“When is the first time you encountered true ideological diversity?” asked David French, a conservative writer, Iraq War veteran and former lecturer in the Cornell Law School who spoke in Goldwin Smith at the invitation of the Cornell Republicans.
French’s speech spanned a variety of topics, but spotlighted what he sees as “the necessity of living in healthy pluralism that includes cultural conservatism.” He explained his belief that the answer to partisanship and division is the defense of free speech and religious liberty, citing the Federalist papers, the Constitution and the early history of the United States.
French differentiated his religious beliefs from what he thinks the government should do.
“As an evangelical Christian who is pro-life, I would like every single person in my life, it would be my ideal, if they came to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ,” French said. “However, what should happen in my view, versus what the state should do, are two totally different things.”
French warned of political polarization, partially blaming geographic sorting by ideology for the divisiveness of American politics today.
“If you remember nothing else tonight, remember this — the law of group polarization. When like minded people gather, they tend to become more extreme,” he said.
French acknowledged polarization on both sides of the aisle, and was particularly critical of what he sees as conservative hypocrisy regarding free speech. He drew parallels between Google’s firing of engineer James Damore because of a memo about women in STEM and Google’s political environment, and the NFL’s treatment of Colin Kaepernik due to his protests of police brutality.
“We were on this high horse until Colin Kaepernik. Then you see this guy kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality, and the president of the United States says ‘Fire him.’ The crowd goes wild. Wait a minute, I said, are we the snowflakes now?” French asks.
A range of students and people from surrounding towns attended the event, although many said they hailed from Cornell Republicans, who invited French.
Jack French ’23, a new member of the Cornell Republicans, had read some of French’s writing before attending the talk. He agreed with French’s article criticizing The New York Times’ coverage of the Kavanaugh case, citing his general skepticism of the media.
During the question and answer session at the end of the lecture, Giancarlo Valdetaro ‘21, an opinion columnist for The Sun, asked French about his opinion on the Masterpiece cake lawsuit. The supreme court ruled in favor of a baker who refused to make a custom cake for a gay wedding on religious grounds.
While French said that he agrees that “you cannot have a religious objection to the provisions of goods and services,” he considered the custom making of a wedding cake for a gay couple an expressive act, and therefore its production would be forced speech.
After the lecture, Valdetaro, who described himself as ‘very liberal,’ told The Sun he believes that “Religious liberty has been used to discriminate against the LGBTQ community and was also used to justify segregation before civil rights laws were passed.”
French, however, holds more optimistic views on religious liberty.
“When I talk about religious liberty to secular organizations, I say, would you like to have the right to think, speak, and act according to your beliefs,” French said during the lecture. “Virtually every person would say yes, that is a right I want to have. That, in a nutshell, is what religious liberty is.”
He ended his speech with a call to return to the founding ideals of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in addition to the role of the government for protecting rights.
“We are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he said. “It is for this purpose that governments were instituted.”
One of the event’s first speakers, Associate Dean of Students Nancy Martinsen, warned that if a student significantly disrupted the lecture more than once, they would be removed from the event by a representative from Cornell Police, and the Judicial Administrator may become involved. The event occurred without protests.