Online Conversation | Faith, Fear, and Conspiracy
with David French
On March 12th we were delighted to welcome Senior Editor of The Dispatch and American political commentator, David French. French has written numerous articles discussing how and why our unsettling times have proven fertile ground for the growth of conspiracy thinking, especially within the Christian community. His new book, Divided We Fall, explores not only the rise of conspiracy thinking, but also the tribalism and alienation that has divided the country.
We hope you enjoy this conversation on the snare of conspiracy thinking, and what the Christian response is and ought to be regarding conspiracy theories. The antidote, French believes, requires the power of faith as an antidote to fear. It is also a matter of spiritual formation—the cultivation of disciplines that lead us to wisdom, prudence, discernment, and charity. Especially in these chaotic times, we hope this will inspire you to grow in your faith and find the freedom that comes in the pursuit of truth and the ways of its Author.
This painting is Lake George by John Frederick Kensett, 1869.
Thank you to Bruce Van Patter for creating this visual of the conversation with David French.
Transcript of “Faith, Fear, and Conspiracy” with David French
Cherie Harder: Just want to add my welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation on “Faith, Fear, and Conspiracy.” I should note that today actually marks the one-year anniversary that all of us at the Trinity Forum, and I’m sure many of you as well, had to go home from work and start working from home. It’s been a wild ride. I know for us we had a pivot from hosting our in-person events to starting and hosting this series of Online Conversations. And today actually marks the 38th such Online Conversation we’ve done since the pandemic started. And I just wanted to thank all of you on behalf of all of us at the Trinity Forum for the ways that so many of you have joined us, supported us, encouraged us in this effort. And what a pleasure it’s been to get to know each of you better. If you are new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space and resources to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so and to better get to know the Author of the answers.
And throughout all of the disputes that have characterized so many of our public conversations, one of the questions that has grown increasingly urgent is this: In a world awash in misinformation, deep division, siloed media streams, and growing confusion and conspiracy, how do we discern and determine what is true? And how could we live together as fellow citizens when we seem to disagree not only on right and wrong, but what is true or false, real or unreal? Such big questions have only gained in importance in recent years, as both misinformation and conspiracy theories seem to have grown more pervasive and potent. And certainly while conspiracy theories themselves are nothing new, the power of our increasingly segmented and unrelenting social media channels is. The resulting echo-chamber amplification of misinformation has left us not only more confused in our thinking, but often more certain in our judgments and distrustful, even disdainful, of those who disagree.
So how do we learn to test for truth, to develop discernment amidst division, and to respond to confusion, even chaos, with charity? These are obviously tough questions and there’s no easy answers to them. But it’s hard to imagine someone who has wrestled with them with more courage, clarity of thought, and consistent, if at times unilateral, graciousness than our guest today, David French. David is a columnist, author, lawyer, and brand-new grandfather who serves as the senior editor of The Dispatch, where he authors the weekly column, “The French Press,” as well as serving as a columnist at Time magazine. While working as an attorney, David served as senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice and the Alliance Defending Freedom, as well as the executive director of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which protects religious liberty and freedom of speech and expression at universities. He’s also an Iraq war veteran, having volunteered for duty in his late 30s, where he was awarded the Bronze Star. And he’s the author of several books, including The Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore, A Season for Justice: Defending the Rights of Christian Home, School, and Church, Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War, as well as his most recent, just-released book, Divided We Fall. David, thanks so much for joining us.
David French: Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Cherie Harder: Well, it’s great to have you here. So we will just dive right in. And I’ll mention that just earlier this week, the American Enterprise Institute released a report on the growth of conspiracy thinking in the United States, and it found that it was up, particularly so with some very strange and widely debunked theories like Q-Anon. But it also found that while we might hope that Christians would be immune from, even inoculated against, this kind of thinking, that’s not the case. And in some cases, we’ve actually been spreaders of such thinking. So I guess my question is, what is going on? Why is the rise of conspiracy thinking increasing, and why have Christians been susceptible?
David French: Yeah, so, you know, one of the things I think we need to establish from the outset is Americans have always kind of liked conspiracy theories. You know, before the rise of the Internet, I would encounter all the time people who had done deep dives into JFK assassination theories. I even came across the occasional, you know, “it’s a faked moon-landing” conspiracy theorist. But what I think is different now is not only a rise and an increase in the rate of belief in conspiracy theories, but also the meaning and importance to people’s lives and to their political lives. Why does all of this happen? It’s a lot of things coming together at once, quite frankly. It’s sort of the perfect storm. And it’s a perfect— Some of these conditions I talk about in my book. One, for example, is we’re increasingly clustering around people of like mind. And in fact, when you drill down to the individual level—there was just a Harvard study released in the last several days indicating that more so than ever, we are living and working and worshiping with people who vote just like us, who agree with us politically. So we’re clustering in communities of like mind. We’re siloing often in our consumption of media. And then you lay on top of that, that what happens when you cluster in communities of like mind is extremism tends to flourish.
