David French’s Politics of Cruelty

Pseudo-niceness leads to real harm

American Evangelicals desperately want to be nice. Partly to avoid alienating outsiders, partly out of a naïve but genuine kindness, they almost compulsively seek to avoid political measures that could be seen as mean-spirited or harsh. Most of the time, this is a relatively harmless trait—even winning, perhaps, as part of a broader disposition. The problem is that sometimes a devotee of the winsome way acquires a bully pulpit with a serious chance of influencing public policy. And as serious students of politics like Niccolò Machiavelli have been warning for ages, and as contemporary researchers like Jonathan Haidt are even now rediscovering, a poorly thought-out niceness is one of the most reliable motivations to cruelty.

A classic example of this phenomenon played out last week as Evangelical influencer David French endorsed state extension of civil marriage to gay couples in a series of three articles. Much of the fury surrounding French’s announcement centers on whether his position is dangerous to religious liberty. And yet, as important as that concern is, what strikes me about French’s argument, at bottom, is how utterly heartless it is.

Defending Pluralism

French certainly does not see himself as heartless. He sees himself as being preeminently nice. “I want…diverse American communities to live together with a degree of mutual respect across profound differences,” he writes. Surely this is better than allowing “my gay friends and neighbors to live in fear that the law might tear their families apart.”

More than this, French sees his commitments as being just. Especially given the 2015 Obergefell decision and the reliance interests it has generated, French argues, it “would be profoundly disruptive and unjust to rip out the legal superstructure around which [gay couples have] ordered their lives.” But French’s reasoning seems to run deeper than this. Christians should back gay marriage regardless of Obergefell, because this “is how pluralism is supposed to work. It is possible for people with profoundly different worldviews to enjoy both individual liberty and freedom from workplace discrimination.”

As the last quotation indicates, French’s argument is rooted in his commitment to a model of politics that is pluralistic in principle. French gravitates to libertarianism because in “a diverse, pluralistic republic, granting the same rights to others that we’d like to exercise ourselves should be the default posture of public advocacy and public policy.”

Pluralism’s Underbelly

Rhetorically, French has brilliantly positioned himself as the fair, kind, and reasonable arbiter of a childishly testy political arena. And yet my central take away from reading his articles is that David French doesn’t seem to give a darn about gay people or the other members of his society as long as he can avoid hurting their feelings. The philosophy laid out in the last section is a classic example of knee-jerk niceness with a deep well of cruelty hidden beneath.

The obvious problem with French’s argument is that nobody—not even he himself—believes it. Keep in mind that when French speaks about “diverse” communities that have “disagreements,” he is not talking about racial or cultural diversity or anything of the sort. He is arguing that people should be treated alike regardless of the morally charged things that they do. Taken literally, this is absurd, an argument for anarchy. All laws, and all governance generally, exist precisely to treat people differently based on whether their conduct is considered right or wrong, healthy or harmful. The whole point of governance is to foster the good of a society by incentivizing healthy behavior and discouraging that which is harmful.

But the problem with French’s argument goes far deeper than simple incoherence. Note that despite his rhetoric, French is actually not advocating governmental noninterference. He is arguing that government should actively intervene to incentivize behavior that the Christian tradition unequivocally holds to be harmful to self and others. According to French, that is, rulers are morally obligated to turn their mandate on its head and actively use material benefit and societal honor to push people away from a life of real human flourishing. To satisfy this disturbing ethic, rulers must dangle temptation in front of those who might succumb and positively encourage them to enter into unions that Christian teaching recognizes as of grave detriment to their souls.

Which leaves me appalled at the deep callousness and cruelty under the kindly façade of French’s approach. Does he not believe the orthodox Christian teaching that sexual activity outside the bounds of real marriage is deeply harmful to full human flourishing—including that of the gay friends and neighbors he claims? Or does he simply not care? Is being seen as nice worth the damage to their souls?

To amateurs in politics, this concern might seem overstated. Will recognizing gay marriage actually change people’s behavior? Those with a deeper training will know that a law’s impact is always felt at the margin, and there the answer is emphatically yes. What the law honors, people are biased toward perceiving as good. What the law discountenances, people are biased toward perceiving as bad. Keep in mind that the only difference between recognizing a marriage and recognizing a civil union, for example, is the message of moral legitimacy that the former action conveys.

Think, then, of the impact of French’s position on his brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with same-sex desires, yet are attempting to live by an orthodox sexual ethic. Is it loving to urge the state to intervene and tempt them to give up the struggle? Think of the young people who might be open to sexual experimentation, having not decided decisively whether to follow Scripture’s teaching or not. Is it loving to use the state to encourage them to reject God’s design for sexuality? Think also of young Christians struggling to make sense of the Church’s teaching about sex in the face of societal pressure to reject their Christian faith. Is it loving to use the state to deepen their doubts, and perhaps drive them into unbelief? Think about Americans generally—on the verge of succumbing to radical gender theories claiming that a person’s sex is subjective and meaningless, with societally catastrophic results already evident. Is it loving to deepen their confusion and add momentum to that societal devolution?

Seeking Our Neighbors’ Good

I want to be very clear that my target in this article is not gay individuals. It is well-meaning, but naïve, Christians who are in danger of doing their fellow citizens, gay and otherwise, serious spiritual harm.

I am not even necessarily arguing that Christians should focus on repealing laws recognizing gay marriage. Politics is a two-step game: First one must determine what is good in principle. Then one must determine how much of that vision one can prudently seek in practice. Prudentially, Christians will sometimes have to embrace legal pluralism, for example by recognizing that a crusade to remake their state’s marriage laws might be counterproductive. A wise politics always involves these kinds of prudential considerations. But to embrace moral pluralism in principle—to turn that prudential judgment into a principled commitment to affirm their neighbors’ spiritual harm—as French does, should be unthinkable.

I actually sympathize with French’s temptation a good deal. I too have people I care about who have same sex desires. Some are seeking to live out an orthodox sexual ethic. Some are not. I want the best for all of them. But the Christian tradition is explicit that the way to accomplish that, politically, is to have the state gently, cautiously nudge people toward health and wholeness. It is never the cruel pseudo-niceness of using the state to tell them lies and push them toward self-harm.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

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Jonathan Ashbach

Jonathan Ashbach is the Elizabeth Randel and Ana Scales Assistant Professor in American Constitutional Law at Oklahoma Baptist University. His research interests include the political and constitutional theory of the American Founders, the conservative-libertarian debate and Shakespeare's political thought. He also retains a lively interest and active research agenda in natural theology--the study of the evidence for theism provided by the natural world.