In today’s interview, David French joins Public Discourse editor-in-chief R. J. Snell to discuss French’s new position as a New York Times columnist, gay marriage, and how Christians should engage in politics.
R. J. Snell: Thanks so much for being with us for this interview and congratulations on your new position with the New York Times. Are there issues or topics you hope to explore there that would be different than at the Dispatch or elsewhere?
David French: As far as I know, I’m going to be writing about the exact same themes and issues and topics that I’ve written about at the Dispatch and the Atlantic. In fact, that’s why the Times wanted me, so I could continue to write about those themes. So I’m going to write about religion, I’m going to write a lot about law, culture. My military experience will come into play in my writing as it has at the Dispatch and the Atlantic.
If you’ve seen my work over the last many years, law, culture, religion are all three big themes that I have addressed quite a bit. We are in an era at the Supreme Court where we have this conservative majority and we’re likely to have this conservative majority for the foreseeable future. It’s important to have folks who understand conservative jurisprudence writing in mainstream publications. Conservative jurisprudence is the air I breathe. I understand what’s going on at the Supreme Court, and I understand the various nuances of conservative jurisprudence. So that’s going to be an important part of what I write about and what I address.
It’s also really important to step outside of the news cycle often and take a look at the larger cultural and religious trends that are shaping American life. And Dean Baquet said right after Trump was elected, a lot of the media doesn’t “get religion.” You can’t understand America without understanding America’s religious landscape. So I’m going to be writing quite a bit about that as well.
RJS: Some have disputed what they understand as a tension or contradiction in your commitments. Particularly your commitments to both civil libertarianism and religious freedom. How would you articulate your position and the tensions or lack of tensions?
DF: Well, I think religious freedom is an aspect of civil libertarianism. So religious liberty, free speech, all of that, those were encompassed in the First Amendment. And so I would say more people frame the distinction as a tension between my commitment to civil libertarianism, including religious freedom for all people, including people who have dramatically different religious beliefs from me, and my Christian orthodoxy. That’s where people see a lot of the tension. I don’t see that tension at all, really.
I think of two of the great founding documents in American history. Of course the most famous of the founding documents is the Declaration of Independence, where Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that we’re endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and then goes on to talk about how governments are tasked with defending that liberty. And then the lesser known, but very important document is John Adams’s letter to the Massachusetts Militia, where John Adams uttered the famous statement that our constitution was made for a moral and religious people and is wholly inadequate to the governance of any other.
The entire letter is fascinating because what he’s basically saying is that our constitution is not strong enough, the government is not strong enough to dictate public morality. Rather than dictating public morality, it depends on public morality. So he talks about how certain vices are so terrible that left unrestrained, they would cut through the cords of our constitution like a whale goes through a net.
So I think of these two documents as framing an American social compact. It is one of the primary responsibilities, not the exclusive responsibility, of government to protect the liberty of its citizens. It is the responsibility of citizens to exercise that liberty towards virtuous purposes. That’s your social compact. When I’m interacting with the relationship between the state and individuals, I’m going to defend the liberty of individuals. When I’m interacting with individuals, I’m going to urge, especially when talking with fellow Christian believers, Christian virtues, I’m going to urge various civic virtues, defend civic associations, defend those institutions that are advancing civic virtues. So I don’t see those things really in tension at all. In fact, I think that the defense of liberty, in many ways, is necessary to holistically pursue virtue in the private sphere.
RJS: For some, that answer makes sense, but others think things have changed. They might have been friendly to that argument some years ago, but when they look at the contemporary United States, they see decadence and decline, even the absence of public morality, which that compact depends upon. What had been obvious no longer seems obvious. What would need to happen in our society for you to rethink your commitment? Is there a breaking point where you would think, “that’s not working out; I need to reconsider”?
DF: Yeah. The difficulty is that if you look at some of the worst moments in American history, it’s when the government has violated that social compact, when it has said for certain communities of Americans, you have fewer rights. Or when it has put its thumb on the religious scales in some decisive way.
