David French sits down with Dr. Mark Turman to discuss how Christians should view power, the rise of radicalization and alienation, how to read the news well, and how to be informed without being alarmist.
David French and Dr. Mark Turman begin by discussing the nature of power, why the “will to power” leads to all kinds of sin, whether Christians should pursue influence, and Micah 6:8 (1:06). They discuss apocalyptic language in political commentary, the deepening divide that media encourages, and rising radicalization and alienation (17:24). French worries that the reasonable majority are starting to stay silent and considers why we should start thinking smaller in our communities (30:00). They consider how to be well informed without being alarmist (41:42). Then, they talk about good news outlets, the difference between reporting and opinion, and the value of a free press (49:22). Finally, French closes by commenting on the difference between Christian cultural warriors and cultural missionaries (57:43).
Resources and further reading:
- Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation, David French
- The Dispatch’s “French Press”, David French
- “Faith in the public square: A conversation with David French,” Podcast
- Good Faith, Podcast with David French and Curtis Chang
- Respectfully, I Disagree – Jim Denison
About the host
Mark Turman, DMin, is the executive director of Denison Forum. He received his DMin from Truett at Baylor and previously served as lead pastor of Crosspoint Church.
About the guest
David French was senior editor for The Dispatch and before that, a senior writer for National Review. He recently accepted a position to write full-time as an opinion columnist for the New York Times. He has written for The Atlantic, as well as many other notable publications. French is a New York Times bestselling author and graduate of Harvard Law School, the past president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and a former lecturer at Cornell Law School.
He has served as a senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice and the Alliance Defending Freedom. David is a former major in the United States Army Reserve. In 2007, he deployed to Iraq, where he was awarded the Bronze Star.
Transcribed by Otter.ai
Mark Turman 00:10
Welcome to the Denison Forum Podcast. I’m Dr. Mark Turman, Executive Director at Denison forum sitting down for another conversation about faith and culture. Today we’re joined again by David French, who is an American political and cultural commentator, I would say an attorney, who has, in the past argued high profile cases, particularly in the area of religious liberty. And he has been a commentator and writer for National Review, as well as for the Atlantic. And more recently, in the last couple of years, his work with the dispatch, where I have followed him very diligently over the last number of years, and has recently been named as a columnist for the New York Times. Congratulations on that, David, we’re looking forward to seeing you in that venue. And welcome to the Denison Forum Podcast again.
David French 01:04
Well, thanks so much for having me back. I really appreciate it.
Mark Turman 01:06
Yeah, looking forward to a conversation. This is something that’s been on my mind for a while just following your writing, listening to a number of podcasts that you do, through different avenues, but just wanted to have a conversation with you about Christians and power, how we understand power, how we relate to power. And let me just, if I could kind of set a little bit of a context for you. Obviously, reading through the early pages of the Bible, we see the incredible powerful hand of God creating all things, including creating human beings, placing them in the garden, to exercise power, to manage and oversee all of God’s creation than this terrible catastrophe, if you will, that is read about in Genesis three, where sin and evil enter into the story. And then very soon after that, the abuse of power where Cain takes out his anger, that really is an anger directed toward his disappointment with with his relationship with God takes that out on his brother, where we see the first murder, we see Cain killed his brother, Abel, and the abuse of power. And we start seeing that I think it’s what led I believe the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche to say that, that the core problem of all of our sin is the will to power. Let me just stop there and say, Is that something you would agree with? Is that something that you’ve been a witness to?
David French 02:41
I mean, I have seen the will to power lead to all kinds of sin. It’s, and often it’s the most insidious kind of sin, because the will to power is often accompanied by a firm conviction that justice can only be done. If I attain power, or if the person attains power. So they’re going to rationalize his quest for power behind the veneer, or maybe they’re even quite sincere about it, at least to start thinking, Well, I can’t do justice unless I have the power to do justice. So power has to sort of be the precursor power is the necessary precondition to an obligation to do justice. And then over time, what happens is, power becomes not a precondition, it’s just the thing, it becomes the, it becomes the object of a person’s public life. And when that’s the case, we you begin to see and experience an enormous number of abuses. But that willpower is the root of many, many sins, and it’s particularly seductive to people because they’ll, they’ll sort of whitewash it through this idea that I can only do justice if I have power.
Mark Turman 03:57
And so in that sense, power starts to become an idol of its own right, it becomes an end in itself rather than a tool by which we might make a positive impact in the world. For God and for His glory. And for the good of others, it becomes an end in itself and something that we desire to possess and then eagerly desire to hang on to whatever degree we have of it. Right. Right. And when you when you particularly you’re talking about power in your work, and and I know you have a number of opportunities to speak directly into the Christian community. When you’re talking about power. I know you you obviously have background expertise in the area of political and legal power. What are you thinking of when you’re trying to help Christians in particular to understand what we mean by power, whether we’re talking political or economic? Is power, the same thing as influence? How are you thinking about that?
