The Truth About David French and Drag Queen Story Hour

Well-taught Christians know that we’ve always been in a battle for truth. Truth is central to who God is (e.g., Ex 34:6, John 14:6; also helpful: this and this), and anti-truth is fundamental to who the Adversary is (Gen 3:4, Jn 8:44). Given that, can we be reckless about truth on any subject? Can we be reckless about truth concerning fellow Christians who are public figures and targets of misrepresentation?

David French is one such a public figure, and one of the more persistent narratives weaponized against him has to do with his push-back on drag queen story hour (DQSH).

Regardless of whether we believe French is correct or incorrect on this or any other issue, Christians should feel deeply obligated to accurately describe his views. We owe that to every fellow human being (Lk 6:31) and especially every fellow believer.

Some background

DQSH is a series of events occurring mostly at public libraries, and usually organized by the non-profit of the same name. Wikipedia says it started in 2015. DQSH’s home page currently lists about 50 “chapters.”

So, what does DQSH have to do with David French?

It’s doubtful that French expressed any opinion at all on DQSH until after Sohrab Ahmari, “conservative nationalism” advocate, went after DQSH in a Twitter thread in May of 2019. Near the end of his polemic, Ahmari took a shot at French. The New Republic summarizes as follows:

Scrolling through Facebook in May, Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor of the New York Post and a resident of New York City, came across an advertisement for a Drag Queen Story Hour event in Sacramento, California. He shared the post with his followers. “This is demonic,” he wrote. “To hell with liberal order. Sometimes reactionary politics are the only salutary path.” He went on to mention a defender of an alternative path by name. “There’s no polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war. The only way is through.” 

French responded at National Review (NR) on May 28, and argued that you don’t have to be uncivil to stand firm or push back against the social agenda of the left. He didn’t say anything about DQSH.

Ahmari responded to French by penning Against David French-ism at First Things, May 29. Here is were we begin to see more clearly what Ahmari believes, and what French is later countering when he talks about DQSH. Ahmari wrote,

Such talk—of politics as war and enmity—is thoroughly alien to French, I think, because he believes that the institutions of a technocratic market society are neutral zones that should, in theory, accommodate both traditional Christianity and the libertine ways and paganized ideology of the other side. Even if the latter—that is, the libertine and the pagan—predominate in elite institutions, French figures, then at least the former, traditional Christians, should be granted spaces in which to practice and preach what they sincerely believe.

Ahmari’s autonomy argument in the FT piece misunderstands classical liberalism as well as the view of governmental purpose our nation was founded on. Ahnari also mischaracterizes French’s published views on multiple issues. Ahmari’s main point was that we must

fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.

French prefers a different Christian strategy….

On that he was right: he and French do have a fundamentally different strategy. To be clear, only two options exist here for Christians involved in public policy.

  • Either majorities continue to honor and protect minority rights regardless of who’s in power, or there’s an exception:
  • When Christians are the majority, they toss minority rights out and forcefully “re-order the public square” for what they see as “the common good.”

Ahmari seems to believe that the latter is the necessary strategy because it’s what the left is doing and will keep doing. From the same article:

[C]onservative Christians can’t afford these luxuries [civility and decency]. Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy….

It’s an attractive idea, but is it overcoming evil with good (Rom 12:21) or more like fighting evil with evil?

French’s thoughts on DQSH

In May of 2019 Ahmari referred frequently to DQSH in ways that assumed you either had to take his strategy or support DQSH, apparently a la French-ism. But French hadn’t actually said anything about DQSH one way or the other.

Another First Things article, June 4 (by a different author), quotes French seeming to downplay the importance of DQSH on the grounds that their events are small. The piece identifies an Ordered Liberty podcast as the source. The article ignores the context of French’s remarks (more on that below), but even with the cherry picking, there’s clearly no endorsement of DQSH.

Does he ever even come close?

September 5, French and Ahmari had a debate of sorts at the Institute for Human Ecology. At the event, Ahmari linked French’s views on civil liberties to DQSH; French pressed Ahmari to clarify what he would do instead. French followed up September 9 with an article at National Review, where he explained his views on DQSH in the context of American civil liberties.

I recommend reading the entire article. These excerpts may convey the gist. I’ve added bold type for emphasis.