There’s this fantastic explanation of this concept that goes all the way back to 1999 from Cass Sunstein called the “law of group polarization” and that, in the law of group polarization, what that means is when people of like mind gather, they tend to be more extreme and they tend to get more extreme. So think of it like this. If all of us were in agreement about gun rights, for example, whether we were for gun control, more gun control, or against more gun control, if we all gathered together and we all agree, by the end of our discussion, we’re going to be more committed to our position. Or put it like this: How many of you have gone to a really good Bible study and left it loving Jesus less? It tends to— being around people of like mind tends to reinforce our belief systems. And then when you layer on top of that the incredible stress of the pandemic, on top of the polarization that is resulting from our clustering. And it’s a time of maximum mistrust, maximum stress, maximum pressure. And you’re starting to see the rise of the kinds of conspiracy theories that I would see, for example, when I was in Iraq and you’re in the grips of sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni. And conspiracy theories were rife over there. So it’s this clustering. It’s this isolation. It’s the cocooning. It’s the stress. It’s the pressure. All at once have created this perfect storm.
Cherie Harder: So I realize I’m speaking to a lawyer, so I should probably include some definitions because almost certainly most people who affirm different aspects of conspiracy theories don’t think they’re affirming conspiracy theories.
David French: No.
Cherie Harder: They think they are affirming what is true. So how does one define a conspiracy? And are there distinguishing characteristics or tells that kind of tip one off?
David French: You know, that’s a really good question, because as with basically every kind of term in American society, it gets weaponized. So, for example, if someone is investigating a crime— So, for example, here’s how this gets weaponized: Any time someone is wrong about something, they’re often called, “well, you are just a conspiracy theorist.” That’s a misuse of the term. A conspiracy theory, there’s no fantastic definition of it. But if you’re— what you’re talking about are, I’d say, a widespread belief and manifestly false—not necessarily ideas—but manifestly false cultural phenomenon or political phenomenon. So, for example, one of the reasons why you would call a lot of the far edges of the— as opposed to saying, “Hey, I have questions about the JFK assassination,”—a widespread belief in a manifestly false cultural or legal or political phenomenon would include that you have mapped out all of the various ways that things really, truly happened. Or, for example, a conspiracy theory around a moon landing, it would be “I have an elaborate set of beliefs”—falsifiable beliefs—”about the way this moon-landing really occurred or did not occur.” Q-Anon, for example, is a widespread belief in a falsifiable set of assertions about the nature and the makeup of the American political class, for example, as cannibal pedophiles. Feels weird to say that out loud, that that’s what some people believe, but yeah. But it’s— So I would say you’re talking about falsifiable. It’s falsifiable. It’s complex. It’s widespread. These kinds of, these factors, I think, are what make a conspiracy a conspiracy.
Cherie Harder: So you mentioned Q-Anon just now and I was hoping you can say a little bit more about it, but it kind of raises some questions about just our own fear and anger and our perceptions of the other side, too, in that it takes— there’s a lot of distance between “I disagree with my opponent and I believe their policies or ideas are harmful” to “you are a murderous, cannibalistic pedophile.” There’s a lot of distance there.
David French: Giant!
Cherie Harder: Yes. I think at one point you cited a study that showed that—it was in the high 80s of both—across political divides—people thought the other side were both hateful and brainwashed.
David French: Yes.
Cherie Harder: And essentially out to get one. So how have we arrived at the place where we are convinced—the majority of us, apparently, who are fairly far along the spectrum—convinced of the other side is not only brainwashed, but is out to get them?
David French: Yeah, that’s such a great question, because when we talk about conspiracy theories, a lot of people will talk about— they’ll go to a term “distrust.” And they’ll throw around a term “distrust.” And I think that’s inadequate. So, for example, I don’t necessarily trust my car salesman. If, you know, I have a great guy that I’ve worked with several times at Darrell-Waltrip Honda right outside of Franklin, but I’m not going to, you know, necessarily agree with everything that he tells me. It’s sort of, you know, I’m going to want to verify. That’s what mistrust is, distrust is. But it’s a long way from saying, “well, I don’t necessarily trust everything a salesman is telling me” to saying “he could be killing and eating children.” I mean, that’s, that is a giant gap. So what has to be, what has to take root, is more than distrust. It is a intense sense of fear and animosity along with distrust. And this is what we call negative polarization or negative partisanship. This is something that has been rising for a very, very long time in the United States of America and in many other countries as well. But in the United States of America, we’ve been able to measure negative partisanship and the rise of negative partisanship in a pretty substantial way. And what negative partisanship is, is it’s identification or affiliation with a political party not so much because you love the political party’s ideas, but because you despise or you dislike to some degree the other side.
