David French is to Conservatism what Tim Keller is to Presbyterianism

This is a follow up and updates this in the light of even more chatter.

Sohrab’s Ahmari’s critique of French-ism, the outlook of the evangelical attorney and Iraq War veteran, David French (not to be confused with Moby), who writes for National Review was over the top. But it did capture a problem in French’s above-it-all-I-just-follow-the-Declaration-and-Constitution self-fashioning. That is one of putting convictions into practice and forming institutions to maintain them.

French says his outlook consists of:

“Frenchism” (is that a thing now?) contains two main components: zealous defense of the classical-liberal order (with a special emphasis on civil liberties) and zealous advocacy of fundamentally Christian and Burkean conservative principles. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. It’s the formulation that renders the government primarily responsible for safeguarding liberty, and the people primarily responsible for exercising that liberty for virtuous purposes. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The problem is, as William F. Buckley saw when he founded National Review, that holding up the ideals of classical liberalism requires taking sides. You nominate candidates, vote in elections, and decide on laws and policy. You may believe in the Bible, by analogy, but you need to interpret it, write a creed, institute a polity, and decide who may be ordained to ecclesiastical office. Simply saying that you believe in the founding or in the Bible without taking a side politically or denominationally is to fly in a hot air balloon above the fray — except that you’re receiving a pay check from either a magazine that has for over fifty years been taking the movement conservative side of interpreting the founding or a denomination that has identified for forty years with a American conservative Presbyterian rendering of the Bible.

Both French and Keller don’t want to be partisan or extreme which is why they reach for the high-minded origins of either the U.S. or Christianity. They don’t want to fight alongside others. They may employ their own arguments either in court or as a public theologian but having the backs of others in a particular group is not the way they seem to carry it.

No Machen’s Warrior Children here.

This is why Rod Dreher sees Ahmari’s point, namely, that French positions himself above the clamor of division or controversy:

I concede that I’m more of a classical liberal than I thought I was, in that I resist a coercive political order. I am willing to tolerate certain things that I think of as morally harmful, for the greater good of maintaining liberty. Not all sins should be against the law. Again, though, there’s no clear way to know where and how to draw the line. Sohrab Ahmari uses Drag Queen Story Hour as a condensed symbol of the degrading things that contemporary liberalism forces on the public.

I am a thousand percent behind Ahmari in despising this stuff, and I am constantly mystified by how supine most American Christians are in the face of the aggressiveness of the LGBT movement and its allies, especially in Woke Capitalism. I am also a thousand percent with Ahmari in his general critique of how establishment conservatism tends to capitulate to cultural liberalism.

But French has the virtue of being virtuous, which is why Alan Jacobs sees the National Review correspondent as merely being a good Christian:

I disagree with David French about a lot of things — especially what I believe to be his sometimes uncritical support for American military action — but I admire him because he’s trying. He’s trying to “take every thought captive to Christ.” I believe that if you could demonstrate to David French that positions he holds are inconsistent with the Christian Gospel, he would change those positions accordingly. Among Christians invested in the political arena, that kind of integrity is dismayingly rare.

Hey, Dr. Jacobs! I try too. But the day I see you come alongside confessional Presbyterians and say, “they are simply trying to live out the Christian gospel” I’ll book a flight to Waco and buy you a drink.

But Jacob’s reaction is precisely the problem. To regard French’s politics as simply trying to be consistent with Christianity — aside from being a violation of two-kingdom theology — is to ignore that politics requires getting dirty and making compromises. It is not a place to pursue holiness and righteousness — though it is an occupation worthy of a vocation.

So, while David French takes his stand with Burke, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jesus (as if those add up to anything coherent), French-ism is nowhere in Matthew Continetti’s breakdown of contemporary conservatism — trigger warning for #woke and Neo-Calvinist Christians who want their politics to come from either the prophets or the apostles:

The Jacksonians, Mead said, are individualist, suspicious of federal power, distrustful of foreign entanglement, opposed to taxation but supportive of government spending on the middle class, devoted to the Second Amendment, desire recognition, valorize military service, and believe in the hero who shapes his own destiny. Jacksonians are anti-monopolistic. They oppose special privileges and offices. “There are no necessary evils in government,” Jackson wrote in his veto message in 1832. “Its evils exist only in its abuses.”