David French 04:59
Yeah, that’s a that’s Another really good question. And I actually was thinking about the distinction between power and influence before we started talking. In a way, influence is a form of power, it’s a, it’s a form of it represents an ability to, to change or alter outcomes as a result of your intervention. That would be, What influence does, I think of it is in a different way than power, direct, more direct power, which is really another word often for authority. Do I have the authority to issue orders and have people carry out those orders? Do I have the authority to make policy and influence as you can imagine is just is quite a bit different from that. Influences can’t more contingent, I might have your ear, I might have the ability to speak to you. But it’s still going to be an exercise of your own decision making authority that executes that execute your will, and I might influence it. But it is not that is a, it’s hard to say if that’s a form of power, it’s certainly a way in which Christians can alter the conditions under which they live through influence. But for a lot of folks, influences is not enough. Because if you are an influencer as much as people now covet that, like on Instagram, yeah, if you’re an influencer, there is still another link in the chain. And that link in the chain is the person with the actual power, who exercises the actual authority. And if even if you’re a, a strong influencer, you’re still depending on the will of another person. And I think that’s one reason why some people feel frustrated, that they quote unquote, only influence, they would rather exercise power. And again, that gets us back to the seduction I talked about earlier, this idea that people are drawn to power, not just because it’s intoxicating all on its own, but they have convinced themselves that their power is a necessary precondition, to accomplish good things to to seek justice.
Mark Turman 07:11
Let me kind of frame this a little bit from our context. One of the books of the last number of years, it’s been pretty influential for us at Denison Forum is a book written by James Davidson, Hunter, sociologist at the University of Virginia called to change the world. And he makes the argument in part in this book that while it’s great to build strong churches, it’s important and significant to be involved in elections. When you’re in a country like ours, it’s important to be involved in the community. He makes the argument that what Christians should be focused on is seeking their highest place of influence, and living faithfully as believers in those contexts, what he calls the phrase manifesting faithful presence. In that conversation, what I’m wondering is, is power, the actual position to be in a place as you talked about to make a decision? And to say this is the way it’s going to be this is how it’s going to happen in this instance, is, is power something that Christians actually ought to desire that they ought to seek? Or is it something that they should just if God puts them there, If God lets them walk into that situation, they should own it and steward it? Or is it suit? Should it be something that Christians desire at all?
David French 08:37
Yeah, that’s a great question. Another great question. When I think about what is our object what what does the Lord require of you, oh, man, what is good. And this is Micah six, eight, that’s the opening of Micah six, eight. It is to act justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with the Lord your God. And I think of those three interlocking obligations all the time. And notice what it says it’s your object is to act justly. In other words, your pursuit here is justice. Your pursuit isn’t power. Your pursuit is justice. That’s the core right there. Now, it’s not your only pursuit, you’re also to love kindness. So a lot of people are all about the pursuit of justice. They, they can tweet with extreme vigor about the issue of the day or they’re going to go to a protest or they’re going to vote or they’re going to argue on Facebook or whatever they’re going to do about the issue of the day act justice, act justly. But at the same time, they forget the other elements. Also, we are to love kindness or other translations, they love mercy. So kindness slash mercy is not optional. It’s not optional. And then the third one we often overlook because it often interferes with Our ability to be a really decisive advocate. And that’s walk humbly to recognize that you don’t have all of the answers, to understand complexity of issues that you’re engaging in. And all of those things result in if you, if you look in those three interlocking obligations, and you hold them in harmony with each other, it really does adjust the way that you approach the public square. And what’s not in that list is seek power. love, kindness, walk humbly, it’s act justly, love kindness, walk humbly now, I think that a Christian who is an extremely competent soldier should welcome the opportunity to be a general, right, if you are very, very good at what you do, and you are pursuing excellence in your work, that you know, the opportunity to exercise to have leadership authority and to exercise leadership authority, I don’t think Christians should shun that. But the object of your of your engagement isn’t the power, the object of your engagement is defined by more by Justice, by kindness by humility. And I think that it’s it’s a it’s an a very important distinction. And one of the things when you understand that that obligation of acting justly, you really also begin to understand that in many ways, historically speaking, my personal power is not a precondition, to acting or acting justly or seeking justice. In fact, one of the most successful Christian justice movements in the whole history of the United States is the civil rights movement of the 1950s in 1960s. And the people who instigated that movement had no power. They were not Martin Luther King wasn’t running for president so that he could pass the Civil Rights Act. He was in he was a person who had no real political power, was engaging in acts of civil disappear, civil nonviolent civil disobedience, as a way to seek justice from those who did possess power. And, you know, was ultimately able to obtain enormous number of really important legal reforms, but the instigation for that was not here, a lack ALL OF US presidents so we can do this, the investigation came through Christians without power, who did not use their lack of power as an impediment to seeking justice or acting justly themselves. And it’s a just a different paradigm shift. When you say, My priority is justice, versus My priority is power. That’s a paradigm shift. And you realize I don’t have to have power to seek justice. Those are, those are not my ability to seek justice is not contingent on my personal authority.
Mark Turman 12:57
So it’s an encouraging word for any person that listens to this podcast is to understand that there are elements of power that are available to us, even if we don’t hold certain positions within the society or within the community. Looking at Martin Luther King, going all the way back to the biblical era, going back to the birth of the early church, these early Christians had no standing they had no new positions of power that they could that they had leverage in any way. But they still had the pursuit of justice, and their own personal testimony and their own personal living out of a certain lifestyle that created power and access to power and became influential in and of itself. And that’s still available to every believer today. Correct.
