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.
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.
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is Information Coordinator for a law-enforcement digital library service.