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Why I No Longer Speak French: A Response to David French’s Woke Affirmation of “Systemic Racism”

Why I No Longer Speak French: A Response to David French’s Woke Affirmation of “Systemic Racism” July 26, 2021

I confess I have a hard time these days knowing where David French is on the intellectual and theological spectrum. He constantly claims he is conservative, and I’m guessing he may still be on different issues. But formerly, French seemed like an unimpeachable conservative. He did not appear to care what people thought of him. He cut it straight, and he made the case for conservatism with force and verve.

First Flag on the Field: Advocacy of Game of Thrones

But a number of French’s stances in recent years have given me serious pause. When I say “serious pause,” I mean serious pause. First came the extremely odd public advocacy for Game of Thrones. I am all for a good fantasy story; I am an unblushing Lord of the Rings aficionado, for example. But GoT was by all accounts pornographic in its content. It featured, by one account, a running total of nearly two hours of pure nudity, for starters.

It’s true that we all have to figure out carefully what objectionable content we can handle, and what we cannot. But this is a show that, according to one British outlet, had to hire actors in pornographic films in its early seasons due to its depraved content–other actors simply wouldn’t take part. From what I have read, GoT is not a show that wise and mature Christians would want to watch, and certainly would do well to avoid promoting publicly. I found French’s advocacy jaw-dropping, frankly, given my prior healthy respect for him.

Second Flag on the Field: Calling Drag Queen Story Hour a “Blessing”

That was the first flag on the field for me with regard to French. There have been more lapses of judgment since. Perhaps the strangest, even stranger than a professing Christian adult man promoting a pornographic show in public, was French declaring “Drag Queen Story Hour” a “blessing.” Here’s the quotation from French to the New Yorker: “The fact that a person can get a room in a library and hold a Drag Queen Story Hour and get people to come? That’s one of the blessings of liberty.” This statement shocked many.

Many of us want the public square to feature free speech, so let that be said. But labeling a story hour featuring drag queens as “one of the blessings of liberty” is morally shocking. It is indefensible. However you answer the complex free speech questions we all face, there is not any sense in which–for a true Christian–perversion like this should be categorized as a “blessing.” It is no such thing. As part of a neo-pagan system (I make the connection between wokeness and paganism abundantly clear in my new book Christianity and Wokeness: How the Social Justice Movement Is Hijacking the Gospel–and the Way to Stop it), it is actually the degradation of society. Beyond this, in theological terms it is the very manifestation of divine wrath upon a people (see Romans 1:18-32).

Yes, French was that wrong: what he calls a “blessing” is what the apostle Paul says is “wrath” poured out already on evil groups (Romans 1:18). This current wrath is a foretaste of the apocalyptic wrath to come. We must flee it, not celebrate the very depravity that justly draws the fury of God like a sounding beacon in the deep.

Third Flag on the Field: French Goes for the Throat of “Culture Warrior” Baptists

More recently, French slandered conservative Baptists on The Dispatch‘s Substack. He called them “fundamentalists,” pulling out all the stops after the June 2021 Southern Baptist Convention meeting. In contrast, he painted Ed Litton in a flattering, soft-glow light: “Instead, the convention narrowly elected Ed Litton, a man known far more as a pastor than a culture warrior and who is also known for his efforts at achieving racial reconciliation within the SBC.” Note the cues here: French is using leftist talking points, associating conservatives with the dreaded model of the “culture warrior” (which label French qualified for about ten minutes ago, before he jumped the tracks for his current position). As if all sides aren’t fighting for influence in the public square! They surely are, both left and right.

French painted Litton, far more friendly to wokeness than other candidates, as merely interested in “racial reconciliation.” He cited Dwight McKissic, an outspoken and unrepentant egalitarian who seems to have free reign to slander conservatives without any reprisals from SBC gatekeepers, along these lines as well: “Resolution 9 was/is untouched & Ed Litton, a man who has a good track record & right heart on race, was elected president.” One wonders what French thinks of Litton now, given Litton’s clear penchant for plagiarism and female preaching; one wonders if Litton still has a “good track record.”

Finally, French put a bow on his “evangelical victory over the fundamentalists” theme:

The SBC meeting represented a victory—especially for those who (to quote one Baptist pastor) hoped to see the convention become “conservative in our convictions but liberal about our love.” But it’s a victory in a battle, not the conclusion of the war. The closeness of the presidential election was a symbol of the strength of fundamentalism, and further cultural conflict and cultural upheaval may strengthen it more still. 

