It happened before. Can it happen again?
I’m talking about secession. That’s the question that animates David French’s new book, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation (St. Martin’s Press). I’m pretty skeptical about books that oversell such catastrophic outcomes. It seems like scare tactics to sell books. But the way French sets up the book, I hadn’t realized the scenarios that might make secession politically advantageous for both parties. And I have to admit French’s imagination has haunted me ever since, as I discussed in my review of the book. The death last week of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has only heightened tensions.
Divided We Fall is about how to avoid secession. And if you’re familiar with French’s writing as senior editor of The Dispatch, you’ll recognize his appeal to pluralism as our way forward. French joined me on Gospelbound to discuss how Christians can coexist peacefully beside neighbors with quite different notions of a life well-lived. And how we can introduce them to Jesus.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin Hansen: It happened before. Can it happen again? I’m talking about secession. That’s the question that animates David French’s new book, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation, published by St. Martin’s Press. I’m pretty skeptical about books that seem to oversell such catastrophic outcomes. It seems like scare tactics to sell books. But the way French sets up the book, I hadn’t quite realized the scenarios that would make secession politically advantageous for both parties.
And I have to admit French’s imagination has haunted me ever since. The book is about how to avoid secession. And if you’re familiar with French’s writing as senior editor of The Dispatch, you’ll recognize his appeal to pluralism as our way forward. French joins me on Gospelbound to discuss how Christians can coexist peacefully beside neighbors with quite different notions of a life well lived, and maybe even how we can introduce them to Jesus. Thank you for joining me on Gospelbound, David.
David French: Thanks so much for having me.
Collin Hansen: I think we all take for granted that we can live in a nation state where we disagree about a million things and don’t kill each other over power. Start by just explaining how this miracle came about.
David French: Yeah, well, and first I just want to wholeheartedly agree with you. I don’t like… I tend to dislike alarmist books as well. But I’ve become, let me put it this way, alarmed by alarmism. That our mutual hatred and loathing is itself a threat to the existence of this country. I’ve been… Our nation, we often overestimate because we read history through the lens of modern identity politics. But we often overestimate the homogeneity of the founding. We sort of look back and we say, “Oh, that was a bunch of white Christian land-owning men who put together the government of the United States and the Constitution of the United States. And what lessons do they have for us today?” And that you look back on it and when you phrase it like that sort of white Christian land-owning males, it sounds like a pretty culturally homogenous group of people.
But the reality was that our founding fathers faced a real challenge. And one, because we’ve forgotten a lot of history, we don’t really appreciate anymore. If you go down to the Eastern seaboard of the United States of America, you would have the Puritans of Massachusetts, you have religious dissenters in Rhode Island, some of whom were chased out by the Puritans of Massachusetts, you have Quakers in Pennsylvania, you have Catholics in Maryland, you have a lot of Anglican colonists in Virginia, and criminals in Georgia where they’re still there. And you go down-
Collin Hansen: Tennessee fan speaking right there.
David French: You go down the Eastern seaboard and why is that significant? Well, a lot of those are some of the significant combatants, and not just in the wars of religion, but many other religious conflicts that had torn Europe apart, had torn Britain apart, for example. And the wars of religion were the most destructive conflict on the continent, in the European continent, until World War I. And so this was not a foregone conclusion that you could unite all of these disparate religious cultures and the disparate geography in a continent. And we haven’t even gotten into the disparate geography, the disparate economy, the distinction between slave and free. And so what the founders did is they created a system that united a nation while still maintaining the capacity for self governance. And this was, as James Madison outlined in Federalist No. 10, which is the Federalist paper that I center the book around. And I promise you, the book is less boring than you might think if I stay.
Collin Hansen: It’s not boring at all. I can assure the listeners.
David French: That in essence to avoid the problem of violent faction, of the kind of factional disputes that could tear the United States apart, that we had to make allowance for many, many factions. The way that George Washington put this almost 50 times in his writing was, he would call back to the book of Micah that every man shall live under his own vine and in his own fig tree and no one shall make him afraid. That verse was repopularised by the musical Hamilton recently. Essentially you have a place here. This is something that George Washington said to the Jewish congregation of Rhode Island in his writing. Every man shall live under his own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make him afraid. And my contention is that in an increasingly divisive time, we have to rediscover a community that allows a variety of different factions to live, to govern themselves, and to thrive.
Collin Hansen: And it sort of returned to more responsibilities held by the states with freedom to be able to pursue different visions from each other. So like you see the threat of an overweening nationalism swallowing up every conversation and then trying to impose its will on this nation of 330 million people in ways that inevitably lead to endless conflict and contention between those two groups.
David French: Well, the key of this is, it’s not just the overwhelmingly powerful national government, the other flip side of this, and this is what I outlined in the first third of the book is, you’re having a increasingly powerful centralized government imposing a will on an increasingly divided nation. It’s one thing for a very powerful central government to operate in a time of say national crisis, like occasioned by World War II, or even the long-running Cold War where there was sort of an external force that was unifying the United States of America. It’s another thing entirely to have an overpowering central government that is seeking to rule and govern over a nation that is increasingly split on very important matters. One of the things I say right at the beginning of the book is that there’s no significant social, cultural, political, or religious force that is pulling Americans together more than it’s pushing us apart. And in that circumstance, centralized power is viewed by the losing side of any given election as a… can be viewed as an existential threat.
