A new kind of debate is now raging inside conservativism. In times past, we discussed the strategic and tactical options by which we might work toward common goals inside the existing political framework.
Today, the framework itself is in question. What is being discussed is the classical liberal foundation of the American political system. Indeed, both left and right have worked inside this framework for much of our nation’s history. Rarely have we faced such a challenge to the way America resolves its problems.
However, liberalism is in crisis. Our society is in shambles and drifting steadily leftward. The most outlandish behaviors – political correctness, transgenderism and Satanism—are being mainstreamed. People are questioning the system because there appear to be no mechanisms inside this framework to prevent this decay and drift. They are looking for other solutions.
The Drag Queen Story Hour Trigger
This new state of affairs found its expression in the ongoing dialogue between National Review’s David French and First Things contributor Sohrab Ahmari. The case that triggered the French-Ahmari debate is the proliferation of what are called Drag Queen Story Hours. These events feature transvestite men who read LGBTQ-themed stories to three-year-old-and-up children at tax-supported public libraries.
According to the classical liberal interpretation defended by French, the story hours are an expression of free speech, regrettably competing in the marketplace of ideas. While we may not like it, we should not suppress but celebrate these events as expressions of differing opinions of what comprises a vision of the good life in a pluralistic society.
Opposing parents and conservatives are told they must allow these tax-funded public forums. They take place in value-neutral platforms open to all. To deny one party access is to deny it to all.
Reaching the Point of Absurdity
Hence comes the questioning. Common sense dictates that these events that corrupt youth be canceled.
Before our days, no one could ever have thought that we would have decayed to the point that drag queens would be reading to our three-year-olds. However, we have reached that point of absurdity. The maximizers of liberty have decreed that all must be permitted even though an overwhelming majority inside the community does not desire these lewd performances.
In a democratic society, where the people are supposed to rule, how does this angry majority defend themselves against the Drag Queen Story Hours and similar things that happen in their communities?
There appears to be no answer.
Liberty Gone Awry
For this reason, some say liberalism has failed because its inner dynamism has pushed unrestrained and disordered liberty beyond the limits needed for society to function properly. A social consensus around certain moral norms that used to filter excesses is crumbling and coming apart. A tiny minority can now tyrannize over others in the name of liberty gone awry.
The problem with liberalism is that its value-neutral public square easily becomes a value-free place where a Ten Commandments monument and a Satanist Baphomet statue share equal space. Sacred text and pornography are equally qualified as literature. There is no notion of a moral right and wrong, save that defined by the exercise of freedom. Except when it threatens the physical integrity of another, anything can and must be tolerated. We must recognize any absurd self-identification or pronoun.
Inside today’s framework, individual freedom trumps everything. Those opposing immorality in the public square have no ground upon which to stand. There are no criteria upon which to base the standards that would limit and restrain. A weak reference to tradition, custom or even public decency immediately gives rise to cries of imposing one co-equal opinion upon another—for indeed it is.
Even an appeal to the common good or the highest good found in more classical political text falls upon deaf liberal ears since no one can define what is meant by good and even common.
No Declaration of Evil
We have reached a point where nothing can be declared definitively evil. Everything is good, save those who claim an exclusive title to good. There is no evil save those who declare other things to be intrinsically wrong. Whatever the individual decides is good and right. Even “consensual” cannibalism is defended in today’s sick public square.
As a result, those who establish the limits of what is “good” are those who forever push the envelope toward what is forbidden. Today, it is not Christianity that decides what is “moral,” but drag queens, LGBT activists and the Satanic Temple that are stretching the limits of social acceptability to their activities. And they are imposing their views upon the opposition with increasing severity.
Recourse to a Universal Moral Law
The only way to fight today’s destructive moral relativism is to have recourse to a universal moral law based on human nature and not individual whims. There must be a return to a natural law discussion that elevates the debate beyond the field of personal opinions and whims.
That is to say, there is a natural moral law, which Saint Paul says, is inscribed on the hearts of all men whereby all might know by reason those moral precepts that define the good in life. This law’s general precept, from which all the others follow, is that “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” This law is valid for all times and all people in all places.
This law is not limited to Christians, although the Church is its best guardian. Throughout history, it has provided that rock of moral stability that favored human prospering. It is hardly a novel invention since American law and English common law are rooted in natural law traditions. It is not too much to insist that we might return to our roots.
The Tyranny of Anti-Natural Law
The alternative is the coming tyranny. The next aberrations beyond the story hours will soon be upon us. When modernity abandoned natural law, it enthroned a kind of anti-natural law. It replaced the constraints of human nature with the ever-expanding expressions of freedom. This new anti-natural law gives free rein to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s fantasy world where each has “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Indeed, when the insatiable human passions rule, they prove to be the greatest of tyrants.
If conservatives are to win the battle for America’s future, the debate needs to be reframed in these terms of right and wrong, good and evil. Those who play by the rules of the old liberal framework of moral relativism are doomed to failure since they must accept everything in the name of disordered liberty. Indeed, the future belongs to those who are not afraid to proclaim the truth: Drag Queen Story Hours are wrong.
John Horvat II is a scholar, researcher, educator, international speaker, and author of the book Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Soceity--Where We've Been, How We Go Here, and Where We Need to Go. He lives in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, where he is the vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.