David French 13:53
Right? Absolutely. And let’s not forget, we have the we have the example of Jesus who was specifically offered power and authority over the kingdoms of the earth during his temptations, and said no to that, and said no to that, to such an extent that he was actually crucified by the power and authority that existed at that time unjustly subjected to unjust crucifixion. And so, right there, we have the example of the Son of God who had the ability to to attain all power available on this Earth and beyond, and specifically shunned it. And then we go to the New Testament, where the New Testament is not a guide for Christians to progress through the Roman bureaucracy. It is not a guide for Christians to become leaders in the Roman Empire. It is a guide. In many ways it’s describing to Christians how to live faithfully in an atmosphere of persecution that is so grotesque that we can hardly even imagine it. Today, what we call as Christians persecution in the United States of America, a first century Christian would call a vacation for many of them. And so we’re in completely, we have so much more actual power and prosperity and wealth and influence than first century Christians could probably ever even imagine or, or conceive of. And yet we live our lives now feeling as if we’re hanging on by our fingernails, when first century Christians would look at us and say, Well, you’ve got it made you. We can’t imagine a life like this. And so I think one of the things that we need to do, in addition to understanding sort of, what is our object has its justice, not power, when you’re talking about, you know, what, what is it that we are to seek justice, there’s no explicit command to seek power. And also to take a moment and kind of, for lack of a better term, chill out of it with some historical perspective as to where we are in the United States of America, and what kind of blessings that we actually enjoy. One thing that is very frustrating to me is the really the apocalyptic language of Christian political involvement. In, you know, in the American culture wars, it’s, it’s really remarkable. And again, place that apocalyptic language say, just imagine that a first century Christian is in front of you, and you’re repeating your talking points about apocalyptic challenges for Christians here in the United States, and they would be befuddled by it, they would be amazed by the power and authority of the Church as it exists now. And again, that is not a call for us to just say, Well, you know, our job here is done. Everything’s fine for us, you know, there is a, there’s a desperate need for a, you know, to use concert, to use sort of Lincoln esque language of a more perfect union, there is a definite definite need for more justice in this land for which we should be advocates. I am much more skeptical of the argument that more justice is equated with more people who call themselves Christians in positions of power. That’s where I’m, that’s where I’m I’m not necessarily on board with that notion.
Mark Turman 17:24
So, yeah, so many directions that this could go. Recently, you wrote a piece that, that I was looking over that talks about, you know, maturity, particularly maturity. For us as Christians, it’s not just simply understanding the difference between right and wrong, but understanding how important a particular thing is, and right, you start referencing apocalyptic language, it’s like, in some circles, it almost seems like anytime somebody picks up a topic, it becomes the absolute be all end all of the world from their perspective, or at least the way that they want to have the conversation, seemingly putting or attempting to put their whole audience on edge, and to create an activism that really may not be warranted for the topic at hand. Now, obviously, we want to care about things that matter. But we don’t seem to have much nuance or discernment in our world. And even among Christians today about okay, this is important, but how important is it in the larger scheme of things in it? And I’ve heard you have heard you and various podcasts talk about this as we’re not setting things in their context very well. We just pulled them out and set them on fire.
David French 18:47
Yeah, exactly. And here, here’s the way here’s why this happened. So if you look at the research about public engagement and attention in the United States of America, really a pretty small minority of people pay attention to politics. On a routine daily basis, let you know, let’s put this in context. The the most popular Cable News host in America is Tucker Carlson. And he has a little over 3 million viewers every night. That’s a lot of people. Well, there’s about 330 million people in the United States of America. So in any given night, less than 1% of America is watching the most popular Cable News host if you add together all of the cable, all of the people watching cable news at a given point in time in the evening, it might be five or 6 million people, again, out of a nation of 320 330 million people. So you have a very small number of people whose real percentage of people who really engage intentionally into politics. And so what ends up happening is those people are faced with a challenge and that challenge is well how do I get more people to pay attention to my issue? Let’s opposes free speech or let’s suppose it school choice or you name it? How do I sort of penetrate through the wall of apathy and indifference, that a lot or cynicism or skepticism that the vast majority of people have, and towards politics or towards issues or towards activism, a lot of times, you’re just busy people. I mean, you know, you’ve got kids going to three different practices, and you’ve got schooling and you’ve got everything going on, you’ve got a sick aunt or an uncle. How do you penetrate through that, and the sort of most direct way of doing it is through this sort of fear mongering and apocalyptic language? It’s like grabbing people by the lapels and shaking them pay attention to me? And how do you get them to pay attention? Again, it’s the apocalyptic language. And it’s, it helps explain a phenomenon that I’m sure your many of your listeners have experienced. And that is how, how many people have you known in your life that go from zero to 100 on politics? In other words, maybe they didn’t really care. And then they got read pilled, or they got woke, or whatever term will you want to use to where they really got active, they really became gained, quote, unquote, awareness. And aren’t again and again, you’ll see these people it’s not that they’ll go from apathy to sort of reasoned conviction, get they go from apathy to alarm. And, and in that case, you see this time and time again. And while an activist might say, our rhetoric work, we got another ally, for the culture, it’s all degrading the culture. Because again, it places us into this almost bifurcated world where there’s a majority of people who don’t really follow, who feel alienated a minority of people who are extremely active, often extremely angry, and very little in between. And, you know, one of the things that I urge is for folks not to be apathetic, but to be reasonably engaged, there is a spectrum between apathy and activism. And we should find the sweet spot. And we do need we do need activist activists are often people who are absolutely expert in their field. And we do need different people engaging in different categories of you know, of work. But this idea that we can only activate through alarm, I think, has become incredibly degrading to our culture and incredibly divisive.