Collin Hansen: I get concerned also about people who talk about every four years being the most important election. And everything we love is we’re going to lose with this because we’ve been hearing that all the way back to 1800. We’ve been hearing that forever, [crosstalk 00:06:50] every election. But when I did a survey of… scholar William Leuchtenburg out of North Carolina who’d done a survey of the American presidency in the 20th century, I did realize that it’s a dramatically different institution in 2000 as it was in 1900. And it’s far more powerful. Which makes it on the one hand impossible for anybody to truly be president and not crush him or herself under that power. And then at the same time also that it was never intended to have that much authority. And so that’s… I think it’s one reason why people do start to feel so contentious is because there is so much power that has devolved to that institution, too much power.
David French: Well, it’s a combination of contentious and frustrated, and which is a very dangerous combination. So it is not the case that every election is the most important election. That’s something for the judgment of history. We often don’t know what… For example, it’s easy to know that the election of 1860 was going to be an incredible election. Other elections, their importance is only obvious in hindsight. So we can’t say every one is the most important. Well, what we can say because of the accumulation of executive power, because of Congress stepping back from its constitutional role and ceding a huge amount of its constitutional authority to the president and increasing the amount of its constitutional authority to the president that every election is electing the most powerful leader in peacetime history.
And then the other thing that makes the frustration point and for a huge number of Americans, they have no meaningful input on who the president is. For example, I live in Tennessee. If the presidential election is closed in Tennessee, that means the Democrats are going to win. Period. My vote really doesn’t matter. We’d only be sort of like “Are the Lakers going to win by 25 or 35?” But… So I live in a red state. My vote really doesn’t matter for president at all. You’re in Alabama, your vote doesn’t really matter for president at all. Think about the tens of millions of people in California, in New York, you have… Many of our nation’s intellectual and cultural capitals, the votes of those people don’t matter. And for the most powerful person who’s ever run the United States in peacetime. And this is something that creates an inherent sense of frustration, helplessness, political despair. And it’s something that is, again, one of these political forces that is straining our bonds.
Collin Hansen: Let’s talk about pluralism a little bit more. Is this just a pragmatic good, in other words, it’s the best we can hope for in the political climate that you’ve just laid out, or is this intrinsically good from a Christian perspective?
David French: Well, there are elements of it that are intrinsically good from a Christian perspective. For example, the Bill of Rights, the articulation of the fundamental human rights in the Bill of Rights. The rights themselves are just a manifestation of justice and the equal access to those rights amongst all American citizens is another manifestation of justice. But there is undeniably, I believe, a sense in which there is a pragmatic element to pluralism as well. Pluralism is not a utopian worldview. Scott Alexander, who’s a pseudonymous blogger, put it very well. And I’m going to paraphrase what he said, that, liberalism, small L liberalism, which that’s the legal superstructure that protects pluralism, is the best civil war avoidance mechanism that man has ever devised. It is a way in which we can live together, and is a way in which people can govern themselves.
Now, one of the aspects of pluralism, and this is what is most difficult for people to expect, is that some self-governing communities will make bad decisions. They will make bad decisions. They will do things that you profoundly disagree with. And one of the things… one of the aspects of my book that I emphasize is, we’ve done and we’ve gotten federalism backwards in this country for much of our history. What we have had is a federalism of the Bill of Rights, where we denied the fundamental human rights outlined in the Bill of Rights to some of our citizens. Whether it was slaves in the era of slavery, African Americans in the era of Jim Crow, the punitive laws against Chinese Americans in the American West. You could just go down the line. Time and time again, what we did is we said this Bill of Rights, which is sort of the core of the American social compact, the heart of justice in the United States of America applies for some people and not for others.
What I say about federalism is, the Bill of Rights needs to be universal, every single American enjoys the benefit of those rights equally. But when it comes to economic policy, when it comes to say climate policy, when it comes to taxation, when it comes to all of these other things that we’ve increasingly pulled up to Washington, they need to go back down to the states. And I have a chapter where I talk about, and this is something I’m a conservative, I don’t want single-payer healthcare, but I talk about how California single-payer healthcare could help preserve the union. That allowing a progressive state to govern itself in a progressive way can go a long way towards turning down the temperature of American politics, because people will be able to live under the rules of the community that they want to live under. And as it’s going right now, nobody seems to be able to live in the kind of community that they want to create.
Collin Hansen: It also gives people a chance to be able to move if they don’t like that plurality, which is something that Americans have been doing for some time from places like California, and currently from places like New York city to where you live now in Nashville, Tennessee area. I would imagine though that that probably works a lot better for some things than it does for others. I have a little hard time knowing how that would work with climate, if you’re talking about local smog and things like that. But if you’re talking about broader climate change, then that would seem to be, not work as quite as well, I would think, for pluralism. And I also imagine that taxation derives in part, because of the enormous expense that the United States has in our defense, which is also something you can’t federalize.
