While it seems too soon to say the US is moving towards a more fully secular society like most of Europe, the tensions of the recent changes are playing out in interesting ways. The most recent kerfuffle is between the Catholic journal First Things and more traditional conservative outlets like National Review. Much of the debate is the typical tempest in a tea cup when journalists and pundits who generally agree have a public disagreement. I don’t want to get into the details of the David French vs. Sohrab Ahmari debate. Rather I want to use it to raise the question of the public sphere in general.
Former T&S blogger Nate Oman noted that “Conservatives are politically powerful and culturally weak, but they care more about the culture than about the state. Progressives are culturally powerful and politically weak, but they care more about the state than the culture. Ergo, both feel weak and persecuted.”
I don’t know how true that is. The conservatism of my formative years was very fixated on the state. It seems undeniable though that a significant portion of the US feels like the public sphere has been lost and is focused on it. Arguably that, in part, led to the shocking win of Donald Trump in the Republic primaries. There are two main concerns I think driving the current turmoil. The first is the breakdown of some social norms in the public sphere. The Ahmari column was motivated by libraries having drag queens promoting cross dressing and gender fluidity to young children across the country. Even many of those who feel recent social changes have been a net positive particularly for gays and lesbians might be a bit surprised at how persuasion and children are playing into the changing social norms.
My own feeling is that we’re in a transitionary period and society is trying to discover what the new norms should be. It’s clear that the norms of the 1990’s largely are dismantled. What we’re seeing now are battles over the new status quo — particularly as it relates to children. Because we all have such emotional responses towards the safety of children this is apt to be much more emotional and combative than prior restructurings of society such as in the 1970’s. In particular I think there are legitimate questions of when adults are pressuring children to adopt transgenderism without good cause and to what degree gender fluidity should be promoted. Even if you think, as I do, that brain development may indeed lead some people to not fit cognitively into their larger biological sex structures, you may also worry that this doesn’t describe everyone put into that category. Particularly medical science can’t yet distinguish between biological transgenderism, body dimorphism, and people (particularly teens) pressured into this by social factors. Put an other way, there are yet no objective biological elements science can point to to resolve such questions.
The implications of that seem very troubling to some. In the midst of the current period of political tribalism such questions seemed doomed to lead many to activism. That’s not just those pushing for broader rights typically on the left. Those in conservative religious movements already feeling pressure may also feel the same sense of anger towards activism. Middle ground, while easy to find, isn’t necessarily something either side of activists want to consider.
How does this matter in a more Latterday Saint context? I’m not entirely sure. We as a Church have barely started to grapple with a lot of the transgender issues. We’re still struggling to deal with gender attraction issues. Yet if gay and lesbian issues do manage to get resolved, that still leaves these other issues in place. Arguably they are even more intractable than the gay issues. Given how societal conflict is developing, it’s arguable that they will be even more divisive in the future. These issues are also much broader than transgenderism or drag queens. Feminists are quick to point out that many gender differences are problematic. They frequently see religious concerns in this area as an attempt to not just maintain gender difference but types of gender roles and expectations. Even though conservative religious communities like ours have modified expectations over the decades, they have simultaneously rejected fully dismantling differences.
The conflicts are coming and will make the current societal tensions worse. I don’t have much to say about solutions as I think there really aren’t any. Society will fight over the issue and arrive at a new set of stable norms. How long the social disruption lasts or what its conclusions will be are anyones guess. It is why I think many religious conservatives are attempting to gain a foothold even if I disagree with what they are urging in terms of tactics.
1. I don’t want to go through all the Sohrab Ahmari versus David French debate here. Do a Google search to see tons of articles on both sides and attempts to find a middle ground as well. I’ll here link to Alan Jacobs article at The Atlantic and Rich Lowry’s at National Review. Honestly I’m not entirely clear on the debate myself even after reading the various takes. Part of it is a debate about how civil to be with Ahmari seeing a need for a more “in your face” activism. Part of it is a debate about Catholic traditionalism versus other forms of Christianity. Part of it is latent conflicts between the long standing factions on the right. Particularly between communitarian aspects of the right in conflict with more Lockean individualism.
2. I think the press can overplay how big cultural backlash played into this. There’s no doubt populism was the driving factor. However other big factors was the loss of an unifying conservatism in the aftermath of George Bush’s failures, the backlash against TARP in the 2008 recession, and long standing anger at Republican leadership due to a disconnect between rhetoric and behavior. One also can’t dismiss how the press reported on the primaries giving Trump billions in free advertising along with incompetence in how other candidates treated Trump.