Count this as an appendix to my first piece on the David French versus Sohrab Ahmari conversation. After publishing it, I realized I never discussed the matter of drag queen story hour (DQSH), which occupied their debate. And DQSH offers a useful, if idiosyncratic, test case for the issues at stake.
For those who didn’t read my previous article, I argued that Christians should not be bamboozled by liberal theory’s pretense to neutrality, which is a ruse. The public square is a battleground of gods where people swing swords in defense of their god’s view of justice. Christians, for their part, should determine for themselves what the Bible says about government and justice and then pursue that view of justice in the pluralistic public square, albeit with common-ground arguments. Meanwhile, we can acknowledge that liberal democratic institutions, though not biblical writ, offer us wise, even ingenious mechanisms both for affirming certain biblical values, such as human dignity and religious freedom, and for fighting for them, even when—maybe particularly when—culture grows inhospitable to the Christian faith.
Pragmatic Reasons Are One Thing, Principled Reasons Another
With all this in mind, how should we respond to drag queen story hour?
Ahmari would shut it down.
French cannot imagine why Christians would. He calls being able to hold such an event “one of the blessings of liberty.”
I say, it depends.
French accepts DQSH for both pragmatic and principled reasons, which in my mind are very different. Pragmatically, he says, shutting down the DQSH today increases the likelihood that local governments will look for ways to shut down Christians tomorrow. Which is not a stupid point. Indeed, they strike me as reasonable battlefield tactics. Think of how local governments have begun to question whether churches should be allowed to meet in public school cafeterias on Sunday mornings.
My larger concerns lie with French’s principled defense of DQSH. You hear it when he talks about “viewpoint-neutral access” and “procedural liberalism,” which he equates with classical liberalism. But this is actually closer to a contemporary Rawlsian liberalism, which leads me back to the ruse of liberalism.
We Need Apocalyptic Eyesight
To know what to do with DQSH, as well as French’s principled defense, Christians need two things: apocalyptic eyesight and better ecclesiology.
Start with the former. The word apocalypsis in classical Greek means an uncovering or a revealing, and drag queen story hour warrants such an uncovering. If you look in with apocalyptic eyes, you’ll see the gods of Sex and Identity and Self gallivanting about. Or call them Aphrodite or Venus or Qetesh, in case that clarifies the point. Either way, these names aren’t just metaphors. They’re gods every bit as real as the false gods of scripture. They define identity, establish morality, create cultic rituals, and demand sacrifice, even child sacrifice. They are worshipped in every sense of that word. They control people’s whole lives and seek to leverage the mechanisms of the marketplace and the state for their purposes
This apocalyptic vision, which I called Augustinianism in my previous article, registers everyone as a worshipper.
Drag queen story hour in the public library, specifically, is an exercise in making disciples for these gods. It’s publicly funded spiritual formation. Readers teach children to think, feel, morally evaluate, love, and identify themselves in a self-constructed fashion. They train them in worship, albeit of a pagan variety.
The Christian equivalent, mind you, would be reading the Jesus Storybook Bible in the public library, or even praying in Jesus’ name in a public school. Would the Christian defenders of liberalism protect such activities, too?
The larger point is, when we look in with apocalyptic eyes, which liberalism utterly lacks, we discover that one god or another rules the roost in all our public spaces, whether we know the names of those gods or not. It’s biblically and spiritually naïve to pretend these spaces themselves are “objective” or “neutral” or free of idols. At best, these spaces represent a place where my God and your god agree—an overlapping consensus, to use the infamous Rawlsianism.
How the Neutral Public Square Slants Toward Unnamed Gods
Still, should we offer “viewpoint-neutral access”? Should we keep the public library or school doors open to both Aphrodite and Jesus?
First of all, no one—ever!—has allowed such unrestricted access. The Founders never allowed the gods of Sex and Identity such access, though they admitted the gods of White Supremacy. Today, we work toward the opposite. Every time and place has its unwritten rules about which gods may enter. Every generation has its priests who declare some gods “clean” and others “unclean.” Yesterday, praying in Jesus’ name was “clean.” Today, transgender discipleship is. The so-called overlapping consensus continually shifts.