But J.D. Greear is right—no church should define itself as the “party of the elephant or the donkey,” and the more that any church does, the more that political disputes will assume apocalyptic importance, the more that American intolerance will grow, and the more that Christians will confuse the pursuit of the biblical justice (which every Christian should seek) with the pursuit of Christian power, which history has shown is often wielded in oppressive and punitive ways.

This is, to use a technical term, malarkey. French subtly ties the “fundamentalists” he derides to “the pursuit of Christian power.” He slants the “fundamentalists” as using that power “in oppressive and punitive ways.” What a jaundiced view of those who love Scripture, stand against the evil ideology of wokeness, refuse to compromise biblical teaching on women pastors, and strive for the health of their denomination. Simply put, there is no daylight between David French’s view of conservative Baptists and the secular elite view of conservative Baptists.

French has become that saddest of figures in the professing evangelical world: the one who wins a big audience saying what cultural elites want professing evangelicals to say about conservative evangelicals. He maligns conservatives, calling them “fundamentalists,” linking them directly with “oppressive and punitive” power-wielding. Never mind that the power-wielding was done by the other side, wreathed in victory as it was in June. Litton won the SBC presidency, JD Greear torched the conservatives as “Pharisees,” James Merritt connected conservatives rightly opposing Critical Race Theory with evangelism-avoiders, and conservatives got thoroughly dragged through the mud in the secular media. In an irony-free statement, French saw fit to brand the losers–the ones his very column blew up–as wielders of power. This is rich stuff, rich as the lobster bisque in one of those high-flown “thought-leader” gatherings in mountain locales.

The Fourth Flag on the Field: Arguing That the Bible Teaches Collective Guilt for Sin

All the preceding is prologue. French’s most recent act in service of bashing conservative evangelicals is to attack those who dare to refuse to affirm “systemic racism” and “systematic oppression.” French first argues that the Bible teaches collective guilt that transfers through generations:

Daniel confessed the sins of Israel’s fathers. In the book of Nehemiah, the Israelites confessed the “sins and iniquities” of their fathers. In the book of Leviticus, God commanded the Israelites to “confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers.” 

The reason for this obligation of repentance and atonement is obvious. The death of the offending party does not remove the consequences of their sin. Those who’ve been victimized still suffer loss, and if the loss isn’t ameliorated in their lifetimes, that loss can linger for generations.

At first blush, it might seem that the Bible teaches that we are guilty for the sins of past generations. But here is what French misses, or elides: in all the above Old Testament passages, the sins of the fathers are the sins of the children. In the book of Nehemiah, for example, it is apparent that past sin patterns are still in practice among the followers of God. The people are presently compromised, and the ministry of the law is not restored. (This is what Nehemiah accomplishes, working with Ezra, but it takes a while.) The children are doing what the fathers did.

This is distinct from affirming that current followers of God bear the sins of previous generations. The Bible does not teach that a godly son is responsible for his unrighteous father’s crimes; that would be unjust. What the Old Testament does teach is that the people of God can fall prey to the sin patterns of previous generations, and when they do, they must confess their complicity in such wickedness. What their fathers did, they are doing. If they wish to know the blessing of God once more, they must turn back from their evildoing.

Ezekiel 18:19-20 helps us untangle what French has confused:

[19] “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. [20] The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:19–20).

Putting texts together, this means that a righteous son is in no way guilty for the evildoing of his father. He is only guilty as corporate Israel is in different places in the Old Testament if he embraces the specific sins of his father. He may experience generational effects of past sin, but he cannot have generational guilt for past sin. (I make this subtle but important distinction clear in Christianity and Wokeness.) If we apply such biblical truth, if Hitler had had children, and they rejected their father’s devilish ways, they would in no way be guilty for what Hitler did. They would not bear generational guilt. They cannot in the biblical mind.

Indeed, the New Testament builds off of the Old Testament, and (outside of Adamic federal headship) never ties the sins of past individuals to present individuals; the shift from being a national people to the church means a change in public accountability, and there is no hint of a “reparational” framework in Ephesians 2:11-22, for example. The cross is the way forward, not recompensing people for the “structural generational sin” that modern-day Christians bear as a legacy of the past.

