The political and cultural discourse over the past few years in the United States has reached new levels of animosity and division. Arguments on the value and role of education, religion, free speech, free expression, and moral character are but a few of the topics that dominate headlines and political debates. Because of their religious character and convictions as well as their work in higher education, Christian colleges and universities are at a unique crossroads of these conversations, and navigating them is increasingly tricky when the divisions are ever deepening.
As someone who has spent the majority of his career focusing on religious rights issues, and as a CCCU graduate himself (of Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee), David French is very familiar with the challenges facing Christian higher education and American society more broadly. French’s professional experience includes serving at the American Center for Law and Justice, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), as well as working for many years as a political and cultural commentator for National Review, TIME, and The Dispatch. His newest book, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation, was released in September 2020 and explores the threat our current division poses to the very unity of the United States.
Barry Corey, president of Biola University (La Mirada, California), talked with French about the book and what Christian college and university leaders can do to combat the current divides, particularly when it comes to training up the next generation of leaders. The conversation has been edited for length. Click here to watch the full video conversation.
For the benefit of those who haven’t read the book yet, provide a quick summary.
Essentially, the whole thesis is in the first paragraph, and it makes two declarations. One is we cannot guarantee the continued unity of the United States. Why? Because there is no single truly important social, cultural, political, or religious force that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart.
Whether it’s the concept of negative polarization, where we join a political party not so much because we love that party’s positions but because we despise or fear of the other side, or it’s the big sort, where we are clustering into like-minded communities, when you cluster with people of like-mind, you tend to become more extreme. [In the book,] I walked through all of these big, sweeping cultural developments and showed that they’re pulling us apart to the point where our divisions and our animosity are growing so great that we are going to put strains on our union.
I think nothing illustrates the combination of animosity and division more than what happened on January 6th, which was unthinkable even as recently as January 5th. If you had said that the Capitol was going to be overrun and invaded on January 5th, someone would have said, “You’re an alarmist. You’re pearl-clutching. It’s absurd. It’s ridiculous.” What happened on January 6th was the product — and hopefully the end, but it may not be — of years of accumulated animosity and division and, often, just outright hatred.
Great diagnostic. Let’s talk about prescription. What are some of the suggestions you offer in the book to combat these troubling trends of division?
There’s a necessity of a heart change, and there’s a necessity of some policy changes. The heart change has to proceed the policy changes. Otherwise, there’s no will for the policy changes.
So what are the heart changes? Well, one of the things that we have seen is that amongst hyper-partisans — those individuals who are truly driving American political discourse — there’s an increasing desire to shun accommodation in favor of domination. [Their] goal is not to just defeat somebody politically or to slowly but steadily create cultural change, but to crush, to destroy, to annihilate, and to eradicate [their opponents] from the public square.
You see some of this in cancel culture, properly understood. Now, that’s a very fraught term because cancel culture is not any criticism you receive; cancel culture is not the same as consequences for bad acts. More properly understood, cancel culture is an extremely, excessively punitive action against speech that is relatively mainstream within what is called the Overton window of American pop culture and political discourse. That kind of cancel culture mentality, properly understood, is evidence of this desire to dominate rather than accommodate.
One of the things that I try to do in the book is say, “We have to rediscover what actual tolerance is.” What is actual tolerance? There’s a person who writes under the pseudonym Scott Alexander, a psychologist living in Deep Blue America, and he writes about how he talks to his progressive friends. He says, “Are you tolerant?” They’ll say, “Yeah, absolutely tolerant. I love people regardless of race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity.” Then Scott says, “Well, what’s wrong with those people?” Their response is, “Well, nothing. Of course, nothing is wrong with them.” His response is, “Well, what are you tolerating then?”
Tolerance is not a synonym for affection; it is something you’re overlooking to accept somebody into the body politic. So my book is not a call for kumbaya for everybody to love each other. We have to have a basic commitment that says, “Each one of us is entitled to build our own home within this land,” and I connect it to Micah 4:4, a verse that Lin-Manuel Miranda re-popularized through George Washington [in Hamilton]. In reality, George Washington used this verse almost 50 times in his writings in describing the new nation that he was leading: “Every man shall sit under his own vine and his own fig tree, and no one shall make him afraid.” It’s a beautiful depiction of a pluralistic society that cuts against the grain of our current thinking, which seems to be, “You can’t have your vine or fig tree unless you agree with me, unless you’re part of my tribe or my coalition.”
At Biola, I talk about living a life with what I call a firm center and soft edges. By firm center, I really mean a commitment to that which is true, and above all, God’s truth. Soft edges means hospitality and kindness, especially towards those we don’t think like, or vote like, or believe like. So, considering the role of the Christian college in this, and reflecting on your own formation at Lipscomb, unpack the importance of a winsome conviction — the winsomeness being the soft edges, the conviction being the firm center.
When we’re talking about how does the United States — this unique nation, this unique culture — function best and how is it designed to function, one of the things that I think is a really important concept that we don’t talk about enough is ordered liberty. This is a concept that you could write books on, but let me just oversimplify [it] for a minute through two Founding Fathers’ quotes.
