What We Can Learn About Christian Citizenship From David French and the Rest of the Sorority Beta Dogma Stigma
It’s a shame but it’s true: When most people read Dante, they only get as far as the Inferno. They read of the hopeless damned, their sins, and the poetically ingenious punishments that Dante imagines for them. Few of us go on to the Purgatorio, which depicts penitent sinners learning the virtues they didn’t acquire on earth, much less the Paradiso — where great saints display their crowns and point up to God. All that is a shame, and we recommend that readers go back and persevere to the epic’s glorious, happy ending.
With that said, much can be gained from contemplating, at a certain ironic distance, the spectacle of failure. We diagnose planes that crashed, buildings that toppled, nations that vanished like the Hittites. We also pick through the bones of historical heresies, toxic panics, and hysterical outbursts such as the witch trial craze in Europe.
We even might spare a glance for heartbreaking, tragic events like the Children’s Crusade — which landed thousands of pious, reckless teenagers either at the bottom of the sea, or as slaves to Muslim masters. It’s in that spirit that the gifted Larry Taunton recently turned to a sobering, haunting phenomenon: the public Christian witness of writer David French.
A Painful Post-Mortem
Taunton didn’t pick through these ruins in a spirit of nasty rancor, tempting as that must have been. No, Taunton takes seriously the fact that many Christians and patriots once looked to David French as a kind of moral oracle, a model for engagement in our secular public square. Then he tries to trace the route French took, in the teeth of much wise advice from well-meaning faithful colleagues, over the Gadarene cliff and into the sea.
We can’t do Taunton’s subtle, devastating essay sufficient justice here. We invite you to go and read it. Like C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters or (even more) The Great Divorce, the grimness of the subject matter is outweighed by intellectual pleasure, like a clean wind scattering jaundiced, lingering vapors off a marsh. Or the Riders of Rohan arriving on the Pelennor Fields in the film The Return of the King, galloping fiercely downhill with the battle cry “Death!!!”
Nor does Taunton’s piece exhaust its usefulness once you’ve lost interest in French. Instead it provides a kind of skeleton key to many similar (indeed, interchangeable) figures in Trump-baiting Christian circles, such as Russell Moore, Ed Stetzer, Rod Dreher, Michael Gerson, and other members of the sad little sorority we call Beta Dogma Stigma.
An Echo of Narcissus
Taunton goes through quite a number of the stances French has taken over the years, each of them purportedly the outcome of unsullied “conservative principles” or “Christian witness.” And he finds a common thread. It’s one you’ve probably recognized too, if you have been paying attention. A shocking percentage of the time, French’s focus appears to be fixed on a single point, like one of the adoring seraphim in a Renaissance painting. Except that French is looking in the mirror, gazing with insatiable fascination at the spectacle of … himself.
When French would demand this or that absurdly imprudent political stance, or blanket condemnation of imperfect but useful allies or licit (if impolite) tactics, he’d invoke phrases like “Christian witness,” or speak of bold, principled stances. But if you step back, you realize that the question always comes down to, “How will this make us look?” Not to the voting public, or questioning souls, but to the chattering classes, his fellow pundits, and billionaire donors to flush center-right think tanks.
“I Am Big. It’s the Pictures That Got Small!”
But Taunton is not so harsh as to suggest that French’s public pirouettes are done self-consciously for profit. Instead, he concludes that French and his ilk really are in thrall to their private images of themselves. They believe that they must perform perfectly in roles, that their gestures and words must fit the dignified, lofty positions they have carved out for themselves.
What looks to us like the nattering of divas preening in front of stage mirrors appears to them as of the essence of their mission. They incarnate wise, judicious reflection, for others to emulate. They themselves enflesh the words of high-minded principles. They are epic, historic figures and must comport themselves accordingly. And if you’re too vulgar to appreciate that, well … you’re just not one of the better kind of people.
In his retirement from relevance, to the tiny, NeverTrump newsletter The Dispatch, one-time presidential aspirant David French might remind us of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. But in his own mental theater he will always be Sir Laurence Olivier as the Melancholy Dane, delivering the great “To be or not to be” soliloquy with an eye to the Royal Box.
Forget Yourself. Get Bored with You.
What can we learn from all this that’s of practical Christian use? That Vainglory was called a deadly sin for a reason. Humility doesn’t mean loathing yourself so much as losing interest in yourself. That’s because you’ve got one eye on God and what He demands of us, and another on your neighbor.
You don’t consider it beneath you to fight in the trenches and get your hands dirty trying to outlaw abortion. Or save Middle Eastern Christians from yet another genocide. Or help Christian nurses keep their jobs without having to take the Dead Baby Vaccine.
You don’t think of yourself much at all, since the subject kind of bores you. You don’t imagine that anyone’s looking at you, so your gestures aren’t theatrical. You hunker down and work, eager to store up many cold cups of water you have offered to the least among our brothers. Those will come in handy when you really do face an audience — the only critic Who matters — on judgment day.
John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream, and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. Together, Jones and Zmirak wrote The Race to Save Our Century, and “God, Guns, and the Government.”