Paying this analogy forward, the son of a racist Klu Klux Klan member is in no sense guilty for his father’s crimes. Provided he does not embrace the sin patterns of his racist father, he is not in any way guilty based on his bloodline. He may be affected in certain ways by the decisions of his dad, for as I just stated there can be generational effects of sin, but he is not guilty of his father’s iniquity. All this applies to French’s discussion in that there is no sense in which “white” people today are held guilty for what previous generations of “white” people did. If people today sin in the same patterns as previous groups did, then they share in guilt, for they have made past sin their own present sin. But if they do not embrace such transgressing, they bear no guilt for what past people did: truly, the guilt-o-meter reads zero.

French does not make all the aforementioned connections explicit as he could in his piece. He hop-scotches around, but he seems to believe (as David Platt seems to believe) that it is a matter of justice to read present generations as benefiting from the “structural racism” created in the past. He seems to think that the Bible supports holding the present generation guilty for past sins. Therefore, his conclusion seems to be, present Christians must acknowledge their guilt for participating in and perpetuating systemic oppression.

But what we need to say in response, in sum, is first that the Bible does not teach generational guilt for sin. Guilt does not cleanly transfer between generations; in the Old Testament, present generations are guilty before the Lord only when they embrace the sins of their fathers. Further, and I’ll tackle this at length below, though French embraces and employs the concept of structural oppression, this is a matter that we must handle with great care. French believes, in short, that systemic racism is a major reality today. I, as will be obvious, disagree with this quintessential woke argument. This is a very consequential disagreement.

Fifth Flag on the Field: Affirming that America Is a Structurally Unjust Public Order

A major part of French’s argument is that America is racialized and systemically unjust. In making this case, French argues the now very familiar leftist line that disparities equal injustices (I call this DEI in my new book Christianity and Wokeness, and analyze it extensively):

Residential segregation, through redlining and other means—especially when combined with profound employment discrimination and educational disparities—resulted in the creation of large communities of dramatically disadvantaged Americans. Because of centuries of systematic, de jure (by law) oppression, they possessed fewer resources and less education than those who didn’t suffer equivalent discrimination.

While the passing of the Civil Rights Act meant that black Americans had the right to live elsewhere, they often lacked the resources to purchase homes or rent apartments in wealthier neighborhoods with better schools. Indeed, to this day, the median net worth of a black family ($17,150) is roughly one-tenth the median net worth of a white family ($171,000). That means less money for down payments, less money for security deposits, and overall fewer resources that enable social mobility.

This sort of boilerplate analysis is everywhere today. But it’s barely passable stuff. Beyond a half-hearted citation of median net worth, it does not even attempt to make a sustained statistical case for DEI. If you’re going to argue that America is systemically racist (or was back when), you need much more than “redlining and other means.” What “employment discrimination,” and which “educational disparities,” exactly? Again, while it is possible that different disparities could signal real injustices, this is in no way proven simply by pointing out differences between groups. Discrimination of a wicked racist kind is in no way the same reality as a statistical disparity. Differences, to make this concise, do not necessarily equal injustices.

Thomas Sowell’s fantastically helpful book Discrimination & Disparities makes this last point in spades. Sowell destabilizes the whole DEI case by observing that there is no reason to believe, given similar starting conditions, that different groups will all end up with exactly the same metrics. Culture matters here; sin matters; righteousness matters; common grace matters; family structure matters; decisions matter; on the factors go that distinguish one group from another. We are not identical metric units as human people, and as groups of human people. We are unique, varied, and not at all the same.

Sowell also shows that it is very hard to account in a perfectly comprehensive way for disparities between groups. People are very complex, and so communities are still more complex. Yet oftentimes, data reveals hidden truths. For example, Japanese-American households earn far more than Mexican-American households. Why? Is this Asian-tinged “white supremacy,” as the woke left would have us believe? Not in the least, Sowell shows: the disparity owes to the median age of household members in the two groups.

This informs our discussion of French’s backing of structural racism. Suffice it to say that French’s assessment is not biblically accurate, nor factually based. As I pointed out above, his initial problem is that he fails to see that present generations are not automatically guilty for the sins of past wicked generations. Where the Old Testament indicts God’s people for “the sins of the fathers,” it is squarely because they are practicing those sins and have not rejected them as a people. It is not at all because guilt can be passed down from one generation to the next. So the whole (supposed) biblical foundation he builds is not a sound foundation. It is based upon a misreading of Scripture.

