American Conservatism, Past, Present, and Future: A Conversation with David French

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

David French is a senior writer for National Review. A senior fellow at the National Review Institute, an attorney concentrating its practice in constitutional law, and the law of armed conflict, and a veteran of Operation Iraq Freedom. He’s the author or co-author of several books, including most recently, the number one New York Times bestselling, Rise of Isis, A Threat We Can’t Ignore. He’s a graduate of Harvard Law School, the past president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and a former lecturer at Cornell Law School. He lives and works in Columbus, Tennessee with his wife, who is also a New York Times bestselling author, and their children. David French, welcome to Thinking in Public.

David, I think it might be helpful, to begin with, something of a topography of conservative thought in the United States. I say that I guess, the background of the fact that if you were to go back to the early decades of the 20th century, there really wasn’t much conversation about conservative thought, much conversation about a conservative mind.

Albert Mohler:   All that began to change, especially in the period after world war II. You are right now sitting at something of the epicenter of that development. Layout a bit of the topography for us.

David French:     Yeah, you know, I think that a lot of people would say that the development of sort of this coherent idea of a conservative movement, of a general consensus of what conservatism meant really, you know, and I’m of course biased in favor of the founder of our magazine at National Review, William F. Buckley Jr, but it really did, I believe, begin around him and around the intellectual efforts that he began. You know, broadly, you know there was this sort of, it developed through many years into by the Obama era, I think kind of a broad consensus, variations with issues of course, and disagreements about any given individual policy. There’s this, kind of this broad agreement that there were like these three legs of the Regan conservative stool.

David French:     Would be that it was cultural conservatism. There was national security conservatism, and then there was economic conservatism. Those sort of three elements together, when blended together, that was when you thought of conservatism in the United States, that was it. Now, there’s been a lot of … there was also debate about that, right? There was also discussion about any one of those three legs and always has been and always will be a discussion about that. Much more so now then, you know, even a few years ago. When you’re talking about the conservative movement in general, and when you’re talking about the conservative intellectual movement in general, I tend to think of it … and look, I’m not a historian of the right.

David French:     You know, my colleague Jonah Goldberg is probably, if he’s listening to this podcast, is already tearing his hair out at the way I’ve just kind of mushed everything together. When I have long thought of the conservative movement, I’ve kind of thought of those three legs of that stool. You know, but a lot of that is up for grabs now. A lot of that is a matter of debate now. Some of the smarter people who look at conservatism, actually draw a distinction between what they call the right and conservatism.

Albert Mohler:   Which Buckley did, as a matter of fact at some points in making his argument for a conservative movement. He sometimes identified himself as a man of the right early on because the word conservative wasn’t even really well defined at the midpoint of the 20th century. It took several landmark developments, arguments, books and events to help define that. Part of this was because if you were to go back to that period, conservatism is basically defined, or the right, in opposition to liberalism. It really wasn’t understood as an argument that liberalism was responding to, but rather the other way around.

David French:     Right. I mean, conservatism is not a word that defines itself. There’s a lot of, you know, there’s some interesting conversation now as to whether we should start reclaiming the word liberalism, itself. Liberalism as a system of government is now under … or a phrase that some people tend to use like classical liberalism. That we should reclaim the word liberalism itself, that the concept in the defense of the liberal idea of government is under threat. Which is different from sort of the liberal-conservative divide, traditionally in American politics.

Albert Mohler:   Right.

David French:     But, yes. I mean, the word conservative is not self-defining. It could mean everything just from simply resisting change, or it often became meaning opposed to the left. You know, I would say during the Obama administration, if you would’ve asked your average conservative, what is it that conservatives believe? There would have been a pretty considerable consensus.

Albert Mohler:   Absolutely. Kind of going back to your conversation about the word liberal. I’m not very sanguine or positive about trying to reclaim that word too much because I think the more contemporary politicized definition of liberal has been drilled so deeply into the culture. I think of the fact that no less than Herbert Hoover tried to recapture the word liberal in a conservative sense, meaning classical liberty, and classical liberal thought concerning freedom. But, that didn’t work too well for Herbert Hoover. I think it’s probably more problematic now than then.

David French:     Yes. I mean, it’s just a fact that the meaning of words changes over time. As much as historians can say, wait, hold on, there’s a definition of the word liberal here that we can really reclaim and would be really useful, I would agree with you, I think that ship has kind of sailed.

Albert Mohler:   If I could speak about conservatism for just a moment, this is kind of my own lifetime. These dates will predate my own chronology, but then I catch up pretty fast. If I’m looking at the modern conservative movement, I think of William F. Buckley Jr, and his blockbuster of a book published in 1951, God and Man at Yale. And then, emerging out of that, came eventually a national review in 1955. But, I want to throw in the date 1953, between those two developments because that’s when Russell Kirk’s book, The Conservative Mind was published, which was based upon his doctoral work at the University of Saint Andrews.

