Can you think of a single issue—political, cultural, religious, or anything—that is uniting Americans more than it is dividing them? David French joins Matt, Derek, and Alastair to discuss the nature, causes, and responses to our current extreme polarization. David French’s new book on this very topic is Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.
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December Promos [0:00]
The Many Takes of David French [1:12]
Divided We Fall [2:45]
“Sometimes realism is bleak.” | What is negative polarization? [3:59]
How does social media unite or divide us? | Nut-picking Described [9:14]
Violence and Media Reporting [15:36]
The systems are sound; the people are not. [21:04]
Giving social media its proper blame [24:18]
Does winning looks like domination or accomodation? [30:06]
Defending the Possibility of Martyrdom [43:04]
Trump’s Antibodies to Weaponized Civility [50:16]
Festivus Traditions [57:22]
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Follow Derek, Andrew, and Alastair for more tweet-sized brilliance. Thanks to Timothy Crouch for keeping us organized. Thanks to Tim Motte for his sound editing. And thanks to The Joy Eternal for lending us their music, which everybody should download out of gratitude for their kindness.
I enjoyed the discussion of domination and accommodation. I wonder if another approach wouldn’t be better, which is evidenced by the right-wrong discussion that followed.
The problem is that most social conservatives are ethical idealists. James Davison Hunter made this point about a decade ago in To Change the World, but it was largely ignored. Whenever you operate from the vantage point of ethical idealism, domination inevitable eclipses accommodation. At its core, accommodation requires a shift towards ethical realism. In doing so, one moves away from the language of right and wrong, and towards the language of wise and unwise. That doesn’t solve every problem, but it’s a start. We need to do a better job of embracing C.S. Lewis’ recognition that we can never be more than probably right. And that means that those with whom we disagree are probably right in certain respects too.
When I first got out of law school, I practiced in a litigation group before shifting to the corporate group. The adversarial nature of litigation forces one to operate within the gray. You have to be able to put yourself in your opponents’ shoes and understand the arguments they’re likely to make. And assume that they’ll make the strongest, most reasonable arguments they have. I rarely see this among social conservatives. Instead, they purposefully misconstrue their opponents’ position—as was done here on the post-birth abortion dialogue—in order to make one’s opponents’ arguments look as weak and unreasonable as possible.
That said, I don’t see much appetite for this among white evangelicals. The lust to destroy the other seems rather strong, even if the reasons for doing so are facile.
I have been thinking alot about the disunity of the church caused by Covid. I can’t get around the fact that somehow for unity one side has to “give up” their ideals in some way. Biblically speaking, I have wondered is there actually a virtue in seeking unity that might outweigh a possible sin committed by capitulating your viewpoint on a certain moral issue?
I’m not sure that it’s a sin to forego ethical idealism.
In fact, I’d suggest that ethical idealism supposes that we can have a kind of epistemic certainty that lies largely at odds with Christian anthropology. We are prone to err, and are prone to mistake our own self-service for Christian virtue.
When I was growing up in evangelical Reformed circles, I came to note the primacy placed on clarity. For truth to be “true truth,” that truth needed to be clear truth. I can still remember an RUF minister saying that a Christian man is a man who never utters the words, “There’s a sense in which….” Instead, the virtuous Christian man is one who sees every issue as a black-and-white issue, and who takes an uncompromising stand on the side of right. But this just doesn’t comport with reality. Life is often messy in this fallen world of ours, and social disputes in our pluralistic society just aren’t easily described by such binary possibilities.
Of course, as Christians, we know that God made this world and that everything around testifies to the truth of the Creator. And while it’s infected with a degree of disorder on this side of Eden, God’s truth is not so hidden from us that we can’t draw godly wisdom from our keen observation of the world around us. Thus, on social and cultural issues, pragmatic reasoning ought to lead us to much the same place as biblical reasoning. Never mind that the biblical canon was never intended as a kind of “rule book” that gives clear black-and-white guidance on how to navigate daily life in a pluralistic, culturally heterogeneous society. It certainly provides general ethical principles that one can apply in combination with the exercise of godly wisdom. But it can’t do much else. And it certainly can’t do what many white evangelicals in America want it to do: Tell them that their political views embody pure goodness, and that their opponents’ political views embody pure evil.
White evangelicalism is rife with self-serving hagiography. When I was growing up in the PCA, we constantly heard that we represented some remnant of biblical orthodoxy seeking to protect God’s truth from the evil liberals at the PCUSA church down the street. Our self-conception was entirely idealist. And while that idealist conception is part of the American evangelical story, it ignores a number of political and social issues that led to the movement’s emergence after WWII. As Molly Worthen documents well in her book, political concerns about domestic Communism and social concerns about the emerging meritocratic order also played a significant role. It was evident that the America of Mayberry and Walton’s Mountain was giving way to something different. And many gravitated towards evangelical religion, so as to find certainty in a less certain world.