One is the famous declaration in the Declaration of Independence that we’re “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson goes on to say, essentially, this is why governments were instituted among men; the primary role of the government is to protect this liberty. That’s like the mission statement of the United States of America. Aspirational — it was not lived up to, we know, and is still not fully lived up to. But that was the aspiration. …
But then John Adams turns around and says in a letter to the Massachusetts Militia, basically, look, this Constitution provides us with liberty that if we exercise it and if we’re libertine with it, we would turn the United States into a miserable habitation. He has these famous words: “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
So, when I look at my [educational experience], Lipscomb possessed liberty for a purpose. The purpose was to teach citizens of this country not just obedience to Jesus Christ, but also Christian citizenship within this community. In my mind, when you look at each one of these CCCU universities as its own vine and its own fig tree, a lot of times, we think, “Well, how could we make sure that vine and fig tree is completely safe from outside attack?” That is important, but [we] also [need to ask,] “What do we do within that vine, and what do we do within that fig tree?” Each Christian institution in this country has their different theologies, their different purposes, their different mission statements, but it’s that exercising of liberty for a virtuous purpose when these universities are at their best.
One of my concerns is when our rising generation of students — and this is not new — see in leaders a less-than-virtuous way of living even though [those leaders] are proclaiming virtuous truths of how they live. It’s a terrible model for Christians, and this hypocrisy happens on the left and the right. Any thoughts to encourage our students on what they’re seeing right now?
There are a couple of categories of hypocrisy that we’ve seen over the last several decades. There is what you could call the “old-school hypocrisy” that has plagued a lot of religious institutions — the philandering pastor, for example, or the ministry leader who commits fraud. … The fact that people were often able to thrive as charlatans for so long, that was dispiriting. But when the charlatans were discovered, nobody was saying that … [what they were doing] was actually okay. Once they were found out, then there was accountability.
We have a different kind of hypocrisy now. We have a kind of hypocrisy where people either lie or defend lies, are abusive or defend abusers, so long as what they are accomplishing is deemed to be virtuous. This is specifically in politics often. So, essentially, what we’ve said to a lot of rising Christian generations is, if you’re a Christian in politics, your focus is on issues, okay? Is religious liberty being protected? Is abortion being opposed? Then we don’t talk about means to those ends.
Now, think about how different that is from almost every other area of life. If you’re looking at a young Christian businessman, would you say, “Your purpose, Christian businessman, is to make money”? No. You would say, “There’s a holistic gospel-centered approach in your presence in your company.” … “Well, your purpose, Christian in politics, is to pass laws.” Hmm, no. That is a purpose, but what we’ve often said about politics is we define ourselves by the issues and not by our conduct, not by our alliances. So we have created a kind of persistent hypocrisy that we don’t even defend because we have defined the object of our engagement as issue-focused — almost to the exclusion of everything else, which has allowed us to engage and defend an awful lot of godless behavior, so long as it has a godly goal.
So what do you have to say to these students and leaders at Christian colleges about being characterized by the way we interact about politics and issues, and not just known by our own policy differences? How do you suggest CCCU institutions can help educate the next generation of politically engaged students who, in your words, avoid the partisan mind?
I spoke at John Brown University [in Siloam Springs, Arkansas] early in 2020, and I said those words —”Avoid the partisan mind.” I did not mean don’t vote for partisans. I did not even mean don’t run for office as a Republican or Democrat. What I meant was a mindset that [is like] being a lawyer. When you’re a lawyer for a client, you amplify your client’s virtues and minimize your client’s flaws. That’s your day-to-day reality in litigation — my job is to make my client look better than he is, and my opponent’s job is to make my client look worse than he is, and a jury sorts it all out. But when you adopt the partisan mind, you essentially become an unpaid lawyer for one party or the other party. You’re always looking at ways to amplify what’s good about your side and minimize what’s bad, and then flip it around on the other side.
Now, that works in a criminal justice system that has been set up as an adversarial system with rules, ethical boundaries, and rules of evidence. When you’re a Christian interacting with a culture, any sort of exaggeration or rationalization comes across as inherently deceptive. See the truth and respond to the truth for what it is. One of the things that I urge students to do is reconnect with Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with the Lord your God.”
In this highly polarized moment, all of us get the act justly part — “I know what’s right. I know what’s right, and I’m going to pursue what is right” — but these are three interlocking obligations. We forget the love of mercy — or depending on the translation, love kindness — and we absolutely forget walking humbly. In the political context, I think what walking humbly often means is when you look at any given huge issue — abortion, racism, economic inequality, you name it — and you begin with these two statements: “This is really hard,” and, “I don’t have all the answers.” If you just begin like that, it can be quite transformational in your interactions with your fellow men.