Albert Mohler:   Russell Kirk, who was a friend and colleague, originally a part of the team, sort of speak at National Review, Kirk really resuscitated the idea of a conservative intellectual tradition that was greater than, say just a conservative disposition. I think that’s what people generally thought when they heard the word conservative. They thought of a disposition. But, Kirk went back and really did an incredibly effective job and by the way, The Conservative Mind … I did a Thinking in Public with Bradley Birzer, who wrote a great biography of Kirk. I think we forget that The Conservative Mind was a massive bestseller in the 1950’s. It was making an argument that was revolutionary at the time.

David French:     Right. Well, you know, one longs for the day, well, when a conservative intellectual work can be a massive bestseller. But, yeah, you know, I think that there was a real opportunity by the 1950’s for the conservative intellectual tradition to assert itself. The opportunity, I think, was presented by the fact that there was too much of a consensus. There was sort of too much complacency on the part of the left, or you know, for lack of a better term, sort of the statist view of government.

David French:     There was an awful, after all of these years, after all the Roosevelt years, after world war II, there was a sense on some people that kind of the intellectual battle over the role of government and public life, and individual liberty had been fought, and it was sort of over. But, it wasn’t over. It hadn’t yet, entirely been fought. And so, there was a real opportunity at that time for alternative views. There was a vacuum of alternative views. I think that you know, Kirk’s book, and Buckley’s work, and the National Review filled that vacuum.

Albert Mohler:   It was a vacuum that it also requires a bit of an autopsy here. We may be mixing metaphors, but nonetheless, we have to go back and ask, how could such a vacuum exist? This is where people like Kirk made the argument that liberalism, I mean part as in liberalism, a progressivist understanding. Take Woodrow Wilson and his progressivist understanding of government, and you use the word statism and even an early version of a call for a living constitution. You take that and Kirk pointed out that that was actually a response to an argument, but that argument was considered normal until a contrary argument, liberalism had been made.

Albert Mohler:   And so, Kirk’s great achievement, I think was in pointing out those arguments were always there. That classical conservative tradition was there, but it was at one point the cultural consensus. The fact is that by the middle of the 20th century, it wasn’t the cultural consensus and thus, it was fairly revolutionary to have genuine conservative thought reasserted.

David French:     Well, right. You know, one of the things I think that’s important about remembering this history, is that it shows that it’s worth remembering in part, because a lot of the arguments that you hear today about ideas, and social movements, you’ll hear this phrase, like the arch of history. What side are you on? Are you on the side of history or are you not on the side of history? And remembering that the arched history has moved in different directions, is very useful. I think in particular cultural conservatives, especially cultural conservatives that I’m around, tend to be relatively pessimistic about this.

David French:     Even though they hate the phrases like the arch of history or on the wrong side of history, it’s almost as if they buy into it internally. They buy into it emotionally and look at this country and look at the cultural arch of this country. They say, well, it’s moving inexorably in one direction. We have seen in this nation, ebbs and flows swings forward, swings backward. It is not fixed in the way that, you know, the left often argues.

Albert Mohler:   No, the greatest example of that is to look at European history where you had the most liberal civilizations that turned fascist with popular support in both directions. You know, you go from the Weimar Republic to the Third Reich, the same people in democratic elections. They’re fairly frightening parallels to the argument that you’re making. In the United States, thankfully, it’s not been anything that disruptive in a swing from the left to the right.

Albert Mohler:   But we are looking at a situation in which the left is in absolute shock. You would think that after the Regan revolution, the shock would’ve worn off, but you still see the kind of language coming from the left. We deserve to be in control. We were in control. There were a few impediments to our progressivist vision, and then something went wrong. They still seem to be completely shocked by the fact that their progressivist direction could be in any sense checked, or even slowed down.

David French:     Well, yeah. You know, you’re exactly right. This is something that I talk a lot about when I’m speaking about national polarization around the country and that is that the Democrats for a long time now, have really and truly believed that it wasn’t just a matter of their ideas were better, it was sort of this combination of ideas, plus demographics, and that they were, to use the John Judas book, the title of the John Judas book from I believe 2002, The Emerging Democratic Majority.

Albert Mohler:   Yeah.

David French:     Or, to use the term from, you know, in created in the days after Obama’s reelection, the coalition of the ascendant. It sort of works like this. Their view was that you take progressive white people and you combine them with the growing numbers of Asian, African American, and Latino American’s and put those three together, and you have, it’s just mass. It’s just mass. And so, there was a feeling that, you know, the Republican party was going to sort of be almost like this rump party, like this fading, dying, entity, unless it sort of became a different kind of version of the Democratic party.

David French:     There was a real shock in 2016 on a number of levels. I’m not so sure they should’ve been so shocked because even before 2016, Republican gains, you know, at the state level had been extraordinary. Yeah, you know, once you combine this sort of view that the ideas were superior, and then you combine it with the demographics being inevitably on your side, you can see why the left began to think that, well yeah, history has a side. It’s on our side and you know, Republicans are going to be left behind. It’s only a matter of time.

