Politics & Policy

‘David French–ism’ without David French

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh holds his U.S. Constitution in Washington, D.C., September 6, 2018. (Alex Wroblewski/Reuters)
French has been unfairly caricatured — but the caricature is worth defending.

Near as I can tell, the David French controversy revolves around allegations that the man is too much of an accommodating pragmatist on social issues. The charge is amusing to me, given that one of my defining experiences here at NR occurred when French denounced a column I wrote last year about the need for conservatives to pragmatically accommodate transgender Americans.

I don’t bear David any ill will over that. Conservatives can read our dueling articles and reach their own conclusions over whose case is more convincing. But I trust the episode does illustrate the degree to which the real-world David French is quite distinct from Sohrab Ahmari’s depiction in First Things: a man uncritically enthusiastic to accept the “pagan and libertine” so long as “traditional Christians [are] granted spaces in which to practice and preach what they sincerely believe” in return.

As Argentina’s longtime dictator Juan Perón entered his later years, many of his onetime followers sought to sever the increasingly unpopular president from the ideology he was associated with. “Perónism without Perón!” was their curious cry for revolution. Without implying any unflattering analogies, this idea occurred to me while reading Ahmari’s piece. “David French–ism” of the sort Ahmari angrily decries struck me as a perfectly defensible philosophy — even if David French himself may not be its best embodiment.

Many of the things Ahmari asserts French “sees” or “views” or “embodies” about the American political order are not French’s opinions, but the Constitution’s. It is that document, not French, that acknowledges the free exercise of religion as a fundamental American right, while also acknowledging the existence of many other liberties against which it must be balanced.

Ahmari at one point quotes Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who complains that since religious beliefs can’t be “rationally defended,” they are easily “treated as a form of prejudice” by unbelievers. Sam Harris is fond of making a similar but peppier point, that everyone is an atheist about someone else’s religion. Such harsh truths form an unavoidable reality of religion in a diverse democracy — its persuasiveness as political argument cannot be taken for granted. Anyone who is upset, as Ahmari is, that their “orthodoxy” has not triumphed in America must learn to accept this fact.

To the degree that America’s permissive public policy on sexual and gender matters has a single cause, it is the unmoving nature of religiously inspired arguments within a secular legal and political system. Some flatter themselves, believing that ideas such as gay marriage have triumphed only because of a radical conspiracy of far-left social engineers in the judiciary and media. Far less comforting is the possibility that the public-harm arguments of mostly faith-based opponents just weren’t that convincing. The pragmatic religious conservative understands this, which is why the pro-life cause now increasingly makes the case for protecting unborn humans with scientific and medical logic. It accordingly stands as a successful outlier among social conservatism’s many failed culture wars.

It is in the context of a clear-eyed understanding of the limits of religious argument in the American system that the case for “Frenchian” compromise becomes necessary. The religious may lack an ability to dictate public policy according to their view of “the Highest Good,” as Ahmari puts it, but they can find much to value in the Constitution’s guarantee that public policy will not intrude on the individual exercise of their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Now obviously, this promise, like all constitutional promises, is rarely upheld to anyone’s complete satisfaction. Where one American’s right to free exercise of religion begins and the right of another American to be protected from the rules of a faith whose logic they don’t accept is often a complicated calculation. It’s certainly made no easier by a secular Left that increasingly regards religious liberty as something inherently anachronistic and offensive. Whenever this sort of politics makes gains, it deserves to be condemned as anti-constitutional and illiberal, for it is.

But equally illiberal is the other extreme: those who stamp their feet and whine of the unfairness that our courts and laws treat their religious beliefs as merely one public interest among many. In a theocratic system of government, the state is preoccupied with dogma such as the “Highest Good.” But the United States is organized as a religiously neutral republic explicitly uninterested in such projects. Americans are certainly free to dissent from this reality, and decry the Founders for their idiocy in not establishing a divine-right monarchy with a fundamentalist state church, or some other system more inclined to steer the public to a particular path of salvation. Frankly, it would be helpful to all if more writers in the reactionary sphere could muster the courage to state things so bluntly.

As a philosophy, “David French–ism” — as I’d interpret it, via Ahmari’s essay — means appreciating the balance of liberties demanded by the United States Constitution and concluding that the document’s central promise to protect individual sovereignty has been central to centuries of American success (which is different from American perfection). In forcing the religious conservative to accept religious freedom but not theocratic government, it offers the most practical system yet devised for creating peaceful social order in a diverse society. French-ism as practiced by David French is similar, but is more inclined to take a maximalist view of religious liberty when arguments in favor of affirmatively accommodating the autonomous choices of others are made, as I think his response to my transgender piece attests.

Left-wing anti-French-ism, which argues that religious liberty is inherently worthless and must be sacrificed for mandatory, totalitarian secularism, is an arrogant rejection of the American system. Like Charles Cooke, I have no real clue what exactly the right-wing style of anti-Frenchism favored by Ahmari entails, but to the extent it’s something similarly authoritarian and unconstitutional, it is equally worth rejecting.

J. J. McCullough is a columnist for National Review Online and the Global Opinions section of the Washington Post.

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