Further, French’s support for “structural oppression” and related terms rests upon a very thin base. He does not attempt to mount a decisive case that shows that America is systemically corrupt. Beyond this, it is not even clear what systemic corruption looks like, exactly: supposing that systemic racism is real, is everything equally polluted? Should you not be a part of the “system” if it is racist? Do you not pay taxes? Do you move away from America? If you stay, what do you target to fix things? How do we determine the allotment of participation in a system that is said to be holistically unjust? Is every policy or law or structure equally racist given their broader “systemic” participation, or are they partially racist, or are some structures wholly racist and others are only minimally racist?

All this is left undefined by French (and many other woke voices), and that lack of definition is quite troubling. We are left with a big, huge, blanket problem: structural oppression. But if you make the case this large and vague, what are we to do about the problem? French’s assessment, like woke ideology more broadly, leaves us without the knowledge we desperately need: what to address, what to keep, and what to reject.

Better Arguments on “Structural Oppression”: Glenn Loury’s Brave Essay

In engaging French’s essay, I am reminded at this point of what Glenn Loury has written about so-called “system racism” and related concepts. Loury, a “black” intellectual, wrote a brilliant and brave piece for Quillette some months back. I’m going to quote it at some length below, because it offers an excellent counter-thought to French. In “Unspeakable Truths About Racial Inequality in America,” Loury critiqued the woke left’s glossary:

Activists on the Left of American politics claim that “white supremacy,” “implicit bias,” and old-fashioned “anti-black racism” are sufficient to account for black disadvantage. But this is a bluff that relies on “cancel culture” to be sustained. Those making such arguments are, in effect, daring you to disagree with them. They are threatening to “cancel” you if you do not accept their account: You must be a “racist”; you must believe something is intrinsically wrong with black people if you do not attribute pathological behavior among them to systemic injustice. You must think blacks are inferior, for how else could one explain the disparities? “Blaming the victim” is the offense they will convict you of, if you’re lucky.

Instead of blaming “systemic racism” as French does, Loury indicted “black” people for their failings:

But we should all want to stay in touch with reality. Common sense and much evidence suggest that, on the whole, people are not being arrested, convicted, and sentenced because of their race. Those in prison are, in the main, those who have broken the law—who have hurt others, or stolen things, or otherwise violated the basic behavioral norms which make civil society possible. Seeing prisons as a racist conspiracy to confine black people is an absurd proposition. No serious person could believe it. Not really. Indeed, it is self-evident that those taking lives on the streets of St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago are, to a man, behaving despicably. Moreover, those bearing the cost of such pathology, almost exclusively, are other blacks. An ideology that ascribes this violent behavior to racism is laughable. Of course, this is an unspeakable truth—but no writer or social critic, of whatever race, should be cancelled for saying so.

He continued his indictment with force, denying that “black” people have no role in their communal problems:

Nor does anybody actually believe that 70 percent of African American babies being born to a woman without a husband is (1) a good thing or (2) due to anti-black racism. People say this, but they don’t believe it. They are bluffing—daring you to observe that the 21st-century failures of African Americans to take full advantage of the opportunities created by the 20th century’s revolution of civil rights are palpable and damning. These failures are being denied at every turn, and these denials are sustained by a threat to “cancel” dissenters for being “racists.” This position is simply not tenable. The end of Jim Crow segregation and the advent of the era of equal rights was transformative for blacks. And now—a half-century down the line—we still have these disparities. This is a shameful blight on our society, I agree. But the plain fact of the matter is that some considerable responsibility for this sorry state of affairs lies with black people ourselves. Dare we Americans acknowledge this?

He responded to claims like those made by French that wealth disparities reveal racism:

Leftist critics tout the racial wealth gap. They act as if pointing to the absence of wealth in the African American community is, ipso facto, an indictment of the system—even as black Caribbean and African immigrants are starting businesses, penetrating the professions, presenting themselves at Ivy League institutions in outsize numbers, and so forth. In doing so, they behave like other immigrant groups in our nation’s past. Yes, they are immigrants, not natives. And yes, immigration can be positively selective. I acknowledge that. Still, something is dreadfully wrong when adverse patterns of behavior readily visible in the native-born black American population go without being adequately discussed—to the point that anybody daring to mention them risks being cancelled as a racist. This bluff can’t be sustained indefinitely. Despite the outcome of the recent election, I believe we are already beginning to see the collapse of this house of cards.

