Walk into just about any room in the United States and ask about the biggest challenges facing us today, and you’ll almost certainly hear people talk about divides: political, cultural, religious, racial, economic, educational, generational. In this episode, we talk with Emma Green, a journalist focused on religion and democracy, and David French, a political commentator and moderate evangelical who diverged from an increasingly extremist right.
Emma Green is a staff writer for The New Yorker, writing on cultural conflicts in academia. She previously was a staff writer for The Atlantic, covering politics, policy, and religion, and she served as the manager editor of the magazine's website. In 2019, Green won three first-place awards from the Religion News Association, and America magazine and the Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale recently named her the laureate of the 2020 George W. Hunt, S.J., Prize for Excellence in Journalism, Arts, & Letters. Emma has spoken at universities across the U.S., and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR. She lives in New York City.
David French is the author of four books, including The Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can't Ignore, Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War, and most recently Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation. He is a senior editor at The Dispatch and a columnist for Time, and a former major in the United States Army Reserve who served during the Iraq War.
Adam Davis: It is not only our relationship to the world that is indirect, but also our relationship to ourselves. We arrive at our own being only via the detour of ideas about it. Knowing of our mortality, we must live as a human being with a self-image that is by no means self-evident but is the tentative result of questioning and speculation. That's from Hans Jonas in an essay called “Tool, Image, and Grave.”
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Welcome to The Detour, a show about people and ideas. I'm Adam Davis. Today we're looking at divides with a capital D. You can walk into just about any room in the United States and ask about the biggest challenges facing us today, and you'll almost certainly hear people shake their heads about divides–political, cultural, religious, racial, economic, educational, generational. Each and all of these divides seem to be growing and festering and building atop one another. And putting our union at risk.
In 2008, Bill Bishop published a book called The Big Sort that helped identify and explain the phenomenon, but sort now seems like an understatement. These days, it feels more like the big fracture or the great divide. And this is what today's episode explores. When putting this episode together, two conversations from our Consider This program over the past couple of years came to mind: one with a journalist focused on religion and democracy, and another with a political commentator and moderate evangelical who diverged from an increasingly extremist right.
Emma Green came to the topic of divides as a journalist covering religion and its impact on politics. Emma and I spoke the day before President Biden's inauguration in 2021, which was just a few weeks after the January 6 insurrection. In this conversation, we look at how developments in religious belief and behavior correspond to a loss of shared values in the political sphere.
How does religion divide us? Can or should we count on religious participation as a way to guide political participation? Can religion help us be less divided? I spoke to Emma as part of our Consider This program in January 2021.
Adam Davis: So, you've used the phrase civil religion a couple of times, and that actually reminds me of political philosophy I studied a while ago, and people who talked often about the use of religion in civic context. And, you know, we hear the phrase separation of church and state a lot, but what you suggested is that's not a thing. Like people constantly draw on religious faith. It's not only something they do. It's something that's expected. Are these two things so enmeshed that they can't be separated, or is there a way to separate them? And now I'm starting to think of the question of identity, like how we identify.
Emma Green: I think the identity frame is a really, really powerful one. So this idea of a civil religion, it's almost a way of thinking about how to knit together a country of radically different people who have radically different beliefs, still with the same set of symbols and language and values. A sort of common forum that we can come together in. And when scholars talk about civil religion––that certainly is not my idea, I don't want to pass that off as a phrase that I came up with––when they talk about that idea, they're talking about, you know, language that's drawn from Christianity, you know, talking generally about a monotheistic God, but also some of these ideas of democracy and nation. It's sort of this shared forum that we can enter into together. And I think one of the aspects of this moment that I'm thinking about a lot is the loss of that shared language.
This idea that we don't have a common space to enter into anymore. It seems like it's harder and harder to enter into that space, where we can kind of agree, okay, we may be different, we may have different views on policy or different votes that we would cast on our ballot, but ultimately we're coming together and kind of agree about the basic principles of who we are.
I think that is a hard place to be as a country because when you can't agree on the basic principles of identity as a nation, values looking forward, and language to talk about the problems face us, it's really hard to do anything.
Adam Davis: So it's interesting to think about this idea. I mean, I think we're hearing from many places that we've lost this shared language and also shared sense of values. And then I think the question, the first question that comes to mind for me is, I think usually we're talking about that in a political sense, and then you see it culturally, too. I guess I heard in your comment that religion may be used to provide some of that and doesn't anymore. Which surprised me that you were implying that, so first, let me clarify. Is that what you're suggesting? That religion, even in this pluralistic religious country, used to be one of the things that provided shared language and shared values, but now that's drifting further apart?
