellowship to the InterVarsity Fellowship to Cru. There were some nights where I would walk into these big, theater-style classrooms. They would be filled with 300 students. I’d say, “Is this unusual?” and they’d say, “Nope. Normal Friday night!”
And you never, never would’ve known it from the background culture of the school, which was quite progressive, quite secular, quite party-focused. But you can have hundreds of kids in a school, and if they’re not injecting themselves intentionally in campus politics, often you’re not conscious of all the things they do.
Interesting. So just to clarify, you’d say that some of these Christian groups don’t get involved in campus politics due to the extent of their ideological diversity? And that’s different than, say, other affinity groups with more ideological convergence, like the 90-plus percent of Black voters who are Democrats?
Yes. Well, some affinity groups organize around particular issues. If you have an LGBT group, for example, it’s not only organized around LGBT identity but also LGBT political rights, especially if it’s one that’s specifically political like Lambda Legal. So you have multiple groups that are organized around specific issues or specific identities, where there’s a large amount of agreement over the interests of the group on campus.
You won’t see religious student groups necessarily dive in as an institution on the police shootings issue, for instance, or dive into various political issues like political races. But, where you will see them often unite is, say, around religious liberty. That’s because it’s in the interest of every single member to be able to worship on campus. They might be Republican or Democrat; they might be Left or Right; they might have varying views on all kinds of issues. But, they all want the opportunity to worship on campus. So you’ll see some common affinity, even when there’s a lot of ideological diversity.
I would say on campuses, most of these religious groups will stay out of a large bulk of the political controversies on campus because they don’t want politics to be a stumbling block to the gospel. They don’t want people to say, “I don’t want to go to the Yale Christian Fellowship because that’s a hotbed of MAGA-hat wearers.” That would put the MAGA hat in front of the gospel, and they don’t want that. They know there are people who’ll vote for Trump and people who will oppose Trump, and they also know that they’re worshipping side by side. So where you’ll often see some unity–though not complete unity–is around the religious liberty issue, because they all want to be able to worship on campus.
It seems so challenging to keep politics to the side. At one of New York’s synagogues, for instance, they appointed a social justice chair who helped pass bail reform. Then, after a particular anti-semitic attack–the response to which was hindered by that reform–various members protested the synagogue’s activism. Can religious beliefs really avoid being implicated in political conflict?
Let me put it this way: There’s a big difference between the more progressive, mainline denominational groups and evangelical groups. The more progressive, mainline groups will often involve themselves in contentious political issues as the group itself. For instance, an Episcopalian group might get involved in immigration or borders.
That’s a product of the big differences between the evangelical culture and the progressive, mainline culture. So they’ll get involved as the Church, whereas evangelicals will often reserve the Church to try to keep it as free from politics as possible. So you won’t see the InterVarsity Christian chapter at such and such a school getting involved in bail reform. But what you might then have is a multi-faith or multi-denominational organization to which certain members of that group belong, for instance, say, “Evangelicals for Bail Reform” or “Evangelicals for Immigration Reform.”
So what evangelicals will do, rather than the First Baptist Church speaking as the First Baptist Church, various members of First Baptist Church will form a group, also known as a “parachurch” organization, with a religious mission that is separate from the Church in both governance and corporate structure. It’ll be a separate, voluntary group.
In turn, you might have a whole bunch of members of First Baptist Church who belong to that group, but it won’t be all of them. Basically, you might have a lot of people in First Baptist Church who disagree, and that’s one way that these churches maintain unity. They really channel political activism into outside parachurch institutions.
Would you say that explains some of the misconceptions about evangelicals? In other words, because you have various parachurch organizations channeling different political causes, and because you have outsiders who don’t quite understand that phenomena, you get people unfairly judging evangelicals as a whole?
Yeah, and so there are advantages and disadvantages to that. The advantage is that it helps maintain the unity of the Church. The disadvantage is that often these parachurch organizations lack the proper theological foundation and theologically sophisticated leadership and they can run amuck. A lot of people these days, for instance, will say, “Pastors need to speak up about Trump.” But pastors, particularly these evangelical pastors, their relationship to the Church and the members of the Church is incredibly intimate, particularly at the most crucial times of a person’s life.
A pastor is going to hesitate greatly before delivering a message that alienates a parishioner, especially one who might need that pastor in the moment his marriage is in crisis, or in a moment when he’s got a cancer diagnosis. Every time one of my kids or wife has had a medical scare, sitting right there was our pastor. It’s incredibly comforting and incredibly reassuring.
But those who expect pastors to alienate members of the congregation in order to please others outside the congregation? Well, their assessment of how pastors should act is a little bit much. There’s a need for pastoral education in politics, but that need is primarily centered around providing evangelicals with a proper perspective on politics when they enter into it, and not so much around directing them on who they should support in politics. That’s not necessarily something that their theological training equips them to make for everybody in their congregation.
