On January 28, The King’s College hosted David French to discuss the state of religious freedom in America. French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
French began his remarks by drawing distinction between culture and the law. The laws regarding religious freedom have not changed, and yet fewer people feel comfortable expressing their political views today as opposed to ten years ago. To explain this phenomenon, French pointed to a deep cultural divide. In the absence of common ground, French argued, our antagonistic culture threatens to undermine the legal guarantees of religious liberty.
According to French, we are living in a post-ideological age, in which political discourse has become more about naming enemies than defining common values. This is called negative polarization, and was a major factor in the 2016 election. “The one thing Donald Trump had going for him was that he was not Hillary Clinton,” said French, and the same is true of Clinton as compared with Trump. Voters didn’t like their candidate so much as they hated the other. Furthermore, when people gather in groups, their views are likely to become more extreme. This law of group polarization may help win elections, but it also pushes Americans further apart from one another.
To see the law of group polarization at work, French noted how rapidly certain extreme ideas have gained popularity. On the left, the affirmation of transgender identity has become dogmatic. Similarly, on the right, the notion of constitutional carry–that the Second Amendment permits any citizen to bear arms, regardless of state laws–has recently come to the fore in the Tennessee gubernatorial race. The point is that neither of these views would have been acceptable in the public square in decades past. “The change from a view that is considered unthinkably radical to one that is mainstream has now become routine, and this process is accelerating,” said French.
These extreme views are often met with outrage, because our first instinct is to attack those whose experiences and worldviews differ greatly from our own. However, the fact is that such culture shaming harms everyone. As a result of the culture wars, for example, Karen Pence was recently harangued for her decision to work at a Christian ministry. The ministry’s biblical stance on marriage and gender was unacceptable to LGBTQ advocates, who were quick to label Christianity as bigotry. Though French defended Christianity against this outrageous claim, he also recognized that some people on the right are just as prone to fanning the flames of controversy. The NFL kneeling fiasco is an example of when conservatives could have looked the other way, but chose not to. French explained that calling for one’s opponents to be fired, or punching back twice as hard, is ultimately contrary to the Christian doctrine of loving one’s neighbors.
French argued that, in order to save religious liberty, we have to rediscover the principle of tolerance. Though the term has become associated with the ideology of the left, French referred to a pragmatic and biblically-rooted tolerance. We must learn to coexist with those who disagree with us, lest they deem our own views unacceptable. To that end, individuals can become part of the solution by embracing tolerance in their own lives. French concluded his speech with a simple yet powerful rule: “Fight for the rights of others that you would like to exercise yourself.”