Emma Green: I think that's certainly part of it. So, generally speaking, we don't know exactly how we religious America has been throughout all of its history because we didn't have polls back in 1776 and didn't have the same kind of social scientific tools. But when we look at the information we do have about that arc of American religiosity, we see that, taking for example, from the 1950s to today, the kinds of activities that would have been a common default in American communities are no longer taken for granted.
There's significantly more religious diversity, but also in terms of, you know, people going to church, because it was the obligatory, expected communal activity. People getting a basic education from their Catholic school or from their evangelical pastor. All of these kinds of default settings for American society that used to kind of rest in a sort of Christianity that everybody imbibed, even if they were Jewish or Muslim, you know, they all kind of imbibed this language.
That's not even a sort of basic language that people start from or speak from or want to engage in anymore. But I think it's even more than that. I think it's that that set of default settings going away has also coincided with a kind of pulling apart of a national identity––this idea that, Christianity aside, whatever you want to call it, we don't even share some of the basic premises about what it means to be a nation, one nation together under God, whatever that means. We don't even share the basic premises about what it means to operate in a pluralistic democracy. And one could argue that we never really shared those things, that there was never really a space where everyone was willing to come together and kumbaya, you know, do the hard work of politics in statesman-like way, that was always a fiction.
I think these sort of separate realities and separate languages that different groups in America live in—particularly in politics—make it really, really hard to look across to the other side and have any kind of understanding of what's going through those people's minds.
Adam Davis: Because you've been thinking about these two things together, that is, political affiliation and religious affiliation, do you see one of those as being more strongly determinative of who we are? Do we identify more strongly as either this or that, politically or religiously?
Emma Green: Yeah, it's such a great question. And it's one that I've done some reporting on, talking to scholars, looking at social scientific research. One of the things that's emerged among political scientists, especially trying to understand what partisanship looks like in the United States today, is this theory that partisanship has kind of become king of American identity. Certainly there are exceptions––people who would describe themselves as Jewish before they're a Democrat, Evangelical before there a Republican, you know, Christian before they're a conservative––whatever it may be. And a lot of people might talk about themselves that way.
And there are lots of indicators that the great sort that we see happening in so many aspects of American life really is happening along partisan lines. Political scientists have found that, for example, Republicans and Democrats are likely to drive different kinds of cars and listen to different kinds of music. Their favorite television shows tend to sort out by partisan affiliation. There was one study that I saw that even suggested that kids' names, the types of kids' names that Republicans or Democrats choose are different. All of this to me is so interesting because it's not just––I have a different view on climate change than this Republican, or I have a different view on abortion than this Democrat––these sort of hard policy issues that divide us. It's actually the way that we're consuming culture, the things that we like, our tastes, who we surround ourselves with, the friends we pick out, the preschools that we send our children to. And that to me is just so potent because it suggests that, for people who are really enmeshed in those networks and circles, there's very little way to shake yourself out of that, it's really all-consuming.
Adam Davis: But it's interesting to think that politics might have a deeper hold on us than, say, faith, which is what it sounds like you're suggesting––that the studies you've looked at are suggesting as well––but politics, not because it's simply those policy positions, but because politics is so hard to separate from a whole set of other ways of living daily in the world.
So maybe I can push a little bit here. I'm going to caricature both politics and religion maybe for a minute. And that is to think like, especially democratic politics, that the call of faith seems like it's a deep, authoritative call. The call of democratic politics seems to be a little bit like, there's a whole bunch of voices out here, we think it's good for them all to be in play. Therefore, we're going to commit on an intellectual level to that. So how is it that something like that less authoritative call could displace the more authoritative call of faith?
Emma Green: That's a really big question. I think, first, this question that you brought up of identity and the way that our sense of who we are informs our choices and how we present ourselves is really, really powerful. And when you're talking about, not just, what are the big principles that I believe, what do I believe about life, death and the meaning of existence, which you might say is the province of religion for a lot of people, but also who are my people, right? Who's my tribe? I think there's a lot of evidence that for many people in America, that tribe question is increasingly political.
And I think that goes back to all of the things I was talking about, the way that we sort of sort ourselves and live our lives based on these artisan factors that sort of put us in these different buckets. One of my favorite research stats or study stats, the Atlantic did a partnership with the Public Religion Research Institute and re-asked a question that had been asked in a 1950 study, which was asking parents to say whether or not they would be upset if their child married someone of the opposite political party. And compared to the 1950s, I can't remember the numbers quite off the top of my head. I think it was something like a quarter of Republicans and 35 percent of Democrats, something like that.