Mark Turman 22:37
And, David, do you think that there is some sense in which the culture generally is just getting exhausted with this? Because yes, if if, if you’re constantly sounding an alarm, right, it becomes the crying the crying wolf syndrome, you’re constantly ringing this alarm bell trying to generate attention. And at some point, the, you know, I, as you’re talking, I’m sitting here thinking through family members that thinking about who don’t pay as much attention even as much as attention as I do. And, you know, I’m more focused in these kinds of things than they ever want to be, they get tired of me talking about them, they get tired of me watching them or listening to you and others, you know, and I’m not even the biggest consumer, by a longshot, right. But in the last few years, as many, many others can say, you know, I’ve seen family members who I couldn’t have told you what their political persuasions are, what their concerns were. And I’ve known these people for 30 or 40 years, in many ways or longer. And they never had opinions until the last three, four or five years. And now they have had, in some ways rabid Attention. Attention. Which kind of goes to a question I wanted to ask you about the influence of technology, bringing in levels of awareness, but it is very much like what you’re saying we’ve seen a number of people go from zero to 100. Yeah. And their political awareness or their their public engagement. But I’m also thinking about, Well, where are those people who are just living their lives, they’re firemen. They’re policemen, their school teachers, their moms, and their, and they get caught up in it because of something that’s on their television set or something that comes in their newsfeed or they get caught up in it when they’re standing in a conversation with somebody at work or school. And they’re feeling like Well, I’m supposed to have an opinion. I guess I better get an opinion or I’m gonna look stupid or or left out here. What’s your advice to them about how How aware should they be? Where do you where do you go to find that sweet spot on that continuum?
David French 25:06
Yeah, that’s a really good, hard question. So what we’re seeing is two things playing out at once a process or process of radicalization and alienation. So the radicalization you just described, which is the person you know, in your family who hasn’t really paid attention to politics for 2030 years that you’ve known him, and then all of a sudden, they are up on all of it. They are they know about all the Twitter beefs, they know about all of the controversies about vaccines, or about liberty, religious liberty, or about abortion, or whatever you want the topic to be. They’re all about race CRT, they’re all about it. And that’s the radicalization process, the alienation process is less visible. Because the intention when you’re alienated is to be invisible. It’s, if you’ve seen the old GIF of Homer Simpson, walking into the shrubbery, and disappearing, walking backwards into the shrubbery and disappearing, that’s what a lot of us are doing with politics is, you’re walking backwards into the shrubbery and saying, I don’t want any piece of this. Because you know, that if you offer an opinion on Facebook, even if you’re not a public figure, you might have somebody in your life just come after you. And you don’t want that in your life. You don’t need that. So you’ll back away and these people become essentially invisible in the public square because they’re not participating. And what’s happening is, what we’re seeing is a very toxic development where political participation in the US right now is narrowing in some important ways not in the sense of voting, voting is becoming more broad, because more people are interested in you know, because as politics becomes more contentious, more people will make time to get to the polls. But I’m talking about that day to day activism and engagement. It’s narrowing and intensifying. And so why would I say that? If you look at just the web traffic from the last in from November of 2022, to the ledge, let’s just pull out like the top 20. Right wing conservative news sites online. Of that, as of that top 20, only two experienced positive audience growth over the last year, eight tene of them, experienced negative growth. And for some of them, they experienced extremely significant negative growth, I’m talking losses of audience of in the 61% range 70% 68% 45%. Just a really remarkable shrinking of audience participation. But you wouldn’t know it by the intensity of what they say it’s every bit as intense as it’s been. Sometimes it’s more intense. And so what ends up happening is those people who are getting engaged on a day to day basis, there’s fewer of them, but they’re angrier, and they’re angry or they get the more they alienate people and the fewer activists there are. And so it’s kind of a vicious cycle. And so one of the things I think that’s really important is that exhausted majority, those are the people who shrink into the bushes have to become empowered. In other words, look, you cannot leave the political field to the angriest voices in American life. You just can’t do it, you’re gonna end up especially in primaries are going to end up with incredibly fringe or unsatisfactory candidates. You saw that in the Republican Party in the 2022 election cycle. party primaries yielded extreme candidates who couldn’t win general elections. So engaging is very, very important for culture change in our political discourse. And that culture change is is necessary right now it’s necessary to move us off of can escalating commitments to extremism and back towards a notion of dialogue, true and productive debate, and reasonable engagement. Because we can’t live in a world where there’s the hyper engaged in the apathetic majority, and the apathetic majority only makes us will felt once every two years when it gets into the voting booth and then leaves the field to the hyperactive the activist minority for the rest of the time. So there has to be a firm conviction of reasonable engagement.