David French: Well, you cannot federalize defense for sure. But one of the things that’s interesting about, and not to get too wonky, but one of the things that’s very interesting about the California single-payer plan is it could not possibly exist while California is still sending the vast bulk of its healthcare dollars to Washington for making your Medicaid. So for it to exist, what has to happen is, California would have to get Congress to allow it to keep that money and pour it into its single-payer plan or allocate that money for its single-payer plan.
Well, once you have said that this very significant state has the financial independence and autonomy to pull these resources in, well, it wouldn’t just be California that would have the freedom to experiment. It wouldn’t just be California that has the freedom to have its own values expressed in its social superstructure. And I think, look, we… And one of the things that we have to do is we have to get over the idea that a loss for our ideology anywhere is a loss for our ideology everywhere. We keep nationalizing every political dispute. And when we do that, not not only does it exacerbate divisions in the United States of America, but it also perversely enough creates a disincentive for our ideological opponents to leave us alone when we’re in our home state or home community.
Collin Hansen: Well, something that would work in South Dakota where I grew up is in many cases not going to be something that works in Alabama, where I currently live. Those demographics are dramatically different and something that foists the same solutions on all these issues to both places simply doesn’t add up. And perhaps if we give also more of that freedom to experiment, we can also have these examples of what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. And then when certain states thrive and other states suffer, it gives an incentive for those states to adopt those new policies, though I do have to admit, Tennessee has been far better governed than Alabama historically. And we seem to have learned nothing from that.
David French: Well, there’s no accounting for it. There is such a thing as competence. And competence matters sometimes more than ideology.
Collin Hansen: Don’t we know it. Okay. Can we have the kind of pluralism that the American founders intended apart from religion and virtue?
David French: Well, the bottom line is, I think what the founders understood is that there were two aspects of our social compact, the social compact of the government’s obligation to its citizens. If it was going to be summarized in any one given document, it would be the Bill of Rights. But then as time went on, because the Bill of Rights didn’t apply to states, we realized it was insufficient. And we realized it’s insufficient in part because of the horror of the Civil War and slavery. So between the Bill of Rights and the Civil War Amendments, what we did is we established this fundamental obligation of the government to the citizen, which is to secure the fundamental liberties of the citizen from state tyranny, and the fundamental rights of free speech, freedom of conscience from state tyranny.
But the United States doesn’t work well if the only part of the social compact is the government securing liberty. As John Adams said in his letter to the Massachusetts Militia, that our Constitution was made for moral and religious people, it’s wholly inadequate for the governance of any other. And in fact, he amplified on that. That’s his most famous quote. But what he went on to say even more of was that without this sort of sense of public virtue, and without public virtue, that the United States could be one of the worst habitations on earth. That liberty, protection of liberty, and these are my words, would become a dedication to libertinism. And that is unsustainable. That creates an unsustainable political and moral culture.
And so there is a social compact that says the government’s social compact towards us, we will protect your fundamental human rights and your individual liberty. Our social compact back towards the government, we will exercise that liberty for virtuous ends. Not everybody is right. We’re not perfect. Even the best of us is not always going to do that very well, but there is sort of a baseline level of civic responsibility that makes this whole thing work.
Collin Hansen: I think we’re starting to see, and this is, I guess, the premise of your book that that bargain is not really holding up very well right now in terms of what we owe in return. And I think we’re seeing a fraying of that on both the right and the left. Why should a Christian prefer persuasion over coercion? Why wouldn’t we just settle for forcing people to do what they should do without regard to whether or not we care that they agree with us about it?
David French: Well, there’s principled and pragmatic reasons for this. One of the fundamental, one of the core obligations of the people of God throughout history is to seek justice. And one of the ways that we have defined justice, and I believe we’ve properly defined justice in the United States of America is, again, and I keep using this phrase, the Bill of Rights, the protection of people, for example, to be secure in their persons unless the state goes through, and property, unless the state goes through due process, the right of people to worship, the right of people to speak. These liberties are just. They foster justice and they’re just in and of themselves. And so in that aspect, I think, protecting these liberties is a core element of the command to seek justice. I think there are people who’ve wrongly said there’s an inconsistency between justice and liberty.
Well, I would like to see a just society without due process. It’s hard to find just societies without the protection of the free exercise of religion, or the protection of free speech. Those things are hard to find. And so there is a principled reason that is embedded in the idea that we should seek justice. It’s also embedded in the idea of loving your neighbor. If you… what is love for neighbors? Is it domination of neighbor? No, no. It’s seeking the flourishing of your neighbor. It’s seeking the protection of your neighbor from tyranny, the protection of your neighbor from injustice. So it’s an aspect of justice. It’s an aspect of love. And then the pragmatic aspect of it is, let’s just be very honest, Collin, if you’re a Christian calling for a Christian domination of the United States of America, I question whether you know much about this country.
Collin Hansen: Apart from the glorious return of Jesus Christ, which we pray would happen as soon as possible.
David French: Yeah. I question your knowledge of Christian political and cultural power in this country right now, and that if you begin to lead the charge to remove government safeguards against violations of free speech and religious liberty and freedom of conscience, I can tell you in many parts of the country, some of the first people to suffer the consequences of that would be Christians.
