David French wrote this piece (which removed any doubts we might have had about the partisanship of his mind) over at Patheos:
Dear fed-up idealists,
I used to be you. I know that’s hard to believe. After all, I’m pretty darn partisan. I’m a religious liberties lawyer, a pro-life activist, the founder of Evangelicals for Mitt, and the most recent winner of the American Conservative Union’s Ronald Reagan Award. I serve my country in uniform in the Army Reserves and am a veteran of the Iraq War. In other words, for a lot of you out there, I’m less role model than cautionary tale. I’m the guy you’re trying not to be — the guy you think is destroying our Christian witness. Heck, I’m the guy that even I used to hate. …
So, “post-partisan” Christians, please ponder this: First, as the price for your new path, are you willing to forego any effective voice at all for unborn children? Are you willing to keep silent when the secular world demands your silence? After all, that is the true price of non-partisanship — silence. Second, if you believe that a more perfect imitation of Christ (more perfect than the elders you scorn) will lead to more love and regard for the Church, consider this: No one was more like Christ than Christ, and he wound up on a cross with only the tiniest handful of followers by his side.
Follow Jesus, yes, but don’t think for a moment that will improve your image, and don’t be surprised if He takes you down much the same path He took the generation before you.
Jonathan Fitzgerald summed up many of the reasons the piece annoyed me over at Patrol.
But there was one day that I didn’t. This was in the early weeks and months of the Iraq War. I hated that war with a passion I didn’t know I could conjure for anything beyond myself. The words “shock and awe” literally moved me to nausea. And on this day, when my boss’ friend, who also happened to be the motel’s plumber, joined him in front of Fox News, joined in his chorus of rants and raves, I finally spoke up.
I can’t remember quite what the plumber said, but it was something about how he wished we could just wipe them all out and start over to repay them for what they did to us on September 11. In awkward, stumbly sentences, I pointed out that Iraq had nothing to do with the tragedy of 9/11. My boss turned to me, surprised to hear me speak up, but I could tell he wasn’t surprised by my view. This time, it was he who kept quiet.
The plumber and I exchanged some words. He was enjoying himself; I clearly was not. Finally, my boss mercifully intervened; he said something like, “Okay, back to work.” And the plumber left me with his parting words. He quoted the old adage, sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill, that “If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.” And then they left. Without turning Fox News off.
I sat there fuming. A million things I could have said rushed into my head and evaporated just as fast.
I have often thought about that day, about that plumber and the sentiment he expressed. And, of course, I’ve heard it many times since. That same flawed reasoning, that same acquiescence to world-weariness. The way we are all supposed to justify our inevitable fall to selfishness and pessimism.
Last night, I read that same argument again — this time, from David French, prominent Patheos evangelical blogger. In response to recent dialogue about what it might look like to move beyond the culture wars (as in my friend Jonathan Merritt’s new book and my latest Patheos column), French steps in to tell us naive youth that he was once like us. Idealistic. Wanting to be nonpartisan.
But then, through “encountering life,” he realized that “nonpartisanship had a steep price.” Essentially, he learned it was too difficult to take positions that are not clearly black or white. He learned that people find it challenging to classify a person — that they may even misunderstand him — when he doesn’t fit neatly into a prescribed category. And, of course, in true culture warrior fashion, it was the abortion issue that made this clear. Abortion, to him, is a black and white issue, and thus must everything else be.
He ends his condescending “open letter” by posing a couple of questions to those who attempt to be “post-partisan.” He asks, “are you willing to forego any effective voice at all for unborn children? Are you willing to keep silent when the secular world demands your silence?” Because, he concludes, the “true price of non-partisanship” is silence. Finally, we’re supposed to read Jesus’ death on the cross and “tiniest handful of followers” as justification for being partisan prats.
French tells his story, but he doesn’t make an argument. Rather, we are supposed to accept his implied point because 1) he was once like us and 2) now he’s “a religious liberties lawyer, a pro-life activist, the founder of Evangelicals for Mitt, and the most recent winner of the American Conservative Union’s Ronald Reagan Award.”
But the point that French’s story ends up making is that when he wandered into life’s grey areas, when he couldn’t say for certain in an op-ed or talking point where he stood on a particular issue, it just got to be too hard. When he began to look into same sex marriage, for example, from the position of a lawyer, he saw that the issue was going to become complicated in areas such as religious liberty. He wrote an op-ed to announce that he was anti-gay marriage.
Matt Anderson then chimed in as well:
Can someone be a partisan without being infected by “the partisan mind?” I think so. We’re trying around here. And Douthat is himself a good model: he’s willing to critique his own side (as in the aforementioned essay) but no one thinks he’s going to come out for Obama anytime soon. No one, anyway, who hasn’t already given their brains over to the debased sort of partisanship that currently drives our political process. And therein lies the trouble: the danger with the “partisan mind” is that people have to continually demonstrate their credentials in order for everyone else to feel sufficiently confident that they’re on the “team,” and if they criticize too much they lose their voice. Which is to say, trying to be partisan without the “partisan mind” may not win someone awards at conservative dinners even if they’ll happily take our donations.
The new path forward for evangelical engagement in politics will often share the political conclusions that the religious right came to. And it won’t be timid about saying things that the culture not only disagrees with but is downright hostile to. But it shouldn’t go, I don’t think, the path of “independence” that Merritt prescribes. I am not convinced that Republicans are quite as committed to, say, overturning Roe as French is. In fact, I’m more of the opinion that social conservatives are viewed as the idiosyncratic, slightly embarrassing uncles in the Republican world.
Which is why the better path of partisanship is not a wholesale defense of partisanship but rather the understanding that we have a strategic alliance that will break the moment the Republican party ceases to be friendly to our concerns. We can take that approach, I think, while recognizing that there are substantive differences between the party platforms and their their environments (blessings on you few pro-life Democrats, but the failure of Stupak effectively killed their prospects for the season), differences that justify partisanship without captivity to the “partisan mind.”