…Reform conservatism began toward the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, with the publication of Yuval Levin’s “Putting Parents First” in The Weekly Standard in 2006 and of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party in 2008. In 2009, Levin founded National Affairs, a quarterly devoted to serious examinations of public policy and political philosophy. Its aim is to nudge the Republican Party to adapt to changing social and economic conditions.

…Where the paleoconservatives distinguish themselves from the other camps is foreign policy. The paleos are noninterventionists who, all things being equal, would prefer that America radically reduce her overseas commitments. Though it’s probably not how he’d describe himself, the foremost paleo is Tucker Carlson, who offers a mix of traditional social values, suspicion of globalization, and noninterventionism every weekday on cable television.

…The Trump era has coincided with the formation of a coterie of writers who say that liberal modernity has become (or perhaps always was) inimical to human flourishing. One way to tell if you are reading a post-liberal is to see what they say about John Locke. If Locke is treated as an important and positive influence on the American founding, then you are dealing with just another American conservative. If Locke is identified as the font of the trans movement and same-sex marriage, then you may have encountered a post-liberal.

The post-liberals say that freedom has become a destructive end-in-itself. Economic freedom has brought about a global system of trade and finance that has outsourced jobs, shifted resources to the metropolitan coasts, and obscured its self-seeking under the veneer of social justice. Personal freedom has ended up in the mainstreaming of pornography, alcohol, drug, and gambling addiction, abortion, single-parent families, and the repression of orthodox religious practice and conscience.

For those keeping score at home, that’s Jacksonians, Reformocons, Paleocons, and Post-Liberal conservatives. None of them are “classical liberals.” History moves on and requires people to choose.


26 thoughts on “David French is to Conservatism what Tim Keller is to Presbyterianism

  1. Jonah Goldberg’s last hurrah at NRO takes on Sohrab

    As Sohrab often implicitly concedes, most of the outrageous assaults on religion don’t come from liberal democratic capitalism, but from the state. Capitalism didn’t attack the Little Sisters of the Poor, the state did. And as both Charlie and David note, the best and only available means of defending such victims are the tools provided by the liberal order and the Constitution. Religious liberty is a concept as close to being definitional of the American order as any I can think of…

    The idea that observant Catholics — a group I admire and sympathize with — can successfully win the culture war entirely on their terms is absurd, particularly if part of that strategy requires defenestrating the likes of David French — not to mention countless secular conservatives, traditionalists, and libertarians — for the sake of not theological or ideological purity but mere tactical consensus. David’s emphasis on “decency and civility” (Sohrab’s words) offers one of the only plausible ways of converting large numbers to the cause. More importantly: Since total victory is impossible, convincing the unconverted and unconvertible, that religious conservatives nonetheless deserve fair treatment and autonomy in a pluralistic society requires first convincing them that the religious right’s real objective isn’t to seize the commanding heights of the culture and turn their guns on the enemy. If average Americans, forget progressives, think the religious right wants to use the state to force everyone else to heel, the assault on religious liberty will only get worse.

    But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the First Things crowd has a brilliant plan for mounting a successful — and permanent–– benign, mildly theocratic takeover of all three branches of the government, the administrative state, as well as the universities, media, and state and local governments:

    Step One: Purge the Frenchian Squishes

    Step Two: ?????

    Step Three: Bask in “a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” (Sohrab’s words).

    And let us just take two seconds to chuckle at the notion that Donald Trump is precisely the man to pull that off.



  2. Mind you, if we’re living in an era of growing anti-Christian attitudes, it is simultaneously occurring as the abortion rate hits a record low, the divorce rate continues its multi-decade decline, and charitable donations to religious organizations continue to rise. We’re that weird kind of post-Christian country where 70.6 percent of Americans identify as Christian. Finally . . . this is a really awkward moment to argue that American society’s sense of right and wrong, responsibility, accountability and ethics should be shaped by the Catholic Church.



