May 20 • 1HR 29M

David French On Religious Liberty, CRT, Grace

I finally get to meet the Christian conservative Tennessean who became a foe of the Trump right.

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Unafraid conversations about anything

David is a political writer and former attorney who took on high-profile cases for religious liberty. He was also a major in the Army Reserve who served in Iraq, and before that he served as president of FIRE, the campus free-speech group. David now writes for The Dispatch and The Atlantic, and his latest book is Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation. Last summer he wrote this wonderful review of my essay collection, Out On A Limb, but this is the first time we’ve spoken.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above. For two clips of my convo with David — on how many political Christians completely miss the point of Jesus, and on the “God gap” within the Democratic coalition — head over to our YouTube page.

That convo is a good complement to our January episode with Christopher Rufo (the two have tussled before), so we just transcribed Rufo’s episode in full. Here’s a reminder of his stance on CRT in the schools:

Starting around the 30-minute mark in the new episode, David and I discuss the tricky defense of liberalism in the face of both CRT curriculum and anti-CRT bills. We also grapple with the corrosive effects of Twitter and, in particular, the commentary surrounding the racist massacre in Buffalo this week. On that note, a reader writes:

I am a member of a mainline Christian denomination and parent of young children. My personal and professional experience of social media is centered on connections with clergy colleagues and active church members attached to a wide variety of Christian denominations. When news of the racially motivated shooting in Buffalo broke, my social media relationships immediately shifted to a flurry of outrage, comments about the pox of racism built into the American way, and pithy memes noting that the root problem of all that ails us is white supremacy.

For example, one friend wrote in response to the Buffalo shooting, “The root cause of gun violence is white supremacy. We will not be safe from gun violence until we end white supremacy. White fam, we are the ones who can end white supremacy. It is on us.” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church released a statement decrying the racism behind the shooting. Members of my left-leaning church have asked and encouraged me to preach from the pulpit about the evils of white supremacy and white fragility, especially now in light of the Buffalo shooting. 

However, I did not hear a thing from these same people or religious bodies following the racially motivated shooting by Frank James on the NYC subway last month. Mr. James has been indicted on federal terror charges after shooting ten people. Were there no official prayers for victims and to end racial violence from religious bodies because no one ultimately died in the subway shooting? Why were there no tweets, memes, or impassioned calls to “do better” after such a horrific, calculated attack? The silence after that racially motivated shooting compared to the outcry after this month’s racially motivated shooting is noteworthy. 

And essential to the CRT worldview. Racism is unique to white people. Another sign of our racialized culture war comes from this listener:

In your episode with Douglas Murray, you mentioned that you had to explain to someone how white people did not invent racism. I serve at the school board in Manhattan and we had the same discussion at our last meeting. The district is pushing a book called “Our Skin” to teach elementary kids how white people invented racism. Money quote:

“A long time ago, way before you were born, a group of white people made up an idea called race. They sorted people by skin color and said that white people were better, smarter, prettier, and that they deserve more than everybody else,” the book declares.

Here’s how Murray addresses the canard that white people invented racism:

On a lighter note, here’s a fan of last week’s episode with Tina Brown:

In your conversation about the Queen’s inscrutable nature and unceasing impartiality, you forget one spectacular lapse into utter bias: the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty!

Pierre Brassard, a Quebec disc jockey, called Buckingham Palace impersonating the (then) Canadian PM Jean Chretien begging her to support the NO side and, astonishingly, got through to Queen Elizabeth! In the conversation, broadcast live in Montreal, she actually said, “It sounds as though the referendum may go the wrong (!) way...”. She said many other things that were blatantly against Quebec separating and was willing to make a public statement.

Here’s the audio (and pardon Elizabeth R’s surprisingly bad French!):

While I voted Non and thought the hoax was screamingly hilarious, this referendum was about the self-determination of a nation and she was hardly a glowing example of non-interference and impartiality. Quebec separatists were apoplectic. She wouldn’t even make a clear declaration in favour of the “No” side in the Scottish referendum! Ah, well ... even Captain Kirk broke the prime directive 33 times. Self-determination must be overrated. 

Here’s Tina on why the best British monarchs tend to be women:

Another fan of the episode writes:

So I’m a stereotypical NPR-listening, NYT-reading, Anglophilic liberal, happy to watch whatever B-grade pablum PBS airs on Sunday nights, as long as it has a British accent. So of course I fell in love with Downton Abbey. Part of my stereotypical outlook is holding a certain condescension toward the lower-class examples of American culture — you’d never catch me watching a soap opera, for example.

But somewhere in the last season of Downton Abbey, it hit me full-on that the show is just a soap opera for snobs. That realization was a nice, bright, uncomfortable look in the mirror. What a hypocrite I am!

That said, I can’t wait for the new Downton Abbey movie that opens this week:

On the subject of Americans and their relationship with the British monarchy that you and Tina Brown discussed, to me it isn’t very complicated. It’s the embodiment of our cultural heritage, so it represents roots and stability in our land that values change and progress. And the monarchy is sacramental — another quality our society lacks, and which we’ve projected onto the office of the president as compensation. 