For example, you don’t have to go far back in American history to find the Blaine Amendments, these anti-Catholic state constitutional amendments that were designed to protect public schools, which were deemed and viewed at that time as essentially Protestant schools free from Catholic influence. Here was a world, in many ways, that a lot of the more “New Right” folks want, which is the ability of the government to put its thumb on the religious scales. We had that. It didn’t work very well.
We’ve had many times in American history when the government had the power to reward friends and punish enemies. Again, this is what much of the New Right wants, and it didn’t work. It was inherently unstable. It was unjust.
What I see in modern America is something maybe a little bit different than what other folks see. I think the nation vis-à-vis its laws is far more just than it has been at virtually any point in its previous history. Racial discrimination is outlawed de jure. You have an extension of the First Amendment to all American communities. You have greater religious freedoms in a concrete way than we’ve ever enjoyed in the history of the United States. Is this government treating its people justly? We’re far from perfect. We have a lot of problems, but we’re better than we’ve been.
When it comes to public morality, the other side of that social compact that asks us to exercise our liberty for virtuous purposes, things are a lot more mixed. Now, in some ways, we’re better. We should never minimize the advances we’ve made in really eradicating the kinds of brutal personal racism that used to mark American life. There’s a news broadcast from the 1970s in New York where there’s a black family that’s moving into a local community. And the amount of unbelievable, overt racism directed at that family blows our minds here in 2022, and that’s not that long ago. 1970s is my lifetime.
We often take a look at things from the standpoint of sexual morality. We think the changes in sexual mores have fully defined the increasing decadence of the American public. But we are complicated creatures. There are many ways in which we’ve gotten better, and there some ways in which we have gotten worse. We tend to completely overlook the ways in which we’ve gotten better and then say, “Well, this is just not working out. We have to make big changes.”
But in fact, even when it comes to sexuality, I think that we are actually in the middle of a number of really important and meaningful conversations about sex and sexuality, and there are actually some positive signs. Many negative signs for sure, but also some positive signs. I don’t know if you saw Christine Emba’s recent book about how the consent-only culture has harmed women. There’s been a rising groundswell from both religious and secular sources rethinking the way in which we have constructed a sexual morality that is entirely experiential as opposed to a relational. Disconnecting sex from love and relationship has not worked for millions upon millions of people. A free society isn’t immune to negative social movements, but it is able to react to and reform negative social movements in a way that more authoritarian countries often are not.
I’m not going to say that from a moral standpoint, we citizens have upheld our end of the bargain. In many ways, we have not, and that has caused a lot of suffering. But it is also the case that a free society is able to reform itself in ways that totalitarian societies obviously do not and cannot.
RJS: How would you respond to those who suggest that the inner logic of liberty and the anthropology of liberalism have a directionality toward the destruction of the family, fragmentation, and soft tyranny? Sure, it’s not as bad as hard tyranny, but we’re moving to soft tyranny as an inevitable logic.
DF: I’ve always been confused by the phrase soft tyranny. Is it tyranny if it’s soft? I don’t know exactly what that means. When I see the phrase soft tyranny used, this often means there are powerful people who don’t like me. It’s not that they can actually control me. It’s not that they actually are shutting down my church. They’re not destroying my family or my relationships, but I’m a dissenter. I’m on the outside looking in, and there are people who don’t like me. That term, soft tyranny, needs a lot more definition before I’m going to start to question liberal democracy.
RJS: I take them to mean it’s not the state itself, but cultural forces, business forces, those sorts of things.
DF: Yeah. Again, unimpressed by that concept. But some of this, I think, is also due to what your conception is of what it means to live as a Christian in this world. I never for a moment have understood the scriptures to say that there is a system of government that is going to make it easy for me to live as a Christian. In fact, I’ve been guaranteed the opposite.