But compared to the 1950s, that had really gone up. That's a lot of people saying, you know, I don't care if they're Muslim or Sikh or Jewish or Christian or whatever. I don't care if they’re an atheist. But if you marry a Republican, you're out, that's the end. To me, that's a really powerful illustration of this idea of, this is who we are, and this is who we're not. And you can bring anybody into who we are, but we're drawing a hard boundary around politics. Certainly for some people, religion is tribe, but I think the other part of it is that religion has become intermingled with political identity, both on the left and the right. On the left, that's often for people of no religion and of no faith or of no affiliation, often sort of politics comes to take some of those functions and space. I think on the right, you see a lot of religious groups that are very intermingled with political identity. So yes, religion also might be that sense of tribe, but I think politics also seeps in there.
Adam Davis: You know, that's funny because that sounds, to me, maybe this is idiosyncratic, but it sounds kind of hopeful, even though what you're describing feels like something we lament all the time. But what feels hopeful to me about it is, it feels like politics is or could be less of a given. That is, political identity seems like something that has less to do with where you're born and what you inherit and is something that you could say, well, this is where, this is a set of values that I have, and therefore I'm going to vote in this way. That doesn't seem like how it shakes out. I mean, there's geography that suggests we identify politically the way we root for sports teams, but in a way it would seem like, great if we can decide where we want to be politically, it seems kind of fluid in a hopeful way, which again, surprises me to hear because the way things feel now is like, they're actually getting less and less changeable and more and more rooted in other factors. Can I, maybe I want to push from this to a piece of your quite recent. January 8, you wrote a piece for the Atlantic titled “A Christian Insurrection,” which puts politics and religion squarely together. Can I just ask about that as an example of what we're talking about? How was that not a political insurrection first and foremost, but a Christian insurrection?
Emma Green: I think, this moment that we're in is full of abstraction. It often happens on social media or in the province of television news, cable news, MSNBC, or Fox News, or, you know, some that are even more out there on the conservative side. These ideas that we have about who we are and what's happening are often not grounded in fact, or actual, tangible relationships.
And they're often not built on this idea of mutual responsibility, built over time. And I think that's a really important factor here, that there were all these people coming together, but it wasn't really like one church was going to demonstrate the Jericho March. Right? It's a lot of different kinds of people who are united largely in believing conspiracy theories that are spread on the internet.
So the thing about religion that I think can be so powerful as a frame, even for people who don't want to be part of a church or a synagogue or mosque, who don't believe in God or a higher power, don't want to spend their Saturday or Sunday doing that, I think there's a lesson there that's still universal or useful, which is, having actual relationships with real human beings who are your neighbors, or at least live kind of close to you, who can engage with you in ways that are not about partisan politics, who can walk through the moments of life that really form us, which are by the way, not really political events, they're births and deaths and weddings and illnesses and celebrations of victories and work and whatever. That's the stuff of life and the stuff of community. And I think ultimately it's grounding because when you have those relationships with real human beings, it's much, much harder to look at someone and accuse them of being, you know, a pedophile, based on a conspiracy theory that you saw on the internet. Right? It's much harder to accuse them of sort of nefarious acts or subscribing to a really extreme political ideology that you've come to sort of see as a caricature of the other side. And so in that way, I do find hope, especially as we are looking to a post-pandemic moment, I hope that we will turn back to that instinct in American life, which is religious, but also beyond religious, it's civic. This is the stuff of our civic life, and I'm very excited to get back to writing about people doing that kind of life.
Adam Davis: In 2020, Emma wrote a deeply researched piece for the Atlantic about a deliberately self-contained community, built by members of a conservative Catholic group in rural Kansas. As Emma puts it in her essay, “The newcomers made the radical choice to uproot their lives in pursuit of an ideological sanctuary, a place where they can raise their children according to values no longer common in mainstream America.”
It felt useful to look at this endeavor to create a small, isolated, homogenous community outside, and to some extent free from, the divides roiling our larger national community.
Emma Green: That little story to me is really, really powerful because on the one hand, I think there's a real case to be made that, you know, St. Mary's is certainly not for everyone in America. A lot of people would not want to go there. A lot of American Catholics would not want to go and live like that. But, you know, there's an argument to be made that if we all had our little St. Mary's, maybe we wouldn't care so much about national politics and who's becoming president and trying to win over the entire culture in our image, to dominate it, right?
If we had local communities of concern that were really robust and felt like that was the place to really invest, you know, I think that can be really fulsome for people. And I think there's a real question here about the role that exposure to difference and others plays as a value in American life, helping us build the habit of being in strong disagreement, but respectful disagreement, with people who are different from us.