  3. Jeff,

    How can you quote Kathryn Lopez and Jonah Goldberg positively? “Goldberg takes on Sorhabi?” Exactly. Establishment Neocons at National Review will ALWAYS punch right and do little more than bleat at the cultural Marxists running them over in the public square. For as long as they’ve been feeding at the trough of the NRO, they’ve conserved exactly nothing. They haven’t even articulated a coherent agenda. A career of failure pays well, I guess.

    Darryl and Sohrabi are exactly right in their assessments. Sohrabi is a Millennial; French is a Boomer/early GenXer. The only people I’ve seen defend French are Boomers and early GenXers. Millennial conservatives loath him, Kevin “Die Whitey” Williamson, and the other pigs feeding at the trough at NRO. This is a changing of the guard. Boomer conservatism has failed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jeff,

    Ahmari is right that the left is out to destroy conservative Christians, but given our system of governance, the only way to “win” is to persuade people of one’s position. That’s where French is correct, though the consistent “Never Trump” starts to get annoying.

    But as far as the passage you’ve quoted:

    I don’t know about charitable giving rates, but isn’t one of the reasons the divorce rate is lower is that people are delaying marriage or not getting married at all? I’m not sure that’s an improvement. And does the lower abortion rate factor in chemical abortions via things like the morning-after pill?


  5. Robert
    There are about 500,000 uses of the map in the US each year. The number of abortions per year has dropped from 1.4M at its peak to about 600k now. Even if every use of the map would otherwise have ended in abortion it doesn’t account for the drop.

    The map is not a chemical abortion though…you are thinking of RU486 I think which is counted in stats. One of the ways that the map works is by stopping the implantation of a fertilized egg. Usually it works by preventing the egg from being released. When that fails, it keeps it from being fertilized. If it gets past that point it halts implantation.


  6. @ Walt:

    DGH and Sohrab Ahmari are making different arguments. DGH finds SA’s argument to be “over the top”, but says that it “captures a problem.”

    So let’s deal with Ahmari first. His complaint against French is that he’s too nice, that he seems unaware that there’s a war on. To which I reply, French knows how to actually take aim and fire, instead of just talking about firing. French has fought in court — which is a major field of engagement in our post-Roe system — and actually won.

    Ahmari? Well, he’s three years into a conversion to Roman Catholicism, which explains the zeal. He’s done a lot of writing. That’s not nothing, but it’s also not providing direct air support to Christians subject to lawfare.

    So I don’t think much of his criticism because it comes from the armchair, and because it gives glancing notice to actual warfare.

    DGH has a different criticism: Frenchism, like Kellerism, has trouble “putting convictions into practice and forming institutions to maintain them.”

    Two criticisms, actually: Frenchism, like Kellerism, is a violation of 2k theology.

    To that I reply, Yes. Conservatives in general are having a terrible time maintaining and building institutions: National boundaries, family and marriage, church, small business/farm/town. All of these are under the double threat of tech and progressivism.

    Is Frenchism — get along with your neighbors so far as you can — a way to build those institutions in the face of tech and progressivism? I would argue Yes. First, because it directly opposes the Twittermobbery that tech enables and encourages. Second, because most neighbors are not die-hard progressives.

    This is in contrast to Kellerism, which seems to this outsider to be about pushing the edges of Confessionalism in order to transform the institution into something other than what it is. I don’t see French trying to nudge conservatives to be less conservative. If you want an example of the latter, look to Jennifer Rubin, who seems to have switched teams.

    I see French trying to nudge conservatives to keep their distance from an ally, Trump, who is not one of them at heart. At the same time, he goes to bat for conservatives who are being twittermobbed (see the defenses of Kavenaugh and the Covington Catholics).

    With regard to the second criticism, French is definitely not a pure 2k-er. But if you had to pick out of a line-up which living Christian political figures or commentators are closest to 2k, I think French would make the top 20 cut. Despite his talk of Christian values in the public square, he seems to understand that the Bible cannot be the basis for governance. He seems to respect liberty of conscience.