Collin Hansen: I’ve been thinking for a while that Christian politics has a lot to do with the kind of people that Christians hang out with. And I think one reason that we find a whole lot of confusion is because some Christians are surrounded by non-Christians and some Christians are surrounded by people who don’t disagree with them on any single point on anything. And that results in very different inclinations, very different… I grew up in an environment that was not evangelical, came to faith in that environment, expected opposition, went off to a private university where there was more of that opposition, I just always expect it in an environment where I’m a minority. And I found that that has political shaping, cultural shaping, that is not shared by a lot of other Christians, especially in parts of the South.
David French: Well, you’re hitting on a theme in the book that’s important. And this theme is called the law of group polarization. It’s in the very beginning. And it’s one of the most important things for you to understand, for any reader to understand, about the book and about our nation right now. And it’s this. When people of like-mind gather, it’s not a concept I came up with it, it originates 20 plus years ago in an academic paper by Cass Sunstein, this is why you should always be reading obscure academic papers.
Collin Hansen: All of them.
David French: All of them. Because you might miss a good one. But anyway, it originates in an academic paper by Cass Sunstein. And it’s a very common-sense proposition, and you see it all around you, and it is becoming deadly to our national unity. And it is this. When people of like-mind gather, the common expression of their shared view becomes more extreme.
What does this mean in plain English? If you get together and you all oppose gun control, let’s say 10 of your friends, you all get together to talk about opposing gun control, at the end of the meeting, you’re going to be more opposed to gun control than when you started. Or think of this. How many of you gone to a really good Bible study and left it loving Jesus less? When you’re around people of like mind, there’s no check on the collective will. And one of the interesting things that Sunstein found is that, this is so powerful that at the end of the deliberation, the group itself can end up more extreme than the most extreme person was at the beginning. And this is a dynamic… and it’s one reason why we’re yanking apart. Because if you combine the law of group polarization with something called the Big Sort, which is again, it’s a book from about 15 years ago, saying Americans are clustering into like-minded enclaves, and that’s statistically obvious, and you combine that law of group polarization, what that means is we’re becoming more extreme, less willing to compromise, and more hostile.
And there’s two great communities that illustrate this. One is, here’s… the white evangelical community is a like-minded cluster. 81 percent voted for Trump. That’s an overwhelming majority. But that’s not the only like-minded cluster in America. Almost 90 percent of the citizens of Manhattan voted for Hillary Clinton. And that’s replicated in blue cities across the country. There’s less political diversity in many of our major American cities than there is in a white evangelical megachurch.
Collin Hansen: I did a lot of study of 2016 looking at local levels, precinct level data, especially the primaries here in Alabama, and in some places such as where I live in Birmingham, the polarization is so extreme that you have precincts to have literally nobody voting for either party on both sides. You’ll go to a rural Baptist church precinct in Jefferson County, our largest county, and you’ll find not a single person who voted Democratic. And then you’ll go to a precinct in Fairfield, maybe only 10 miles away, where you’re going to find not a single person who voted Republican in the entire precinct. So if that sorting happens, it’s almost like the effects of that segregation being voluntarily undertaken for ideological reasons, which are overlaid with some group identity, including race, over the country. And no wonder then I think, as you point out, why secession becomes possible is because we do have some of this sorting now.
There are a lot of Republicans in California, but a lot of Republicans have also been leaving California over time. And you do have these geographic blocks that could split, like in one of your scenarios, the Western block splits with Washington, Oregon, and California, and then the New England one also. Well, I’ll come back to that. I got other questions I got to get to in here. All right. We’ll take a kind of breath from all of that and ask a question professionally for you. There are a number of evangelicals in prominent positions as political and cultural commentators. And I can think of several from just within the PCA. And yet it seems that most evangelicals prefer to get their political advice from people don’t share their evangelical beliefs. I’m thinking here on the right Tucker Carlson, Ben Shapiro, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh. Is that something we can or should change?
David French: Yeah, absolutely, we should change it. Can we change it? That’s a much bigger question. The bottom line, I think, of something that’s happened within the American evangelical church more broadly is that, we have neglected to cultivate a theology of political engagement in America, in our citizens, and the folks who are in the pews.
And this is something that is a glaring omission from the church. We will spend a lot of time talking about how we are to be a Christian in the job. We’ll spend a lot of time talking about how to be a Christian husband, a Christian father, a Christian mother, a Christian wife, Christian grandparents, seminars, books, et cetera. We’ll talk… We have youth ministries that they’re not focused on making sure everyone makes As, they’re focused on building disciples of Jesus Christ in sometimes hostile academic environments.
But the church’s engagement with politics has almost entirely been through the prism of issues. Issues. Not through the prism of, what does it mean to be salt and light within the political body politic beyond supporting this issue or that issue. And so that has left us with actual political engagement education that comes from talk radio, that comes from primetime Fox News, that comes from secular commentators who Christians will like because they agree with you on issues or they’ll like because they’re affectionate towards evangelicals when much of the rest of the media is not.