Albert Mohler:   I want to test another idea with you before kind of doing a further historical review. That is that a part of the analysis you just did, two of the ideas in the demographics have to be added a sense of moral urgency. The theory I want to test with you is this, I think that the civil rights movement had such massive impact on the left that and the arguments of the civil rights movement were so self-evidently true, especially in retrospect when you talk about a moral context.

David French:     Right.

Albert Mohler:   That the left just decided that everything is not a civil rights issue. They only have one moral grid. And so, they try to force everything into a civil rights framework. I think that explains a lot of the frustration on the left, but it also explains frankly, a lot of their success, especially on LGBTQ issues.

David French:     Oh, for sure. You know, look, I can’t remember who coined this term, but it was in a piece in The Federalist a couple of years ago. But, talking about sort of the modern progressive has what he called Selma envy. That they looked back and the moral clarity of the great crusade at Selma, Alabama and as a stain, then of course, for the entire civil rights movement.

Albert Mohler:   Sure.

David French:     And sort of wanted to … they wanted to live through that moment themselves. They wanted to have that great moment of moral clarity. Time and time again, what you see is the language of the civil rights movement applied where it frankly doesn’t fit very well. For example, in the Masterpiece Cake Shop case, where you had a baker who said he wouldn’t custom design a cake to celebrate a gay wedding. The left said, well, if he’s allowed to say now, well, you know … this is going back to the world of Jim Crow. When he’s one baker out of dozens of bakers in town. There was no impediment to him protecting his rights of conscience and that gay couple getting a cake. I mean, they had more than enough market opportunities.

David French:     Whereas, in the civil rights movement, you know, African American’s would be shut out entirely in the market in many areas. Yeah, there was a desire to take these disputes that had lesser, that were of lesser gravity and apply that same rhetoric and that same spirit from, you know, the 1950’s and early 1960’s. You see it all the time. It is a very powerful motivating force, absolutely a very powerful motivating force.

Albert Mohler:   If we go back to 1955 and establishment of National Review by William F Buckley Jr and that’s really an important date to me because my intellectual development came, at least in large part, by reading National Review in my high school library. I had conservative instincts, but I needed conservative intellectual ammunition. I got that in National Review. When William F Buckley Jr, started it, I don’t even think that the initials were accidental, NR, because in many ways it was kind of a response to magazines like the New Republic. It was to be a serious intellectual periodical, journal, magazine.

Albert Mohler:   From the very beginning, it has been. But, in the beginning, and as I recall it was Buckley who said his mission and mission of the magazine was to stand author history and cry halt or stop. As I recall, and I think this is really important, there were really two great problems on the right amongst those who would’ve been considered or called themselves conservatives that Buckley had to address. In one sense, the National Review became the establishment conservative voice in order to defeat two really bad conservative arguments.

Albert Mohler:   One of them was, even as we have a loony left, we have kind of a crazy right. Buckley and National Review were established to avoid the kind of paranoia and conservative conspiracy fascination that marked, for instance, the John Burt’s Society. And then the second thing, which chronologically, in the agenda, was to defeat the kind of Ayn Rand libertarianism in the extreme. In a big way, National Review was pretty successful at the marginalizing those two movements from American conservatism.

David French:     Yes. You know, it absolutely was. Now, it’s easier to look back decades later and sort of and look at it in a way that it’s almost like well, National Review swatted him aside when it was really a pretty painful process.

Albert Mohler:   And long.

David French:     And long, a long and painful process. But, a process worth enduring and a fight worth having. Conservatism was infinitely better off for having that fight. And so, that’s something I think that’s worth remembering today, as we, you know, sometimes, there’s a bit of eye-rolling at some of these internal conservative arguments about what is or is not true conservatism, whether we should be kind of, whether we should be sniping at each other on occasion instead it’s unified against the much more dangerous left. These intermural fights, matter a lot for the long term and they matter a lot for the kind of ideas that will govern American culture, and American politics for the next 15, 20, 30 years.

Albert Mohler:   Well, because I would argue strongly that bad conservative arguments can be to conservatism, more dangerous than bad liberal arguments. We can subvert ourselves intellectually. We can rob ourselves of intellectual and moral creditability by both making and accepting on their face, really bad arguments that might be labeled conservative.

David French:     Oh, of course. Sure, absolutely. We really have to again, we really have to differentiate between conservatism and oppositionalism or being quote, just of the right. I think one of the things that we have now, an almost reflective opposition to the left that is not so much guided by an independent principle, or guided by a specific ideal, as it is as just a rejection of the bad. One of the areas where I think this gets … let me more precise about what I mean. One of the developments in modern life that I think is pretty darn toxic is the rise of political correctness.