And in many ways, this is now the animating spirit of our political age. It is one of negative partisanship. And there’s an awful lot of— I would say there’s a difference between—and we talked about this when we were prepping for this conversation, and I used two different terms: I said “earned distrust” and “manufactured distrust.” I also think there’s such a thing as sort of earned anger and manufactured anger. In other words, there are things that, for example, a media company like The New York Times might do that you could disagree with and believe that, hmm, it sacrificed a little bit of its credibility with me. It’s a legitimate mistrust. Or there is an outrageous action that occurs in the public square that might lead to legitimate anger; that’s what you might call “earned anger” or “earned mistrust.” But what we also have to understand is there is a giant market for manufactured anger and manufactured mistrust, so that if you have The New York Times, for example, and let’s say it fired a reporter for no good reason or it was intolerant in its op-ed pages, does that mean the entire institution is nothing but trash and that all reports that come from it can be automatically discounted? No, of course not. Of course not. But what we end up doing is we take—often in our partisan media and our partisan press—we take the negative characteristics of our political opponents and define them entirely by those negative characteristics. And that’s what I call sort of manufactured anger, manufactured mistrust.
I have a great friend and colleague at National Review, and he said, “This is the way it works”—and I love the way he constructed this. “If somebody does something outrageous on the other side, that’s emblematic of who they are. If somebody does something outrageous on my side, don’t judge us all by that, that’s exceptional.” And so what ends up happening is, when you point out the other side’s sins, you are mobilizing your troops, because that’s what they’re really like. But then when the other side points out your sins, you get angrily defensive because you’re saying, “How come you’re using our extremists to pick on us?” And that dynamic results in escalating levels of rage and anger and outrage and an enormous amount of mutual loathing and enmity. And that is the very fertile soil for conspiracy theory. If you have an opinion of somebody that is that low, it is a short trip— And we can stop talking about Q-Anon to one that was much more relevant in the last four months of American life: the election stolen, the stolen election narrative. If you have that negative a view of the Democrats, it’s a short trip to believing that they would go ahead and steal an election.
Cherie Harder: So let me ask you about something that’s probably the most worrisome or a saddening, probably to both of us, which is one would think that if that kind of not just distrust, but distrust on steroids and animosity is at least one of the factors that fuels some of the conspiracy thinking, one would hope, of course, that Christians of all people would be inoculated. You know, we have been commanded essentially to focus on the good, to extend grace, to test, to test the truth, to be restrained in our assessments, to seek the good of our neighbor. But in the case of Q-Anon, apparently 27 percent of evangelicals, according to the AEI study, believe it at least in part. But there’s other conspiracy theories around vaccines and the like that are actually resulting in, by some studies, evangelicals being among the most vaccine resistant. So why has there not been part of our formation that’s kind of given us more of a perhaps inoculation to some of these trends?
David French: Yeah, so, one of the first things you have to know about—and let’s be specific about our demographics, because not all Christians are equally susceptible right now to, for example, vaccine hesitancy. Catholics are overwhelmingly willing to take the vaccine. Black Protestant—strong majorities willing to take the vaccine. It’s white evangelicals who are the subgroup of Americans who are most apt not to take the vaccine. I think there’s a couple of explanations for this. One is, I like how the statistician of American religion, Ryan Burge, has said it in numerous places: white evangelicals are Republicans, Republicans are white evangelicals. There’s very little daylight at all, if any, between the political views of a white evangelical and the political views of a median Republican. So a white evangelical isn’t somebody who is more apt to be pro-life and more apt to support religious liberty, but may be less apt to be supporting immigration restrictions or less apt to support a war on Big Tech or whatever. No, it’s what the median Republican believes is what the median white evangelical believes, and the median Republican is much more vaccine resistant than the median Democrat.
This has become filtered through a partisan lens, and this gets us back to negative partisanship. So a lot of our ideas right now, we will accept or reject based on what we see as the source of the idea. For example, the masking, the battle over masking. Rod Dreher had a really interesting post about this, that the mask became what he called a condensed symbol of sort of the intrusion of a progressive technocratic elite. It was seen as sort of something from the progressive side of the sphere of American influence and there was then a reflexive rejection of this. It would have been interesting to see what would have been the dynamic if masking had been seen initially and primarily as a Trump administration effort, what would that have done culturally? You know, we’ll never know. But one of the aspects of negative partisanship is this perception that “I’m going to reject something based on its source, not its merits.”
And so for whatever reason, I think for a lot of particularly Republicans, which then therefore means white evangelicals, there is a perception that a lot of the pandemic measures— and again, not without some justification, because some of the lockdown measures that have been imposed on churches, for example, have been unconstitutional and discriminatory. So that’s an example of sort of earned mistrust. But then a lot of it has been whipped up into manufactured mistrust. And so because it has become partisan in many ways, it has become a problem in the church, because the church, the white evangelical church, is very partisan.
Cherie Harder: Let me also ask you about social media. You’ve mentioned this in passing, and it seems like in many ways social media has just been tailor-made to spread conspiracy. And, you know, well over 100 years ago I think Mark Twain said that falsehood can go around the world several times before truth is getting its shoes on. And in many ways, there have been studies that have actually shown that, that misinformation spreads much more quickly, it penetrate more deeply, it’s more likely to be retweeted and posted because it verifies our assumptions and the like. So we shouldn’t be so complacent to think that we are not affected by our own media streams, our information streams. So how does someone who wants to be discerning navigate, you know, an inevitably distorted information stream?
