By Jonathon Van Maren
I’d like to start by noting that I think David French has done an enormous amount a good for religious liberty in the United States, and that his principled positions on abortion and other social issues made him one of the leading social conservative voices in the U.S. for a long time. I’d also like to note that Jonah Goldberg is one of the most humorous and interesting writers out there, and that his critiques of the Trump phenomenon and his cultural analysis in general are often bang-on.
I wanted to get that out of the way because despite my differences with both of these writers, I’m not one of those who thinks that David French is an avatar for everything that is wrong with Conservatism Inc., and I think some of Goldberg’s consistent calling out of conservative inconsistences in the Trump era are valuable and necessary. Additionally, many of their critics have been needlessly vicious, and that’s a shame. We agree more than we differ.
But lately, it does seem that the folks at The Dispatch seem intent on proving their critics right. David French’s constant focus on “white evangelicals,” for example, has morphed from justifiable and necessary criticism to something of an obsession—and one that is starting to look like a vendetta. French and his family were viciously attacked during the 2016 election and beyond, and it seems to me that his barrage of newsletters deconstructing “white evangelicalism” (which is a rather dumb, clumsy framing) both at The Dispatch and in mainstream newspapers constitute his aggrieved response.
To see what I mean, consider Ross Douthat’s devastating rebuttal of French’s absurd claim that America only became more just as it became less evangelical. Douthat writes for the New York Times, and he’s as even-handed as they come. When a Catholic who writes for a liberal paper recoils at an attack on evangelicals, you know that it is really, really bad. And it was.
The same is true for Jonah Goldberg. Goldberg recently resigned from Fox News over their coverage of the January 6 riots at the Capitol, especially the conspiratorial and defensive tone struck by some of the hosts. Fair enough. Goldberg is a principled guy, and he gave up money to make his point. I think that’s laudable. But then he promptly signed on with CNN. To say that Fox News has problems is one thing. But to say that CNN is better—that’s entirely different territory. It’s as if Goldberg wanted to prove his critics right—and those critics, incidentally, promptly filled his Twitter timeline with examples of Goldberg mocking and excoriating CNN. He’ll probably do that less now that they’re his employer, of course.
There are other, similar examples as well. Evangelical ethicist Russell Moore, who offered principled critiques of Trump during the 2016 election and thereafter, has penned many justifiable criticisms of his fellow evangelicals over the past several years. But he has not applied that standard equitably. When he interviewed prominent evangelical and NIH head Dr. Francis Collins, he completely avoided the abortion controversy that Collins’ NIH was embroiled in. Here’s a summary from First Things:
On June 8, 2019, Francis Collins finger-picked his guitar and sang Andy Grammer’s song “Don’t Give Up On Me” at the memorial service for a young man who had died after a four-year battle with a rare kidney cancer. The man had enjoyed the song, and Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, cared dearly for him. He concluded his performance with an emotional benediction, promising that he would see the young man again and that he and his staff would not give up searching for a cure. This is the kind of man Francis Collins is.
One month earlier, Collins’s NIH had approved a research grant requested by University of Pittsburgh scientists who desired to graft the scalps of aborted fetuses onto rats and mice. Their research findings were published by Nature in September 2020 and include photos showing patches of soft, wispy baby hair growing amid coarse rodent fur. This, too, is the kind of man Francis Collins is.
How does someone who has been penning powerful pro-life columns for years ignore this issue while critiquing other evangelicals for their failings?
From my vantage point, it looks as if some principled and gifted conservative writers who felt betrayed by their own tribe and were in many cases shamefully treated over their principled positions on Trump decided to throw in with a new tribe. So David French can accrue an audience both critiquing and, in some cases, overtly attacking “white evangelicals”—and there will always be folks willing to pay for that. Jonah Goldberg leaves Fox on principle, and then shelves his principles to work for CNN. Russell Moore offers much-needed rebukes to his own tribe, but gives a man responsible for signing off on grotesque human experiments the kid glove treatment in interviews.
The shame of all this is that we need principled folks willing to resist the pull of their tribes and offer these critiques—not just get sucked into different tribes with different blind spots. I may be wrong, but from where I’m sitting, it looks like that’s precisely what has happened.