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Taking Evangelical Christians Beyond the Partisan Divide

With his newsletter, David French pushes his fellow believers to think beyond the usual political boundaries, while explaining to outsiders what his community is thinking

by
Maggie Phillips
June 10, 2021
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Nancy French
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Nancy French
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Nancy French
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Nancy French

In Romans 12:2, Paul urges his readers, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” It’s a message intended for a community of early Christians in a specific time and place who were confronting a set of issues unique to them. However, it has resonated through the ages for believers in Jesus Christ the world over.

Its plea for detachment from the grubbiness of secular life has been taken up again by David French: senior editor of The Dispatch, Harvard-educated lawyer and First Amendment advocate, one-time almost third party presidential candidate, and believing evangelical Christian. In late 2019, he started the faith-focused Sunday edition of his three-times-weekly Dispatch newsletter The French Press, which typically covers (among other topics) politics and law.

Despite its bright play on words, French says The French Press has an “urgent mission” to “get people to shed partisan identity as part of their religious identity.” He calls this political identity “the partisan mind,” and he is the voice of one calling in the wilderness, urging increased understanding between various interest groups, together with the disentanglement of what is “good, pleasing, and perfect” from the temporal pettiness of politics—regardless of who sits behind the Resolute desk.

It seems every four years or so, evangelical Christians are the focus of the national discourse, the subject of feverish speculation, confused agitation, and sweeping accusations: They are responsible for the worst excesses of the Trump administration! Their fingerprints are all over Bush-era policies! There’s the whole thing with the Second Coming and Israel for some reason!

A lot of times, the American Protestant world can be particularly difficult for people to decipher because if they’re on the outside, they might hear the word ‘evangelical,’ and think that that describes something that’s sort of a coherent monolithic set of beliefs, when the reality is that it’s sort of more of an exit poll category.

As fewer Americans are conversant in the language of faith and organized religion, the influence of evangelicals in American political life is likely to remain a contentious cultural talking point.

In a sense, French’s crusade against the partisan mind seems at odds with his inaugural Sunday newsletter, when he wrote its goal was “to inject faith into politics, business, culture, and—well—everything.” However, he doesn’t shy away in his writing from acknowledging that there is a considerable (particularly white) evangelical influence on contemporary GOP politics. With that recognition out in the open, his objective to infuse faith into some very secular realms has the potential to complement the shedding of the partisan mind: French explains in that same first Sunday French Press that the weekly newsletter “is one small effort to help Americans of all political and cultural backgrounds to better understand the values, beliefs, and practices that shape the lives of countless millions of their fellow citizens.”

After four years in which Americans saw a steady stream of prominent white evangelicals on cable news, this may strike some as bringing coals to Newcastle. How could it possibly be said that the country hasn’t been exposed to—even saturated with—evangelical beliefs?

When a clip emerged of Paula White, the Trump administration’s director of the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, praying for all “satanic pregnancies” that threatened Trump to “miscarry,” it understandably raised a few eyebrows. French devoted an entire newsletter to the concept.

“So, it was like, OK, wait a minute, we have to back way up,” he told me, “and explain to people the whole concept of what Pentecostalism is, what’s spiritual warfare within Pentecostalism, and what are the precise kinds of language, what’s the language that’s used to describe spiritual warfare.”

He used his February 2020 newsletter to explain the Pentecostal belief in spiritual warfare—the idea that there is a spiritual realm in which forces of good and evil are forever battling, and from which stem real world consequences. A “satanic pregnancy” was less Rosemary’s Baby and more of a concept, the evil conceived and sent out into the world from a spiritual plane. Paula White, French told readers, was the more extreme end of “a spiritual practice of millions of fellow Americans and hundreds of millions of fellow Pentecostal Christians across the globe.”

“Doesn’t mean you’re going to agree with it,” he acknowledged. “Doesn’t mean you think it’s right, but at least you understand what’s going on.”

With The French Press, French puts himself in the role of a sort of evangelical-splainer: “One of my goals—obviously if you read what I write, I put my own perspective into things—is to also just sort of be a tour guide, to say, ‘OK, I’m going to give you a lot more background on this than you might have ever thought you wanted.’”

However, in a country where white evangelicals can seem to be everywhere while claiming at the same time to be among America’s most marginalized groups, the background is arguably needed as we debate the ensuing policy decisions and culture wars.

I think both the right and left ignore evangelicalism as a culture-making and culture-shaping institution.

If French is a tour guide, his own journey through America’s geographical and Protestant landscape (including New York City, “Ithaca, New York; Philadelphia; two cities in Kentucky; and three cities in Tennessee,” according to his wife, Nancy), has made him a well-qualified one: Now in his early 50s, he was born in Opelika, Alabama, growing up in what he calls “a quite fundamentalist church,” eventually switching over to Pentecostalism for around a decade as an adult, and finally ending up where he is today.

“A lot of times,” French observed, “the American Protestant world can be particularly difficult for people to decipher because if they’re on the outside, they might hear the word ‘evangelical,’ and think that that describes something that’s sort of a coherent monolithic set of beliefs, when the reality is it that’s sort of more of an exit poll category. So it can describe everything from a Pentecostal who’s part of the New Apostolic Reformation to a High Church Anglican who’s sort of split from the Episcopal Church to somebody like me, a Calvinist Presbyterian. There’s just so many different strands of belief and theology and culture in there.”