Toggling from listeners to readers, one of the latter writes:

I have been thinking a lot about your May 6 column on the SCOTUS leak (“How Dare They!”) and the following week’s large number of reader responses to it. First, I want to say that, although I’m fiercely pro-choice, your column was strongly persuasive and helped me to think about Roe v Wade in a very different way. I love this about the Dish — the way you introduce complexity and nuance to issues that are polarizing and thus typically presented in stark black-and-white terms.

But there is one potential detail of your argument that I continue to struggle with. While I accept that, in a liberal society, such issues as abortion should be a matter of debate and resolution via the popular voice, in practice they rarely are — because of the reality of our political system. Because of our two-party system and the primary elections that determine candidacy, most moderate, centrist voters simply do not have a choice to exercise their opinion on a wide variety of issues. They cannot vote individually on issues of substance, in an a la carte fashion. They are forced to accept a homogenous party platform that, in toto, represents the least worst of two extremes.

For example, if I am a pro-choice moderate conservative who supports free markets, minimal government regulation, and low taxation, and is concerned about wokeness and CRT, my only choice to cast a vote in support of access to abortion is to vote for a candidate who is antagonistic to these other issues of import to me.

You cite statistics in your column indicating broad support among Republicans for a moderate stance on abortion. Yet, I would argue that relatively few of these voters are going to voice that support by voting for a Democratic candidate — especially a far-left candidate — even if this means voting for the far-right opponent. This, then, is interpreted by the GOP as proof that their constituency supports the extreme view held by the majority of the GOP candidates. If we had a center party, I may be more optimistic in sharing your view of things. But as it stands, I feel like our choice is no choice at all.

I feel you. But this is unavoidable in a democracy with political parties and winner-takes-all systems. Another reader has a few more laments:

I believe anti-abortion-rights activists have not fully considered the consequences of how eliminating legal abortion will impact families. It is almost certain that the rate of child poverty in America will increase if a ban on abortion takes place.  Most of the states which want to ban abortion also have small child-welfare programs. That will result in more children being born into poor economic circumstances.

Another thing that will probably happen is an increase in crime. The crime rate in the US has been falling since the early ‘90s, when kids born after Roe first started reaching adulthood. There is a clear link between kids being neglected and unwanted and then turning to crime. This was documented in the book Freakonomics.

I believe the pro-choice side will win this debate. But perhaps it will only win when the full, horrifying consequences of banning all abortions — such as in the Oklahoma bill just passed — comes into focus.

This next reader goes meta:

In your otherwise excellent compilation of reader thoughts about Roe, you had one response I want to quibble with. After quoting one reader, you wrote: “Oh please. This next reader gets specific:” — and then went on with the next quote.

I don’t recall what the first reader said, and it doesn’t matter because your response was inappropriate no matter what was said. If you think the reader’s argument has no merit, omit the comment. If you have a rebuttal to the reader’s argument, offer it. Even if you disagree with the reader but lack the time or energy to formulate a proper response, that’s fine too: Just print the comment with no response.

What’s not OK, ever, is to reply with just a snarky dismissal and no further comment. That’s rude to the reader, and it makes you look like a dick.

That whole big collection of reader dissents was compiled and edited by my colleague, Chris, who does that every week to hold my feet to the fire. I don’t censor the reader criticism he offers — so forgive me the occasional harrumph.

Another reader switches topics:

I read these two excerpts in your weekly money quotes:

“There were also homosexual women at the Pines, but they were, or seemed to be, far fewer in number. Nor, except for a marked tendency to hang out in the company of large and usually ferocious dogs, were they instantly recognizable as the men were,” - Midge Decter, who died the week, on Fire Island in the summer of 1980.

“Well, if I were a dyke and a pair of Podhoretzes came waddling toward me on the beach, copies of Leviticus and Freud in hand, I’d get in touch with the nearest Alsatian dealer pronto,” - Gore Vidal, responding to Midge.

I had known about Decter’s “The Boys on the Beach” essay for decades, maybe since the late ‘80s, but I had never read it — until a few months ago. I am 66 years old, was practically always out, loved to read all the gay literature, and I have to say, that essay got the pulse of ‘70s gay life and society better than Edmund White (his “States of Desire” was published in 1980 and I still have my copy) or any other commentator I know of, with the exception of Randy Shilts’s “And the Band Played On.”

Decter had gay acquaintances, friends, and frenemies, and she saw aspects of gay life with a beady-eyed sharpness and skepticism I wish more of us had had back then. I remember when I officially came out in 1974 at 18, met a couple of good-looking guys in their late 20s/early 30s who, like the vast majority of gay men, talked about sex all the time, with a greater intensity than straight guys I knew. So I asked them how many guys they had been to bed with and they said maybe 500 or 600. Asked them if they were afraid of getting diseases, and they said “no” because they just went to the public health clinic to get a shot. 

And right there, I sensed that at some point, there would be a gay healthcare catastrophe. I was not the only who had that sense, but it was very censored in the community.

I tend to agree about Decter’s accuracy and perception, however laced it was with disgust. It’s a riveting piece — proof that sometimes being alien to a subculture makes you a better observer of it. She and Larry Kramer were essentially on the same page when it came to gay male culture in the 1970s. And yes, the omens were there. And now there’s monkeypox, which seems as if it might have found the same transmission route as HIV. Gulp.


Lastly, because we ran out of room this week in the main Dish for the new VFYW contest photo (otherwise the email version would get cut short), here ya go:

Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!