My position was simple — I don’t like drag queen reading hours, but I also want to preserve for all Americans the First Amendment-protected right of viewpoint-neutral access to public facilities when those facilities are opened up for public use. I don’t want the government dispensing access on the basis of its preferred messages or its preferred speakers. Handle bad speech with better speech. Counter bad speakers in the marketplace of ideas, not through the heavy hand of government censorship.

Our present regime that broadly protects viewpoint neutrality in access to public facilities is the hard-won result of decades of litigation from free speech and religious liberty advocates, and it represents both a public good in its own right and a practical blessing for millions of American Christians.

Few American communities benefit more from court-mandated equal-access rulings than the American Christian community. Strike down viewpoint neutrality as a principle (or close public access to public buildings entirely), and you would suddenly find the doors of university classrooms, library reading rooms, and publicly-owned civic centers slammed in Christian faces in cities across the land.

Sohrab ominously mentioned that there are 35 “chapters” of drag queen reading hour across the land. Yet there are thousands of churches that access public buildings. There are tens of thousands of chapters of Christian groups such as Young Life, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Cru, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship that access public buildings.

Simply put, “free speech for me but not for thee” cannot be an organizing principle of American life. It is unjust and unwise.

Is there any honest way to characterize this position as approving of DQSH? A few days later, that ball started rolling, though—after French made new statements (but expressing the same position) in the New Yorker. On September 13, Pulpit and Pen ran an item entitled “David French: Drag Queen Story Hours Are ‘One of the Blessings of Liberty.’”  This characterization requires a severely tunnel-visioned reading of French’s remarks in the New Yorker! But P&P’s cheap shot headline had been preceded by an even worse one at Capstone Report the day before: “David French praises Drag Queen Story Hours as ‘blessing of liberty.’”

What we have here is a failure to be honest.

I recommend reading the entire September 12 New Yorker article the folks at P&P/Capstone were supposedly representing. In reality, French’s point was along the same lines as the September 9 NR article. What he said, with context:

[Y]ou can’t define victory as the exclusion of your enemies from the public square. There are going to be Drag Queen Story Hours. They’re going to happen. And, by the way, the fact that a person can get a room in a library and hold a Drag Queen Story Hour and get people to come? That’s one of the blessings of liberty.

He’s talking about freedom of speech and freedom of assembly—fundamental constitutional principles, the blessing of not having the government say to you, “We don’t like your views so you have to shut up.”

I think there’s probably a way to prevent DQSH events locally without violating free speech, but this isn’t about that. This is about what French’s position actually is. Are we seriously supposed to think the two statements below mean the same thing?

  • “I believe DQSH is protected from legal interference by the same principles that protect religious speech, and we can’t eliminate one without eliminating the other.”
  • “I believe DQSH is great and should keep happening.”

So, does French endorse DQSH somewhere else? Not that I’ve been able to find. An August 22 article at LifeSite News tries to portray him as having been “called out” by Al Mohler after the Ordered Liberty podcast. There was indeed some back and forth, but French’s tweets explain his meaning. It looks to me like French called Mohler out. He tweeted (emphasis added):

That was the context of my dismissive remarks about drag queen reading hour, and I wish you’d noted that. There is no crisis or emergency or catastrophe necessitating backing away one bit from the protection of civil liberties. They were also in the context of [Ahmari] making the case that drag queen reading hour was evidence for the failure of [classical] liberalism itself, with one of the answers [from Ahmari] being a turn by the government towards illiberalism.

The narrative that French is pro-DQSH is a myth. Nobody’s right all the time, but French’s authenticity as a conservative is easy to see by anyone giving his record an honest look. The role his Christian faith plays in his thinking is conspicuous as well.

Photo modified from original photo by Gage Skidmore, CC.

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There are 23 Comments

pvawter's picture

I was thinking about the event that Tyler mentioned they held at their library's public room. If we can negate DQSH's use of such spaces because we rightly find their views and actions reprehensible, then the Freedom From Religion Foundation and others will simply shut down Christians' access to such spaces as well. This really isn't very hard to understand.

Joel Shaffer's picture

Thank you Aaron for writing such an articulate, well-reasoned, well-documented response based on truth, research and objectivity.  It is so sad that the so-called "Christian" discernment bloggers (Pulpit & Pen/Capstone) gossip and slander their fellow Christians because they don't see eye-to-eye on how to political engage.  And that politically conservative Christians who believe these misrepresentations and slanders from discernment bloggers aren't demonstrating that they have discernment to discern truth from error because they are so emotionally vested in their political commitments to a person or political ideology. 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks.