But you’re not going to go to Rush Limbaugh for an explication of the… or an explanation of the impact of the ninth commandment on the Christian political witness. And you’re not going to go to Sean Hannity for a discussion of God’s sovereignty over nations, and how much should Christian… to what degree should Christians be alarmed by negative political developments. Because these primetime secular and talk radio secular individuals are about mobilizing. They’re not about, ultimately about teaching, and they’re not… especially not about teaching us in the theological and spiritual terms that we need to be taught.
Collin Hansen: I’ve noticed a couple of rules of thumb here that in almost every case, if somebody tells me that I’m being too political, inevitably that person is more political than I am. And they simply don’t like what I’m saying about politics. That’s a good rule of thumb for pastors to keep in mind in churches if they haven’t learned that lesson already. At the same time, I’ve also heard that if a church tells me that they are not a political church, sometimes that’s legitimate. I’d say probably from my own church, that’s fairly true. Although I think it’s a problem. And I’ll explain that in a second.
More of the time when a church says that, it’s because they wouldn’t need to be political because everybody votes the exact same way, because they all listen to the same conservative, or possibly, liberal media. So I actually think that churches need to become more political in the sense that they need to recognize their responsibility to disciple people to think about themselves as citizens on earth and citizens in heaven. So I don’t know if I would have said this, David, five years ago or six years ago, but it seems that the discipleship crisis is so overwhelming now because of this outsourced discipleship that comes just constantly blitzing us through social media, talk radio, cable news, that I don’t think church leaders have an option anymore to say, “We’re not the kind of church that gets into that stuff.”
David French: I agree with you. And I saw a really interesting comment by, I believe it’s Rich Stearns, former president of World Vision, and he said members of the church are getting bombarded with messages from talk radio or cable news. And the pastors often only have an hour a week. And the pastors are at a profound disadvantage. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything. And one of the things that I’ve been trying to… a case that I’ve been trying to make to Christians is, one, I think we can teach a theology of political engagement without diving into all the ins and outs of each individual issue. Because our theology of political engagement is sort of a superstructure. And then you’ll put the issues into this superstructure but it will tell you how to engage in politics. And it also will tell you how to weigh one issue over another, the gravity of one issue over another.
So you can talk to people about a theology of political engagement that isn’t going to be, so what should be the composition of the Supreme Court and how should it rule on case X, Y, or Z? In fact, we need a little bit less of that, and a little bit more of the superstructure of political engagement.
And then the other thing is, given the fact that so many Americans, as they pull back from Christianity, as they pull back from religion, are filling that hole in their hearts with politics, that the Christian political witness is becoming more important, not less. And I said political witness, I didn’t say political strength. Those are different things. An increasing number of Americans are interacting with the church almost exclusively through a political lens. And I would ask listeners, is that how the church puts its best foot forward? Is that where we’re doing our best? And I think the answer is a decisive emphatic no.
Collin Hansen: This next question might be seen as contradictory though I don’t think it is. And it’s probably also not fair to ask you since you write about national politics. But should evangelicals care a whole lot less about national politics? What if we instead invested that energy and money and time into local institutions, starting with family, church, neighborhood, and even local governments?
David French: I think the actual reality is pretty clear here. You have far more influence over the people in your immediate circle and in your immediate community than you have over the nation. That’s just a fact. And if your investment in emotional energy is greater in the area where you have the least influence, that’s when I think we should check ourselves. And yes, I know I’m saying that as a national political commentator. No, I do think that I’m encountering an increasing number of people who’s… at a very deep emotional level are more fearful about, focused on, and angry about the aspects of their life that they have the least control over, than they are about the aspects of their life where… and focusing on those things. Focusing on those things.
I can understand something being distant from you and you feeling helpless and being worried about that although God did not give us a spirit of fear. But I understand that. The difficulty is this incredible focus that people are having on the distant political conflict rather than the focus on the close in personal ministry. And there’s a key… here’s an issue. Let’s just get really hot button on something. Are you ready?
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Let’s go for it.
David French: Life. Life.
Collin Hansen: I was going to get there too.
David French: Okay. We now have 40 years of instruction that tells us that presidents don’t have much influence over the life issue at all. 40 years. We do have an awful lot of instruction that says that individual people in interacting with other individual people do have a lot of influence on that.
Collin Hansen: Well, let me jump straight into that one. Talk about when you have two secession scenarios. People got to go out there and buy the book to get those scenarios. I can’t really… I can almost remember all the details. That’s how vivid they are. And I didn’t know what to expect. And so it stuck with me. I don’t want to get into all that when you already have been generous with your time, but one of your scenarios imagines Roe v. Wade being overturned and leading to huge electoral victories for pro-choice politicians. I think that’s reasonable to expect, if that were to happen. Does that mean you suggest that we should not be working to overturn that decision and banning abortions? Would that work actually be counterproductive if there’s not enough cultural support to overturn the ban or behind it, if it were to happen?
David French: Yeah. That’s a really good question. And to be clear, I’m not saying that in the scenario that there’s two aspects of it. There’s an overwhelming victory followed by a very particular destabilizing action that-
Collin Hansen: Yes, yes. Right. Yeah. Don’t want to give it away, but it hits close to home here in Alabama.
David French: Yeah. Very realistic destabilizing.
Collin Hansen: Oh, it’s scary. It’s scary.