And certainly, I think there's a lot of danger too, in these models of sort of battening down the hatches with people who are like you, because often that involves racial politics, of reinforcing the Whiteness of a certain type of community and excluding people of color. Often it can either feed from or grow a certain type of grievance politics, which I think can be really potent and feed right back into that culture war, and you know, I'm sort of setting that aside from the St Mary's example. But I think this is a really tough question, but certainly I think those experiments are worth looking at, because they're provocative for this moment that we're at in American life.
Adam Davis: Emma Green is now a staff writer at the New Yorker.
At what point do divides become something more serious, something like civil war? How can we recognize these differences between us without treating each other as though these differences are the most important thing about us? In a cultural moment characterized by so little trust, in each other and in institutions, how can we rebuild or build our orientation toward one another and the country we share?
David French is a writer and political commentator. He's also an evangelical Christian, military veteran, and former attorney. In everything he's written and done, he's demonstrated a high degree of political courage, and he and his family have borne the consequences of his resolute commitment to what he sees as core principles for the United States Constitution.
In 2020, David published a book called Divided We Fall. And this is what motivated our conversation with David for our Consider This series in February 2021.
David French: I've been working and talking with a lot of people who've done a lot of conflict resolution and study of conflict in the developing world, and people who specialize in trying to resolve civil wars. You know, Lebanon, for example, or thinking about Iraq or Syria. And some of these individuals have now started to turn their gaze towards the United States because they're seeing some of the dysfunctions, in the United States, that they've seen overseas in countries that have been, uh, struggled with actual violent division. And I was talking to one individual, she's a scholar of radicalization and overseas conflict. And she's spending more time talking about the US, and we were talking about my experience and the attacks and threats that I've endured, my wife has endured, that my kids, especially my youngest daughter has endured, since we opposed Donald Trump. And I was walking her through it, and she said, oh, yes, of course, in a revolutionary environment, the first target is the in-group dissenter, or what she would call the in-group moderate.
So in other words, if you're going to sort of gird your loins for combat, so to speak, you need to make sure that your team is a unified force. And dissent within your side, therefore becomes seen as, especially as you're escalating your political conflict, dissent within your side isn't disagreement, it's betrayal.
So you're always going to have more fury for the traitor than you are for the enemy. And so that, that sense of treason or betrayal to your own side creates a level of vitriol that can get very, very dangerous.
Adam Davis: What does that feel like, for you?
David French: That's horrible. It's horrible. I mean, you know, and the thing is, the temptation is to say, oh, it doesn't bother me, you know? Cause you want to sort of present this front to the world that says, you people who have––for example, my youngest daughter is African-American, and in 2015, when she was only seven years old, photoshopped her face into gas chambers online. Photoshopped her face into slave fields, like old photographs of slaves. And you say, that's horrible. That's evil. That is, you know, I'm just so thankful that she didn't see all of that in real time. And then it escalated, you know, actual threats against my wife, hacking into phone calls between my wife and her father, death threats, Cesar Sayoc, the guy who sent bombs to a lot of Trump opponents, searched my home address.
I mean, I could just keep going and going on these things, and it's terrible. I mean, there's no way of saying, oh yeah, this doesn't bother me. That would be weird to say that. So, yeah, but at the same time, it redoubles my commitment to facing these forces that are just, they're just evil. I mean, there's no other word around that sort of element of the right-wing fringe. It's just evil. It might be miserable to endure, but it redoubles your conviction to face it.
Adam Davis: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting––first of all, it's more than interesting. It's sad and it's enraging to hear that. And so I just want to take a moment and not move past that too fast, and I know it's continuing, and I suspect that the courage it takes to speak about this from the right is more than I can imagine, because it's not going away. I still want to push into it and ask a little bit about the very last thing you just said was, they're just evil. And in a way, the thing about that phrase that I want to stick with a little bit, is it seems like that's getting said, without cause, much more than it used to be. And when I say without cause, I mean with a great deal of conviction, but without the kind of pattern of evidence that you just talked about. So why is that, do you think? Why is it that on both sides or multiple sides, we seem so much readier now to say, they're just evil?
David French: Well, there's a long complicated answer to that. And that's a word I use advisedly. I do not use that word to describe people I disagree with. Even people I disagree with on really important issues, on issues that are matters of war and peace, matters of life and death, matters of eternal significance, religious disagreements. I don't use that word to describe people unless there is a pattern not just of disagreement with me, but of cruelty and malice, that is obvious.
And again, disagreement is not cruelty. Disagreement is not malice. You know, so there's a couple of things that are happening, and this is an ideal platform to talk about it, 'cause you're coming to me from Portland, which is pretty darn blue. I'm talking to you from Franklin, Tennessee, which is pretty darn red. Is Portland Multnomah County?