David French:     You know; however, you want to define it, but essentially the idea that the way to win an intellectual argument, in many ways, is to sort of prevent the allow only one side to have free reign, suppress opposing views, regulate speech, et cetera, et cetera. An awful lot of conservatives who have grown up in this politically correct environment and are sick and tired of being told what to say and what not to say, have sort of responded by essentially, you know, whatever the left doesn’t want them to do, they’re going to do, or have begun to delight in sort of, you know, this phrase, triggering the lib’s, or owning the lib’s, as created this world in which there are all too many conservative’s who are abandoning even basic civility because they view basic civility as a kind of weakness in the face of the left.

Albert Mohler:   Yeah.

David French:     I think that’s just one example of how just how opposition to the left as a motivation, as opposed to adhering to a particular ideological intellectual ideal, is you know, that kind of difference and that kind of distinction, I think is sometimes lost on folks.

Albert Mohler:   It’s important for us to recognize and always remember that ideas do not come out of a vacuum. Ideas come from somewhere. They are part of some kind of tradition of language. They come from previous ideas. Arguments emerge from preceding arguments and modern conservative thought is really only understandable with the rise of the modern conservative movement and the arguments and ideas that became part of American conservatism at that time and continue now as a part of American conservative discussion and debate.

Albert Mohler:   As we look at again, that topography of conservative thought in the United States, 1955, the establishment of National Review and then, you know, within less than a decade, you’ve got the Goldwater Revolution in the Republican party. The awakening of the nation to the fact that there are a lot of conservatives in the United States. Even though Johnson won in a landslide, there was an organized conservative movement that the left had to recognize for the first time. Not only that, there were figures who emerged, even in the 64′ election cycle, including the newly elected governor of California, Ronald Regan, who’s speech, For Goldwater, was more remembered that Goldwater’s speech is.

Albert Mohler:   You had something definitely happening. By the time you get to say, 1980, the conservative landscape is a lot more complicated. Maybe this was a sign of success, a larger conservative movement. But now, you have not only conservatives, you’ve got neoconservatives. Not only do you have National Review, but by 1995, you’ll have the Weekly Standard. Now, I believe, it was Irving Crystal famously said, “A neoconservative is a liberal mugged by reality.” You know, let’s talk about how that wing of the larger conservative movement came about.

David French:     Yeah, that’s an interesting question. It’s a word now that has almost lost its original meaning.

Albert Mohler:   That’s right.

David French:     And it’s a word that is, you know, thought over a great deal today. But, you know, one of the things about neoconservativism is it was, I think it was a conservatism that came in so many ways, sprung forth from the cold war. A lot of folks have, especially younger folks, have sort of forgotten the intellectual climate created by the cold war, the national security challenges of the cold war, and how that worked its way through American culture in so many different ways. I feel like that’s one thing that when you’re looking back on sort of the history of the right, the role of the cold war and the role of anticommunism, the rise of the alliances like NATO, all of those things were so critically important in such enormous parts of American life.

David French:     You know, when we talk about NATO today, we just kind of forget about all of that. It’s just sort of this military alliance we have, and these obligations we have, and nobody quite remembers why. You know, neoconservativism in, you know, certainly I remember I was in high school in the 1980’s, and college early, late 80’s, early 90’s. The rise of this sort of, you know, cold war conservatism, more secular maybe in mindset, not in outlook, was very, very interesting.

Albert Mohler:   Well, it was. There was a Jewish dimension to this. There were many prominent American Jewish intellectuals who had been identified with classical liberalism, who came to the judgment that political liberalism, especially in the left in the United States, had actually turned hostile to the very ideas of liberty that classical liberalism had enshrined, and honored. And then, there was the understanding that the left was woefully underestimating the threat of communism and specifically the Soviet Union. It is interesting that right now when you heard the word and you’re right, the word has changed in its valiance or meaning. Right now, what most people mean by neoconservativism is merely a foreign policy.

David French:     Yeah. Yeah, it’s an internalist, interventionist foreign policy and that’s that. When, you know, it’s actually a much richer intellectual tradition. Yeah, I mean, in so many ways these words have become shorthand for just sort of one aspect of a much larger whole.

Albert Mohler:   The same thing’s happened on the left, by the way. The term neoliberal is now used with derision on the left. Basically, it’s a way of dismissing people who had been elected by the Democratic party in the United States, like Bill Clinton, or the Labor party in Britain, such as Tony Blair. Neoliberal means capitalist and not socialist. It’s not an epithet used by the left of those who formally would have been considered of the left.

David French:     Yeah, you have these old ideological divisions and these old or older, not all that old, but older ideological divisions. They get boiled down to a caricature. They get boiled down to a, you know, one or two policy positions and then that’s the whole. It becomes the insult. Yeah, I mean, it’s going to be very hard to see the word neoconservative anymore and not used as an insult.

Albert Mohler:   Yeah and of course, there’s a lot of water under that bridge, isn’t there? I think it’s important for us to realize that conservatism in the 80’s and even going back to the founding of National Review, but more clearly, has become a moral argument. I guess if you would say that with Kirk, it’s a moral argument about the necessity of the entire moral order. With Buckley, it was and with the team at National Review, it was a very clear understanding of the moral threat of communism and of atheistic communism to pinpoint the problem. But, by the time you get to the 70’s and the 80’s, you’ve got a fully moral and sexual revolution taking place in the country. Conservatism is making a very strong moral argument, a counter-argument to the moral argument of the left.