David French: Yeah. So here, let me give you the bad advice and then I’ll give you what I think is the good advice. Here’s the bad advice. Consume more media. OK? And why is that bad advice? Because there’s a really interesting study from the guys at the More In Common Project who broke down sort of the hidden tribes in American life. Said, “Look, you know, we’re not just red and blue. There’s, you know, there’s different things that sort of— We’re more diverse than just red and blue. Let’s sort of slice America a little bit more precisely than that.” And one of the interesting things that they found is that your average Republican and your average Democrat are wrong about each other. In other words, your average Republican believes your average Democrat is more extreme than he or she really is. And your average Democrat believes your average Republican is more extreme than he or she really is. And who was most wrong about the other? It’s the people on both sides who consumed the most media. In other words, the more media that they consume, the more wrong they were about their political opponents. And the people who were the most correct were the people who obtained their information about their political opponents through this really antiquated thing called personal relationships as opposed to media consumption. So media consumption by itself, and this is getting to your point, media consumption that is not thoughtfully curated can actually be quite harmful to our perception, to our perceptions of reality and our fellow man.
So what is it that I think we can and should do? I have long argued that we should make it— and all of us have our own biases. All of us have our own ideologies, all of us, we all have our own priors. We all do. We can’t sit there and think that we’re the person who’s reasonable and rational and is arrived at all of our positions through the sheer force of our unbiased reason. So what we need to do is this: I think make it a priority to always read the best expression of the opposing side’s point of view, and if you hear a new idea, if you hear about something that you didn’t know about before— This isn’t a new idea, it’s been around 30 plus years but, for example, critical race theory that people talk a ton about now, especially since 2020. If you hear about a new idea, read about the idea from its proponents before you read about it from its opponents. But read both. So in other words, what a lot of us do when we hear something new, we go to our favorite writers or our favorite news source and say, what do they say about it? And instead of going to the source of the idea and saying, what’s the unfiltered advocacy for this point of view? And then I’ll read the critique. So I think seek out the best expression of the opposing side’s point of view. And when you hear about a contentious idea, something that you’re initially skeptical of, go read the idea’s proponents before you read the ideas opponents.
And then here’s the other thing. Try as much as possible not to— If you think of yourself as a lawyer for your side, you know, if you’re wearing the red jersey or you’re wearing the blue jersey, don’t sit there and think that my job in life, as a participant in the political community—unless it’s explicitly your job like you’re a lawyer or you’re a political operative of some kind—but my job as a citizen is to relentlessly advocate for my side’s point of view, which often means minimizing your flaws of your side and maximizing the flaws of the other side. Instead, look at yourself as a juror. You’re a juror. My job as a citizen in this country, in this constitutional republic, is try to adjudicate and discern what the truth is from among competing arguments. And so don’t put on the prosecutor’s hat, don’t put on the defense attorney’s hat, put on the juror’s hat and seek out the best expression of opposing points of views.
Cherie Harder: You know, I think one thing that many people are dealing with is not only trying to navigate, you know, the torrent of information themselves, but also have friends, family members, parents, and the like who, you know, are deeply submerged in a conspiracy theory. And it has strained relationships and conversations and ties. What guidance, if any, do you have for people who are trying to navigate that issue?
David French: So Cherie, I feel a little bad because you’re asking me questions and every time you ask me a question, I go to an answer somebody else had, whether it’s, you know, Cass Sunstein with the law group polarization or Bill Bishop with the big sword or Rod Dreher with the condensed symbol. Well, let’s go to Jonathan Haidt. So I’m just like a collection of other people’s ideas here. Jonathan Haidt, he has this great—and I would urge you guys, listeners, to look this up and hear Jonathan explain it.
Cherie Harder: We actually hosted Jonathan just two weeks ago.
David French: Right, exactly. And I don’t think he mentioned this, what I’m about to talk about, but so he talked about persuasion as the elephant and the rider. OK, so that we— that the rider is sort of the mind. It’s like the reason, it’s our analytical reasoning. And the elephant is sort of everything else about us. It’s where we are in our hearts. It’s where we are in our communities. It’s what we want to believe as opposed to what we actually believe. And what Jonathan said is, in the act of persuasion, we spend almost all of our time talking to the rider when, if the elephant doesn’t want to move, the elephant is not going to move. And so what he says is our energies should be directed at getting the elephant to move. And so what he saying is that a lot of what we perceive as our our analytical, rational reasoning is really a rationalization of where we wanted to go anyway, if that makes sense. And so what you often find in conspiracy theories—and when you’re drilling down into what people believe—one of the things you often find is community, a sense of shared purpose.