Adam Davis: It is, yeah.
David French: Okay. So you're in Multnomah County. I'm in Williamson County. Williamson County is what's called a landslide county. And I'm sure Multnomah County is too, which is, one party or the other wins in a presidential race by twenty points or more.
Adam Davis: Yeah.
David French: And so this is part of the big sort, you know, blue folks living in like-minded communities. Red folks, living in like-minded communities, and what my book talks about, and this is a very important concept, and that is that when like-minded people gather, they tend to become more extreme. So when there's no sort of check on the group dynamic and the group momentum propelling you in one direction, you just go. And this comes from a paper from Cass Sunstein in 1999, I believe. And he uses some examples. And for example, like, let's say everyone in the room disagrees with gun control and supports second amendment, broader gun rights. If you don't have somebody who supports gun control in that room, you're going to deal with straw man arguments. You're going to be mutually reinforcing and sort of have that sense of fellowship that you have with people of shared point of view. And you're willing to walk out of that room, not just more committed to gun rights, you might go buy another gun, you know, I mean, you're going to be really enthused. Just like if you're in a group of people who are committed to gun control, and you're going to be more, and you don't have somebody who's dissenting, who might say, hey, this policy provision that you really, really like, it may not have the effects that you want, and then you're going to be absolutely committed, and you're going to be more convinced that you're correct. And you can do this across issue after issue after issue. And what Sunstein found was that it can be so powerful, this group dynamic, that at the end of a deliberation, an entire group can be more radical than the most radical person at the start of the deliberation.
So this is like a cascade, the whole group. And the interesting thing is you see this playing out in a lot of the social science in the polling around issues that we, we used to have this bell curve that described American ideologies, this big middle, and these small extremes. And it's flattening and flattening and flattening, to the point we have bigger and bigger and bigger edges.
And so what ends up happening as a result of this big sort is we become more separate from each other in our views and less apt to understand each other. And so that means if I don't understand where you're coming from, and I don't hear your view, and when I do hear it, what am I? I'm far more likely to ascribe your point of view to ignorance, to malice, to perhaps even outright cruelty, than if I understand it and know you.
Adam Davis: So then, and I think the term that Sunstein uses is cascade effects.
David French: Yeah.
Adam Davis: So you take pre-deliberation tendencies, as you laid that out, and then cascade effects and boom, we're further apart than we were when we came into the room. So what explains you? Why is it that you, I believe you identify as an evangelical Christian and a conservative, and you feel like, in some ways, it sounds like you're almost moving closer to the middle rather than to the edge you have just talked about. How does that happen for you?
David French: Well, the first part of this story is not a good look for me. Okay. So I'm going to say something that's just not good about me, and what changed. Okay. So I grew up pretty, my parents were McGovern Democrats, but from early in life, I was a, not just a Republican, I was a pretty partisan Republican. I was a Reagan Republican. I was the first thing, the first club I joined in college in 1988 was the college Republicans. So I was a pretty partisan Republican. I also a civil libertarian. So I defended free speech rights across the political spectrum and due process rights across the political spectrum and did that for years and years and years.
But I was a partisan Republican and had had a, particularly when I was in law school in the early nineties, some pretty negative experiences with sort of far-left intolerance. And so I really was highly motivated. It wasn't like I treated people, you know, I tried to treat people well, but it was pretty darn partisan.
