David French has long been an advocate for civil discourse, and I’ve always appreciated him for it. In 2016 he made a bit of a splash when many, including pundit Bill Kristol, pushed his name as an alternative for his fellow conservatives unnerved by the demeanor of then-GOP candidate, Donald Trump. In more recent days, he’s gotten into scrapes with Sohrab Ahmari at First Things over French’s principled commitment to decency in the face of his ideological foes.
While Ahmari sees this position as both quaint and anachronistic in our day of winner-take-all social debates, I cannot help but think that his “robust” approach echoes too keenly the dangers noted in another First Things piece penned by my BreakPoint predecessor, Gina Dalfanzo. We cannot win a war against religion’s not-so-cultured despisers by adopting the very same nihilistic weapons they employ. Fight we must, but we must fight not only for the good but with it.
That being said, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of disagreeing with French in a small yet significant way about something he’s said just this past week. Perhaps “disagree” is too strong a term, but there is something missing in French’s emphasis, and this something could make all the difference in the world.
In a recent issue of The French Press, French has argued that conservatives aren’t just opponents of political correctness; they’re also participants. Citing some examples of less-than-ideal behavior by other evangelicals, he called out those on “his team” for their blindness to their own failings. French’s point is well taken: it matters greatly how we as Christians comport ourselves in our public and private disputes, even if it means losing a round or two in social media spats.
So, what’s the problem? The problem is that this politeness isn’t enough. It was never enough, but this crisis is more keen today. In our era, when a person can be considered a hateful bigot for suggesting that someone with male biology isn’t female just because he says so, the loudest voices will never be quieted by careful rhetoric and offers of mutual respect. Sadly, it isn’t just the rabble-rousing “snowflakes” that won’t listen. Even the best demeanor can’t gain a hearing before a world intent on not listening.
You see, despite being wrong about the big picture, Ahmari is right about something. In our day and age, the opponents of classical liberalism, and any form of orthodox religion, will not be dissuaded from their goals by fine-sounding words and proper decorum. Possessing the cultural clout to enact those goals and increasingly the legal power to back it up, progressives have little need and less interest in hearing us out.
The problem is that this politeness isn’t enough. It was never enough, but this crisis is more keen today. In our era, when a person can be considered a hateful bigot for suggesting that someone with male biology isn’t female just because he says so, the loudest voices will never be quieted by careful rhetoric and offers of mutual respect.
Ben Shapiro likes to say, “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” and he’s absolutely right. Gravity doesn’t care that you identify as a bird, Marxism has always been a total disaster, and your anatomy is wholly indifferent to your desire to be another gender. Accepting reality’s disinterest is as fundamental to any constructive engagement with the world as any sense of decorum.
But, do you know what’s also true? Feelings don’t care about facts.
There was a saying a few decades ago: “the personal is political.” Today, we’ve reversed that so that the “political is personal.” For both the left and the right, our culture’s sociocultural animus isn’t driven by greater conviction over abstract principles but by the ever-deeper desperation we feel when looking at the void of a supposedly godless universe. As nature abhors a vacuum, human nature cannot abide the abyss of meaninglessness.
Sadly, this ailment is one to which, as French rightly points out, none of us is immune. Our discourse is fractious not so much because of some new great passion or the external circumstances of the world; our dialogue is degrading because we’re moving everyday further from any sense of certainty once provided by what Francis Schaeffer called the Christian consensus, the cultural inertia that carried society forward long after Christianity was no longer the guiding light for individuals.
As that echoed memory faded in recent years, with nothing sufficient offered in its stead, society has more and more turned to grand causes as paltry substitutes. It matters little whether these new mini-gods are true or right. Questions like that could, after all, return us to unsettling uncertainties, so we hold even tighter to our frail deities. To threaten these slender threads keeping us from facing the emptiness of a world devoid of truth is to threaten what holds our mental worlds together. It matters only that our cries for our causes drown out the silence.
For both the left and the right, our culture’s sociocultural animus isn’t driven by greater conviction over abstract principles but by the ever-deeper desperation we feel when looking at the void of a supposedly godless universe. As nature abhors a vacuum, human nature cannot abide the abyss of meaninglessness.
It is tempting at these moments to join the world in its dance of despair. What’s the point of trying to convince a world of the truth when even the concept of “the truth” yields only scorn and anger? Do we fight fire with fire, using crass power to achieve our goals? Do we hide from a world numbed to the possibility of something more?
Of course not.
The world isn’t just looking for answers. Sure, the answers are there, and we can and must show that. But ultimately the world is looking for hope. Not wishing, not pleasantries, not contentless claims offering nothing but the illusion of meaning and powered only by our own desperation, but hope.
They long to know not only what the right answer is but that there is such a thing as a right answer; that these deep longings for meaning that drive us mad in the face of a supposedly meaningless world, that these have a resting place in a reality and truth higher than our own self-empowered dreams.
Christianity has a great advantage over its rivals in such a contest. After all, it’s true. It’s real. It’s not just another empty aphorism of “justice” or “the right side of history” or any of the other innumerable petty claims with no more reality than any other. But, being real, Christianity has uncomfortably rough edges that will not slide along easily with the world’s passing fancies.
A lived-out Christianity will offer respect to all-comers, even to those who don’t earn it by offering respect in turn, even to those who repudiate the truths of the Faith. But, such a realized Faith will stick to the truth about the world and human nature even when it’s not convenient or culturally conforming.
We follow a Savior whose dedication to the truth and to this world meant that this world killed Him, but neither that truth nor that Savior could be contained, and this world has not been the same since.
Timothy D. Padgett, PhD, is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint and the author of Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973 as well as volume editor of the forthcoming Dual Citizens: American Evangelicals and Politics.