Mark Turman 29:39
So do you feel like are you seeing any hopeful signs on two sides of this one is that that reasonable, mostly silent majority, who may at this point be retreating from their attention just because they’ve been worn out by so many things? Yeah,
David French 29:59
it’s true. one out. Yeah.
Mark Turman 30:01
Yeah. Do you see any hopeful signs that that that reasonable majority that we believe is out there that we absolutely, really have to have to continue on as a healthy democracy? Do you see that, that that group is going to engage in the most healthy and reasonable ways and then the flip side of that, those that are actually going to want to run for office, whether that’s, you know, school board, you know, even in the community where I live, being a school board member right now is kind of a dangerous job, and has become even more thankless than it ever was. It was always thankless and you know, hard work done by people volunteering their good effort and intention. And now they get blistered in ways they never, but And so, the other side of it is, is people, you know, those those reasonable good intentioned people who simply want to do good and seek justice, even at the local level, stepping out and saying, you know, if this is going to get better, it has to have some healthy people involved in it, and I’m willing to be one of them. Do you see that coming back around Are we are we still going to be in a season for maybe even a prolonged time of that reasonable majority and candidates retreating, leaving the field to the extremist,
David French 31:34
I’m worried that we’re going to be wandering in this wilderness a bit longer. I have, you know, you brought up school board, my brother in law’s on the school, local school board. He’s Christian, He’s conservative, and I live in a heavily conservative County, majority, vast majority evangelical County, especially in the voting population. And he had to have security, he had to have security, because of other Christian conservatives who didn’t believe he was conservative enough. And so he had to have security. I mean, that is dysfunctional, that is gross. The idea that people in the name of Jesus are so angry, that they cause other Christians to fear for their physical safety when they engage in politics, that’s a disturbing. And the problem you have is then you have a a series of individual decisions that make a ton of sense individually, but collectively really hurt us. The decision that makes sense individually is to say, I don’t need that in my life. You know, I, I don’t need to be on the school board or I don’t need to engage in this. I don’t need to experience that level of conflict. I just don’t need it. I remember a I was talking to a Republican doctor not long ago, and he said, You know what, he’s a great guy, just awesome salt of the earth guy. And he said, after after January 6, he unplugged from politics. He just left it. He said, No more social media, no more conversations about it. And you know what, I’m a better husband, a better father. My blood pressure is down. It’s so good. That’s not in my life. And I had two thoughts at the same time. Good for you, bad for us. Good for you. I’m glad your life is better. Bad for us, because we need reasonable people like you in American politics and reasonable does not mean milquetoast. A reasonable person needs to have firm convictions, when firm conviction is warranted. But a reasonable person also realizes that compromise is sometimes necessary. Reasonable people also don’t believe that one side or the other has a monopoly on truth. Reasonable people know that they’re that and one sided, the other does not have a monopoly on malicious actors are bad actors. And so you know that that individual decision that makes sense, is just sort of another brick in the wall of apathy that really hurts us in the long run. And there’s not a really great path by it. I use a Harry Potter analogy, forgive me. Harry Potter was known as The Boy Who Lived because Voldemort tried to kill him and couldn’t kill him. And what we have what we need are more and more politicians who stand up for reasoned positions, who, for lack of a better term, live politically, who prosper politically and that who are able to navigate past that highly toxic, highly negatively partisan world and still maintain a sense of reason and conviction and compassion and kindness and humility. The more people we have like that hoop, who do well who prosper, the more others I think will feel encouraged to run for office. Conversely, the more are people who have no ethics? Who have no true, you know, who are who have no integrity, who win and maintain power that is discouraging to virtue that is discouraging to reasonable people. And, you know, it’s one of the reasons why things like having accountability for a George Santos, who appears to be if that’s even its name, appears to be a total fraud, a total fraud? And the answer so far from the House GOP as well. What are we going to do? What are we going to do? And so you know, that that is deeply discouraging to virtue when you see vice rewarded, and that way, and, and so all of the stuff is very hard, all of the stuff is very hard, because it’s asking normal, reasonable people to endure a degree of unpleasantness or even hardship, for the sake of restoring a, you know, restoring reason to our political culture, which feels like a really big ask that you really can’t change yourself. And then I’m asking you to like, incur the wrath of Uncle Milt. To do that. It’s hard, it’s hard. So you see why the rational decision that so many people make is just a step away?
Mark Turman 36:25
Which really comes back to that that whole issue that Christians have to really dedicate themselves to asking God, God, where do you want me to be embraced, and ran to have a, you know, our founder, CEO Jim Dennison talks about this often that there has to be a sense of calling that God you want me to do this not because it’s going to be all fun and games, and it’s going to be easy, but because if our world is going to be better, and that’s, that’s really, I think, the reason why somebody would run for the school board, right? If we just, if that’s the first level is, well, who’s going to make it good for my kid, you know, my pastor used to say is, hey, look, if you live in a great community, with great schools and great organizations, you need to be thankful somebody came ahead of you and made it great. And now somebody has to pick it up and continue to to help it to be great. And it really for those that are going to listen to this podcast? No. Will you pray about where? Where does God wants you to be involved? And we would all hope that would be within your church, but also within your community? Where, where can you be involved? And I’ve heard you and others talk about this, on a real important basis is your greatest level of impact is is in the proximity right outside your front door? Right,
David French 37:46
right? Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, one there sort of, it’s almost like a formula that you can have a large amount of influence over a small number of people, and very little influence over a large number of people. And where it’s a Where do you have your influence? Where do you have, obviously, in within the walls of your own home, within your extended family, these are places where you and then in your community, and it sort of radiates out and diminishes from there. And what I have seen is amongst a lot of people get super polarized now, they end up being angry about a lot of things that they have no control over at all. They are projecting all of their energy and effort into worlds where they have microscopic levels of influence and authority.