    Sohrab Ahmari would be way down near the bottom of the 2k list. He literally wants a soft theocracy in which Catholic values order the public square.

    Out of curiosity: Whom do you like the best as a political commentator?


  7. @ Robert:

    I believe abortion stats include RU486 but do not include Plan B or other ECs. The best evidence to date is that ECs do not act to prevent implantation, based on three independent lines of reasoning.

    First, the body itself produces large amount of progesterone in response to fertilization; this obviously does not affect implantation or the implanted zygote.

    Second, recent studies show no change in the endometrial lining in response to ECs.

    Third, fertility rates for women who take EC the day after ovulation are roughly the same as fertility rates for women who do not take EC at all. Oops.


    That said, my nearest and dearest health care professional is still very cautious about ECs.

    With regard to divorce rates dropping, I agree: it’s an illusory stat masking the substitution of cohabitation for outright marriage.


  8. Out of curiosity: Whom do you like the best as a political commentator?

    I agree with your criticisms of both and your defense of French takes the edge off a bit. I think it’s important to look at it from Sohrabi’s point-of-view. He fled the frying pan of Khomeini’s theocracy. He now realizes he might’ve landed in the fire of a cultural Marxist one. Who do I like better? Neither actually though I agree with his assessment of French. For a conservative agenda, I like Bill LInd and Paul Weyrich’s agenda described in “The Next Conservatism.” I generally agree with Darryl (I think) that we should be cautious allying ourselves with Catholics.

    There’s simply no warrant for being “nice” or civil to people who want to use the organs of State to teach transgenderism to children, whether they’re parents or “educators” or politicians or to kill the unborn or normalize sodomy. These are heinous sins that violate even nature. These people are like the men of Sodom who indoctrinated their own youth into sodomy (Gen 19:4). Lot got nowhere trying to be nice to them (Gen 19:9). I think Matthew Henry’s commentary on Matthew 24 applies to the United States

    When a people, by their sin, make themselves as loathsome carcasses, nothing can be expected but that God should send enemies to destroy them. It is very applicable to the day of judgment, the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in that day, 2Th 2:1. Let us give diligence to make our calling and election sure; then may we know that no enemy or deceiver shall ever prevail against us.

    The Left deserves far harsher rhetoric at the very least. I don’t know what Calvin would do. We have a good sense of what Knox would do. I’m not sure about Luther.

    What should French do about all this? First, I have to ask if he sees this because his criticism tends to be very mild and assume some common ground with the Left. If he sees this but offers only mild prescriptions and rhetoric, it’s a big red flag. What mild prescriptions are warranted now that judges are ordering Western parents to take their kids to gender reassignment therapy? The water’s boiling in this pot. The Left talks about resistance all the time, is now resorting to violence though admittedly not as bad as the 70s, and has captured most of the organs of government and finds a work-around for every battle we win in the courts. They clearly intend to use the organs of State against us as much as possible. We definitely need to protect our children and families from the Left. At this point I think resistance by lesser magistrates such as governors, mayors and county officers to the Left’s agenda is warranted. The Left is trying to take the rest of us off a cliff with it.

    I think most answers to our problems, sadly, are now found in the fringes and margins. Mainstream public Establishment Conservatives like those at NRO have none for us.


  9. Walt, Jeff,

    The point that French has actually fought and won some important battles is a good one, as is the case that most ordinary people are not die-hard progressives. I think part of the problem is simple apathy. How many run of the mill citizens are aware that things like the transgender story hour are going on? I would think not many. I think there’s a general sense among most people that our governing institutions are friendly to, or at least not contrary to commonsense kind of things such as the fact that we shouldn’t be encouraging boys to wear dresses. This is where Ahmari is right. You simply can’t count on the state to share one’s kind of commonsense moral outlook. And in many cases, it’s actively working to undermine that. Does French understand that? Sometimes I’m not so sure.


  10. Oh, and Dreher’s criticism of Ahmari is spot on. Ahmari seems to want some kind of theocratic rule, preferably Roman Catholic, but if you can’t convince Roman Catholics in America to obey the church’s moral teachings, how in the world are you going to get the ordinary folk to support a state informed and guided by such?


