My friend Rod Dreher recently argued from his blog that we have hit a point in the trans revolution where a moral panic is appropriate, saying:
Most people are not on Twitter, and if you’re one of these people, you may not be aware of the extent of the insanity. The media are not covering it, of course. It falls to badasses like Matt Walsh, Chaya Raichik (who runs the Libs Of Tik Tok account), Christina Buttons, and Chris Elston, the guy who runs the Billboard Chris website and Twitter account, to sound the alarm.
The things they document are not nut-picking (the practice of finding extreme weirdos, and falsely using them as an example of the whole). They are completely mainstream. These are things that, if we had a functional media instead of a Narrative-massaging industry, would be widely reported, and discussed intensely.
He then cites this video as one example amongst many possible examples of the threat before us:
Minnesota family physician says we need to give trans children puberty blockers, HRT, and transition surgeries. She also encourages teens to seek healthcare without parents pic.twitter.com/ReOYVQd6vB
— Libs of TikTok (@libsoftiktok) August 15, 2022
Rod also cites another prominent example of this same thinking that can be found in major medical institutions:
Almost all of society is unaware we have a cult in our midst cutting off organs of children and calling it ‘gender-affirming care.’
This is not limited to @BostonChildrens.
Kaiser Permanente in Oakland did a mastectomy on a 12-year-old girl, and castrates 16-year-old boys. pic.twitter.com/ln8vmHwJvB
— Billboard Chris 🇨🇦🇺🇸 (@BillboardChris) August 15, 2022
The danger here is not simply the threat posed to the bodies of children, however, as Rod rightly notes. The regime on which such practices can be built and can be justified is a regime with no regard for parental rights or the natural family — a point we have been making in these pages for many years. It truly is a wholesale reimagining of what politics are for, what human society is, and even what the human person is.
It is for this reason, Rod argues, that a moral panic is necessary. Up till now, he says, both the church’s response and the right wing political response has been tepid, insufficient to combat the evils confronting us. So: It’s time for a moral panic.
The problem I see here is not that Rod’s assessment of the threat is wrong. Indeed, while Rod is one of the more prominent writers raising these concerns, others are as well. Brian Mattson recently suggested that it may be time for Christians in Washington state to consider moving because of the state’s laws about medical disclosure and parental rights. And, frankly, if I lived in a state with laws like those of Washington, I’d be considering a move.
It’s also important to note that this kind of costly discipleship is fairly normal in Christian history but, for American Christians accustomed to comfort and ease, it can sound severe. It shouldn’t. Speaking in historical terms, we should not be surprised that fidelity to Christ is forcing such hard, demanding questions on us. It has ever been so. “He who does not hate his father and mother…”
What’s more, I think Rod’s practical counsel at the end of the piece is broadly correct: First, be aware of what your kids are learning in school and don’t let them have smartphones. Second, encourage your ecclesial and political leaders to speak up about these issues. Third, begin preparing for long-term adversity and taking up the practices and habits that will allow us to endure in the faith. If more Christians did all three of these things, the church would be much better off.
The difficulty is that I think it is precisely the language of moral panic that makes actually doing these things difficult. To follow McKoy’s lead and use a Godfather analogy, I think that Rod as well as many of the folks in the broader reactionary orbit are going the Sonny Corleone route. And Sonny doesn’t win. Sure, he scores a few points. But in the end he self-destructs and nearly destroys the Corleone family. So: If Rod is right about the degree of the evil challenging us and if he’s correct in some of his practical steps, but wrong to advise panic, what should we do?
Adopting a broader lens for understanding our moment is a good place to begin. Though Rod is not an evangelical, his interpretation of our moment has an evangelical tinge to it, I think. Evangelicals are notoriously parochial, often interpreting events purely in terms of how they affect us or exaggerating our relative importance, for good or ill, in driving historical events. In this respect, the exvangelicals may well be worse than their parents. (That’s another claim we’ve been making for years around these parts.) Whether it’s the exvangelicals that want to say we’re responsible for Trump and 1/6 (and a bunch of other horrible things, too, no doubt) or the reactionaries who chiefly want to interpret our moment in terms of its hostility to Christianity, all camps over-value the relative importance of Christians to this cultural moment.
There is a certain sense in which I think we would all be better off if we were post-Christian and everything was still defined in opposition to Christianity. But the reality is we’ve left that era behind and are in something new. The era we’re leaving behind is what Mark Sayers has called “the Secular Sabbath.” (Sayers dates this era from the end of the Cold War until about 2016.) It was marked by a sense of relative peace and stability which enabled a high degree of personal comfort, self-creation, and conspicuous consumption. History was over, so now we can eat, drink, and be merry. Except history wasn’t over and now we’re living in a world where the stakes of our politics suddenly feel much higher.
This is the context in which to read our culture’s sexual progressivism. The trans revolution is many things, but one of them is an exaggeration (to the point of parody) of the Secular Sabbath-era belief in self-creation and self-definition. If you can be whatever you want to be, if you can do anything, well… why can’t you be a woman if you’re born a man? Why can’t you change your gender identity or even change your biological sex? (One implication of this is that if the trans revolution is a parody of secular sabbath-era self creation, then it’s possible that the trans revolution is a child of the secular sabbath and, as such, will either die or transform itself into something new as our current gray zone moment ends. Keep an eye on the metaverse, technologies like Neuralink, and the transhumanist movement more generally. My hunch is that the craziest sexual revolution ideology will drift toward this with time, becoming less explicitly concerned with sex and gender and more preoccupied with transcending the human body altogether. Meanwhile, we may also be headed for an era of sex negativity in the medium-term future.)