So if my standard is, well, I find it difficult to live as a Christian in this culture, therefore we need massive governmental reforms and greater governmental authority to make it easier for me to live as a Christian in this culture, number one, the track record for that historically is really bad. Number two, in many ways, what you’re asking for is trying to construct what is biblically, in many ways, an impossible system. I’m not so sure it’s possible to make the systems and the engines of culture hospitable to the gospel message by force of law.
And number three, we have seen time and time again that it is difficult to live authentic Christian lives even in many of America’s Christian institutions. If you look at some of the most powerful Christian institutions in America, part of Christendom, for lack of a better term, some of them have been deeply and profoundly corrupt. The most prominent apologetics ministry in the United States was run by an abuser of women. You have perhaps the largest Christian camp housing one of the worst superpredators in American life for a decade plus, and then covering it up. You could go down the line. And time and time again, I hear Christians say, “We need more Christians in power.” And I’m thinking, “Do we, though?”
Think of January 6th. If you had told young me that there will come a time when the chief of staff is an outspoken evangelical, one of the president’s personal lawyers, outspoken evangelical, the House and Senate Republicans are staffed with outspoken evangelicals, the young naive me would have said: “Justice must be rolling down from the heavens.” Instead, what was rolling down from the National Mall was a mob listening to praise music as they stormed the U.S. Capitol building.
I do think you can use the engines of government in ways that are deeply and darkly oppressive to Christianity, but I’m much more skeptical when it comes to arguments that I hear from folks on the New Right about building some sort of Christian nationalism that will preserve what is good in our society and squelch what is bad. I’ve yet to see a government exercise that kind of authority in a just manner.
RJS: Let’s talk about same-sex marriage. You’ve written that you’ve changed your mind on this, and more than once. Is this a fair summary of your position from the Atlantic and Dispatch essays of late 2022?
First, equality and fairness before the law under the conditions of pluralism guides your thinking. Second, there’s an unfairness and inapplicability of using Christian or religious understandings of marriage as normative for civil marriage. Third, civil law is already out of step with the Christian conceptions anyway—think no-fault divorce—and the harms to the biblical understanding of marriage were done by religious hypocrites. And, fourth, you don’t see under the current conditions any grave threat to religious freedom. Is that the arc? What would you add or change in my summary?
DF: I think that’s pretty fair. The way I characterized it in a piece I wrote is that it’s a flip-flop-flip. It’s one position then another, then back to the original. Again, remember, my default position is a more civil libertarian position. So when the initial Massachusetts Supreme Court decision was handed down in the early 2000s, I was not alarmed by it. I’m a traditional, small “o” orthodox Christian, and I have a biblical view of marriage, which I call covenant marriage. And no-fault divorce is utterly alien to that scriptural conception. It is as separate as night and day from the scriptural conception.
So when civil marriage was being changed to include same-sex couples, in my view, that was not the same thing as walking into my church and saying, “Okay. Marriage has changed.” Those were two different things.
Then you began to see what a lot of people presciently warned about, that some people who will attempt to isolate and render as second-class citizens individuals who believe in traditional Christian marriage, or what are called covenant marriage in my writing. This is something I encountered time and time again in my religious liberty work. “Oh, you don’t have the new view of marriage? Well, you can’t operate in this college. You can’t have a student group in this college,” or, “We’re going to threaten your accreditation if you’re a Christian university.”
RJS: Soft tyranny, as it were!
DF: Well, it’s pretty hard when you’re using the operations of the government to kick someone off campus, or take away their tax-exempt status. That’s government action. That’s not somebody making me feel bad. I can handle that.
That’s when you began to see this concern emerging that said, “Look. If same-sex marriage becomes law, then the institutions and ideas of covenant marriage are going to be rendered second-class.” And I said no to that arrangement, absolutely not. If supporting same-sex marriage means treating those people like me who uphold covenant marriage and belong to institutions that uphold covenant marriage and want to foster it around the culture, if that means that people like me have to become second-class citizens, no deal. So then along comes Obergefell, and when Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, he seemed cognizant of this issue. He very clearly wrote that there are people of goodwill on both sides of this issue and the law should respect and protect both. I remember reading it and thinking, “Nice words. We’ll see.”