David French:     And to this day, there’s a big argument right now about to the extent that there’s a moral, that conservatism should continue to make moral arguments. I mean, that is something that is a … that is a question that I’m confronted with all of the time. There’s sort of this argument now that a moral argument in politics is considered to be virtue signaling, that moral arguments are alienating, that moral arguments are illegitimate. This is something that’s really distressing for me to see as a long time conservative because this is a moral argument, have been the bread and butter of conservatism for a very long time. A moral construct to conservatism was vitally important in large part because conservatism understood that politics is downstream from culture, and culture is shaped by morality.

Albert Mohler:   Yes, an argument we have to make over and over again. Of course, it’s something of a circular argument because even the culture precedes politics. I want to insist upon that. We can credit many people with that, but at least one of them would have to be Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Culture includes politics. There is a political contribution to the culture that proceeds the politics. It should at least humble conservatives, even if it will never humble liberals, to understand that there are no ultimate political achievements. There is not ultimate political victory. The culture itself will never be one by essentially political tools.

David French:     Right. I mean, exactly. But, you know, one of the things that I fear is that I have really seen a reluctance of conservatives to understand that of late. That politics has become so consuming. Politics has become so important. It has become so contentious that these cultural arguments are being, not just abandoned often, but often mocked. I think part of that is the increasing secularization of conservatism. Peter Beinart wrote a really interesting piece and Ross Douthat has actually written about this as well.

Albert Mohler:   Absolutely.

David French:     That a lot of people have been longing for the end of the, quote, “religious right” and the belief that the post-religious right would be … that the post-religious right that emerged would be more moderate, would be more civil, would be more reasonable, would be more rational. The reality is that the post-religious right is not more of those things. That the post-religious right is more contentious. The post-religious is more obsessed with politics. The post-religious right has become more intolerant. Peter Beinart wrote an interesting piece in the Atlantic and he said, “This isn’t just true of the post-religious right. It’s also true of the religious left as well.”

Albert Mohler:   That’s right.

David French:     And that the rise of the post-religious left has increased intolerance. These post-religious political movements are very absorbed in politics. It’s the politicization of everything. Its politics as religion, has been accessibly neglectful of culture and extraordinarily intolerant. I think that that’s something that’s partly responsible for the rise of negative polarization in the United States.

Albert Mohler:   Yeah, absolutely and to the confusing of conservatism with the mere populism of the right. And an essentially secular argument, as you say. By the way, this is another issue that vexes me tremendously because I just want to ask the right and the left. Do you want to know what secular conservatism or secular liberalism … I really would prefer to say the secular left or the secular right looks like. Just look at Europe in the 20th century. It’s not that we have to scratch our heads and wonder what that looks like. It’s horrifying.

David French:     Right. I mean, you know, and part of this has been driven by this elite view that religion is inherently problematic, that a religion is inherently unreasonable, that religion is inherently divisive. And that atheism, or agnosticism, or just secularism more broadly is going to be always and forever more reasonable. That it’s going to be more rational. You know, the extreme version of this was Christopher Hitchens, who would answer you by saying, “Well, yeah, I mean, what the secular or atheistic tyrannies of the 20th century were doing were imitating religious movements.

Albert Mohler:   Right.

David French:     That’s where they got their idea about how to be so awful, which I think is absolutely ridiculous when they were self-consciously trying to track against religious movements.

Albert Mohler:   Right and Christopher Hitchens, by the way, would talk out of both sides of his mouth on this, especially later in his life. He seemed to despair of any secular alternative, even though he insisted on it.

David French:     Yeah, you know, but his inconsistency is one of the things that made him so interesting.

Albert Mohler:   Indeed.

David French:     He never failed to entertain or intrigue. Yeah, we are relearning some hard lessons right now in this country. One of the harder lessons that we’re learning is that the abandonment of God has negative cultural consequences. It creates hold in the human heart that politics cannot fill. And then, politics just gets more intense, and more divisive, and more angry, as it struggles and strives to do what it cannot possibly do. That’s what we’re seeing sort at large right now in the United States.

Albert Mohler:   Yeah and as the stakes get higher, the political desperation just grows also in intensity. And so, people who would never have justified certain political acts, or political choices a generation before, for that matter, five or six years before, find themselves justifying just about any political action. There’s another angle to that that I think is and this not a unique observation, but I’ve tried to develop it a bit further in my mind. There is the understanding that what we might say, extreme energy amongst some of the conservative movement on the right, or at least in conservative voting patterns. You might even say Republican voting patterns, just to try and be specific.