  11. Reading through these threads reminds me that one of “conservative” Christians’ greatest enemies is not just the Left or the State, bad as those are, but American Protestants themselves. I’m referring to mainliners when I say that. Those denominations emerged from the 20’s and 30’s fundamentalist/modernist controversy and have bought into just about every capitulation since. It took SSM and gay clergy for some to begin to wake up and that largely resulted in separation and spin-off synods, communions, etc. Ironically, even some of those who separated (e.g., NALC from the ELCA) themselves over the SSM issue have retained much of their previous ways (mixed sex ordination, lodge memberships, low view of scripture, wide open Lord’s Supper, etc.) As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


  12. Robert,



    Amen. We forget that the Protestant church was a visible theocratic republic that began its slow-motion collapse 100-150 years ago. Its prophetic voice is now completely gone. Why should unbelievers of the secular republic listen to us in the theocratic republic if we can’t adequately rule it? The moral and spiritual backbone of the secular republic – if you agree with John Adams and Samuel Huntington – was the Protestant church. If we want to look where to cast blame for the state of the secular republic, look no further than the church. We have met the enemy and he is us.


  13. Jeff, I see your point about French’s history as an attorney (and as a soldier). But that doesn’t make him a good columnist.

    For what it’s worth, guys like Goldberg may be the best 2kers if only because a Jewish American is not trying to work the Christian angle into politics.


  14. French is useless as a columnist and a “thought leader” for conservatism:

    A sign that this hollow institution sits atop an equally hollow movement is this recent exchange between someone calling himself Sohrab Ahmari and David French, of National Review. Ahmari makes a case familiar to most on the dissident right, that conservatism has conserved nothing. More important, its very design is to ensure that it can never win a fight with the Left in the culture war. It is the designated opponent that puts on a good show, but in the end concedes the game to the Left.


  15. More on French / Ahmari. Sounds like something approximating 2k is rattling around in there.


    For the partisans of David Frenchism (and you can count me in their number), it would be enough for government to secure our liberty. I would in fact consider my work as a political critic complete (and the eschaton finally imminent) if I believed that the state could be trusted to do that. There is much more to the good life than politics, and liberty, properly understood, is only a means, not an end. The question of what we are to do with that liberty might be answered in any number of ways consulting many different sources of wisdom. But it is far too important to be left to the people who cannot even quite make the trains run on time. A government that is soon likely to be presided over either by Donald Trump or Elizabeth Warren is not a fitting instrument of moral instruction, and the people — We, the People — who bear the blame for having made it what it is ought to be modest in our expectations about what we might make of it in the future.


  16. It’s hard for me to see how you can quote Kevin “Die Whitey” Williamson positively given what you’ve written above:

    Is Frenchism — get along with your neighbors so far as you can — a way to build those institutions in the face of tech and progressivism? I would argue Yes. First, because it directly opposes the Twittermobbery that tech enables and encourages. Second, because most neighbors are not die-hard progressives.

    Based on the definition of Frenchism you offered, how can you quote a guy like Williamson who says “Just give up on your neighborhood and let it die?” This is the problem with the National Review: it doesn’t seem to stand for any principles, just certain of its own people, but definitely not John Derbyshire or Steve Sailer.


  17. Williamson is right. Not every city should be kept on life support because people lived there at some point. If you can’t get work in one place, pack up and move somewhere where you can. There is no contradiction between this obvious perspective and the notion you should be neighborly where you happen to live.


  18. sdb,

    Also read BAP’s response to Michael Anton/Decius Publius Mus. He read Williamson’s contemptuous article the same way I did. Buckle-up, gentlemen. The David French era is over.

    Thanks for the “Man Rampant” tweet. I don’t have social media so I can’t “like” or whatever. I argued over on the latest AG Radio blog post that Wilson’s staying power had more to do with his willingness to wade into taboo subjects and provide answers than anything else. My comment got trashed or maybe they haven’t found it in the spam filters. Anyways, Wilson is not going away because of his engagement with tough subjects and his awesome marketing engine. He seems like kind of a shifty omega male who got stuffed into a lot of lockers. At best, his writing is unclear and difficult to read. At worst, it’s deceptive and evasive. I question the wisdom of sharing a platform with him given his Federal Vision antics. However, if you want to talk about masculinity and the church, what’s a better platform on offer? You have to have a knack for marketing and $$ to launch one. CR Wiley’s latest book was published on Canon Press and it’s awesome.

