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David French and the future of orthodox Protestantism

(Photo: Reuters/Ian Hodgson)
(Photo: Reuters/Ian Hodgson)

In two recent articles on the Respect for Marriage Act, David French both argues that the legislation contains provisions sufficient to protect religious dissenters and apparently accepts the legitimacy of same-sex unions as civil marriages. These essays have caused much consternation in the Protestant evangelical world. I, by way of contrast, welcome them. At last, the future for Protestant Christians, and the choices we will have to make, are becoming clearer. 

Now, I have never met French and only written about him once that I can recall. Ironically, that was when I defended his strategy of politeness in civil engagement over against Sohrab Ahmari’s criticism of “David Frenchism.” In the tradition of good deeds never going unpunished, French’s one engagement with my work (of which I am aware) was a blunt response to my 2021 article “The Failure of Evangelical Elites.” In his reply, French defended himself, criticized me, and deftly avoided my central contention: that evangelical elites will prove unreliable and compromised as the cultural revolution rolls on. In fact, I had not even mentioned French in my essay, but apparently he saw himself indicted. That he responded just days before speaking as a guest at my own college put the dear colleagues who invited him in an embarrassing position. I chose to remain politely silent for their sake, but the incident left me wondering about exactly where the politeness I had earlier defended was now to be found. 

Well, life once again mimics art, and it is now clear that French was right to see himself indicted in my essay. Elite evangelicalism is clearly making its peace with the sexual revolution and those of us who will not follow suit are destined for the margins. 

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The story is bigger than David French, though, and the question “whither French?” is of comparatively little interest compared to that of “whither orthodox Protestantism?” Any answer at this point is purely speculative, of course, but here are my thoughts. 

It is now clear that orthodox Protestants, specifically evangelicals, do not own the country. Whether they ever did is a matter for debate; that they thought they did is indisputable. It serves to explain, for example, the rather odd (from an English perspective) American evangelical habit of telling other people for whom they should vote and declaring that any who disagree are thus rendered damnable sinners. On this score, Jerry Falwell Jr. and David French are two sides of the same coin, functions of an evangelical culture where a kind of moral absolutism applies even in the voting booth. But voting is a nasty, dirty business, an act of fallen people in a fallen world, an unavoidable trade-off of evils. Sure, one must do it as one’s civic duty. Yet one must do so in such a way that one can live with one’s conscience thereafter. And no one should presume to bind another’s conscience in this matter, neither the Falwells nor the Frenches of this world. Indeed, voting might be the one thing in life that makes the loss of penance as a sacrament in the Reformation seem perhaps regrettable. At least Catholics can go straight from the voting booth to the confessional to ask for forgiveness. 

As Protestants wake up to this fact that they do not own the country, two things will happen.

First, as the terms of membership in society’s officer class change, those who value their social status will likely change too. I anticipate that the standard “personally opposed but publicly supportive” argument that has served Catholic elites so well for so many years will become a standard part of the elite Protestant playbook, replacing the current penchant for specious “third ways.” It will, of course, only be selectively applied when necessary to slough off the practical implications of embarrassing points of orthodoxy — such as those connected to sexuality — which might interfere with club membership. Do not expect its power of absolution ever to be extended to those who voted for Trump or who reject critical race theory. 

Second, Protestant leadership will pass very swiftly to a new generation. The older generation who matured in the shadow of the Battle for the Bible assumed that it would be Christian doctrine — belief in the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the miracles — that would be the fault line within the churches and the reason why the outside world would repudiate Christianity. That generation thus lived in a world where such things played no role in actual membership in wider society. They might make Christians look foolish, but they did not make us look evil. And in that world Christians could compensate for their perceived foolishness by combining Christian orthodoxy with a certain cultural savvy and sophistication. But those days are over and that leadership is ill-equipped for what is now happening. Being mocked for believing in miracles is much easier to handle than being hated as a bigot. And it is now obvious the Christian position on the key issues of membership in society today — those of sexual identity, gender, abortion — cannot but implicate one in public debates and will merit the title of bigot. Being literate and urbane, being able to mix a good martini Vesper — such things simply will not compensate for the rejection of whatever identity, act, or right progressive society next decides is non-negotiable. And we now need church leaders and thinkers who understand this and are prepared for the social consequences. If the leaders will not lead with the truth, why should the people take a stand on the truth? 

That is why I welcome the clarity of David French’s stand on the Respect for Marriage Act even as I disagree with him. As Erasmus’s Diatribe on Free Will was for Luther fundamentally wrong-headed but uniquely useful in focusing attention on the foundational insights of Luther’s own theology, so French has done us a service. Orthodox Protestants in America can now have clarity on the way forward and the choices that lie before them. The elites are accommodating, as I predicted they would be. And new leadership is now needed, one that understands the exile nature of the Church, the inevitable opposition of the world, and the importance of opposing the abolition of man at every turn. 

Originally published at First Things. 

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Rise and Triumpth of the Modern SelfThe Creedal Imperative, Luther on the Christian Life, and Histories and Fallacies.

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