And so when you’re talking about, let’s go to the Capitol Hill rioters on January 6. Even before that moment occurred, if you saw some of these online videos of these plane-loads of people flying into Washington, D.C., you could see they had a sense of fellowship and shared purpose and community. This was the burning purpose and meaning of their lives is to be there on that day and change history. And so sending them a fact check on midnight, January 5th, that says, “hey, what you think about Georgia isn’t right” is going straight at the rider when the elephant has been moving in this direction with a shared sense of community and a purpose for a very long time.
And that’s why conspiracy theories are so hard to address because they often get layered together with this sort of sense of community and purpose, burning, passionate purpose. And so you can’t replace something with nothing. You know, if you throw a fact check at somebody and they reject their conspiracy theory, in many ways they’re rejecting their friends, their friends circle. They’re rejecting the people that they’ve grown to know and love over the last four to five years. They might be rejecting their church. That’s a huge ask. And so that’s one of the reasons why it sometimes seems so ineffective to share facts because you’re dealing with the rider and not the elephant. And that’s why the answer to conspiracy theory over the long term is, in many ways, building better institutions and building better communities and doing that hard work of building healthy, loving communities of virtuous purpose that are disconnected from the conspiracy purpose. Because under the law, there’s this really interesting—when you think of the phrase conspiracy theory, the most important of the two words is conspiracy, because under the law, under a legal definition of conspiracy, it has to involve a combination of two or more persons. What’s another word for a combination of two or more persons? It’s a community, it’s a friendship, it’s a relationship. And so that’s what we have to really understand as to why, number one, we now know why people were vulnerable to this because of the negative polarization. And then why do people get attached to it? Because of the community and the sense of shared virtuous purpose.
Cherie Harder: Right. Well, there’s so much more to ask. And I see lots of questions piling up. But before we move on to audience questions, one of the things I wanted to ask you about is one of the things you cited in some of your columns as at least one of the many strands kind of contributing to the growth in conspiracy theory is something you called a lack of public theology. And this may seem almost paradoxical because you’ve also been quite critical of the increasing sense of conflation of faith and politics or the overemphasis on the political. But what is the public theology that you believe we need?
David French: Yeah, so it’s really interesting. And I think if any of the folks who are watching have not grown up in American evangelical church but you’re familiar with the highly politicized nature of American evangelical engagement, what I’m about to say might surprise you. And that is, look, there’s actually very little instruction in sort of a public or political theology from pulpits in the United States of America. There’s very little instruction in public or political theology in Sunday schools in the United States of America. There is some discussion of issues. So should you be pro-life or should you be for religious liberty? There’s some discussion of that, not as much as you might think. And there certainly not as much discussion of that as there is of what’s it like to be a Christian husband or Christian wife or a Christian student or a Christian businessman. Books and books and books about that are written, and they’re all written from the standpoint not just of what your object— what does it mean to be a Christian businessman? Make money? No, there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s about much more than the ends. It’s mostly about the means, for example.
And so, but in politics, we often talk about politics solely through the prism of the ends. What are the policy outcomes that we want? We don’t talk about it through the means, how do we live as Christians as we operate as political beings in a political culture and in a political— in the context of political controversy. And I’ll give you a great example, and this goes directly to conspiracy theories. And I wrote about this months and months ago when I began to see conspiracy theories proliferate about the coronavirus. And a conspiracy theory is a lie. It’s a violation of the ninth commandment. You’re bearing false witness against your neighbors, against your fellow citizens. A conspiracy theorist is accusing them of grievous sins. And so I wanted to go back and I wanted to— One thing I love about the Westminster Larger Catechism is how it expands each of the commandments. And I love the explication of, the explanation of, the ninth commandment in the Westminster Larger Catechism. And tell me if this is consistent with the way we do politics in the church right now. It says the duties in the ninth commandment are the preserving and promoting of truth between men and women and the good name of our neighbor as well as our own. It goes on to say that we, in all things whatsoever, should seek a charitable esteem of our neighbors, loving and desiring and rejoicing in their good name, sorrowing for and covering of their infirmities, freely acknowledging their gifts and graces, defending their innocence, a ready receiving of a good report and an unwillingness to admit of an evil report concerning them, discouraging tale-bearers, flatterers, and slanderers. In other words, the opposite of the business model of much of social media.
And so one of the things that I’ve talked about, what’s sort of a concrete way in which a Christian should comply with the ninth commandment in a political context? It’s not to say that every negative thing I hear about my political opponent is wrong. Some of them are right. But essentially to say, look, the worse the report that you’re going to deliver me about these people, the higher the burden of proof. The more skeptical that— I’m going to come at it with an inherent sense that the wilder the claim, the more skeptical that I’m going to be. Because in the ninth commandment, you know, what I want to do is I want to be discouraging tale-bearers and flatterers. I want to be unwilling to admit of an evil report. And what’s a concrete way to be unwilling to admit of an evil report? It’s raising that burden of proof, the worse the claim.
