Controversy has swirled around National Review columnist David French since he charged Franklin Graham with “hypocrisy.” Now he responds in an interview.
No one can dispute that President Donald Trump has disrupted national politics to a greater degree than any figure in many years.
His source of greatest support is no secret. According to Pew Research, 69 percent of Christian evangelicals currently approve of how President Trump is fulfilling his duties in the nation’s highest office.
Yet fierce political divisions persist, even among like-minded Christian believers. Such divides cause some to avoid hearing out dissenting voices of faith. Still, many leaders have called for dialogue among those who disagree on prudential matters of politics.
A columnist for National Review and TIME Magazine, religious liberty attorney David French stands foremost among evangelical critics of the president.
PETITION DEFENDS PRO-TRUMP CHRISTIAN LEADER
In recent weeks, the American Family Association (AFA) called out French after a recent column criticized Franklin Graham. Son of the late evangelist, Graham today leads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association as well as humanitarian aid group Samaritan’s Purse.
French’s column compared how Franklin Graham treated two political figures — President Trump and Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg — inconsistently, in his assessment. Conservative ministry AFA urged its readers to sign a petition in response, calling the recent column “character assassination.”
“I’ve never said voting for Trump in 2016 was wrong,” French says in a new interview. “What I have said is that rationalizing or excusing acts in him that you would condemn in any other politician — especially politicians on the other side — is extremely problematic. It’s important for God’s people to locate their salvation in the Lord and not in man.”
French has staked out a countercultural stance among conservative evangelicals, some of whom see his own stance as hypocritical or encouraging retreat from voting.
In an interview at a Washington, D.C. conference, French shared his criteria for voting, concerns over many believers’ approach to politics, and his message to the church as 2020 elections heat up.
PRINCIPLES OVER POLITICS
When voting in local, state and national elections, how do you decide whom to support?
David French: I have an ironclad test, and the candidate has to meet both prongs of it or I won’t vote for them.
They have to have a character befitting the office — as best as I can determine, as I cannot see into people’s hearts. And they have to uphold the political values that I advance. Not perfectly. I’m not asking for perfect people of perfect character, because they don’t exist. And I’m not asking for perfect alignment with my values because we’re all distinct and unique individuals.
But as a general rule, you must have character that befits the office and advance the values that I care about. You have to have both. If you do not have the character befitting the office, I’m not going to vote for you. If you have sterling character but you do not advance the political values I care about, I’m not going to vote for you. That’s it.
Because the best way to guarantee we continue to get candidates of low character is to vote for them. People tell me, It’s a binary choice. What if both people don’t fit that test?
I would say it’s actually not a binary choice. I walked into the voting booth in 2016 and saw more than two names. If a critical mass of people begin to veto low-character candidates, you know what happens? You adjust market conditions.
Now, if you look at two tough candidates, and you choose one over the other, I’m not saying that you’ve committed a wrong. I think that people of goodwill can look at whatever option the Democrats put up, and Trump — and people of goodwill can vote for Trump.
The problem is when you rationalize and excuse things you would not otherwise rationalize and excuse. It’s very tempting because we’re kind of tribal people by nature. We want to feel like our side is really good and the other side really bad.
Another problem is when you do it out of this unbelievable fear. That spirit of fear through which we operate in our politics is not from God, yet we see it all over. During elections, you need to evaluate: Why am I making this decision? If the answer is fear — rethink.
Why do you avoid endorsing the Trump administration, even while many friends of yours have?
French: It’s super easy to answer that question. I believe character matters. For a very long time, the vast majority of evangelicals did as well.
As Christians, we believe that God exists and operates in the world. So we make decisions on the basis of reasoning that is not like the world’s. In 1998, the Southern Baptist Convention released a beautifully written statement on the importance of moral character for politicians.
The SBC statement made a powerful theological argument. ‘Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture… and surely results in God’s judgment,’ it said. At the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky drama — and revelations later on that there was strong evidence he committed rape — Christians were all on board saying that.
Then you began to see people on the Left saying, ‘Sophisticated Americans know there is nothing wrong with adultery. Why can’t we have European sexual morality, where a politician’s wife and mistress both show up at his funeral and be civil?’
These are arguments you’re actually reading, and Christians were appalled. They would read this provision of the SBC resolution and say, Yes, tolerance of serious wrong is searing our national conscience. It is changing the morality of this culture, and we have to stand against that.
After all, we know from Scripture that God judges nations. Then along comes Donald Trump and we’re like: Wait, hold on. We have this political realm, and it’s just about policy. Who cares about lies and adultery? He’s doing what we want in policy.
As to all the other things, now they say, We want a president not a pastor. Or, I hear: King David had problems. King David also repented. So we sit there and do exactly what the Democrats did in the 1990s. Exactly.