So I gave a speech. I had enlisted in the military as an older guy. I was thirty-six when I went to officer basic training and volunteered to go to Iraq. I had this sense that I couldn't, in good conscience, support the Iraq war without volunteering to serve in the Iraq War. And so my wife agreed that I should do this. And so I joined the military as an older guy and went, and that's a whole funny story, how people called me professor in basic training. So I gave a speech, and I'm embarrassed about this speech to this day, and people asked me, hey David––I was also a first amendment attorney, representing a lot of mainly conservatives who are facing problems on campus––and they said, why would you go to Iraq when you’re doing some work we like here. This was to a conservative audience. And I said, these words, I said, I believe the two greatest threats to the United States are the radical left at home and jihadists abroad, and I feel called to combat both. And I, you know, cheers. Yay. You know, I mean, like that's like checking off all the boxes in conservative world. So I go to Iraq and––with a third armored cavalry regiment and, and I was a JAG officer, but I was, so I wasn't like the guy breaking down the doors, but I was outside the wire a ton, and I was up close and personal to a year, in a year-long deployment, that was very difficult in the heart of the surge where we lost a lot of guys. It was very hard. And I saw, this was the precursor of the Islamic state. They were already transitioning from the Al Qaeda in Iraq to the Islamic state. They were trying to set up a caliphate in Eastern Iraq in Diyala province. And it was brutal. It was brutal. It was everything that you saw with the rise of ISIS in 2014, 2015, but it was in 2007, 2008, without all these viral videos and all of that. It was horrible. And I remember two things. One was, I felt ashamed. Like, I had lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I taught at Cornell Law School in Ithaca that had had a socialist mayor at the time, if I remember correctly. I'd lived in midtown Manhattan my first year of marriage, working at a big firm that was overwhelmingly lef, you know, the partners and lawyers were overwhelmingly on the left. And I had a good life. You know, even though I had had negative experiences with the far left in law school, law school were three of the best years of my life. My son was born in Ithaca. I had friends and family in midtown Manhattan, in center city Philly, where I worked for a civil liberties nonprofit. But in Iraq, if the Islamic state was in control of a city, I would not just not have a good life, I wouldn't be alive. You know what I mean? This, and so I realized that it was just foolish and wrong for me to equate a political opponent whose ideas I opposed, and an enemy who would rather see me dead than alive. And I felt ashamed of the distinction. And so, and then the other thing that I began to notice when I was in Iraq was that the nature of the civil conflict, it wasn't so much rooted in disagreement over big ideas, even though there were differences in ideas between Shia and Sunni. It wasn't even rooted in different policies, even though there are different policies between Shia and Sunni. It was rooted in deep grievances and anger: the Shia killed my uncle, the Sunni killed my cousin. And so then I come home, and I feel ashamed at the sheer level of partisanship that I had and deeply alarmed that you can have hatred based not so much in policy differences as in sort of grievances.
And then I come home and all of a sudden I'm seeing a country where that feeling of animosity between right and left was growing, and the sense of grievance between right and left was growing. Like right and left have policy differences.
Adam Davis: Sure.
David French: But to have deep grievances, I mean, consider this: You know, on one of the more important policy issues in present-day America, the outgoing president who tried to launch an insurrection to preserve his power and the incoming president had the same policy. They wanted $2,000 checks into every American pocket. And that's a big deal. Like that's a big policy. That's hundreds of billions of dollars. But one was still willing to try to disrupt the entire constitutional system to stay in power. So I began to see a huge amount of grievance and at the same time I was feeling a deep sense that we have to see each other as fellow citizens and not––and yes, ideological opponents, sure. Fellow citizens, fellow human beings created in an image of God? Yes, absolutely mandatory. And that there is a giant difference between an opponent and an enemy.
Adam Davis: The more you're talking, the more I'm thinking about how interwoven religious language and political language seem to be. I feel both the strength of that and the challenge of that.
David French: The danger of it.
Adam Davis: The danger of it, is a stronger way to put it. Especially because you're talking a lot about rights. And when I think about rights, I think about individuals, again, individual rights, individual freedoms, which feels quite different as a structure and as a motivator, than, say, what's going on as a structure and a motivator on the religious side, which seems to me to be not about the individual principally. So I want to ask for you, how has it that you thread those two so closely together and feel like you're not moving into the realm that you just described as possibly dangerous?
David French: So as a Christian, a danger––and it's even a danger so severe that somebody would even compare it to idolatry––would be holding a political view, holding a political position with religious intensity or placing a level of faith in a politician that should only be placed in God. So in other words, where your political convictions and your personal allegiances become comparable to, or even exceeding those of your theological convictions, and the object of your faith. And so I think the holding of political views with religious intensity is an increasing issue on the left and on the right.
Adam Davis: Can I stop you there and ask why? Why is it that politics has displaced other forms of allegiance in intensity and in identity?
David French: Well number one, I mean, when I say that, I don't want to denigrate politics, because politics is important. It's important. What politics, how politics can achieve justice or create injustice––these things are very, very important. So it is, even properly viewed in its particular context, it's important. Number two, though, it also connects you with other human beings in a way that can provide its own level of almost––there's this phrase, the ecstasy of crowds, that this sort of energy and meaning and purpose that can be generated through mass collective activity. And so politics can often fill a void in community. It can fill a void in friendship, because the people, not just a larger community of, I'm a Democrat or I'm a Republican, but the precise friendship, you know, I'm bonded to the volunteer I worked with on this campaign. And so it can provide community, it can provide relationship, it can provide purpose, and it can provide transcendence through that sort of, the ecstasy-of-the-crowd phenomenon.
Adam Davis: There have been periods in my life when politics has not seemed like something you wake up and can't help but think about. And often the lament during those periods is apathy and disengagement. There are a lot of problems right now, but one thing that doesn't seem to be a problem is engagement. And so I kind of want to ask, you say in the book, you talk about ––now again, written before we got to the fall and the early winter––but you say turbulence is not the same as a plane going down. It's not the same as the Flight 93 argument.