Since then, in the seven, now coming on eight years since Obergefell, there has not been a single significant religious liberty loss at the Supreme Court. Religious liberty has continued to advance. And many of the wins were by supermajority, seven to two, nine to zero. This was really surprising for folks who thought that Obergefell was the beginning of the end of religious liberty.
When the Respect for Marriage Act came up, it tried to (imperfectly) respect religious liberty. If I was writing the bill, it would be different, but it imperfectly said, “We think that same-sex marriage and religious liberty can coexist in the United States of America, and we’re going to codify that coexistence.” I thought that was absolutely an acceptable compromise.
RJS: After the Atlantic piece, you did two Dispatch essays to explain your views in more detail. In one of those, you have a throwaway line—it’s not the core of your argument, but I’m interested in it—where you state that there are both secular and religious arguments against abortion. Are there not secular arguments against same sex marriage? What is the role of reason in how we understand covenantal marriage and civil marriage? Are there secular arguments against same-sex civil marriage? Don’t covenantal understandings of marriage translate to reason?
DF: Let’s say I’m talking to someone who does not share my faith commitments. I have lots of arguments about the value of lifelong marriage and not viewing marriage primarily as an engine for adult happiness.
RJS: Are these mainly sociological arguments, or arguments that can be made about the nature of marriage itself?
DF: I’m not so sure about the nature of marriage itself, but definitely when it comes to arguments based in what we understand about human flourishing. And interestingly, what we see is that there are an awful lot of people who don’t question no-fault divorce at all and would resist a legal regime that repeals no-fault divorce. Yet they don’t live like that in their own marriages: they stick through it, through thick and thin.
One of the hallmarks of the upper-middle-class America is pretty darn stable families. People do not cycle through relationships. They do not cycle through marriages. That stability is the hallmark of upper-middle-class America, even if social conservatism as an ideology is not. There are all kinds of arguments about family stability, the inadvisability of divorce, the destructiveness of divorce, the challenges of loneliness. You can make these arguments to people who don’t share my preexisting faith commitments about marriage.
RJS: Those are sociological arguments, or arguments about human flourishing. As you know, some of our colleagues at Witherspoon wrote the What Is Marriage? book, in which they ask, using secular reason, about the nature of marriage itself. They claim that if you don’t accept the conjugal view of marriage you lose any principled and rational basis for why marriage needs to be permanent or exclusive. If you don’t provide arguments about the nature of marriage itself, what’s your limiting principle to disallow throuples or five-year marriages with options to renew? Such arrangements might have negative effects, but do you have a principled reason against them?
DF: Well, so five-year marriages with an option to renew would actually be more binding than the current no-fault marriage. It’s mind-blowing to realize literally a refrigerator warranty is more binding than a marriage under the law. That is no exaggeration. So when people have talked to me about the sanctity of marriage prior to same-sex marriage, it’s been an eye-rolling thing for me because I think either they don’t know what no-fault divorce is, or they think that has sanctity? What? No-fault divorce is the codification of a sub-contractual view of marriage.
It’s hard for me to see the argument that there’s something fundamentally sacred about that civil arrangement. I see why government has an interest in delegating the sanctity of a relationship to the citizens. I see why there are defensible governmental reasons for the no-fault divorce construct of marriage, especially given long histories of extraordinary problems with domestic abuse in intimate relationships, and the difficulty people had traditionally in extricating themselves from physically abusive situations in years past. But it is difficult for me to see the moral interest in that construct. So that’s why I’m not persuaded that that particular construct was worth excluding same-sex couples from. That’s where folks lose me.
And this is magnified by the idea that, if you have a same-sex couple and they’re raising children, you’re going to come in and change the law, and suddenly, they’re not married, which has all kinds of down-line ramifications for everything—from financial arrangements, to healthcare relationships, to child custody. My goodness.
