Conservatives Should Be Nervous About This

I’m no conservative, but if I were I wouldn’t be celebrating this recent essay by David French. I’d be quaking in my penny loafers. If we’ve learned nothing else from the history of the culture wars, it’s that this kind of talk heralds the bitter end.

Here’s what we’re talking about: In the pages of National Review this week, conservative pundit David French made the case for freer conservative speech on college campuses. He decried the tactic used by progressive students to declare conservatives beyond the pale of civil discourse. Too often, French lamented, aggressive progressives freeze out any conservative challenge by labeling it “dehumanizing.”

As French puts it,

An atmosphere that is devoid of truly meaningful debate is one that is more likely to give birth to bankrupt ideas. And the woke progressive monocultures in quarters of academia and Silicon Valley have advanced and protected both the idea that speech is violence and the idea that disagreement is dehumanizing — especially when disagreement touches on matters of race, gender, and sexuality.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, I’m no conservative myself, yet I’m on the record as agreeing with French that college campuses should welcome real culture-war debates. If I were a conservative, though, I would be terrified to hear French talking this way. If I knew my culture-war history, I’d know that this line of argument is always a memorial to a battle lost long ago.

Consider the case of creationism in public schools. A hundred years ago (ish), at the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, the defenders of evolution education pleaded with America to allow evolution to be heard. As lead attorney Dudley Field Malone made his case,

For God’s sake let the children have their minds kept open — close no doors to their knowledge; shut no door from them. Make the distinction between theology and science. Let them have both. Let them both be taught. Let them both live….

It was a desperate argument for a losing side. Evolution education was not popular in 1920s America, at least not in places such as Dayton, Tennessee. As I discovered in the research for my first book, anti-evolution laws were usually only the sharp point of a much vaster campaign to impose theocratic rule on America’s public schools.

Fast forward seventy years, and the argument had switched sides. By the 1990s, it was the radical creationists who were pleading to have children’s minds kept open. They made their case for inclusion because by the 1990s creationists were just as desperate as Dudley Field Malone was in the 1920s. In 1995, arch-creationist Duane Gish told crowds it was now the creationists who were frozen out. Gish insisted he only wanted to fight against the “bigotry” of excluding creationism.

If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu…

What does any of this have to do with David French? A lot. Evolution-lovers like Dudley Field Malone only pleaded for inclusion when they were frozen out. Radical creationists like Duane Gish only begged for inclusion when they had already decisively lost the creationism culture war. By the 1990s, Gish’s brand of young-earth creationism had already become a relic of an imagined fundamentalist past, a fossilized idea that no longer had any real chance of returning to its spot in the American mainstream. It was still popular in fundamentalist pockets, but it had zero chance of returning to its former glories in the Princetons and Harvards of these United States.

If I were a conservative, I’d worry that French’s let-me-in rhetoric heralds the same sorry state for his outdated ideas about sexuality, gender, and race. Don’t get me wrong: I think there are strong conservative arguments that can be made in favor of greater inclusion of traditional sexual norms, but French ain’t making em.

The idea that traditional gender ideas should be included because all ideas should be included won’t convince anyone. Moreover, the fact that French feels obliged to make this case shows how desperate he is. If I were a conservative, these kinds of arguments would make me very nervous about the current state of conservatism in America.

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  1. Patrick Halbrook

     /  April 26, 2019

    I thought the more important part of French’s article was when he asserted, “It’s time to recognize the American culture war for what it is — a religious dispute — and incorporate it into America’s existing religious pluralism.” The evolution/creation debate was primarily a scientific one (though one with religious implications and presuppositions, for sure), while French is arguing (and I’d concur) that the current debates are philosophical and theological in nature, not scientific. That is a VERY significant difference.

    • I was intrigued by that part of his essay, as well. In fact, I started to write a rebuttal of that specific point and I ended up talking about something else entirely. Here’s my beef with saying that the American culture war is primarily a religious dispute: Either it doesn’t match the facts, or I’m missing something about his point. The way I see it, on a few issues it works, abortion being the most obvious one. That is, when it comes to abortion, many devout evangelical Protestants and Catholics of a variety of political persuasions agree. One doesn’t have to be a “conservative” to oppose abortion rights–witness the mini-movement for a “pro-life Democratic” candidate in 2020.
      So for abortion, it makes sense to say that the USA is embroiled in a religious dispute, with conservative evangelicals and Catholics on one side, and other types of religious people on another. Besides that issue, though, positions in the culture wars are NOT primarily predictable by religious affiliation. Conservative evangelicals, for example, DON’T agree about same-sex marriage, or school prayer, or Black Lives Matter, or Trump. We can’t predict people’s stances on those issues by knowing that they are conservative evangelicals. Consider, for example, the recent brouhaha among conservative evangelicals over VP Pence’s speech at Taylor University. Nobody involved wasn’t an evangelical, yet they disagreed ferociously about Pence’s appearance. So I don’t see how anyone can say with a straight face that America’s culture wars are primarily a religious dispute. They are exactly what they are called–CULTURAL disputes in which religion, race, gender, and sexuality all play leading roles. This point seems so blatantly obvious to me that I’m thinking I might have missed the real point and I would love it if you could explain it to me.

  2. Patrick Halbrook

     /  April 27, 2019

    That’s a good point, and I actually agree with most of what you said. There’s not one single culture war going on with two clear sides, readily identifiable through a Pew research poll, neatly corresponding to religious affiliations. However, I’m pretty sure French also realizes this, especially since he himself does not always toe the popular conservative line when he is supposed to (for instance, in his frequent and vocal opposition to Trump).

    I think he is, rather, expanding on points he made in another article (; and yes, the article title makes the same mistake you already identified, but look past that for now) in which he argues, alongside Ross Douthat and Andrew Sullivan and others, that “intersectionality and the secular focus on social justice” are “fundamentally religious impulses.” That’s a topic that has been written about widely for some time (Joseph Bottum’s 2014 essay in the Weekly Standard being a classic, which I’m sure you’ve come across plenty of examples of as well.

    There’s room for quibble here about whether “religious” is the proper word to use, or if we should just stick with “culture.” It may have mostly to do with how we define the terms. But we are certainly talking about competing ideas and systems of ethical and metaphysical values, beliefs, and commitments concerning the nature of reality, the basis for human flourishing, and ideal social norms. These are ideas based on faith as much as they are on reason or science. Personally, I think “religious” is a pretty good word for that, even if we’re not talking about formal organized religious groups or particular theological traditions.

    Coming back to Scopes, Malone, and our other good friends from the 1920s…the creation-evolution debate had the advantage of concerning itself with claims that could be evaluated through objective, scientific means. A consensus on such a matter is at least theoretically possible. The particular culture-war disputes of which French writes are more akin to arguments between Catholics and Protestants. There is no possibility of consensus on such religious matters apart from the institutionalized enforcement of dogma. And, as we have learned over the past 500 hundred years, freedom of conscience and freedom of speech on these matters is far preferable to censorship.

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