    Does a specific NAPARC denomination have a FAQ or handout on masculinity I can compare to Wilson’s new series? 60% of men were raised in broken homes these days.


  19. Walt’s point is interesting. I don’t know of any NAPARC material along those lines. At the same time, if being raised in a broken home were fixable by a pamphlet it wouldn’t be worth mentioning. You can’t help someone move beyond something like that without a positive example of a healthy community, which Wilson ultimately also offers in Moscow.
    Most readers here have reasons to doubt his community in Moscow is remotely positive or healthy. But if people know instinctively that a pamphlet is too small to solve aimlessness, and other denominations don’t even offer that, then the matter of whether his attempted community is actually that great seems academic.


  20. Mike,

    You nailed it. I don’t know of any NAPARC material that provides even the fig leaf of a pamphlet, but but people can’t be rid of their cultural baggage without serious, organized discipleship from the church. I want to have an integrated nature-affirming, Christian w-w, not a cultural one. Where do I get answers? Why are feminism, divorce, and homosexualism a problem even in the largest NAPARC denomination, judging by what we read in the Aquila Report? What is stopping NAPARC denominations and congregations from cultivating community such as Wilson is doing in Moscow? Where do women go for advice on how to be women and men for advice on how to be men? Wilson uses his platform provide guidance on how to be less like the LGBTQIA and feminist culture. By the looks of things, men who don’t share his views on the Federal Vision – whatever they now are – are using his platform. Wilson’s platform will therefore grow. Look at some of the crying over spilt milk in the reviews of his new Amazon series:

    1.0 out of 5 starsDoug Wilson SHOULD NEVER BE GIVEN A NATIONAL PLATFORM
    October 23, 2019
    Format: Prime Video
    In fact, Doug Wilson has written (or co-written) two booklets on slavery: “Southern Slavery as it Was.” in 1996, and “Black and Tan,” in 2005. Here are some excerpts from “Southern Slavery as it Was”: (These are repeated nearly verbatim in “Black and Tan.”)
    “Our humanistic and democratic culture regards slavery in itself as a monstrous evil, and it acts as if this were self-evidently true. The Bible permits Christians to own slaves, provided they are treated well.” p.12
    “Owning slaves is not an abomination. The Bible does not condemn it, and those who believe the Bible are bound to refrain in the same way.” p.21
    “The reason why many Christians will be tempted to dismiss the arguments presented in this booklet is that we will say (out loud) that a godly man could have been a slave owner.” p.11

    I have some bad news for those complaining about Wilson: HE BUILT HIS OWN PLATFORM(S). He wasn’t given them. The criticism of him in this comment is similarly abysmal. I know of a solid NAPARC minister who was a vocal opponent of theonomy who said very similar things about slavery in a sermon on Ephesians: it was the norm in the Roman world (indeed the whole world until just recently), Paul and the Bible are not egalitarian and do not specifically condemn slavery, and Christian slave owners were not condemned by the Bible during the first century though the Bible calls for a gradual transformation of master-slave relationships in light of Christ. Slavery back then was certainly different than what was practiced under the harsh Southern plantation system, but Roman slavery was definitely harsh and brutal depending on what type of slave you were. Which Bible is this critic reading?


  21. David French is a pompous windbag. He’s desperately trying to be “above it all” and better than everyone else. He’s a perfect example of the loser Republican – so tied up in his own self-righteousness he never actually FIGHTS the other side. If David was a Roman senator during the empire’s collapse he would have turned down the help of a friendly warlord – even with barbarian tribes advancing – because he didn’t like the warlord’s table manners. David would rather be a beautiful loser (and loser he is) than get dirty actually fighting. He will probably take over from David Brooks at the New York Times when Brooks retires.


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