This sort of exaggeration is common in what Sayers refers to as a “gray zone.” Gray zones are eras of transition in which the norms and characteristics of one era are ending and those of the next have not yet emerged or been defined. We know the Secular Sabbath is over; we don’t yet know what will come next.
Unsurprisingly, one of the chief responses to life under such conditions is anxiety. When we don’t know what’s coming next, it makes sense that many of us will feel anxious and alarmed. Worse still, because of the unique traits of our current era, this anxiety has a way of going viral within societies. There are two pressing reasons for this.
First, due to digital technology, ideas can spread with astonishing speed in our world today. But it’s not actually ideas that spread the best on our networks; it is negative emotions. This is why everyone is angry on Twitter, why troll organizations generate such huge traffic from Facebook, and why many TikTok influencers build their platforms on polemics and rage. This reality both facilitates the direct spread of anxiety, which is itself a negative emotion, as well as spreading other reasons for people to become anxious. In a digitally facilitated gray zone, one person’s anxiety can, within hours, become 100 people’s anxiety.
Second, during gray zone moments the institutions established in the prior era often don’t survive through the gray zone and into the new regime. Even under the best circumstances, these institutions may find it difficult to retain trust and credibility. They will, rather, often be dismissed as being out of touch, from a bygone era, and so on, even if those accusations aren’t really accurate. (If you have followed the criticisms of Tim Keller, you have seen this dynamic in action.)
Worse still, if an institution’s leaders behave in dishonorable ways, the institution will be further discredited. Here you can just look at Mars Hill Church, RZIM, Willow Creek… you know the drill.
The result of all this is that institutions are weakened even as networks are strengthened. But while networks are good at spreading negative emotions, institutions are good at absorbing negative emotions, as Sayers explains.
(Edwin) Friedman discovered that one of the social functions that institutions play is to absorb anxiety. Humans create institutions to pass on wisdom, to collectively conquer challenges, to centralize critical knowledge. It is an accepted fact among political scientists that well-functioning and healthy institutions are the bedrock of peaceful and prosperous societies. Just think of the way that a well-functioning medical system can allay our fears over a health concern. However, with the devaluing and disappearance of institutions, individuals were left to absorb the culture’s anxiety. Anxiety then becomes a systemic phenomenon.
This next part is critical:
By classifying anxiety as a personal issue rather than a systemic issue, we place an enormous burden on the individual, who then must modify their personal lives to alleviate the suffering that anxiety brings. Instead, Friedman taught leaders that they must understand that anxiety resides in networks of human relationships.
So this now needs to frame how we think about the moment and, crucially, how we expect Christian leaders and communities to respond to it. This is the conceptual gap I see in Rod’s work, but also in the work of many others in that same reactionary culture warrior space.
“Know what your kids are hearing in school and seeing on their phones,” is great. But more basic then all that is having good habits of care and attentiveness to your kids, such that you have a relationship that allows your authority over them to be fruitful and effective. Likewise, “appeal to your leaders to address it,” is also good. But are you the kind of person your pastor or representative actually wants to hear from? Do you have the kind of presence in your community and relationship to your leaders that they actually listen when you speak? And “build enduring institutions designed for resistance,” is great, but you can’t build such institutions when your coalition is filled with enraged, belligerent, anxious people, as are virtually every movement and institution on the anti-woke right.
In other words, if we don’t do the practical things Rod advises, we’re gonna lose. But if we rush about with the anxiety and panic that Rod seemingly commends… we’re also gonna lose, even when we appear to win short-term political victories. While it’s true that we need a plan for ‘negative world,’ and the systemic hostility to Christian belief present in many elite American institutions and blue states, the great temptation for us to resist is to address the problem in a way that wins the battle and loses the war. This was the primary point of my Orbanism essay. What we should be after is not simply power, but authority. We need persuasion rather than mere coercion. Victories obtained by power alone are undone by power alone. If we are going to make positive changes that actually endure, we must attend to questions of virtue and character as well as the pervasive problem of anxiety. When we ignore these things, we make authentic victory impossible.
To put the problem another way: There is something instructive about the recent insurrection in the Nebraska Republican party. Here in Nebraska, the third district has the resources, within the state GOP, to overrule the first and second district Republicans. And they did.
But here’s the problem: The more the Nebraska state GOP looks like the third district, the more it will struggle in Lincoln and Omaha. And the more it struggles in Lincoln and Omaha, the more impotent it will be. For better or worse, Lincoln and Omaha are the state’s population centers, economic centers, educational centers, and political centers. By completely eliminating what you might call the Ben Sasse sensibility within the state party and replacing it with figures closer to what you’d find on OAN or InfoWars, the state party has basically guaranteed its long-term irrelevance in Lincoln and Omaha.
In a similar way, if the American church (and here I am particularly concerned with the reformed churches and the PCA in particular, as those are the churches I am most proximate to) doubles down on the language of panic, they might enjoy what seems to be a short-term triumph within Christian institutions, chasing off some folks who genuinely are heterodox and a threat to the continued fidelity and integrity of Christian communities.
But the posture and style counseled by these leaders will also accelerate the already alarming trend of dechurching amongst those already in the church and further undermine any serious effort at evangelization, all of which will have the effect of further weakening our institutions. (Here it is perhaps worth returning to Rod’s struggle to answer my question about evangelization and Christian hospitality in our interview discussing Live Not by Lies.)
The challenges facing us are formidable. And the evils being done in our nation today are great, crying out to heaven for judgment. On that, Rod and I are in full agreement. But being able to name the evils is one thing. Knowing how to successfully fight them is another. That was the thing Sonny Corleone never learned to do. And eventually he lost. I don’t want us to lose.