David French: Right.
Adam Davis: And so, someone like Martin Luther King, who also threads religion and politics together, talks about creative tension and the importance of creative tension. I guess I want to ask, do you have a sense of like, what's the right level of tension? What's the right level of engagement that doesn't spill over, and how do you get there and maintain it?
David French: Well, the hardest, one of the hardest things to achieve in political life is a sense of perspective and proportion. So there are times when politics and the political dispute at issue is of life and death importance. So for example, if you're a Black American, and you're confronting Jim Crow, that is sort of the archetype of the domestic political issue that is absolutely vital.
How vital of importance was it that the civil rights of Black Americans was the thing that split America to pieces, in 1861 to 1865. And we almost fought again after the election of 1876, and it wasn't until Black Americans were thrown overboard yet again, and reconstruction kind of really abandoned that, and so you had this situation where, think about the level of injustice that politics had visited upon Black Americans. And so think about the necessity of politics to alleviate that injustice. So that's sort of your archetype of politics as meaningful. Overseas, you know, those are your decisions of war and peace. And he or she who makes that decision can impact lives at the scale of millions.
So that's your archetype of where, absolutely, it's important. Where I have begun to get incredibly alarmed is how we are now often beginning to use language and ascribe importance of political disputes at a level far out of proportion to the actual importance of the conflict. The perfect example is the Flight 93 argument made between, in the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaign. And the Flight 93 argument for those viewers who don't know it, or were blessed enough not to read the essay, essentially, the argument was that if Hillary Clinton wins, America is over. Not might be over, not is going to drift in a negative direction politically. Is over. That the plane will crash. And so therefore you have to storm the cockpit with Donald Trump. And that's where I use my turbulence analogy. But what if the plane isn't hijacked, what if the plane is going through turbulence, and you storm the cockpit anyway? And so, a big part of our political culture right now is, the necessity of reforming our political culture, is being able to match your emotion to the moment or match your commitment to the importance of the moment.
And there are two kinds of things that I have written that get the most pushback, because right now our––just to refer to sort of the movie Spinal Tap––most of our political discourse keeps going to eleven. It's like everything on the volume dial goes to eleven, but there are two kinds of things that I've written in the past five years that get the most angry pushback. One of course is anything against Trump. And the other one is anything that I say that a, an issue is a problem and not a crisis, because I think the fear is if you don't cast it as a crisis, then you run into apathy. But the problem is if you cast things as a crisis, then often you have the wrong kind of conviction in engagement.
Adam Davis: The work we've been doing out here at Oregon Humanities, I think, is to try to get people connecting across differences, not as crisis response, not in crisis response mode, but to decrease the likelihood of a crisis, and to make it more likely that when a crisis hits there's trust. And there's some relationships and some practice of connecting with people who are different.
I guess I want to ask about what you see as the ways to get people engaged without yelling crisis all the time, or without saying, what you think is a crisis, I think is only a problem. In other words, I'm starting to push from the sense of threat to the reform part.
David French: Well, for one thing, not everybody has to be engaged about all things. So sometimes we sort of look at engagement as a value by itself, even if the engagement is not informed engagement. Just to take one example, so in a diverse nation where people aren't just diverse on all of the markers like race and ethnicity and sexual orientation and gender identity and all of these different ways in which we're different, we're also diverse in our interests. We're diverse in the things that we care about, the things that we're knowledgeable about. And one of the functions of a sort of a healthy body politic is the people, for example, who care about the school board are engaged with the school board, versus the people who care about the urban planning of the downtown are engaged with the urban planning of the downtown.
And one of the disadvantages of being sort of in the pundit slash commentator field is people think that I have an opinion on everything, you know. I mean, I have opinions on some things that are so ill-informed, you don't want to hear my opinion. And then there are some things I don't have an opinion on, and I'm, and God bless those people who do, who are engaged and informed and go do that work.
So my issue is I don't look at mass engagement as the goal. I look at informed and reasonable engagement as a goal. And I think that's a more important goal than mass engagement. The problem with the crisis mentality is people are looking at mass engagement, sort of this test of strength, as the goal, even at the expense of positively misinforming people to get the engagement.