Finally, Loury concluded with a searing word against the language and ideology of “structural racism,” “white privilege,” and “white supremacy”:

The invocation of “structural racism” in political argument is both a bluff and a bludgeon. It is a bluff in the sense that it offers an “explanation” that is not an explanation at all and, in effect, dares the listener to come back. So, for example, if someone says, “There are too many blacks in prison in the US and that’s due to structural racism,” what you’re being dared to say is, “No. Blacks are so many among criminals, and that’s why there are so many in prison. It’s their fault, not the system’s fault.” And it is a bludgeon in the sense that use of the phrase is mainly a rhetorical move. Users don’t even pretend to offer evidence-based arguments beyond citing the fact of the racial disparity itself. The “structural racism” argument seldom goes into cause and effect. Rather, it asserts shadowy causes that are never fully specified, let alone demonstrated. We are all just supposed to know that it’s the fault of something called “structural racism,” abetted by an environment of “white privilege,” furthered by an ideology of “white supremacy” that purportedly characterizes our society. It explains everything. Confronted with any racial disparity, the cause is, “structural racism.”

The foregoing is like breathing pure oxygen. Instead of leftist ideas based in neo-Marxist terms, Loury refuses the narrative of victimhood. He challenges “black” people to take responsibility for their actions and communities. (No idea is more revolutionary, more needed, and less popular than this one today.) He rejects the leftist trope that disparities equal injustices. He points to immigrant communities operating by virtues like personal responsibility, hard work, and individual sacrifice as signs that having a certain skin color in no way trashes your future. Loury questions the extremely fuzzy concept of “systemic racism,” calling it a “bluff and a dodge.”

Loury is right: the employment of phrases like structural oppression “asserts shadowy causes that are never fully specified, let alone demonstrated.” As stated above, how true, and how refreshing to read this. One thinks of how French cites “redlining” (which may have happened but is notoriously hard to prove, and may stem from diverse factors, not merely racism), “employment discrimination,” and “educational disparities” as the signs of “structural oppression.” As I say in Christianity and Wokeness, it is possible that such matters reveal racism, but this is in no way a necessary conclusion.

Further, this is the intellectual equivalent of waving a hand to prove an argument. Differing household worth in no way signals the automatic presence of racism. Neither does the existence of “educational disparities.” This is typically soft science so familiar to those who engage the woke left. In the absence of data, clear evidence of causation, and careful tracing of laws and policies that are obviously motivated by racism, we have a few buzzwords, a few hard-to-define problems, and the citation of household worth. This will not do in the least to prove the meta-cause, the one explanation to rule them all, of “systemic racism.”

Every thinking Christian knows that racism is abhorrent, and that laws and policies and governments can foster oppression. On the latter, think of abortion. What a wicked and oppressive public monstrosity abortion is. Abortion is a great example for us to handle, because it is driven by an easily identifiable Supreme Court ruling (Roe v. Wade) that has enabled the deaths of 60 million image-bearers. This is true oppression, and it owes to a traceable–and abominable–judicial decision. In similar terms, if someone alleges that America is fostering racism at the public level, we must point to policies, laws, and decisions that are creating evil conditions. Disparities are not automatic evidences of injustice. We need more, much more, or else the whole conversation is hopelessly vague, and we will never be able to address the problem said to be plaguing us.

Conclusion: Let’s Hope for Better Days

David French’s case that we should embrace the concept of “structural racism” and even acknowledge our guilt as those who have not challenged such a system has numerous problems, several of them addressed by Loury. Here’s hoping that David French will right the ship. In recent years, I have grown quite concerned by his stances and his general trajectory. He has real gifts, he has had good influence in days past, and I pray he will put his evident abilities to better uses than promoting pornographic shows, calling pedagogical gender-bending a “blessing of liberty,” bashing Trump supporters, trashing biblical conservatives as “fundamentalists,” and cheerleading for wokeness based on imprecise arguments. If he does not turn back, we are watching in real time the loss of a once-vibrant Christian voice.

French can do much better, and we could use his voice in the cause of truth, not the cause of marginalizing the dwindling few who will stand for the timeless convictions of the Word of God. Standing with those who oppose worldly ideology and practice will not get you approval from the cultural elite. It will, however, win every true believer the approval of God on the last day.

******************

To read more about the matters covered in this essay, pick up Christianity and Wokeness: How the Social Justice Movement Is Hijacking the Gospel–and the Way to Stop It (Salem, July 20, 2021).

See also this blog, which addresses the disparities equal injustices (DEI) argument at some length.

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