Albert Mohler:   A part of it is due to a certain sense of the elimination of alternatives. To put it bluntly, at least one explanation for what’s going on right now is that conservatives understand we have lost the popular culture. We have lost Hollywood. We have lost influence, for that matter. We have not just lost control, we’ve lost influence. We’ve lost higher academia. Higher education is just completely in the hands of the left, so all that’s left according to this logic is electoral politics, which conservatives can often be successful. Since it’s the only area in which conservatives have recently been successful, it’s where they put all their hopes. That’s not healthy.

David French:     Yeah, you absolutely hit the nail on the head. I would extend this and I would say that one of the reasons why we are so polarized and this is something that … this is not an original thought to me. My colleague, Michael Brandon Daugherty has been saying this at National Review, others have been saying this. In reality, both sides believe they’re losing. Both sides feel like they’re behind the eight ball. When you say that to a conservative audience, it’s almost like they burst into laughter immediately. What do you mean the left thinks it’s losing. The left, just as you said, has the academy, it has Hollywood. It has, you know, the permanent apparatus of the bureaucracy is overwhelmingly left-wing.

David French:     It’s just got the levers of power in so many different places and so conservatives just bust out laughing at it. But, that’s our vision of what it looks like to lose. Their vision is, we’re shut out of power. You know, and for the left, which often puts politics at a higher place than culture, to be shut out of that higher place, is particular gulling. The left looks at it as we do not have the power, which we should have. And then the right says, well, this is our last bastion. Both sides have this view that they’re losing and so, therefore, both sides have this feeling of desperation.

David French:     But, you’re exactly right. I mean, on the right there’s a view that all of these cultural levers are just lost. Now, interestingly, I believe that’s a little bit exaggerated. It is becoming less the case as our media environment fragments. It’s actually, you know, if you are a … if you are somebody who is conservative, the kinds of entertainment that you can watch that are not dominated by the left point of view, are actually multiplying these days, as the media environment fragments and more different kinds of shows are created, more different kinds of music is written. That monopoly, while the left is still generating most of it, the actual products are of much great variance than they used to be. There’s actually some interesting developments in that way, but that doesn’t mean that you know, the right has any real foothold in Hollywood yet.

Albert Mohler:   I’m looking forward to a conversation in an upcoming Thinking in Public, with Gary Saul Morrison of Northwestern University about Russian literature. In particular Dostoevsky and its relevance for the very questions we’re talking about today. It reminds me of something one of my college professors pointed out and that was this, stories of revolution tend to outsell stories of cultural stability, but the stories of cultural stability tend to be the stories that are read for centuries, not just for a matter of years.

Albert Mohler:   There’s some eternal permanent truths. Let’s go back to Kirk. There are permanent truths that emerge in that kind of literature. The odd thing I’m noticing right now in a lot of even the cultural production of the left is the fact that, what they’re really doing is trying to make, for instance, they’re trying to make same-sex marriage look like marriage.

David French:     Right.

Albert Mohler:   They’re doing their best to make what are sometimes are called alternative look like a family.

David French:     Right.

Albert Mohler:   They are now trying to make their leftist revolutionary vision look more well, stable, more like what conservatives understand marriage actually to be. That’s subtle, but I think it’s something we have to watch.

David French:     Yeah, you’re right about that. You know the marriage argument is, you know, Andrew Sullivan is probably more responsible for that than anyone else, as sort of saying, “Hey, you know, the LGBT movement should be just like every other American community. You know, get married, settle down, have children.” This is a change. I mean, again, you know, we have such a recency bias, but the early days of the sexual revolution, there was a strong intellectual and moral argument for like near total disruption of sexual moral’s and norms.

David French:     I would even say that some of the feminist argument on campus, for example, is sort of bringing out like a tattered zombie version of Christian sexual ethics. You know, not limiting it to marriage, but trying to reign in the excess of the hookup culture, trying to essentially, in many ways, criminalize drunken sexual acts. I mean, there’s a very interesting and for somebody who was in college in the 80’s and law school in the early 90’s, the idea that there would be this extreme backlash against a libertine sexual culture on campus, you would have kind of laughed at that.

David French:     No way. That’s just these fringy Christians and fringy hardcore feminists. But, there’s this really interesting backlash now against libertine sexual cultures. And so, yeah, it’s sort of like there’s this parallel moral superstructure that’s being built that is imitating in many ways some of the wisdom of the cultural past.

Albert Mohler:   So, you’ve Margret Atwood and the Handmaids Tale, which I try to remind people, was not written about the moral majority, the new Christian right, and moral conservatism. It was written as a parable of the oppression of Canada by the United States of America. It was not written as Atwood and others would have us to believe these days. But, you’ve got that on the left and so you’ve got the women showing up in their Handmaids Tale costumes all over the place. I pointed out to a secular reporter, not too long ago, if you want to see the Scarlet Letter these days, you don’t look to the right, you look to the left.

David French:     Right.

Albert Mohler:   You know, you’ve got the whole left with their ridiculous morality of consent, trying to figure out how in the world they can coerce the world into that moral straight jacket. And so, they’re the ones right now of the Scarlet Letter.

David French:     Well, right. Essentially, what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to preserve a version of libertinism, but a costless libertinism.