COURAGE AND COMMITMENT
At times, you’ve suggested the approach some Christians take on politics today is worse than those who defended President Clinton’s misdeeds.
French: Maybe even worse, because of something an awful lot of American Christians do.
I’ve been doing Constitutional litigation for 20-plus years. I’ve been in courtrooms around the country battling for the religious liberties and free speech rights of American college students and professors. I have never felt like I had to lie to fight effectively for my values. In fact, one of the ways I behold and advance my values is by modeling them even when I’m fighting.
Yet some say: Look, Trump fights. I love how he fights. Frankly, one of the ways he fights is by lying a lot. He fights by being vicious and personally insulting to people. He fights by threatening people, and I don’t understand how that’s admirable.
It’s remarkable and amazing to me the number of people who look at all this stuff and think that his vice is a virtue. There are a few Woe unto- statements in the Bible, for those who call evil good and good evil.
C.S. Lewis said, “Courage is the form of every virtue at its testing point.” It is really darn easy to uphold the importance of character in politicians when the guy in the crosshairs of scandal is Bill Clinton and you’re a Republican.
It is a heck of a lot harder to uphold the value of character in politicians when doing that imposes costs on your own side. That’s where faith comes in. A faith-based worldview says, ‘I trust God to protect His people. Therefore, I don’t have to make the accommodations that people who lack faith often struggle and feel like they must make.’
“Why do the nations rage?” asks Psalm 2. “Why do the princes plot in vain?” I feel like an awful lot of Christians have been plotting in vain. They’ve been sitting there thinking: If I give in here, I might lose this regulation. If I give in here, I might lose this judge.
In the great sweep of history, to remain faithful, we cannot compartmentalize politics off from our commitment to God.
GIVING PRAISE WHERE DUE
Your tone towards the administration and its victories is unlike other voices who mostly criticize. Why are you willing to praise President Trump at times?
French: I’m still pro-life! It’s weird, because people say to me: You’re not really a Trump opponent because you haven’t opposed him on all his policies.
But I was pro-life while Trump was still for partial-birth abortion. Why on earth would I suddenly be less pro-life because I think Trump has low character? If a low-character man does something I like, I can say it’s a good action. If he follows a policy I like, I can still be glad he did it and unreservedly applaud him for doing it.
I didn’t like most of Obama’s policies. But when he went back into Iraq and Syria to stop ISIS and start to reverse course — I was glad he did that. We play this weird game that says: ‘Once I don’t like a person, opposing that person means opposing things I would’ve liked if anyone else had done it.’ That’s ridiculous to me.
There are many things Trump has done that I like, and many that I don’t like — in law, policy and temperament. I had three big concerns going into his Presidency: Trump’s character, Trump’s personnel, and Trump’s policies. On his character, I think he’s an F.
On his personnel, he’s better than he was. I mean, he walked into the Oval Office with Steve Bannon at his side. He’s got better people around him than he did at the start of his presidency, in many ways.
Trump’s policies are sort of a C+. I like the judges. The tax reform was a B-. His policy towards Korea is unbelievably counterproductive. His trade policy I strongly dislike. His policy toward ISIS has been good, but he has been inconsistent and extremely erratic regarding long-term strategy in the Middle East. I don’t think he has a clue what he wants to do there.
He’s done some good things and some bad things. But for me not to say something’s good when I would’ve been happy if anyone else had done it? Then that’s just being vindictive towards Trump. If I’m trying to be against vindictiveness, I should not be vindictive myself.
FAITH NOT FEAR
During this contentious time in politics, what is your message to the church?
French: Approach this election with an attitude of faith not fear. An enormous amount of our decisions in politics are fear-motivated.
Imagine the church is presenting itself to a secular culture as a group of people who seem to be terrified. And because of that fear, the church is willing to jettison long-held principles. Does that sound like people who understand the power and sovereignty of a most holy God?
In the Old Testament, the people of God faced a deadly foe. The children of Israel were besieged in Jerusalem by the Syrian army, one of the mightiest forces in the ancient world. Tiny little Judah with King Hezekiah was not a superpower. They were facing extinction.
People were saying, You’ve got to ally yourself with the other power on the block — Egypt. In the flesh, that would be the logical thing to do. They seemed to be Hezekiah’s last hope.
Then the prophet Isaiah said, Don’t place your trust in chariots and the strength of man. Hezekiah goes with God speaking through Isaiah and not with Egypt. The Lord delivered the people of Israel, the kingdom of Judah, in this miraculous way.
Today, the people of God must understand that God protects us. He is sovereign over his people. It is imperative for we as believers to know the ultimate hope God gives us, and to approach life with that hope.
This is not just me, it’s the Apostle Paul. In 2nd Timothy chapter one, he said, “God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.”
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy issues for media outlets including The Stream and The Federalist. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, DC, area with their son.
Photo courtesy: David French