Fascinating. A bit of a step back–how can I accommodate my religious classmates who might not be speaking up?
That’s a great question–and a great answer to it. I would bet that in most of your classes, there’s a glaring void and a lack of a theologically conservative, as opposed to politically conservative, religious point of view.
And so there’s a couple of things. One, if you can educate yourself on these theologically conservative views, if you can understand them, then you can say in response to somebody, “Look–I’m not evangelical or orthodox, but here’s what I think they would believe about the topic.” In its own way, that can enrich the conversation. Another way to do it is to say, “If there’s anyone in this class who has that kind of theologically conservative view, I–for one–would love to hear it!” Sometimes, all people need is an invitation.
Here’s one of the things I’ve been speaking to a lot of groups from different political backgrounds about: If we’re going to be politically and culturally engaged people in this country, we have an obligation to educate ourselves as to the best expression of the opposing side’s view. What is their best argument? We can refute the worst argument about anything. [Laughing] If you take the worst argument about virtually anything, you can refute it. If somebody says, “I believe 2 plus 2 equals 4 because the chicken trails say so,” you can certainly refute that argument, even though 2 plus 2 is still 4.
But what we’re in the habit of doing, especially in this online world, is crushing and defeating and destroying the worst argument on the other side while leaving the best argument sailing through unaddressed–because that’s hard to do. And that’s something I resolve to do. I try to pick out, “Who are the best spokespeople for these arguments I disagree with?” I want to know what they believe. I want to know what they say. And ever since I resolved to do that, it’s really enriched my knowledge, it’s enriched my life, and it’s actually enriched my relationships. I think it’s a great piece of advice for any person, especially those in elite institutions of higher education.
Totally. I have to say that personally, I’ve often found productive debate difficult when I and a friend have such radically different frameworks for understanding the world. It’s almost like the frameworks are so fundamentally different that sometimes debate doesn’t even really make sense.
[Laughing] Well, oftentimes you have to find the starting premise. And this is a constant refrain in politics generally: “The real debate is about the starting premise.” For example, let me bring in a foreign policy construct. If you went back to the Obama administration, one of the starting premises of their foreign policy was that a lot of jihadist energy and outrage, a lot of the ability to recruit jihadists, and a lot of the foment against the United States of America, was the result of legitimate grievances against the U.S. And also, if the U.S. began to change course and remove a lot of those legitimate grievances, then that would isolate the small minority of true extremists and fundamentally change the equation.
And so, one of the big starting premises there was that a lot of the foment and rage, or the bulk or the material portion of it, was based on legitimate grievances against the U.S. If you understand that starting premise and you believe that starting premise, a whole lot of the Obama administration’s actions not only make perfect sense but are completely consistent and defensible within that starting premise. If you reject that starting premise, a whole bunch of decisions aren’t defensible, logical, and reasonable but counterproductive, outrageous, and harmful.
So, a big part wasn’t so much over the true debate–whether the U.S. should enter the Iran deal or not–but whether one’s assumption were correct or not. We often don’t go to the premises at all. We talk past each other because we’re operating from completely different foundations. That’s one of the problems we have in public discourse, and one of the things that college is uniquely equipped to deal with, because this is the place where you have the time, the space, and the opportunity to grapple with the starting premises–to unpack ideas down to their starting premises. And I think that could be really, really constructive.
That being said, one of the things I think people get inordinately frustrated with is having conversations where you don’t persuade unpersuadable people. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of your conversations with engaged activists are conversations with unpersuadable people.
But, that doesn’t mean the conversations are fruitless. One, when you talk to a committed activist on the other side, you get an education, because you learn what they believe in and why they believe it. Two, I think we underestimate, particularly in public discourse, the extent to which we’re not just talking to the specific person we’re addressing in a tweet or in an Op-Ed or whatever, but that we’re speaking to the jury of uncommitted, outside observers who are often silent. And so, as I write, I always keep in mind that I want my piece to not only address the unpersuadable opposition but to do so in a way that is persuasive to the persuadable reader or listener.
That’s part of my trial-lawyer training. When you’re a trial lawyer and you’re in front of the jury, it doesn’t matter if you’re talking to the judge, it doesn’t matter if you’re talking to the opposing counsel, it doesn’t matter if you’re talking to the bailiff within earshot of the jury. Your audience, the whole darn time, is the jury. [Laughing]
And so that’s one of the things I think about as I write. It doesn’t matter if I’m responding to someone who’s a Trumpist, or someone who’s on the Far Left and doesn’t like my position on religious liberty or life or whatever… Yeah, I’m talking to them, and I’m trying to address their arguments, and hopefully I can persuade them. But I feel like that’s about as likely as persuading the opposing counsel in a case. [Laughing] Who I’d really like to persuade are the legions of listeners, readers, and watchers that are kind of just wondering, “Who’s right here?”