Mark Turman 38:37
But it’s it’s kind of like we’ve I think I’ve heard you use this phrase before somebody did. We’ve nationalized every issue at everything brought to the local level. Yeah.
David French 38:48
Yeah. Like if you’re running for school board in Williamson County, Tennessee, where I live to stop critical race theory. Well, it’s, that’s a national dispute that doesn’t really have any bearing here. We don’t have CRT in local schools in Williamson County, Tennessee, it’s just not there. And so if you’re running, because you saw on Fox News that CRTs are probable you’ve nationalized a local controversy. Well, you’ve you brought a national controversy to a locality where that controversy did not previously exist. And that’s a very unproductive way of engaging, a much more productive way of engaging is to take your community for what it is, what is here, what what is it that is the issue here and engage with that issue here, not as a foot soldier in a larger national army about an issue that doesn’t have any local relevance? And so I think that that’s one of the things that we’ve seen is this nationalization of local engagement. With the hopes that you can make Fox News maybe are the hopes that you can be some sort of role player in this big national conversation. And it creates an enormous amount of angst. I was talking to an older gentleman the other day, and every time I run into him, he brings up the border. He wants to know about the border. And I explained to him what I know about what can be done, what is being done my understandings of the problems, but it’s really dominant in this gentleman’s mind. And finally, I said, Have you considered turning off Fox News, at least many not on every night, but at least most nights, you belong to a church, you have a wonderful family, you have grandchildren who love you, the border should not be the dominant thought in your mind. Yeah, you should be an informed citizen. But the border should not be the thing that is dominating your waking thoughts. And how many of us, though, know people in I don’t want to say exclusively, but often in the old ranks of older Americans, who are spending their golden years with their minds captured by national political controversies of which they have very little to no influence. And it’s creating toxic environments within families, it’s creating toxic environments within political parties. And again, I’m not saying don’t pay any attention to the news. I am saying reasonable engagement, reasonable engagement, and that that’s the key because a lot of the science right now tells us the more people engage with the news, the more wrong they are about their political opponents. They the more news they watch, the more they misjudge their political opponents, because then they’ve been fed a constant cycle of warnings about the other side’s extremism.
Mark Turman 41:42
So, David, you you work in this space, and so help us with one of the questions we probably get more frequently than any other question, which is, okay. Can Can we? Or can we not trust any of the media that’s coming to us? Journalist, journalists have found their way to the bottom of the rung, apparently, in the same way that used car salesmen are commonly talked about. No offense meant here, sometimes the way attorneys are talked about now now in our world, kind of the way preachers like me are talked about. Now journalists have kind of found their way to the bottom with us, which is, you just can’t trust any of them. And the number one question we get asked, I got asked this on an airplane coming back from Israel 10 days ago, is okay, I’ve got high school and college age children. And I’m trying to help them to know how to be well informed, but not alarmed in an unreasonable way. I want them to be aware of the world I want them to find their place in the world. I want them to have a redemptive influence in the world. How do I help them as well as myself know where to be well informed about what’s going on? Both locally, but also nationally, and globally. pandemics taught us anything, it’s taught us that we are connected more around the world. And I’ve seen this in my own children, my own adult children. They look at airplanes like their taxi cabs, and the world is a neighborhood, which is good in many ways. But how do you help? How are you? How would you counsel your own children to be well informed, but not alarmed?