While at the same time preserving this sort of no-fault situation that heterosexual couples have, it’s hard for me to see the justice in that because that’s where the reliance interests come into play. You have a million-plus people in this country who have built their relationships around these legal arrangements, and then to yank it all away strikes me as profoundly unjust, even cruel.
RJS: You claim there’s something quite different between a covenantal marriage (I would call this a sacramental marriage) and a civil marriage. The circles don’t overlap, is how I remember you putting it. But on one understanding, and this would be my own, the logic of revelation or grace can’t contradict the logic of nature. Even more, the logic of revelation or grace presupposes the logic of nature. Grace presupposes nature, grace perfects nature, and grace elevates nature. If in the domain of the civil or the natural, we’re creating something out of step with the logic of revelation and grace, we’ve got something deeply wrong with our understanding of the natural; we have something that can’t be true, that doesn’t follow the logic of either nature or grace, or we have double truth. God’s general and specific revelation would contradict one another, and that just cannot be possible. How do you think about that?
DF: What do you mean creating?
RJS: Well, we create laws, positive law. I take civil law to be a construction of the state. But I also take a just civil law to be one in keeping with the logic of grace, and open to it because grace presupposes nature. (That’s Aquinas’s phrasing.) Do you agree? What should we do if the civil law contradicts the logic of covenantal marriage? How do you understand the relationship of nature and grace? I think you’re going in a different direction than I would.
DF: Yeah. I don’t quite see it that way. I don’t think the civil law is creating anything. It’s recognizing relationships in a pretty precise legal way. So the civil law cannot create or destroy my marriage. My marriage—
RJS: Your covenantal marriage?
DF: That’s the only marriage that I know. The civil law cannot create my marriage, nor can it destroy my marriage. It can recognize it and provide particular sets of benefits surrounding it, or it cannot recognize it, but it doesn’t create it, nor does it destroy it. We can’t think of the state as providing that level of meaning. That’s where I dispute some of this, because I don’t see my marriage as a creation of the state at all. I see it as a union of one man and one woman before God himself. I’m glad that the state recognizes it and provides certain kinds of short benefits that allow me to make, by default, some kinds of medical decisions, and by default possess child custody. But it does not create my marriage. It cannot destroy my marriage.
The question when it comes to the state is not what is the state creating. The question is what kind of relationships is the state recognizing and providing certain kinds of default protections for. It’s a much lower order of engagement. That’s why from the beginning of the debate, I’ve been much more torn about this than many of my Christian friends have been. I look at the role of the state as not an entity that creates. It recognizes and provides particular kinds of benefits to relationships. It’s a much lower order engagement.
Perhaps some of this is influenced by, for example, my longtime free speech advocacy. If the state is protecting my speech, it is not in any way endorsing that speech. Or if the state is protecting my religious liberty, it is not in any way endorsing that religion. It is not imbuing that religion with truth or meaning or purpose. It’s just protecting it from oppression and restriction. I think of the role of the state in a different way.
You can really dig deep into this, but one of the ways where I really depart from some of my Christian nationalist friends is they put a lot more meaning around what the state can potentially do to provide some sacred purpose or meaning to a nation.
RJS: One might respond to what you just said this way: okay, fine. So the real marriage is neither going to be created nor destroyed by the state, but the state can recognize the relationship. But that’s precisely why the state should recognize some sort of civil union, but not same-sex marriage, because the state can’t create marriage. Marriage is created by the covenantal logic, and that covenantal logic is going to be permanent, exclusive, involving spouses of different sexes, and so on. Why grant same-sex marriage under civil law? That sounds like creating something, and something false. Certainly, there are opponents to that position, who want same-sex marriage recognized as marriage just because marriage has a sacral quality to them. They didn’t want the recognition of civil unions. They wanted marriage.
DF: Right. Yeah. They absolutely wanted their relationships to have the same legal recognition as the recognition granted to opposite-sex couples. If the state recognized civil unions, but not marriage, even if the set of benefits were identical provided to civil unions as to marriage, that they would still view these as second-class arrangements. There was a validating aspect of expanding the definition of civil marriage. There’s no question about that.