David French: Yeah. But here’s the… you raised a really good question. The bottom line is, the top-down legal impositions in the absence of cultural change have been demonstrated to fail in the past. And one of the most salient examples of that is one of the most potent examples of Christian political activism in the history of the United States, and that’s prohibition. And so the pro-life movement cannot focus on politics as its primary instrument of change. It has to focus on culture as its primary instrument of change. And by the way, that’s where the pro-life movement has been most effective.
One of the things that’s really important, and most pro-life Americans don’t know this, the abortion rate peaked, it shot up right after Roe versus Wade. It peaked right around 1980, 81. It went down in the rest of the pro-life Reagan administration. That doesn’t surprise pro-life Americans. It went down in the pro-life George H. W. Bush administration. It went down in the Clinton administration. It went down in the Bush administration. It went down in the Obama administration. So the abortion rate has plummeted to such a point that it is lower now than it was before Roe was decided. And when Roe was decided, there were places where abortion was illegal. So the abortion rate is lower now than it was before Roe was decided. It’s lower by rate. In other words, per thousand women ratio per pregnancy and in absolute numbers. And a lot of people have absolutely no idea about that. And there are many, many, many complicated reasons for it. But political prohibition of abortion is not one of those reasons.
And so this is a complicated, complicated issue that gets reduced in presidential campaigns to, if you vote for person X, more babies will die than if you vote for person Y. And that’s not what the last 40 years have taught us. It’s a lot more complicated and depends a heck of a lot more on personal engagement interaction. And one last thing, a lot of people think if you overturn Roe versus Wade, you get rid of abortion. Well, there’s been a study that demonstrates that if you get rid of Roe versus Wade at most, you’ll get rid of 13 percent of abortions. That 87 percent would endure.
Collin Hansen: Because they tend to be heavily concentrated in states that would vote to keep it.
David French: Exactly.
Collin Hansen: The states that would vote to ban it, Alabama, Mississippi, South Dakota, that’s not where most of the abortions are happening.
David French: Right. They already have very low abortion rates. If you look at abortion rates across the United States of America, there’s this interesting dynamic that occurs. There’s very… states that ban vote, for example, heartbeat bills, they ban abortion after a heartbeat is detected, by and large are among the states with the lowest abortion rates already in the US. The states that vote to protect abortion rights very decisively have much higher abortion rates. And so abortion, actually, overturning Roe versus Wade doesn’t end abortion. That doesn’t mean that we should not be seeking a nation that by law and culture brings the abortion rate to zero. That’s what we should be seeking. But the culture is going to lead the law on this point.
Collin Hansen: I still say it’s wrongly decided, I still say it’s unjust, but I have no illusions about what would happen if it were overturned at this point, culturally, and you raise Prohibition, which I think Prohibition is the safe thing that anybody can complain about because there’s nobody really advocating for that anymore. And people have just completely forgotten how popular Prohibition was. And as you mentioned, one of the most successful Christian political power movements of all time, people don’t want to bring up the example of slavery because [inaudible 00:40:41] that is, again, extremely unjust and that nobody would argue for wanting it to have been preserved or at least very few people thankfully would argue for that. But because the culture didn’t change, it just simply found other ways to persist.
David French: Well, that’s one of the great tragedies of American history was there was a moment in 1865 where, and this goes back to Reconstruction, where the government of the United States was at the absolute apex of its power against the Confederacy. It utterly defeated the Confederacy. The Confederate armies were scattered to the winds. It was an absolute control over the Southern states and rather than, and this is something that is one of the great injustices in American history, rather than, at the apex of its power, doing all that power could possibly do to correct the legacy of slavery, a division weary public, a divided Congress-
Collin Hansen: A Northern Democratic Party that was eager to overturn Republican rule.
David French: Ultimately pulled back and the existing culture that was still intact, although slavery was not intact, the existing culture that was still intact reared back into power and authority. And if there’s one area where government power was justified, it was in the eradication of slavery, because it was such a dramatic violation of this social compact. And yet the culture triumphed even after 1865 and wasn’t really beginning to be routed again for 99 more years until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
And that’s something that we struggle with today. We have 345 years in the United States of America of legally enforced racial discrimination defended by violence. 345 years between slavery and Jim Crow. And you don’t eradicate all of that injustice and the effects of all of that injustice in 56 years of contentious change since the Civil Rights Act. And that’s something that we Christians really have to wrestle with is that… And sadly, this is a terrible thing, Collin, but the church in many ways was part of creating that culture.
Collin Hansen: Not just part of creating that culture, but especially some of my expertise extends into the civil-rights movement. The church was not merely a part of it. The church was often leading it.
David French: Yes. We have to be honest.
Collin Hansen: So that’s the great tragedy. So if you don’t change the culture in your own churches, let alone change the broader culture through an effective evangelical witness, expecting politics to do that, even when politics enacts a just decision within our environment, it unfortunately does not accomplish half as much as you would want it to. And if history doesn’t prove that lesson, then I don’t know what else to say. But that’s, anyway…
David French: That’s a good way of saying it on the slavery is that the Union Army could defeat slavery. The Union Army could not defeat bigotry.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. And it’s also a good test of just the limits of what a government can accomplish and why Christians political witness were very important is secondary to the witness of actually just living out our lives as Christians, including politics and eradicating that bigotry in our midst. I’m going to press my luck with a couple more questions. Your book says secession could come from either political party. That was part of what was so interesting to me, the two scenarios with different incentives for either political party in power to endorse it. It seems like Christians are often torn between genuine threats on both sides. One group says that woke professors are the greatest threat with a secular future and the other group says that Christians who give cover to racism and sexism are the biggest threat. David, what if they’re both right?
