For about a year now, I’ve been telling anyone who will listen to read David French’s excellent book “Divided We Fall.” I’ve been especially emphatic about this to my fellow progressives, particularly those who fervently claim that white Evangelical Christians are basically responsible for all of America’s evils. Over 80% voted for Trump, my tribe will tell you. What else do you need to know?
French is a very vocal member of that other 20%. In “Divided We Fall,” he lays out an inspiring vision for American pluralism from the perspective of an Evangelical Christian with deep and authentic conservative commitments. It is an exercise in American civil religion, which is to say a genuine sacralizing of the nation’s principles and structures of pluralism.
I recently interviewed David for a series called Courageous Conversations in Barrington, Ill., started by friend and IFYC board member Jessica Green, and had an opportunity to delve more deeply into some of the themes of the book. (Here’s the video of the full discussion.)
I opened the conversation by asking David about his experiences as an Army lawyer in the Iraq war. He was stationed in Iraq during 2008 – a period of intense violence between different religious groups – and was a first-hand witness to the horrible things human beings can do to one another in a faith-based conflict. The narrative of each group, David noted, was substantially true. Sunnis had visited violent atrocities upon Shias, and Shias had done equally horrible things to Sunnis. The logic of the conflict seemed to be, I will never let those evil people rule. It was a principle people died and killed for.
In this context, David found himself exceedingly grateful for American pluralism, which he understood as the commitment that people with different identities who fundamentally disagree on some important things can still work together on other important things. Moreover, they recognize that they are parts of a larger entity, and that they all have a responsibility for the health of the whole. David experienced this with intensity during his time in the American military. People of all races and religions, with political beliefs that spanned the spectrum, viewed themselves as committed to a common cause, and were willing to give their lives for that mission, and one another.
When David returned to the States after his service in Iraq, he was invited to join a conference call that could, in the words of a highly partisan friend, “change the course of history.” It was about Obama being a Muslim, and a traitor. David hung up the phone. As he writes in his book, “My time in Iraq had changed me … If I had been willing to die for (my political opponents) while I was wearing the uniform of my country, why should I regard them as mortal enemies today?”
The manner in which politics increasingly feels like a kind of war in the United States worries David deeply. One solution for this lies in a most basic and beautiful thing: friendship. During his service in Iraq, David became friends with an individual named Leo. Leo was a fervent Obama supporter during the period when David and his wife were heavily involved in Republican presidential campaigns. David and Leo disagreed on virtually everything when it came to politics, but they knew they would give their lives for each other in the context of war. Leo was ecstatic when Obama defeated John McCain in the 2008 presidential race. He went to the inauguration and sent David a gift from the National Mall: a picture of George W. Bush’s helicopter flying away.
“Everyone needs a Leo,” David told the audience, someone who you disagree with profoundly, and love even more fiercely.
Everyone also needs a deeper appreciation for America’s religious pluralism. Iraq, after all, had come apart along the lines of religion (tensions, it should be said, that existed long before the American invasion). The United States is the most religiously diverse nation in human history and the most religiously devout nation in the Western Hemisphere. While there is certainly too much ignorance and bigotry with respect to different religions in America, there is simply no comparison with the all-out religious civil war in the manner that David witnessed in Iraq circa 2008.
In this regard, the United States is more the exception than the rule. Religious conflict has been a defining feature of many societies over the course of history; a healthy religiously diverse democracy is rare and precious. What is the secret of the American achievement on the question of religious pluralism? A big part of the answer, for David, is the genius of the 1776 generation of European founders. While their sins and mistakes – on race, gender and class, to name just a few – were legion, when it came to the question of how you build a religiously diverse democracy, they were remarkably prescient.
American Civic Life