Also, there was almost no constituency on the right for creating civil unions that were identical to marriage, but not called marriage. I remember the days. If you were for civil unions, you were seen as a hopeless compromiser. This was compromise that nobody wanted at the time.
It’s also the case that there’s a wide divergence of religious belief regarding marriage in the United States of America. An awful lot of same-sex couples say, “David, you’re wrong. I have a covenant marriage just like you do.” And they belong to religious traditions or to churches that would endorse that wholly entirely and completely, and that my definition of covenant marriage is fundamentally wrong. And that brings into play the question that we haven’t really addressed, which is pluralism. How do we live together across this really big difference? Again, that’s why my default position comes down to respecting each other’s liberties and respecting each other’s desires to live our lives according to our deepest values.
RJS: Final question, and thanks again for doing the interview with us. Clearly, there’s a lot of contestation in the conservative world right now about what it means to be a conservative, what we should do, who we should vote for, and so on. What do you want to tell conservatives about how they should think and act and proceed going forward?
DF: On the voting question, which is one of the more basic questions, I have a two-pronged test that I apply, and you have to pass them both. It’s not one or the other. It’s an “and,” not an “or.”
First, you have to possess personal character commensurate with the office you seek. So the higher the office, the higher demand for character there should be. So there should be character commensurate with the office that you seek. Second, a person should broadly support my political policy positions, my political values. There’s no perfect person, and there’s no perfect policy alignment. But broadly speaking, high character and policy alignment. If you’re missing either one, I’m not going to vote for you.
I wrote about this in my last Sunday newsletter. In 1998, the Southern Baptist Convention wrote a resolution on moral character in public officials. It was extremely brief, but eloquent and powerful. And one of the most eloquent passages of it says that the tolerance of serious wrongs by leaders sears the conscience of a culture, spawns unrestrained lawlessness, and surely will result in God’s judgment. There was a lot of mocking of that sentiment by a lot of the mainstream culture in 1998 when it was drafted, because that was Bill Clinton they were aiming at. We had peace and prosperity and all those Christian prudes. I remember even reading op-eds about how we need to have more European views about mistresses.
Is there a statement that’s been more thoroughly vindicated than that? What happens when we tolerate serious wrongs by leaders? It does sear our conscience. How many times are we now seeing people just rationalizing the grossest conduct? It does spawn lawlessness. The scandals that are metastasizing through the American body politic are ripping at the seams of our social fabric. God’s judgment is not necessarily hurricanes or tsunamis or fire from the sky. It can be something as simple as giving us over to our own desires and watching us reap the consequences of our own behavior. A part of God’s constant mercy and grace is consistently saving us from ourselves. God’s judgment will not always save us from ourselves, and many times we reap what we’ve sown. Right now, we’re in a reaping phase of having sown an awful lot of lawlessness and corruption.
This really short-term thinking that says, “I don’t like either one, but one’s clearly a lesser evil,” is exactly what’s landing us in the position that we are in with a collapse of trust in institutions, a collapse in trust in politics, a collapse in competence. If your primary qualification is you’re not the other guy, where’s the emphasis on competence even as a baseline? Somebody has to start taking the long view.
Neither party can win an election without their Bible-believing base. The two most church-going segments of American society, in addition to Mormons, are white evangelicals and black Democrats. Black Protestants are overwhelmingly Democrat. If both these movements exercised a veto authority over low-character politicians, American life would change.
That’s what I would urge for people of faith. Use the power that you actually have. Stop sitting around moaning and groaning that you’re persecuted and you don’t have any power. Come on. White evangelicals are the most powerful faction of one of the two most powerful political parties in the most powerful country in the history of the world. You are not powerless. You are not persecuted. Use the immense power that you have to begin to change the character of our institutions in a positive direction. No more fear-based voting. No more compromises with lesser evils. Use your power to reinforce virtue in this country, or you’re not upholding your end of the social compact. Period.