David French: Well, have you heard the term horseshoe theory, Collin?
Collin Hansen: Yes. I am familiar with it. Feel free to share it with the listener.
David French: Essentially, what it means is that two sides as they grow more extreme pull closer together. And so what the United States right now, it has an illiberal right and it has an illiberal left. And people who are on the right are often not all that familiar with the illiberalness of some of the people on their own side because they pay attention only to media that is heightening the illiberalism on their political opponents, and vice versa. And so one of the core aspects of my book is that, we do have this rising tide of illiberalism on the right and on the left that has to be opposed on the right and on left.
And what’s interesting, I think, about this is that, illiberalism on the right has to be opposed by people on the right. It thrives on opposition from the left. That’s what it wants. It’s seeking conflict with the left. Illiberalism on the left has to be countered by the left, because it thrives on conflict with the right. If you’re an illiberal progressive and Fox News is focusing on you, it’s Christmas for you. That’s good for you. If you’re an illiberal authoritarian right-winger and MSNBC and Rachel Maddow are piling on you, that’s your best day.
Collin Hansen: And it sells your books.
David French: Exactly. And so that’s why, actually, some of the most intense and vicious political conflict we have right now in the United States of America is red on red and blue on blue. If you’ve looked at some of the cancel culture stuff that’s really emerged on the left in the last, especially in the last several months, what you’ll often see is it’s a progressive group taking on a fellow progressive. What you see on the right is, you see an extraordinary effort often to stamp out voices that are not sufficiently supportive of the president. And-
Collin Hansen: Not that you have any experience with that.
David French: A little tiny bit of experience with that. And it often gets extremely personal, and vicious, and dangerous. And so that’s what we’re facing right now are these illiberal movements on the right and the left. And the reason why I said that you could have a secession scenario from the right or from the left is that both right and left have a narrative that’s based on a lot of things that have actually happened in this country, that says that these other people, if they get in charge are dangerous to me.
And not to imagine a scenario that could occur in the next few months, but as the… and I don’t think anything like this. I don’t think we’re going to face a constitutional crisis of this magnitude. But for the first time in my adult life, something is… like icebergs are foreseeable on the horizon. So let’s take this. Let’s imagine that because the polling indicates that more Republicans want to vote in person than vote by mail, more Democrats want to vote by mail than in person, takes longer often to count mail-in votes. Also polling indicates that only 23 percent of Republicans believe in the mail-in vote count.
Collin Hansen: I know where you’re going, and this is not making me happy.
David French: No. Nothing about this should make you happy. So imagine that Trump is leading in in-person voting after Election Day, and then the mail-in votes start to come in and the lead evaporates, disappears, and it flips over to Biden.
David French: Here’s the one that would cause the left to react in horror. We are already seeing that some states don’t seem to be quite prepared for the Russian mail-in votes. For example, New York City invalidated one out of every five mail-in ballots in its Imagine you have a narrow, apparent narrow victory of a Democrat in these key swing states, a strong, popular vote victory, which is presumed a narrow vote in swing states but then the mail-in ballots are… they’re a serial invalidation of mail-in ballots and then the president claims victory.
There would be an intense pressure on blue-state governors in core blue states to resist federal authority under that circumstance, intense. And these things are not… I don’t think they’re going to happen. So I just want to be very, very clear. I think the election will go off more smoothly than we fear. That’s my prediction. But these are easily foreseeable events right now in an atmosphere of incredible polarization and mutual hatred. And that’s destabilizing.
Collin Hansen: Well, what your book did is, it helped me to envision. I love studying the Civil War. So I’m thinking I’m running everything through an 1860 paradigm here and I’m thinking, “Well, the federal government would have a vested interest in every case of being able to preserve the union, until you realize that, wait a minute, one of the best possible things for a Republican president would be for California to no longer be part of the union. Wait a minute.”
I don’t know why that hadn’t really occurred to me before, but it really stood out of, huh, what if a Republican president just said, “Go for it. Good luck.” And now… I don’t want to get into further details, but the more you hear about Democrats wanting to add Supreme Court justices of making Washington, DC, a state, of making Puerto Rico a state. Those are destabilizing things that are not going to go over well in a lot of places.
David French: Well, one of the things we’ve sort of been blessed by in our country for a long time is, you kind of knew that when push came to shove, even if you didn’t like a president on the other side, that they were going to put country over party. There was going to be an intentional effort bottom line to put country over party. And I believe that of the vast majority of presidents in my… I believe that of the presidents in my lifetime, for example.