Cherie Harder: Thanks, David. Well, as you can imagine, we have a lot of questions piled up, so we’ll just start going through them. One question comes from Ken Baker, who asks, “What are the most hopeful models you have observed in Christian circles and beyond that demonstrate respectful and reconciling engagement?”
David French: Individuals? Institutions? I mean, that’s a really good, that’s a really good question. I mean, look, you know, I’m PCA so it’s mandatory that I say one of the individuals that I’ve seen as modeling Christian engagement in a hopeful way and a gracious way, for example, I’ve really appreciated the way Tim Keller has approached these times. There are a number— he’s not the only one, obviously. There are pastors and public figures up and down American Christianity who have approached this political moment, this cultural moment, with a firm commitment to the truth and a firm commitment to grace simultaneously. And so it’s hard to just sort of list them all. But one of the problems that we have is that right now they are often not the most famous voices because we have entire industries, as I was saying earlier, dedicated to manufactured anger and manufactured distrust. And those voices that will contribute to that industry are often elevated. But I thought—just to to pick out somebody that I thought gave just a really powerful address recently, JD Greer, President of the Southern Baptist Convention, in a speech to the, I believe, the executive committee of the SBC, was really calling out his fellow Baptists and said, “What defines us most? Is it our Southern identity? Is it our political conservatism? Or is it the gospel of Jesus Christ?” And that’s the right kind of question to ask.
Cherie Harder: So I’m going to combine two questions as they’re somewhat similar. One from Tsh Oxenreider—and Tsh, my apologies if I mangled your name—who asked, “What can we do besides leaving social media altogether, which is valid, to be part of the solution to the problem of vitriolic online rhetoric? Are there practical things we can do to better love our neighbors online, especially when the conversations around conspiracy theories are just so toxic?” And somewhat similarly, Vanessa Lin asks, “What practices do you, David, engage in as you absorb all this material online for your research and writing to steady your own mind? How do you filter without being overwhelmed?”
David French: That’s a really good question. So I think one of the things that’s really important—and you’re going to be imperfect at this. I’m imperfect at this. I don’t always, my public voice is not always the public voice I want to have, but, as best we can, try to model the values that we seek to advance in American public discourse, whether you have a big public voice or your public voice is mainly with your small set of friends and family. If you see some folks that you believe are going astray, that are falling into that sort of toxic cesspool, that should redouble your commitment to modeling an alternative, modeling that alternative. And the other thing is, I think, one of the things that we’re talking about is we’ve got to rebuild trust. We have to rebuild trust in our communities and in our culture, and we also have to rebuild a sense of grace because we’ve lost it. What we now do now is we basically define a person by their worst tweet. And so I would say this: I would say be very selective and careful as to when you’re going to dive in to online arguments. I’m not saying never do it, but be very selective and careful about when you’re going to do it. Pick your spots. Don’t blow up relationships as part of the endless quest to deal with somebody who’s wrong online. That’s not your mission. That’s not your purpose. Yes, you can advance your ideas, but be very selective about when you engage in the actual fight.
I will tell you this, on Twitter I avoid 99 out of 100 efforts to draw me into a Twitter fight. And the one out of 100 times you actually draw me in, I regret it. And so— but I did have this really wild thing that happened this week, which was there was a—some people who are watching or listening may be familiar with the app called Clubhouse. And if you don’t know what Clubhouse is, it’s a new social media app that’s sort of like a cross between a panel discussion and a conference call where you can just drop in and listen to some people discussing an issue. And so a lot of people, in every kind of area, whether it’s hip hop or superhero movies or politics, there’s always some people discussing an issue. And there was a Clubhouse meeting room going on that was about me. It was called “David French: based or cringe?”
Cherie Harder: Which is it, David?
David French: Well, I wanted to know. So you know what I did? I joined it. I joined the meeting, and they were, number one, they were shocked that I joined. Number two, I immediately found out that everyone in there hated me. So it wasn’t really a question. They decided I was cringe. But I said, “Look, I’m here. Let’s talk.” For the next three hours, I literally sat there and had a discussion, an actual conversation with some people who really hate me online. And, you know, they got kind of heated at me some, and some of them hurled insults. But it was worth doing because what did I have? I had an actual conversation. And so that’s where I think you, that’s a good distinction to draw. Am I just salvoing an argument into the void? Or am I having a conversation? And bias yourself towards the conversation.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So we have a question from Mike Hassall, and Mike asks, “You’ve spoken only of conspiracy theories that are demonstrably false. Could some conspiracy accusations actually be an effort to gaslight legitimate concerns?”