Well, I mean, I've written this many times that I believe that human beings need forgiveness like we need air. That it is so difficult to just, to even live in the world without forgiveness, because we're all imperfect. You know, we all make mistakes, even if you have some of the best intentions in the world. I've seen well-intentioned catastrophic mistakes. And then we don't always have great intentions. And so I think that we human beings need forgiveness. We absolutely need forgiveness. It is very difficult to keep together just sort of a, just on a basic human level, it's very difficult to keep together a family without forgiveness. It's hard to keep together a civic association, a club, a sports team. I mean, you name it. It's just hard to do without forgiveness. And one of the things that is most vexing to me about our current cultural trends is we seem to be aiming toward denying people forgiveness more than granting them forgiveness. And we had this conversation on our podcast, our Dispatch podcast, because all of us over at The Dispatch have critiqued Trump pretty strongly and faced various degrees of pretty ridiculously intense blowback.
And so we had this discussion about, what happens if somebody says they're sorry, you know? And what if they, you know, not, let’s just leave it from the standpoint of somebody who didn't threaten you, but somebody who just was malicious and cruel in uncharitable and vicious.
And the point that I made is, my basic view is if somebody is going to say they're sorry, my basic view is I'm going to say, I forgive you. And if somebody wants to join with me, even after years or weeks and months of being what I would deem part of the problem, then I want to say, welcome, brother. And I use a religious, I've used a religious comparison, if anyone is watching who's been a part of a church that has an altar call, like a lot of churches at the very end of church, they'll have an altar call. And they'll say, if any of you has sinned and seeks repentance, please come forward. And people will come forward, often very emotionally, and pray for forgiveness, and people will pray with them.
And in all the years that I've been in churches where people have an altar call, and someone comes forward, let's say somebody has come forward, and you know that they've been involved in some bad stuff. What I've never seen is somebody take a rolled-up church bulletin and then smack them on the back of the head when they were coming forward and saying, you should have done that a year ago! Instead, people embrace them, and they say, welcome. Now that doesn't mean you immediately put that person in charge of the church, you know, it might mean you have some wisdom that you engage in with how much you trust them going forward. But the actual, the actual operation of forgiveness is, should be, in my view, if you believe it and perceive it to be sincere, is that that forgiveness is just necessary. It's just necessary. And what's very sad to me is, what we have as a world now, where often somebody can say, I'm sorry, and then just be immediately dogpiled for not having done it earlier, or having been wrong in the first place. And what that does is it deters apologies. Like, why would I apologize? If it's just going to be, if all that means is I'm then going to be taken as admitting wrongdoing, and then I'm going to receive the punishment for which I am due, allegedly, according to sort of the mentality of the online world, you're going to really deter it. But if, instead you say, if somebody says, I'm sorry, and the response is, I forgive you, what are you going to do? You're going to incentivize forgiveness.
Adam Davis: I feel like the challenge is sort of accountability and maybe even justice on one hand. And forgiveness or mercy on the other. And that's––it's a tough one.
David French: It's not easy. Because justice is important, especially when you're talking––justice is in many ways––justice is a form of kindness. Like an unjust society is a society that's often cruel and malicious and vindictive. You know, and I talk about in the book, I mean, there's this scripture, Micah 6:8 that I think is one of the more beautiful scriptures in the Bible that says, what does the Lord require of you, oh man, what is good? And it says, to act justly––so justice is important––to love kindness, which depending on the translation, love mercy or love kindness.
So kindness is vital. And then here's the last prong, to walk humbly before the Lord, your God. And that to me, those three interlocking obligations are so potent because harmonizing justice and mercy is difficult. You have to be humble as you approach that challenge. And I have found that some of the most disarming words in the English language, let's say you're walking into a tough conversation, hard conversation, about racial justice, ameliorating the effects of, for example, the 345 years of violently enforced racial discrimination in the United States, violently protected and judicially enforced racial discrimination in the US. And you're trying to unring that bell as much as you can. I've found that just walking in and saying, I want to achieve a just result and figuring out how to do it is hard. It's hard. And I want to hear from all those who share that goal, because it's hard, and I don't have all the answers. And what I found is that, especially if you're walking in from a standpoint of someone who's being perceived as sort of part of the know-it-all class of America, I think that can be, it's very disarming, and it immediately builds a sense of fellowship because if you walk into a super difficult situation with a posture of humility, that is so counter-cultural these days, it's so counter-cultural that it can be immediately disarming.
Adam Davis: David is the editor at thedispatch.com
You can watch or listen to both conversations in their entirety in our show notes at oregonhumanities.org, where you'll also find suggested readings related to today's show picked by Oregon Humanities staff. You can support the show by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts, or by sharing it with a friend. We'd be really grateful.
The Detour is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. I'm Adam Davis. Keiren Bond is our producer. Our editor and engineer is Dave Friedlander. Our assistant producers are Karina Briski, Alexandra Powell Bugden, and Ben Waterhouse. Thanks for being with us. See you next time.