What does an internal squabble among conservative pundits have to do with the Christian worldview? Quite a lot, as it turns out.
“I’ve made a complete break mentally with the world I used to live in.” If you’ve followed the career of Tucker Carlson, his admission of intellectual-evolution in the recent Atlantic profile of him won’t come as much of a surprise.
While many welcome his new positions—on things to do with the up-side of government and the down-side of free markets—many see his intellectual journey as more of a devolution. “Carlson has radically reinvented himself,” conservative thought-leader David French is quoted as saying in the profile, “and one would hope he’d reinvent himself again.”
If, like me, you’ve struggled to know where to begin in navigating the new landscape of the intellectual Right, it strikes me that analyzing this terse exchange between French and Carlson is a good place to start.
A little context will help. As controversial as Carlson is to old-school Conservatives, French is to new-wave Nationalists. For the past year, French has been steadily attacked by those who see his defense of religious liberty and classical liberalism as passé.
Whereas French would like to persuade those citizens with whom he politically disagrees, others would like to use the mechanisms of the State to sanction dissenters of the broad Judeo-Christian tradition.
Arguments matter, rhetoric has the power to reshape the beliefs and behavior of individuals, thus whole societies. As C.S. Lewis put it, "the mental world also has its time-bombs."
The initial critique of French came from Sohrab Ahmari in an aptly titled First Things piece, “Against David French-ism.” The upshot of those critical of French is summed up well by Ahmari:
Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values.
Ahmari contrasts his realism with the purported romanticism of French: “French-ism is more a persuasion or a sensibility than a movement with clear tenets,” says Ahmari.
It’s here that the rive on the Right can be seen most clearly. The divide is between those who view persuasion optimistically, and those who view it pessimistically. While French is critical of Carlson, he’s hopeful that he might change his mind. Carlson, on the other hand, channels those tactics championed by Ahmari in his response to French: “David French is a buffoon, one of the least impressive people I’ve ever met.”
There are those on the Right who think the days of argumentation are behind us. Kindness, civility, persuasion—such were the luxuries of yesterday that we can no longer afford. Today is the day to take control of the levers of political power, to reshape the world of tomorrow.
Now, I should be clear: I suspect my vision of a flourishing culture—one built around the true, the good, and the beautiful—lines up well with Carlson, Ahmari, and company. I simply don’t see persuasion as irrelevant—let alone an obstacle—to forming such a society.
I’ve always been struck by Richard Weaver’s definition of rhetoric: “It’s the liberty to handle the world, to remake it, if only a little, and to hand it on to others in a shape which may influence their actions.” In the same book, “Ethics of Rhetoric,” Weaver goes on to say: “The changes wrought by sentences are changes in the world rather than the physical earth, but it is to be remembered that changes in the world bring about changes in the earth.”
Arguments matter, rhetoric has the power to reshape the beliefs and behavior of individuals, thus whole societies. As C.S. Lewis put it, “the mental world also has its time-bombs.” The title of Weaver’s most famous book reminds us that ideas have consequences.
The thing is, French isn’t silly to hope that Carlson might yet reinvent himself again. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that Tucker Carlson was known for his signature bowties, an accessory he only stopped sporting on April 11, 2006. He was 37 at the time.
At that age, Donald Trump was a pro-choice Democrat and Elizabeth Warren was a “diehard conservative” Republican. People flip, then flop, and retain the possibility of flip-flopping again so long as they remain open to argumentation.
It’s perhaps a fictional story, but it illustrates this point perfectly. Upon being introduced to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln allegedly said, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war?" That’s the power of rhetoric.
You see, I’m not advocating persuasion because I don’t care about politics and culture, but because I do care.
It’s perhaps a fictional story, but it illustrates this point perfectly. Upon being introduced to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln allegedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war?” That’s the power of rhetoric.
Insofar as we’re asked to choose between persuasion and politics, between civility and society, we’re being presented with a false dichotomy. Civil argumentation can indeed change a culture. As for me, I’m with David French in believing that Tucker Carlson can change and that persuasion and rhetoric still matter.
There’s more going on here than writers on the Right picking tactics. It’s a question of how the Fall has affected human nature, and whether there’s any hope for anything better.
There’s a strain in Christian thought that sees the harm done by Adam’s sin as making dialogue between Christians and non-Christians a virtual impossibility. Fortunately, this has not been the majority position in the Church. Instead, Christians have seen the example of the Bible as demonstrating the real utility of speaking to the world around us, even to those with whom we disagree.
Yes, the damage done by Eden’s deed is profound, but this is not the end of discussion. We all retain our shared Imago Dei and continue to live in the same shared universe. The same human nature that enables us to think meaningfully about the world also allows us to speak to one another about that reality, and to move it closer and closer to God’s intentions.
Dustin Messer teaches theology at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX and ministers to young adults at All Saints Dallas. He’s the author of the forthcoming book, “Be Ye Kind: Convictional Civility in a Combative Culture.”
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