And race. French explains that evangelicalism is multiethnic. “A lot of the generalities you hear when people talk about, ‘evangelicals support this’ or ‘evangelicals support that,’ are wrong,” he said. “I’ll even do this myself in conversation till I remember what I’m doing—I’ll say, ‘Well, evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump.’ Put the brakes on that. Black evangelicals didnt. Hispanic evangelicals are more favorable to Trump, but not as much as white evangelicals. Asian evangelicals were not as supportive.”

French laments that “evangelicals” becomes a catchall shorthand, a phenomenon he attributes to exit polls that ask voters if they’re white evangelicals, and whom they supported. “It’s kind of an artificial category in one sense,” he conceded. “But in the other sense it’s a very politically distinct category,” given white evangelicals’ propensity to vote Republican.

A newsletter taking an almost anthropological look at this subculture may have made more intuitive sense during the previous administration. However, French sees a continuing need for The French Press even when evangelicals don’t dominate the news or the corridors of power in quite the same way. Noting that based on the messages in his inbox, a majority of his newsletter readers don’t seem to be evangelical themselves, he wants to promote understanding.

French concedes that The French Press might not breed agreement—indeed, much of what he writes is often critical of evangelical leaders, churches, and their relationship to power in culture, society, and politics. But he hopes to move beyond a merely superficial awareness of a large, often-misunderstood and caricatured group of Americans.

“It’s funny,” he said. “It seems like every four years or so, or every two years, where people across the country sort of say, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a lot of evangelicals!’ Then there’s like this very super-periodic curiosity.”

If you are a Christian, your fundamental identity is in Christ. It is not—it is not—in the Republican Party.

Accordingly, French is trying to build up what he calls a “knowledge base” for his readers, to make them “more literate and conversant in the lives and beliefs of tens of millions of their fellow citizens.”

“Shouldn’t we know our own country?” he asked. “We should just kind of know this place where we live.” And, he argued, “I think both the right and left ignore evangelicalism as a culture-making and culture-shaping institution.”

French asserts that what he calls the evangelical “siege mentality” prevents many from appreciating the strength and reach of their own institutions, even as, he says, they tell him that “the left controls every major institution.”

To which French replies: “It doesn’t control the Southern Baptist Convention. And I guarantee you, the Southern Baptist Convention—on a day-to-day basis—reaches far more people with a far more sustained, prolonged moral instruction than many of the most potent institutions on the secular left. And that’s just one denomination.”

At the same time, many secular Americans or non-evangelicals tend to view this bloc as a monolith, when in fact there’s just as much internecine conflict as any political or religious group in the country.

On the one hand, French is hopeful that non-evangelicals will find this cultural fractiousness relatable, a sort of, “evangelicals—they’re just like us!” realization. On the other hand, evangelical-skeptic readers may take comfort from his honest portrayal of the flaws and shortcomings within the world of white evangelicalism, in which he says there are emerging signs of change. Among them, he describes “discontent with the extreme devotion to Trump,” as well as a discontentment “with reflexive dismissals of racial critiques of the church.”

French says this inchoate, roots-level discontentment among his fellow evangelicals has yet to coalesce around a single denomination or movement (although he cites Russell Moore and Beth Moore—no relation, and lately of the Southern Baptist Convention—as popular, high-visibility critics of evangelicalism in the immediate post-Trump era). That isn’t to say, however, that an identifiable movement of religious conservatives dissatisfied with the status quo hasn’t emerged.

It has—in opposition to David French.

For some of his fellow conservatives, as well as Christians of various denominations, French isn’t the voice calling in the wilderness, but the call coming from inside the house. His denunciation of Trump’s character, together with his preference for persuasion and 20th-century conservative, small-government solutions, and his commitment to First Amendment neutrality, have earned him detractors. Perhaps most notably, he’s attracted critics like New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Amari, who favors a gloves-off approach to the culture war, and promotes a social conservatism ready to counter by virtually any means necessary what he perceives to be existential threats to a way of life. In the most malign critiques, to those in and around the Ahmari camp, “French-ism” actively enables the destruction of the nuclear family and the wisdom of centuries of tradition.

Nearly two years after his high-profile college campus debates with Ahmari about the future of social conservatism, French forges on through the virtual Nineveh of American political and religious discourse, steadfastly proclaiming his message of reconciliation through understanding. With regard to the tone of The French Press, its author says he finds transparency is key. His goal is to describe issues within white evangelicalism as dispassionately as possible, drawing upon lifelong experience both as an insider and insights gleaned from his career as a religious liberty lawyer. But he’ll also tell readers why, in his opinion, satanic pregnancies as a concept are problematic.

An avid basketball fan, he likens it to being asked to comment on the overall state of the NBA while being honest about his particular allegiance to the Memphis Grizzlies.

And what about the shedding of the partisan mind?

By highlighting the fractiousness and tensions within American evangelicalism, French is hoping to do more than educate outsiders; he is attempting an intervention of sorts for his fellow white evangelicals. With The French Press mix of explanations, definitions, and personal testimony, its author is holding up a mirror to his own community, showing them how their flaws and shortcomings appear to their fellow citizens.

French says he doesn’t discourage readers from voting for a particular party or running under the banner of a political party. What he hopes his newsletter will do is help them cast off “that partisan belief system as any form of reality.”

“If you are a Christian,” French said, “your fundamental identity is in Christ. It is not—it is not—in the Republican Party.”

This story is part of a yearlong series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.

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