I've alluded to other ways to deal with DQSH, but I'm not sure any can work. One angle is using public indecency laws--usually very old city and village ordinances. Some of these could probably work for a while (I've read quite a few of them in my 'day job,' and you'd be surprised at what some of them say!)  but the cases would quickly move up to higher courts that are going to be more in sync with current American mores.

The DQSH events don't involve nudity or explicit sexual talk, so leveraging decency/obscenity rules would be difficult in any case.

It's probably best to push back on these problems with an educational strategy, but even then, what you're going to see, at best, is more parents thinking "No, I don't want my child involved in this."

I really think, in the long run, French's call to fight bad ideas with good ideas (rather than legal coercion) is not only the most effective response but also the most Christian response. 

Mark_Smith's picture

Sorry this does not hold pvawter. The SECOND someone complains about Tyler's "Ask Questions" meeting, he will be kicked out. I'm surprised it didn't already happen, but it will. IF you complained about DGSH at the same library, you'd be scoffed at, ridiculed, and told to leave.

At my local library, they allow one Bible study. I know this because I looked into it a while ago. It is run by a liberal lady who leads a Menninger Bible Study program that has apparently been around for a 100 years and is designed to be non-threatening, non-doctrinal, and with no proselytization. At my local library if I said, can we hold a "Ask Questions about Christianity" meeting and DID NOT have a homosexual on the panel, a Jew, and a Muslim, it would never be allowed. Of course, things are hotter in my town than in Tyler's. If I told you why, you'd understand immediately, but you'd know where I lived!

Bert Perry's picture

One thing that French does not seem to address well is the question of whether drag queens pose a threat to kids--not by ideas, necessarily, but rather the notion that someone casting aside social norms in dress (and lifestyle, let's not kid ourselves, these are not ordinary suburban dads doing this!) might just be more likely to violate social/legal norms in how kids ought to be treated.

Along those lines, one very interesting thing about DQSH is that some locations have been caught "with their pants down" regarding background checks that ought to be done.  Now we might find that public institutions would then start insisting on the same for pastors--which we ought to have done to begin with--but if we truly believe this kind of thing poses a hazard, maybe it's something we ought to consider.  

Another angle is "what kind of stories are they reading?".  One benefit of DQSH, I'd guess, is that many of the participants might be prone to read the, shall we say, more objectionable volumes available in the libraries.  The librarians' union won't like it, but that could lead to social pressure saying "yes, we have a 1st Amendment, but it has limitations based on the public good." 

But overall, probably the most powerful argument against DQSH would be social pressure; the draq queen reading to a mostly empty room.  "You're wasting public space on this....why?"

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

One thing that French does not seem to address well is the question of whether drag queens pose a threat to kids--not by ideas, necessarily, but rather the notion that someone casting aside social norms in dress (and lifestyle, let's not kid ourselves, these are not ordinary suburban dads doing this!) might just be more likely to violate social/legal norms in how kids ought to be treated.

There are many aspects of DQSH he doesn't address. The main reason for this is that he's not particularly interested in DQSH... And only talked about it at all because a. Sohrab brought it up, b. French is passionate about freedom of speech and much opposed to a path of "virtuous" government oppression.

So his interest is focused on the larger debate about classical liberalism and our founding freedoms.

Don Johnson's picture

It is unprovable, but I kind of doubt "classical liberalism and founding fathers" would actually support the drag queens. I think that's probably why people are jumping on French. We all believe in free speech, but something seems wrong about this.

I think that the problem is that the drag queens are actually evil actors whose evil should be repressed. I don't think it really harms free speech to do so. However, one can envision a scenario where worldly culture would call Christian speech an evil to be repressed, and thus try to make you contort yourself in allowing the drag queens the freedom.

What this illustrates is that even in the freest and best political system the world has ever seen (modern democracies, especially the American one), the forces of evil corrupt the system. The only solution is King Jesus.

Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It is unprovable, but I kind of doubt "classical liberalism and founding fathers" would actually support the drag queens.

No, they probably would not. The reason is that they envisioned a society more like the one they lived in, where a population with a strong commitment to basic virtues would result in self restraint and no need for government restraint.

French does not support the drag queens either. He supports the liberties that keep government from being the means of opposing them. The difference is extremely important.

I think that the problem is that the drag queens are actually evil actors whose evil should be repressed. I don't think it really harms free speech to do so.