David French 43:40
So the first thing I say to people often when they ask me, Well, what what where should I go? Which news source can I trust? And my first answer is not any one new source. Because the first thing that we have to when there’s a thing we have to realize about journalism, journalism, it has two huge challenges that are presented to it. One is it’s comprised of human beings. So you take whatever industry that exists, I don’t care if it’s an insurance agents, journalists, McDonald’s managers, law, assembly line workers, you’re going to find a full range of people there. Some are going to be honorable, high integrity, some are going to be hyper competent, some of them are not. So you’re going to have an industry that is full of people, many of whom are great, many of whom are not. And they have a specific job and one of their jobs is it’s one of the hardest jobs that exists on the planet. And it is right the first draft of history as it unfolds. Okay. That is, people have to understand how difficult that is. When I served in it, there’s this concept called the fog of war. And when I served in Iraq, it was sometimes difficult to know exactly what was happening one mile away with a group a small a patrol of three vehicles. involved in a firefight that involves less than two dozen people total, it was sometimes difficult to discern what happened, completely discern what happened for days. For days. Well, what a journalist is trying to do is describe what’s happening in the world, and in the United States every day as it unfolds. And that’s really difficult. And so you’re absolutely going to get some things wrong. Absolutely, you don’t have a God’s eye view. And often you’re trying to figure out events that are occurring. And you’re trying to figure out the truth when an awful lot of people don’t want you to know the truth. So you have to overcome resistance, to even get to the truth. So what that means is, there is not going to be such thing as well, this is the new source you go to, and they’re going to always have it. No, what you do is you have to read, find a variety, a small number, but a small number of news sources that you have experienced as operating in good faith, who hold themselves accountable for mistakes. So here, here’s a good rule of thumb. If you read a, if you read a publication, and you find out that they don’t offer corrections, when they’ve been called out as wrong, that you find out that they’re overwhelmingly just in they’re overwhelmingly in the business of opinion, rather than reporting. Don’t go there as your first source of what’s happening. Their perspective might be very valuable, at some point, but to discern what is happening, go to outlets, regardless of their political lien, that you know, correct mistakes, hold themselves and others accountable for mistakes. Those, that’s where you go and and the one thing I also say is, maintain a variety, read a variety of sources don’t just say, Okay, well, the New York Times has the most well funded reporting, I’m going to New York Times know also read the Wall Street Journal, also read The Washington Post, you can’t devour them all every day. But to really understand you need to read multiple outlets. And here’s the other thing is 100%, do not absolutely do not wall yourself off ideologically. If you’re a conservative, if you don’t regularly read more progressive outlets, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re a progressive, and you don’t read it regularly read the better conservative outlets, you’re doing it wrong. Because you will end up mainlining your own Kool Aid. If if all you do is read, cites or read people who agree with you. And then there’s one other thing. If you hear about a new idea, try to learn about the new idea from the proponents of the idea before you learn about it from its opponents. Treat yourself like a jury, a jury hears from a prosecutor and then hears from the defense hears from the plaintiff or in it hears from the defense. Here’s what we often do. If we hear about something we didn’t know about before, let’s say it’s critical race theory to use something that we’ve talked about, we’ll say, Hmm, who is the conservative that I trust to describe critical race theory to me? Well, that’s not it. Go read somebody who’s an actual Critical Race theorist then read the conservative critique of it. And similarly, if you hear of a new conservative idea, and you’re a progressive, let’s say, you’ve been adamantly opposed to school choice. Have you ever read, a proponent, a supporter of school choices, arguments? Or if you only read a progressive activists debunking? Well, you’re not gonna get a full picture. And so I think a lot of this is we just really do need to think of ourselves kind of like judges or jurors, where we hear from both sides and make determinations, we don’t decide. I’m a conservative, therefore, my news sources are conservative or I’m a progressive therfore. My new sources are progressive. That is, that that is the that is the the kiss of polarization right there. That is when you’re going to start walking down a dark path.
Mark Turman 49:22
Do you limit Let me get your reaction to this. If there was any one thing I could change about journalism on a broad spectrum within our country, it would be this, it would be that every one of those outlets, every one of those sources would declare their primary perspective. Because it it seems like they want to offer you both reporting and opinion, but not tell you what their own set of if you want to say biases are So other people, there’s there’s entities now that have taken up that, that work of saying, Okay, well, this, this source is generally left this sources generally right. This one is far right, this one is far left. There’s some people doing that work now. Is there any value in your opinion where a new source with what at some way on a regular basis say this is kind of where we come at things from? Or is that just unreasonable to ask for?
David French 50:30
So I think there’s a problem with that. And it’s this good news outlets, separate reporting and opinion. In other words, they they silo them, so that the opinion side is explicitly by us, like the editorial board of a mainstream newspaper is going to have opinions that it announces. And what ends up happening is you’ll have a lot of people who kind of honestly in bad faith conflate the two. So I’ve seen this happen on media and media all the time, they’ll say the New York Times said, and what they mean is a columnist for the New York Times offered his or her opinion, that’s not the New York Times speaking that is the columnist offering their opinion. And then that when you do it like that, and then you hear the New York Times reported, and it’s a news report, often that you’re you’re starting to conflate these things. Two things Wait, The New York Times, they’re the people who just said that Dobbs is wrongly decided. And now they’re reporting that we’ll wait it’s two separate entities. It’s the opinion side. And it’s the reporting side, and this is a traditional separation. One of the reasons why sadly, the conservative world is not as familiar with that phenomenon is right wing media is by and large and Pinyon. Media. Foxes is different. Fox has a hard news side, and it has an opinion side. But most people encounter Fox through the opinion side, that’s the primetime programming, right. But a lot of right wing media, I could go down the list of top 20 media sites, and have those top 20. Only Fox really has a super well defined, clearly large scale reporting operation that is arguably larger than the opinion side, all of the rest of them are much more opinion driven outlets. And so that’s acculturated, an awful lot of people in the right to think of, well, my news outlet has an has an attitude, because it does, if you’re it because it does. Well, if you’re reading the New York Times, The Story of Russian advances outside of Bach moot, is reported and edited through a chain of command that is entirely different from say, the Thomas Friedman opinion column about what Russian advances in Bach moot mean. And so that’s where a lot of people get off kilter and off track is they read the opinion side and impute that to the reporting side, and well functioning organizations separate those things. And so for me, I don’t care if a national security reporter voted Democrat or Republican, I care about are their reports accurate? And I feel like for some of them, if you say, Jane Smith, a Democrat reporting from the Pentagon for the New York Times, it gives a lot of bad faith operators a chance to say, Oh, don’t listen to her. She’s a Democrat. When the reporting and opinion are different things, and I feel like a lot of folks on on sort of bright, our side or right side of the spectrum, have been conditioned by the media that has developed in the right wing world to see media is shot through with opinion in all categories in all areas and and for well functioning outlets. That’s not the case.