I want to talk about the mind for a minute. It’s a goal of Christian discipleship, within the framework of the Christian academy, to learn to love the Lord with the mind. I was just recently listening to Ed Stetzer, who’s at Wheaton College [in Wheaton, Illinois], on NPR, where he said, “I think the scandal of the evangelical mind today is the gullibility that so many have been brought into conspiracy theories, false reports, and more. … If there ever should be people who care about the truth, it should be people who call themselves followers of Jesus. I think pulpits and Christian colleges and universities need to ask the question, ‘How are we going to disciple our people so that they engage the world around them in robust and Christ-like ways?'” How would you respond to that?
The gullibility point there is tied also to two other issues: fear and anger. These issues are huge, and I think a lot of people who are intellectual Christians on Twitter are missing what is happening at the grassroots in some of the wildest and most bizarre conspiracy theories held closely to the heart by evangelicals. Also, a lot of people are missing this sense of “we have been disrespected, we have been shamed, we’ve been held in contempt, and we’re sick of it.” The fact of the matter is there have been an awful lot of people who have disrespected Christians unfairly. Absolutely, you can find that. But the problem with that is that our response should not be deep-seated anger and grievance — that is totally wiping out the “walk humbly and loving kindness” parts of Micah 6:8. …
What I’m beginning to find is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to speak to Christian audiences unless you first walk into the conversation and say, “You’re good people. You’re awesome people. The Left is bad. Okay. I have this nit to pick.” So there’s this sense in which you first have to meet the grievance. The difficulty with that is there needs to be some repenting from the anger and the grievance before we can break through and really dive into discipling. It’s very hard to do that, because a lot of that grievance has been empowered by an awful lot of lies. It’s been empowered by a lot of people who are quite self-interested in hyping your fear, and your concern, and your anger, and your rage. It provides these other people with money. It provides them with power, and all of these lies make you vulnerable to more lies.
I’ll give you a perfect example. If your belief is that, for example, the Left hates you — not that individuals on the Left hate you, but that the whole Left hates you — it is a short trip from there to believing that the Left would steal an election. So if you have this background level of anger and suspicion of hostility, the next turn of the screw is easy. Each layer of animosity breeds the next layer, and so we have a lot of work to do, because this is the product of decades of stoking of anger and range, and there is just an ocean of grievance out there.
You [said] earlier that a byproduct of our polarized age is a cancel culture. We feel this tension at Christian college campuses where we want to champion viewpoint diversity from a biblically faithful perspective but also be careful of what’s being said. What would you say is the way forward on Christian college campuses as it relates to the delicate nature of what should be said and what shouldn’t be said?
I went to Lipscomb University from ’87 to ’91. At the time, Lipscomb was a much more socially and politically conservative place. … But I had a much healthier free speech environment at Lipscomb University than I had at Harvard Law School, where people were shouting you down if they disagreed with you. … The interesting thing about Lipscomb was that we didn’t really even have a speech code other than, “Don’t curse.” We questioned all the tenants of the faith. We had healthy robust discussions of politics, of faith, of culture — all with basically clean language. So essentially, Lipscomb welcomed viewpoint diversity even though there was still an overwhelming ideological and religious point of view. …
Twenty years ago, it was much more common for free speech to be inhibited top-down. By that, I mean actual laws and regulations passed by public universities, called speech codes, that violated the Constitution. … Beginning in about 2014, 2015, the demand for censorship began to bubble from the bottom up. So what once was a dean of students saying, “You can’t say that,” became 200 students in the quad saying, “You can’t say that,” which is a very different free speech challenge. … That’s very difficult.
I think what we have to do is go back to first principles of teaching people that free speech has value. It’s not just that good speech has value; free speech has value. A lot of the efforts to censor now come from people who are hoping to protect historically marginalized communities. Yet it’s the historically marginalized communities that have led the battle for free speech. … I remember talking to Reverend Walter Fauntroy, who was one of the people who helped found the Congressional Black Caucus, instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement, asking him, “Why was there such progress in civil rights in such a short amount of time relatively historically speaking in the late ’50s moving into the early and mid ’60s?” His answer was really interesting: “Almighty God and the First Amendment.” He said, “The First Amendment gave us the ability to speak, and Almighty God softened men’s hearts.”
So one of the things that I try to do is I try to teach people that free speech has value by itself. That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be rules against defamation, threats, or obscenity, but free speech has value. I think that Christian universities by and large should not just model the protection of speech but should model the virtuous exercise of speech. Going back to ordered liberty, that’s hand in hand: the liberty for virtuous purpose, and to model that discussion. When I go to a Christian college, I often feel more free to speak than almost anywhere else. Not because I’m a Christian there — I’m often disagreeing completely with an awful lot of people — but I think CCCU universities have done, by and large, a pretty good job at cultivating an atmosphere of real debate, disagreement, and dialogue. …
One thing real quick about that “walk humbly” aspect [of Micah 6:8]. I think if you’re in leadership, fostering an atmosphere of free speech is a manifestation of walking humbly, because what does that do? It provides a permission structure for criticizing authority. Scripture says we see through a glass darkly; we know in part. When we’re permitting a structure of free speech, it’s a very tangible way of saying, “I don’t have all the answers. I need to hear more.”