I don’t know where this leaves us in terms of church unity. One of my frustrations with the evangelical movement is its leaders’ refusal to acknowledge the political and social drivers that led to the movement’s emergence. Perhaps we didn’t notice those drivers because there was unity around certain political views and, particularly, around certain social views. It’s hard to overstate the degree to which white evangelicals saw themselves as part of a cultural crusade to undo the advances of feminists, blacks, and gays. By the 1980s the racial aspects fell by the wayside. But opposition to feminism and gay rights remained as central to evangelical identity as the core tenets of Christian orthodoxy.
J.D. Hunter noted in his early work that we can’t have a reasonable discussion about abortion until we acknowledge that we on the right are using the issue of abortion as a stand-in for arguing the cultural merits of feminism. When I was growing up in the PCA, I noticed that those men who were most ardent opponents of legalized abortion were also the most ardent critics of women’s social equality. Was that just a coincidence? Of course not. That’s not to say that there aren’t significant and competing liberty issues at stake in discussions about abortion. And I agree that the current calculus grants too few rights to the fetus concerning its prospective life. But such views hardly merit the kind of visceral response we see from white evangelicals on this issue. It’s clear that the issue of abortion touches upon some identity-defining feature that’s so core to our shared life that we dare not even name it. After all, the mere naming of it puts it up for debate. For white evangelicals, that issue is the declining value of maleness in our society. The purpose of the Danvers Statement is to ensure that such tertiary and ephemeral social issues be elevated to the status of the Resurrection.
One could say the same thing on questions of homosexuality. I’m a gay conservative. I can easily understand why the church may oppose the leftist narrative about the role of non-heterosexual people in society. But there’s no reason why the 21st-century leftists should have a monopoly on setting forth the role that gays should play in society. There are far more choices available to us between remaining closeted and embracing the sexual radicalism of the Left. But white evangelicals buy into that binary narrative to the same degree as the leftists who promote it. Why is that? Ordinarily, white evangelicals are about the last people you’d find acceding to leftists propositions. I’d suggest that it’s because opposition to homosexuality is an identity-defining issue for evangelicals, tied in with concerns about the declining value of maleness.
Note that Rod Dreher wrote a piece the other day suggesting that “orthodox Christians” shouldn’t even entertain discussions on homosexuality. Why is that? It’s because Rod wants to keep the current binary in place. Entering into dialogue with conservative gay people makes it much harder to suggest that the dialogue is a Trojan Horse for left-wing radicalism. The goal is to silence us gay conservatives who are seeking to establish identities that are more aligned with conservative values. If there’s dialogue, we become visible and we can’t be written off with cheap rhetoric about leftist radicals.
It’s still too early to guess where we’re headed after Trump. Will evangelicalism go the way of Eric Metaxas or the way of David French?
That said, I believe that unity is possible. But unity requires acknowledging what our differences are. When I still moved in evangelical circles, I found it difficult to have meaningful and rational discussions on the issue of homosexuality. It was clear that this issue affected many at a visceral level in such a way that it was impossible even to know where our disagreements lay. Note the interactions between the CBMW crowd concerning Revoice. The CBMW folks are largely arguing against straw men of their own fabrication, instead of engaging what the Revoice folks are actually saying and promoting, in short, the CBMW “theology” is functioning as a kind of anxiety reliever more than it is setting forth a substantive position. Until we can get around to naming the anxiety, no unity is possible.
My vote for the most unfiltered show yet. In a good way, lol.
Show idea #1: I think one of the biggest points of argument for Christians on Trump is on how we “rank” sin. Some people seem to think certain very real sins of Trump (slander, demeaning women) are a really big deal (like that John Piper article). Others would say that the sin of abortion far outweighs such “insignificant” sins such as slander. But we know that biblically all sin leads to death equally. Are there theological systems from church history or doctrines that legitimize the “ranking” sin or even give a method to do this faithfully?
Show idea #2: You guys talked alot about domination vs. accomodation. And there was also that comment about martydom. Hebrews 10:34 says, “you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property.” We also know Jesus said to turn the other cheek. But also as Derek said, Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship. What are the different Christian perspectives on the line between fighting for our rights (is there a such thing as Christian rights??) and laying our rights down like Christ did? An example: There is a bike shop owner in my town whose entire inventor was looted during the riots, and yet his comment on the shop webpage was to sympathize with the protesters and give validity to their anger. There seems to be some Christian wisdom in this response. What do you guys think?