How would that work? I'm certainly open to ideas, but if the general idea is using government to shut them up, how would that happen without further eroding the principles that keep government out of the business of speech regulation?

the forces of evil corrupt the system. The only solution is King Jesus.

There are two thoughts there kind of pressed into each other. That humans are always going to do wrong and are going to govern imperfectly until they're all transformed is certaintly true. But have forces of evil corrupted "the system"? I'm not sure that's accurate. Freedom is never to blame for what people choose to do with it. We don't blame God for the fact that He made Adam & Eve free to choose to disobey Him. Freedom isn't the problem... and this is the heart of the debate between classical liberals and the new "conservative nationalists" (at least, those of the Ahmari variety). Ahmari, et al. believe freedom should be reduced in order to win the culture war. 

I don't think that's actually winning at all.

A counterargument is that the freedom to kill unborn infants isn't to blame for the killing, so same thing, right? No. There's an important difference. Speech in public spaces is a battle of ideas, and there really is a Christian way to approach battles of ideas.... and it's not to force silence on those we disagree with (i.e., know to be seriously wrong).

pvawter's picture

Mark_Smith wrote:

Sorry this does not hold pvawter. The SECOND someone complains about Tyler's "Ask Questions" meeting, he will be kicked out. I'm surprised it didn't already happen, but it will. IF you complained about DGSH at the same library, you'd be scoffed at, ridiculed, and told to leave.

At my local library, they allow one Bible study. I know this because I looked into it a while ago. It is run by a liberal lady who leads a Menninger Bible Study program that has apparently been around for a 100 years and is designed to be non-threatening, non-doctrinal, and with no proselytization. At my local library if I said, can we hold a "Ask Questions about Christianity" meeting and DID NOT have a homosexual on the panel, a Jew, and a Muslim, it would never be allowed. Of course, things are hotter in my town than in Tyler's. If I told you why, you'd understand immediately, but you'd know where I lived!

While we have had some library employees attempt to prevent us from using the community space that is on the premises, they do not actually have any legal right to do so. I think sometimes we Christians just assume the deck is stacked against us, so we don't even try to exercise our constitutionally protected rights. Just because someone says we can't doesn't mean they have the authority to stop us or that their objections will hold up under legal scrutiny. The fact is that French is right; there are thousands of Christian churches and groups that use public meeting spaces in libraries, civic centers, rec centers, university campuses, etc. These groups would certainly be ousted if free speech limitations were used to suppress offensive groups in such places. 

TylerR's picture

Editor

You wrote:

I think sometimes we Christians just assume the deck is stacked against us, so we don't even try to exercise our constitutionally protected rights.

You are right. We're sending a nice thank you letter to the library this week. We try to maintain good relations with community partners and they seem to appreciate it. We can't retreat from the public square because we assume we'll be crushed.Perhaaps we will. But,perhaps not. We'll be partnering with a local school to be a "community partner" this coming school year. The district has a program for this kind of thing, and civic organizations, local businesses, and ONLY ONE OTHER CHURCH participates for the entire school district.

What a mission field! Churches are hunkering in the bunker, like scared kittens hiding under the couch. Let's get out there, people. If the community shuts down an avenue, go another direction.

The drag queens aren't ashamed of their message. Are we?

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Mark_Smith's picture

Look, if you can meet in your library, school, or public building, please do so. I am saying in my town, I have looked into all of those avenues in an attempt to start a church and it is a no go in all those areas. The local school district does not allow anyone to use their buildings. No exceptions. The community centers do not open until 1pm on Sunday, no exceptions. The paper work requires you to sign in agreement with the city's new LGBTQ inclusiveness statement and that there is no proselytization. The library has an explicit no proselytization policy and LGBTQ policy as well.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

There are legal remedies for that. I'm reminded of Paul stepping up and asserting his rights as a Roman citizen, in Acts. The laws (and caselaw) that allow DQSH to happen are the same ones that say your Bible study, etc., can happen.

I don't remember the name of the organization now, but French used to work as a lawyer for a nonprofit that sued government entities for not allowing religious activities the Constitution requires them to allow.

As for "proselytizing," that usually refers to confronting people face to face and trying to win them over. One would have to check the definitions of terms in a local ordinance, but if they actually don't allow a speech or lecture on Christian themes, or a Bible study, a lawsuit should happen. 