Mark Turman 54:07
And I I don’t think we have much much of an understanding or appreciation of what it would be like to live in a country that did not have a free press. Right? Because we become so saturated with news and especially on the right, I wouldn’t say that exclusively you and I certainly would probably definitely find ourselves on the evangelical right. Yeah, we, we have become convinced that everything is simply opinion rather than write really quality journalistic news reporting. And that’s really what I take out of your comments. The first thing is, okay, let’s distinguish between reporting the news as best we can, which is hard in and of itself. Somebody’s trying to report this happened. And here’s at least the initial set of facts as we know them today, we’re going to have to continue to add to the story because all stories are complicated, especially big stories. But here’s the first draft of history. And we’re just trying to give you this happened in the world. And then the separate category is opinion. Okay. And first question is, which one? Are we talking about? What thing? Are we dealing with a news story or an opinion? That’s first thing. But, but we have to come to a historical perspective and appreciation of the value of having a free press, and the oppression that happens, even in our world today in places that don’t experience a free press. And we don’t have much of that perspective right now. Yeah. Would you agree with that?
David French 55:58
Yeah, I would agree with that. Absolutely. You know, so I’m looking at the New York Times homepage right now. And on the top story is a helicopter crash in new Ukraine kills at least 14, including cabinet minister, this is classic. History is unfolding before us. The very first part of it says there are no initial signs had been shot down. What does that mean? Does it mean it wasn’t shut down? No. Does it mean it crashed on its own? No, it just says there are no initial signs that it had been shot down. That’s classic news reporting. Then you go to the right side of the page, and you see, clearly opinion. And under the opinion, you know, you might have a story like nurses are burned out and fed up for good reason. That’s taking news events, analyzing them and offering a take on the news. And then there’s another category, that’s just sort of what you might call pure just analysis, here’s what’s happening. Here’s what I think it means versus here’s what’s happening versus what I think it should mean. So in other words, an act of analysis, which is involved with opinion was would be what are the Russians chances of taking Bach moot? That’s, that’s analysis. But it’s not necessarily ideological, you’re just trying to figure out, does the Russian military have the strength to take it? And so you can see all of this is rather complicated. And it’s way too complex to just sort of say, well, there’s the there are these riders that The New York Times I really don’t like, therefore, I’m not going to trust the New York Times. That’s a in but I hear stuff like that all the time. And I’m not just defending my future employer. I’m saying, we have to be sophisticated in how we’re able to evaluate what we’re reading, is this reporting? Is this analysis? Is this commentary and judge accordingly?
Mark Turman 57:43
Okay, let me get you to just close out with with reaction to one last comment, and that is, give me your take on the need for Christians, to see themselves less as cultural warriors and more as cultural missionaries.
David French 58:03
Oh, I like that. I like that. You know, one of the things that I think of all the time is that the fruit of the Spirit is not optional in any context. In other words, it is not a situation where kindness, gentleness, self control, etc, should be, we should do exhibit those virtues unless they don’t work. In other words, unless that means that we might lose a political race or we might lose our promotion,
Mark Turman 58:29
or the topic is so extreme, we have to set that aside.
David French 58:32
Right, exactly. So if you are obedient in doing your best to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit, you are going to be a cultural missionary. You are going to be countercultural, you are one of the problems we have now is that a lot of Christians are not countercultural at all in the way in which they engage in politics. They might be countercultural on the issue. In other words, they might be pro life, and that’s countercultural, or they might be pro religious liberty, and that’s countercultural, but they’re not countercultural in the way in which they conduct politics. They’re just like the world, sometimes harsher and worse. And so what we have to do, and we have to realize a that’s just disobedient, be it’s repulsive to an awful lot of people. And see, it is inconsistent with what we understand about the example of Jesus and the example of the apostles. And, you know, Paul is in Jesus are living in times when there was extreme persecution, extreme oppression. And yet the message was, Bless those who persecute you. Pray for your enemies. Love your enemies, you know, and sadly, we view ourselves now more countercultural on issues, and not as much on the way in which we interact with people. We disagree.
Mark Turman 59:55
Yeah, and Christians just have to get clarity and commitment around the idea that the end never justifies the means. Right? Exactly. It just, we talk about it theoretically, we can say it verbally, but this is where it really comes down to it is, Are you loving justice? But are you also loving mercy? While you’re walking humbly with God, as you talked about earlier, if you’re not putting those three things together, then you’re not getting it. Right. Yeah, you’re doing it wrong. And that’s what I, you know, I point people to the example of Daniel is another example. Daniels living in an oppressive situation. But he believes that there is a right way to be right. And if you’re not being right, the right way, then you’re not being right. Yeah. Yeah. And, and Christians need to learn that when they step out their front door, regardless of how big their public life might be. You know, it doesn’t matter. It always needs to be in that context. Yes. David, thank you for your time today. Thank you for spending some time with us. We hope to get to do it again soon.
David French 1:01:02
Miguel, thanks so much for having me. It’s an honor. All right. Take care of God bless