Albert Mohler:   Yes.

David French:     An emotionally fulfilling libertinism. What this morality of consent does and they still have not grappled with this and I’ve written about this at length. What the morality of consent is, which to be clear, how I define the morality of consent, which is essentially that a consented to sexual activity between adults is moral. The definition of what is moral is what is consented to. But, what that morality does, is it sexualizes, essentially, all spaces. There’s no place that is not free, from at least a theoretical flirtation, a theoretical advance, because if the only measure is consent, well how do you know you’re going to get consent, except by seeking it.

David French:     And so, whereas a traditional Christian sexual ethic, if you’re working with a married man, for example, your whole workplace should be a workplace that is free from any sort of sexual advances. It’s free from any sexualization at all, ideally. Of course, sadly, we know that’s not the case often. There’s a degree of safety and security that should exist that’s not possible to exist in the morality of consent because in the morality of consent, married, not married, it doesn’t matter. At work, not at work, it doesn’t matter. Any place is appropriate so long as there’s consent.

Albert Mohler:   So, I wrote about this in a book published, I guess it was 2017. You know, the landscape changes so fast. The arguments on the left are changing at lightning speed. Let me run this past you. When you talk … I agree with you emphatically in what you said about the morality of consent. As I started out, it’s just on its face, it an inadequate morality. It’s inadequate in every conceivable way. We also need to note that they can’t define it really. You stated it right that they consented to act is a moral act, according to their reasoning. The problem is they are beginning to redefine who is able under what conditions to give consent.

David French:     Right.

Albert Mohler:   And so, clearly, minors can’t give consent. We agree to that. But, what about an intern in the White House? Hillary Clinton seems to think she can give consent, even though the mainstream left doesn’t believe that she could give consent to the president of the United States. And then of course, if she or let’s just say he, to be totally fair, if the individual has consumed alcohol or some kind of drug, then consent can’t be given. But now the new argument is if there’s any form of emotional coercion it can’t be consent.

David French:     Yep.

Albert Mohler:   Well, good grief. In that case, consent has just completely evaporated, especially when consent is not legally and morally meaningful in retrospect.

David French:     Right. I mean, you hit the nail on the head. And then, the problem is, you know, none of these rules are really written down, for example. They’re ever-changing. They’re reflecting. They’re in response to external events. And so, what you have is sort of men and women who are trying to navigate this new morality really just kind of struggling trying to figure out what to do and which makes me, you know, very thankful again, for the Christian sexual ethic because we, fortunately, don’t have all of that ambiguity.

David French:     But, you’re exactly right. I mean, would say right now, if you’re talking about a relationship in which there is a perceived material power imbalance, then there’s not consent. If you’re talking about any intoxication above a certain undefined amount, there’s not consent. If you’re talking about an action that is not preceded by a verbal question. There are some even who would say there is not consent, but yes, it’s changing very, very rapidly.

Albert Mohler:   You know, I was speaking on a major secular university campus some months ago. I was talking to students about these issues and I said, “So, what marks the campus today is sexual liberty and freedom.” They said yes, that’s basically what’s going on. I said, “Let me get this straight.” A story in, I believe it was USA Today, just about the time I was there, about a prominent media figure, a mother saying to her 17-year-old, 18 year old son going to college, “I want you to text me before you take a sexual act, in order to document in contemporaneous time the fact that she has given consent.”

David French:     Oh, my.

Albert Mohler:   Then, at the same time, a major media is reporting on new apps for your smartphone that are to document consent, in which as you say, for every single step about how does what, when, with whom, touching where. Without going into details, that’s what the app is. They were describing this to me and I said, “So, this is what sexual liberty looks like, right?” This is sexual freedom? This is the utopia of sexual freedom. You have to consult your app, you know, multiple times, or call, or text your mother.

David French:     Yes.

Albert Mohler:   You know, I can just tell you that when I was a kid in the 60’s, that was not the vision of sexual liberty that was being put forward.

David French:     Well and you know, one of the reasons why, because it’s frankly, it’s my generation, so I’m almost 50. My oldest is in college. My peers from law school are campus administrators. We are the … we’re sort of generation two of the sexual revolution. We’re the generation raised in divorce. I mean, not me, thankfully, raised by wonderful parents who are still married, but sort of in the broadly speaking, we’re the generation raised in divorce.

David French:     We’re the generation of college after the onset of the sexual revolution. We are the libertine generation from the 1980’s. There’s an enormous amount of emotional, and psychological, and spiritual baggage from that time. And so, what are we also? We are the helicopter parent generation. You know, a lot of people make fun of helicopter parents, but you’re talking about parents who are still living with the consequences of teenage and early 20’s libertinism. There’s still battling through that.

Albert Mohler:   Sure.

David French:     And so, you know, that’s one of the things, I dislike helicopter parenting as a concept. I dislike the way in which we raised kids now to be a little bit more fragile or a little too fragile, but you have to understand that this is not coming from nowhere. This is coming from a lot of emotional and spirit wreckage. We have to recognize that.