I know that's daunting though... it's expensive, time consuming, disruptive.

But we can't really complain about DQSH much if we're passive when this kind of unconstitutional rule-making goes on.

TylerR's picture

Editor

My short solution is that you frame the events in a very innocuous way. These are "educational" events; not evangelism ... even though they are evangelism. That's the way we do them.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

josh p's picture

Aaron is correct. Government is not the answer here. People have shown time and again that they are willing to forfeit basic freedoms in exchange for something else they would like to have. Reminds me of this Mencken quote: “The American moron’s mind simply does not run in that direction; he wants to keep his Ford, even at the cost of losing the Bill of Rights.” While the founding fathers probably would have opposed the drag queen hour, I believe they would have fought to preserve it if they lived in this culture and could see the writing on the wall.

Ray Arnett's picture

As a former library director let me say that library meeting room policies cover time/place/manner. They do not cover and should not address content. That being said, the policy can restrict the number of times an organization uses it during a certain period. So, the policy may state that weekly meetings are not allowed, but as a limited public forum, there are clear parameters on what can and cannot be controlled. They may require that a meeting be open to the public and that no sales are permitted. They may also state that only library sponsored programs are allowed. However, that then excludes all outside groups. If your local library requires that you sign a belief statement, refer them to the American Library Association Code of Ethics and the Library Bill of Rights which specifically prohibit discrimination of groups because of their beliefs.

http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/spaces

Ray Arnett, M.L.I.S., CFRE

 

 

Ray Arnett

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Yes, very helpful, thanks!

Mark_Smith's picture

No library can ask "what do you believe" before allowing you to use a room.

What they ask is, "what are you going to say." If you are pro-life and get too graphic, or anti-LGBTQ, or even remotely perhaps perceived that way, or if you will "proselytize", they will not let you use the room. You cannot hold a church service in the room either.

Caveat, this is how my local library works. Maybe yours does not.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I encourage you to not give into pessimism, but to look for ways to push through obstructionist bureaucracy. We''ll be doing an open-air evangelistic event this Summer in a local park; the same thing as the library but in a park. We'll do invites, advertising and everything. We'll all be there with wearing church t-shirts, with a microphone. We'll have some treats for the public. We hope for some good questions. The audience was too polite last time; they didn't even ask about homosexuality or transgenderism. The possibilities are limitless if you start thinking about them.

The point is that winsome, aggressive evangelism is the apostolic pattern. Figure out what that looks like in your own church's context, and try to make it a reality. There are ways.

Whatever you do, don't let culture intimidate you or your church into hiding in a shell inside your building. That's what they want! Say what you will about the sexual revolution, but the advocates for this madness were not ashamed of their position - they got out there and made their voices heard when the culture was against them and still had a fake veneer of "Christianity" slathered over top of it. They were courageous.

If Christians had the same passion for the Gospel as the drag queens do for their perversions, I believe God would bless us!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Mark_Smith's picture

We do the park as well. Our library.. nope. They won't let anything in that is not "balanced" as they define it. Why is that so hard to accept? If your experience is different, I'm happy for you. Why must I be wrong?

Culture isn't limiting me. Liberal bureaucracy is. But I do not access to a lot of public buildings, and that's a fact.

Mark_Smith's picture

has a "no soliciting" ordinance from 9am-5pm unless you register for a month permit that costs $50. They are sketchy on what "soliciting" is, but I found out that if someone complains, a police officer will talk to you. Nothing has happened yet, but I have been "informed" about the ordinance.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Not saying you're wrong. Just encouraging you to keep plugging away.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

Perhaps a way of describing how Mark is seeing things is to note that Ray's stated the official position of the ALA, but I'd guess that (on all sides of the political spectrum) various libraries all over the country would tell you "that ALA policy and fifty cents will get you a cup of coffee."  I'm not an ALA member, but I've been a member of other organizations (iNARTE, ASQ, IEEE) where the "best practices" of the organization doesn't get you squat.  I'd guess that at times, it's the same way at the ALA: nice pat on the head, "glad you're learning best practices in your organization, but we're the ones paying the bills and thus we're the ones setting the policies."

Yes, I'm cynical, and hope that in this case, per Tyler and Ray's comments, I hope I'm TOO cynical, but it's simply a rule of thumb I've learned over the years.  Sometimes, to get a fair playing field, you've got to get to know a lawyer or two on a non-personal basis.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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