David French: Oh, yes, absolutely. That’s what I said— that the term conspiracy is often weaponized. So in other words, let’s say you believe that there’s evidence of corruption in a public figure. It’s very common for sort of defenders of that public figure to go, “Oh, that’s just conspiracy theory. That’s just conspiracy theory.” But, you know, it’s mandatory if there’s evidence of corruption, a functioning rule-of-law-based society investigates credible, supported allegations of corruption. So, for example, I mean, let’s just go, let’s just go back to Q-Anon, for example. To say that Q-Anon is a conspiracy theory does not mean that any given allegation of grotesque sexual misconduct, including pedophilia, against any given person, is wrong. You know, you can’t sit there and say— You know, for example, the Epstein allegations were horrifying and what happened with Epstein was horrifying. And, you know, if an Epstein defender said, “Oh, that’s all conspiracy theory,” you know, that’s sort of weaponizing the term to gaslight. Yeah. I mean follow evidence is the key. And I know, look, conspiracy theorists say, “That’s what I do and look at what I’ve uncovered.” But yeah, I think there is a growth in sort of a bad-faith use of the term conspiracy as a shield against investigation of actual misconduct. But, you know, in a functioning, rule-of-law-based republic, when you get allegations of misconduct and they’re credible, you investigate them. It’s what you have to do.
Cherie Harder: So William Robinson mentions James K.A. Smith, and Jamie Smith has used his cultural liturgies framework to analyze politics, racism, etc. Do you see any cultural liturgies contributing to our collective susceptibility to conspiracy theories either among Christians or citizens more broadly?
David French: So I’ll have to think about what a good definition of cultural liturgy is.
Cherie Harder: I think in this case he’s using it as an embodied practice, a habitual practice on the part of Christians, of citizens, of whoever.
David French: Oh. Yeah, you know, I do think that—I don’t know if this is going to rise to the level of something like a cultural liturgy—but we do have a set of political habits in this country, especially involving Christians, that are, I think, toxic and destructive. And one of them is that we have essentially outsourced catechizing Christians into politics to secular media. For example, Fox News, talk radio, various secular conservative news outlets, and often a lot of Christian media follows the lead of those secular outlets. So we have, here’s an embodied practice that an awful lot of American Christians, especially older American Christians, have, and it is: come home from work, have dinner, turn on Fox, and then turn off Fox right before you go to bed. And a lot of us know people who do that, that’s a habit of life. That’s a habit of mind. We also have habits of life and habits of mind centered around our social media practices, centered around our political activism. So, yeah, I do think that we have gotten into an awful lot of bad habits of life and mind that are contributing to this, that need to be radically altered and radically changed. We can’t delegate the formation of a Christian political worldview to secular media sources. And one thing that I would also urge that people do is not use politics as a substitute for entertainment. If you are watching more politics than you are reading books, if you’re watching more politics than you are enjoying other forms of cultural entertainment, perhaps the priority is out of balance. And it’s one of reasons why I’ve often referred to the conservative and progressive political media superstructures as sort of “infotainment complexes.” They’re providing information, but also entertainment at the same time. And be very wary of that.
Cherie Harder: So David McLaughlin asks, “To what extent does anti-intellectualism, both among evangelicals and in the nation overall, contribute to our collective propensity to embrace conspiracy theories?”
David French: I think, you know, I think it contributes a lot, but I will qualify this to say that, you know, let’s go back to our earned distrust versus manufactured distrust. There have been some pretty substantial ways in which elites have let us down, have failed us, that expertise and education has not always translated into the real-world results that you want to have. But what has happened is we’ve taken those instances in those examples and turned it into an industry dedicated to essentially destroying or attacking the notion of expertise almost at all and sort of creating an idea that we are going to democratize information to such an extent that any given person can be just as much of an expert on vaccines as any one else, which is not the case. It’s not the case. And so, yeah, I do think that you don’t blindly defer to expertise; you have to have expertise with accountability. But we have gone so far in the direction of trashing expertise that we have wrongly essentially told the American public that any one of us is just as qualified as any other one of us to decide what’s safe or healthy or acceptable when it comes to vaccines or when it comes to masks or when it comes to social distancing, you name it, that any one of us is just as wise as anyone else. And that’s just simply not true.
Cherie Harder: So I’m going to combine, we have several questions kind of on a similar theme, and I’ll sort of combine ones from Timothy Snow, Christy Vine, Stephen Simpson, and David Glasock. Thank you all for these different questions about the church. So, “What can pastors do to foster a healthy environment in the church, in the face of anti-maskism, conspiracy theories, and so on?” Another one asks, “How can we in the church do more to increase critical thinking?” “How should pastors handle a proliferation of conspiracy theories?” And then finally, “How do we support the evangelical church and pastor in the midst of all this strife?” So a big constellation of church-related questions there, David.
David French: So I have, I’ve thought a lot about this. And I actually taught a class, a one-credit class, on this earlier this semester at Covenant College in Georgia, which is, for those who don’t know, it’s sort of the official college of the PCA denomination. And what I did is I said, OK, here’s what I think in a highly, highly, highly, highly polarized time, if we’re going to introduce the concept of critical thinking on these issues, if we’re going to introduce a spirit of questioning and discussion, you have to first inculcate a spiritual state of being where a person is open to discussion with grace and open to change their mind. So you don’t start with the— I think if you’re walking in and you run in and you say, “OK, I got to deal with this issue, OK, this issue has arisen.” And if a congregation, if a community, is not ready to receive a critical message, then the reaction is going to be almost volcanically toxic. And if there are pastors on the line here, I know that they have experienced this, I hear about this all of the time. So what we— I think one of the things that we have to do is sort of back into the issue by creating and trying to work on the habits of the heart that make us open and make us gracious and make us tolerant, because if we don’t do that, the discussion will just enrage and divide, if that makes sense.
