Conservative Christians have won, so now it is safe for us to lose. This contrarian take comes from David French, the most prominent social conservative in the Never Trump remnant. French’s conservative Christian bona fides set him apart in a movement full of social moderates and liberals. I believe French shares (or shared) my values and priorities, which makes assessing his arguments more imperative than responding to someone such as Bill Kristol.
Sadly, after French’s long career of fighting for our rights, he is now accusing his fellow Christians of being cowards who have “turned to Donald Trump to fight for them.” This is, he declares, the result of our being filled with irrational fear even though “few political and legal movements have been more successful in the last 40 years than Christian conservatism.”
Huh. This success sure has felt a lot like failure.
French’s Flimsy Evidence that Our Fear Is Irrational
French provides three pieces of evidence for his claim: first, that Christian conservatives have veto power over the GOP; second, that Christian conservatives have secured extensive legal protection for our rights; third, that abortions are declining.
The first two points mistake desperate defenses of our rights for victory. That conservative Christians currently have the leverage to induce Republicans to make a few vague promises of protecting religious liberty does not mean we have won; it means we lost the broader battle and are barely hanging on to a right to opt out of the ceremonies of a hostile culture. Forty years ago, no major politician, Democrat or Republican, would have supported same-sex marriage, let alone compelled Christian artists and artisans to participate in promoting and celebrating same-sex weddings.
Likewise in the courts and legal system, French extols a “veritable thicket of laws that protect religious expression in public (and even private) spheres.” Even assuming the courts continue to protect us, this is only a valiant rearguard in our long defeat. Thank God and our lawyers for preserving our rights — Onward, Christian litigators! — but we require these protections because we are losing. On a host of issues, we’ve gone from fighting for a more Christian culture to fighting for our rights to live as a cultural minority.
Christian conservatives have not triumphed. Rather, cultural defeat and the near-total exclusion of social conservatives from power in the Democratic Party have left us with no options except the GOP and a defensive crouch in the court system. Thus, we end up supporting anyone who will work with and protect us, whether he is a boorish real estate developer and TV personality or a Mormon technocrat with a pro-choice record.
The Reason for the Abortion Decline
This brings us to French’s final point, which is that abortions are declining. He argues that “hundreds of pro-life laws in states across the nation … are drivers in the extraordinary drop in the American abortion rate.” There is some truth to this, although we should not be satisfied with an abortion regime that kills 800,000 a year instead of a million.
What French ignores is that the pro-life laws he praises exist only at the sufferance of America’s imperial judiciary. If Hillary Clinton, rather than Donald Trump, were picking judges, pro-life laws would be universally struck down. As it is, pro-lifers have had some success, despite having to overcome the combination of leftist judges and GOP-appointed sellouts.
For example, Missouri has only one remaining abortion clinic, which has committed very few abortions in recent months as Planned Parenthood has fled across the border into Illinois. This success, achieved through a combination of direct abortion restrictions and safety requirements that abortionists have refused to abide by, would have been impossible had Clinton been packing the courts.
If French believes these state-level triumphs are not worth the cost of putting up with Trump as president, he should make that case directly, rather than pretending there is no connection between pro-life laws and the Trump judges who have been upholding them. Although GOP judicial betrayals weaken the “vote Trump for the judges” argument, they do even more damage to French’s faith in procedural liberalism and the Romney wing of the party.
A Matter of Prudence
How much we should compromise on character, substance, and style is often a difficult prudential judgment in a political world full of immoral politicians and treacherous allies. But French seems to prefer chastising his Christian brothers and sisters to discussing the hard decisions that must be made in practical politics.
He is correct that Christians need to be willing to sacrifice for the truth of the gospel, but dismissing the real perils that Christians face for speaking out for their faith will not kindle courage. Courage is not a foolhardy dismissal of danger, and rational fear will not be overcome by sneering at it as irrational.
Christians are taught to count the cost of following Jesus and to do so anyway, not to pretend there is no cost. Thus, Christians must prepare to persevere through suffering, not to expect our legal rights will protect us from harm.
In particular, those who speak out in defense of Christianity’s teachings on human sexuality may reasonably fear losing their reputations, jobs, friends, and even families. Although our government does not imprison and torture Christians, the cultural and economic powers of this world can make many of us unemployed social outcasts.
Notably, French does not speak up as boldly as he urges others to. In a couple years of writing for Time magazine, he has not published a single column on abortion or in defense of Christian sexual ethics. No writer can cover everything, but French could have used his rare position as a social conservative in legacy media to defend Christian beliefs on life and sexuality at least once.
We should be charitable in judging this neglect, and not rush to condemn it as the result of cowardice. French should extend the same charity to Christians who differ from him in their support for Trump. Accusations of cowardice should not inflame our discussions and debates over these matters of prudential judgment. Nor should we try to bolster our courage by false bravado and a pretense of victory in the face of defeat.