What negative polarization does in the extremism that it fosters, and what all of this mutual enmity and hatred begin to foster is, it begins to raise the question who puts country over party? And one of the things that was very sobering to me to read was General James Mattis’s assessment of the Trump administration where he said Trump intentionally, intentionally tries to divide this country. And no, he’s not naive. He knows that there’s such a thing as wedge issues that have been in politics from day one. Every political campaign has, “Hey, here’s an issue that 55 percent of people like that’s my issue and…” But he was meaning at a much more fundamental level. And that’s something that is, I think, quite alarming, but just to be clear, this is not a book about Trump.
Collin Hansen: No, it’s definitely not. No, that’s one thing that was… whatever happens with the election, this book will be just as relevant.
David French: Yes. That’s the intent.
Collin Hansen: That’s part of why I think it’s really helpful.
David French: Yeah. That’s the intent. I’m glad that you read it though.
Collin Hansen: Oh, it definitely is. And I think if some people know your history going back to 2016 to your writing since then, I can see why some people might think that, and especially because if people are complaining about division in this country, they might naturally just blame President Trump for that because he does seem to relish that division. But no, that is definitely not… that’s not how I took the book. It doesn’t stand out that way.
David French: Well, any serious study of polarization in the U.S. would not say that, “Oh, everything was fine until November 2016.” The reason-
Collin Hansen: It’s what gave us November 2016.
David French: Exactly. Exactly. And getting rid of Donald Trump doesn’t solve these underlying social and political dynamics that gave rise to the moment that we’re in.
Collin Hansen: Okay. One more substantial question then I’ve got a wrap up question. I’ll be quick. You’ve been on the front lines defending free speech by Christians on college campuses. You saw our cultural transformation. We haven’t gotten into this in any detail, but you’ve seen our cultural transformation coming well before some of those trends about free speech and declining rates of value on free speech and safe speech and all that before they hit the national level. Is there anything we haven’t covered here that’s a next trend you see on the horizon, either good or bad, that maybe a lot of people aren’t aware of yet?
David French: Well, what’s unfortunate is, I don’t see good trends right now. The one trend I am most worried about for the future of the country is the increasing trend to see… is to cast elections, not just in terms of… and to cast political disputes. Not just in terms of right and wrong, or even good or evil, as dangerous as that can be to mislabel good and evil, or to exaggerate a difference of opinion turning into… legitimate arguable differences in policy turned into battles of good and evil, but questions of am I safe or not.
And that’s the issue to me. And this is something that I talk about in the book in the section where I talk about the causes of secession in 1861. And this is not a book that is going to say that slavery wasn’t the cause of Civil War. Slavery was the cause of the Civil War. It’s not re-imagining the cause of the Civil War.
But why 1861? Now, we were deeply divided over slavery well before then. Why 1861? And the point that I make is that by 1861, an awful lot of people in the South were seized with a fear that people in the North wanted them dead.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. The post-John Brown effect.
David French: Post-John Brown. That they wanted them dead. And here’s what I would say. At the very least, even if you’re the most polarized partisan person in the world, resist the language of existential physical threat. And you’re seeing that language pop up increasingly. And watch for it. This is something that, for example, Tucker Carlson did recently when he was talking about the Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s not about black lives.” He says. And when they come for you, and they will, that’s the kind of communication conversation that I’m talking about in some of the things that you see on the liberal left where you will equate words with violence. Words with violence.
Well, if something violent is happening to you, Collin, aren’t you entitled to use violence in response? Isn’t that basic self-defense? And so that’s the trend that if I had to say would be… if you would start hearing the nail hammering into the coffin of a healthy American Republic, it would be the elevation to the threat to physical safety in American politics.
Collin Hansen: Okay. Let’s end on a more fun note. What’s the last great book you’ve read, David?
David French: The last great book that I’ve read?
Collin Hansen: First one that comes to mind.
David French: Okay. I’m going to say… Can I say reread?
Collin Hansen: Yeah, sure. That’ll work.
David French: Okay. Last month I reread The Silmarillion. Now, I’ve probably read that book 10 times. I’m the nerd’s nerd. I used to read Lord of the Rings every year.
Collin Hansen: Well, Tim Keller, if you’re out there listening, you’ll be happy.
David French: I would read Lord of the Rings every year, but I hadn’t read The Silmarillion in about 10 years. And I put that book down, a profoundly moved and sort of shaken. And I put that book down thinking that’s Tolkien’s best work. And I’m actually going to write about this on the like a slow news week, if we ever have one of those.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, good luck between now and November with that, David.
David French: But read it through the eyes of the inescapable fallenness of man, and just think in the utter inability of man to save himself. And at the same… Just read it through that lens and it just really hit me. And it hit me in this historical moment because the bottom line is, as we talk, and talk, and talk about this political measure or that political measure to knit together the fabric of this country, we ultimately can not save ourselves. We in our own strength cannot save this civilization. And so we have to rest in the sovereignty of God. Yes. Keep his command, seek justice as best as we can. But we ultimately have to rest in the sovereignty of God. And yeah… So anyway, I can’t even tell you how much rereading The Silmarillion both convicted me and blessed me.
Collin Hansen: A good word for people to take when they can read that alongside also reading David French’s new book, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation. David, thank you for taking so much time with me today on Gospelbound.
David French: I really, really enjoyed it. Thanks so much for having me.