And so that’s why I talked about the ninth commandment. Before you talk about a Q-Anon or before you talk about if you’re going to do this, like a “Stop the Steal,” I think one of the things is you introduce people to these concepts in the ninth commandment, and you talk about who are we supposed to be as we interact with our neighbors? And ask yourself, are you that person? Are you the person who is—and I’ll go back to the quote—do you prioritize a charitable esteem of your neighbor? Do you love and desire and rejoice in their good name? Do you sorrow for and cover their infirmities? Are you unwilling to admit of an evil report? And you get their first. And then, and then you can walk into the next thing. But what we often do is we just charge into the—without any of that prep—we charge into the contentious issue and then everything starts to fall apart.
Cherie Harder: So our time is rapidly dwindling, but we’ll end with a final question from one of our viewers, April Baumgardner, who kind of brings us back to our title, “Fear and Faith.” And she asks, “Where do you think our fear is coming from? I would love to hear you comment on Marilynne Robinson’s statement, ‘Fear is a habit of mind.'”
David French: Oh, I completely agree with that, and I think a lot of the fear is—quite frankly, I’m just going to go back to a theme that I’ve talked about a lot, which is manufactured anger, manufactured mistrust, manufactured fear. A lot of Christians have now on their third decade, fourth decade of engagement in politics since the advent of sort of the Moral Majority and the emergence of the so-called religious right, where you have been relentlessly told that America is almost over. You’ve been relentlessly told that every election is the most important of your lifetime. You’ve been relentlessly told that the church is at stake. You’ve been relentlessly told that they—”they”—are coming for you. And this has been pounded in to the American Christian psyche, to such an— which, again, there are reasons why you should be concerned about religious liberty. There are things— there are efforts to, that are underway, to degrade religious liberty that should be opposed, for example. So there are things you should be concerned about but not fearful of.
Over the last five or six years there are two kinds of essays that I would write that would get the most pushback. Number one was anything I wrote opposing Trump and the other one was anything I wrote that was essentially saying, yes, be concerned, but there is not a crisis. That there’s an enormous investment in the belief that there’s a crisis in this country. And so if you say “I’m concerned about this, but I’m not afraid of it,” there is a lot of resistance to that right now. And it’s as if— Scripture says, the Lord did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and of sound mind. Instead, it’s as if that spirit of fear has wormed its way in. And then any time you speak against the spirit of fear, there’s almost like a motte-bailey sort of retreat that says, “Wait, are you saying I shouldn’t be concerned?” There’s a difference. There’s a difference between concern and fear. And so I believe that we’ve built often a habit of mind that is one that is fearful. And our politicians, our “infotainers” are very good, very good at preying on that. If Joe Biden wins, America is over. If Donald Trump wins, America is over. If this side wins, the church is over, the church will be destroyed. Your educational institution will be destroyed. And those messages pound in and pound in and pound in to the point where you just have a habit of mind of fear.
Cherie Harder: David, thank you so much.
David French: Well, thank you so much, Cherie, for hosting this. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you so much for all the questions. I’ve been kind of scanning them even before Cherie was asking them. And there’s a lot of thoughtful questions there. One of the things that I’m often asked is how can we as Christians help guide America through this hyperpolarized moment? And it’s this hyperpolarized moment that is really breeding a lot of the conspiracy thinking that we’ve talked about. And I go back to two verses from Micah, and they both describe sort of, I think, what are the ends and the means of Christian engagement in our culture. And one of them is Micah 4:4. And this was actually one of George Washington’s favorite verses. And he used it almost 50 times in his writings, including specifically to the Hebrew Congregation of Rhode Island, that was this incredibly persecuted religious minority, wanted to know how they fit into this new land. And Micah 4:4 says, “Every man shall sit under his own vine and his own fig tree and no one will make him afraid.” It’s such a wonderful picture of a nation designed and dedicated to providing each one of its citizens a home. And how do you do this? And I go back to another verse from Micah, Micah 6:8. By acting justly. What does the Lord require of you, O man? What is good? “Act justly, Love mercy”—or love kindness, depending on your translation—”and walk humbly before the Lord your God.” And those triple interlocking obligations should guide our engagement. In the current environment, it’s easy to be the “act justly” person. “I’m going to Twitter my way to justice.” But we often forget kindness. We definitely forget mercy, and we frequently lack any degree of humility. But as those three interlocking obligations dedicated towards the aim of a society where every man can sit under his own vine and his own fig tree and no one shall make him afraid, I think is a way that we can be salt and light in this community.
Cherie Harder: David, thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure to talk with you. Thank you. Thank you to each of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.