Albert Mohler:   Well, in conclusion, David, let me ask you, as you look at the great intellectual challenge facing Christians, and I’ll go ahead and say conservatives in this context, as we’re trying to think about the issues we’ve discussed, what do you think that great challenge is going to be in the years ahead?

David French:     You know, I would put it this way, I think it is putting one of the great challenges for politically minded Christians and conservatives, is putting politics in its proper place. Here’s what I mean by that. In the 2016 election, before the 2106 election, after the 2106 election, I see an awful lot of fear amongst Christians, an an awful lot of willingness to compromise on their principles for the sake of meeting this or that emergency condition. A real panic that often exists in the political sphere.

David French:     I just, especially as a Christian, I find that distressing. I was speaking the other day at a conference and I, you know, reminded the congregation about, you know, the Assyrian army bearing down on tiny Judea and Hezekiah has, you know, pondering whether to appeal to Egypt for help. You know, and Isiah is very clear about, you know, who is the deliverer of Israel and it is not Egypt. In the face of threats that are so much less dramatic then the Assyrian army, it seems that Christians often show more panic.

David French:     I think that is something that as a community, we have to guard against. As a community, showing that our hope is not found. We don’t trust in princes and chariots. We’re not going to go down to Egypt. I think that is a core challenge. We cannot say, as the people of God, you cannot say, “Well, I’m going to, you know, exhibit and applaud high integrity, and steadfastness in every other area of life, but you know, politics, it’s too important. It’s just too important. I’m going to have to compartmentalize that and I’m going to have to compromise.”

David French:     I think that is going to be an immense challenge. It will become more of a challenge as America secularizes because we’re not always going to be having … it’s not going to be unusual, let me put it that way, to have two candidates that, you know, either are not Christian at all or deeply flawed in various ways. I would say putting politics in its proper place, maintaining faith, understanding that our hope is in the Lord. It’s not in princes in chariots. That’s going to be a central challenge as American secularizes.

Albert Mohler:   I think that is incredibly well said, David. To that, I want to say that putting politics in its place, also prevents us from a defeatism and reminds us that even when we lose an election, we still have to raise our children.

David French:     Yes.

Albert Mohler:   We still have to be faithful as the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. We still have essential responsibilities to fulfill, regardless of who is president. Well, these are very interesting times. It’s a time for Christians to think. I really appreciate David French for Thinking in Public with me today. David, I’m thankful you are where you are where are. Keep up the good work.

David French:     Well, thanks for having me and thanks for all you do. It’s been a real joy to be on your podcast. I deeply appreciate it.

Albert Mohler:   One of the realities I most appreciate about the American political tradition, is that it has been from the beginning about ideas. On the conservative side of the American spectrum, many of those ideas, by definition, really became a part of American cultural discourse only because of the challenge of progressivism and the liberalism. Before that, it was basically understood that the ideas that conservatives now espouse were realities, and truths, and patterns of life that had been commonly held by humanity throughout previous generations.

Albert Mohler:   That’s what it means to be a conservative. It means to seek to conserve that which is valuable in society, that which is true, that which must be honored and preserved in order for society to flourish, for the conditions of liberty, and of freedom to endure. For human dignity to have sustainable meaning and for citizen’s to understand as one another as more than mere citizens, but furthermore, as human beings. As Christians understand, fellow human beings made in the image of God. That changes our political discourse.

Albert Mohler:   On the conservative side of American politics, one of the most important journals, one of the most important arenas of that kind of intellectual conversation, has been National Review magazine. I really appreciated my conversation with David French, who is now both senior writer and senior fellow with National Review and the National Review Institute. National Review continues to be a place for the exchange of ideas and for a commitment to permanent truths. It’s very important that American’s, it’s especially important that American conservatives understand where arguments originated, how arguments were formed, how the conservative movement, as we understand it.

Albert Mohler:   The conservative intellectual tradition was hammered out in argument in history by real human beings, engaging with other real human beings in a contest of ideas that doesn’t just go back to the midpoint of the 20th century, but reaches far further back in human history and is as relevant as the latest headline and the latest conversation in American politics and popular culture today. David French is himself, a man of ideas and that’s what made the conversation so interesting. The best kind of conversation with this kind of serious discussion of ideas is a conversation that can continue.

Albert Mohler:   That’s my hope with Thinking in Public. That it’s not just a conversation overheard, it’s a conversation that is extended, perhaps by you and the listeners of this program where you have the opportunity to enter into that same discussion of ideas that matter. That’s where Christians understand, there is no idea that does not matter. The ideas that matter most are the ones that have the most to do with human dignity, and with truth, and reality, the very issues that should frame our proper concern at the most foundational and urgent of levels. One of our primary Christian responsibilities is to think and to think faithfully. One of the gifts we can give each other, is to think in public.

Albert Mohler:   Thanks again to my guest, David French for thinking with me today. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, go to Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.