Yet second, and more crucially, realize what happens when this idea of “viewpoint-neutral access” is combined with our ideas about the separation of church and state. The “viewpoint-neutral access” hall pass isn’t actually given to advocates of organized religion. Unnamed idols can walk breezily into the public library, school, or town hall. But defenders of a big-G God dare not speak his name. Don’t say, “God created them male and female” or “That embryo is created in God’s image.” Such talk is treated as a religious imposition, which in turn counts as the merging of church and state.
Put all this together, and we discover that the “access neutral” public square, in a secular age, slants hard toward idolatry, false worship, and little-g gods whom nobody will name. Even Christians end up defending the drag queen’s public service to Aphrodite or whomever, but would never defend the idea of praying in a public school.
What Is the Separation of Church and State?
Yet it’s not only liberalism’s lack of apocalyptic vision that’s to blame. We misconstrue the separation of church and state, which in turn roots in a lack of ecclesiology—obviously among the secular theorists, but more importantly among Christians. I don’t expect John Rawls to know what a church is. I do wish Christians did.
If I had to guess, average secularists’ understanding of a church amounts to “a religious organization that talks about God stuff.” They affirm the separation of church and state because they don’t want any of our God stuff imposed on them. Notice that in this perspective, then, the separation of church and state is about the origination of ideas. If some idea originated in a church or faith-tradition, the secularist now has a way of ruling the idea out of court from the get-go: “That idea originates in your religion. You can’t impose it on me.”
Construing the separation of church and state this way is extremely convenient for the secularists. They, too, have functional religions and functional churches, false gods and institutions devoted to those false gods, whether it’s the gym, marketplace, university, media, movies, or science laboratory. But any ideas originating in their houses of worship need not come under suspicion. Separation of church and state means separation from my church and its ideas, not theirs, because my church is organized.
Not only that, but Christians go along with it. Our political intuitions, formed by decades of such thinking, react differently to the drag queen teaching children to “twerk” in the library than the idea of someone reading the Jesus Storybook Bible or praying in a public school. Why? Twerking doesn’t originate in an organized faith, while the name Jesus does, as if the matter of origination really amounted to a significant moral difference.
Notice, furthermore, the irony. It’s the Bible-reading Christian who possesses faith-based reasons not to impose the whole of his or her religion in the pluralistic public square. We will work to impose what the Bible says belongs to the government’s jurisdiction, as with criminalizing murder or theft, but we have neither the authority nor ability to criminalize everything the Bible calls sin or to create true worshippers of Jesus by the sword. Our religion is publicly self-limiting. It’s the gods of secularism who have no self-imposed limits. There’s nothing in their religion that would prevent them from imposing the whole of their faith on a nation’s citizens. And, sure enough, they do.
The larger problem here is that the separation of church and state is not about imposing our religion on others. Every law establishes someone’s religion, even a law against murder. (Gratefully, most of our gods agree on that particular law.) Nor is separation about the origination of opinions. Rather, a biblically conceived doctrine of the separation of church and state is about jurisdictional authority. It recognizes that God has given one kind of authority to governments (the sword) and another kind to churches (the keys), and neither should usurp the other.
So, no, churches and their officers should have no hand in regulating who receives access to the public library or what’s taught in classrooms or in writing our laws. All this falls outside the jurisdiction of a church. Churches should concern themselves with preaching the Bible and affirming who belongs to the kingdom of God through the ordinances. The church should remain separate from the state!
We Have No Ecclesiology
But—and here is the key—that is not equivalent to saying that individual Christians, in their capacity as citizens, should be denied the ability to enter the public square and pursue God’s “Noahic justice,” as I defined it in the previous article. Christians should be allowed to enter the public square and seek to accurately label and deny the impositions of false gods, including Aphrodite’s disciple-making work in the public library.
Again, I don’t expect non-Christians to sign onto this way of viewing things, but Christians should. The problem is, most Christians have no ecclesiology. They have little understanding of the institutional authority and concreteness of a church, and how the individual Christian and his or her opinions are not the same thing as a church and its authority. The individual Christian walking into the public square is not the same thing as a church walking into the public square.
The First Amendment’s careful phrasing, remarkably, strikes a good balance. It doesn’t refuse Congress the ability to “establish religion,” which, again, every law effectively does. Rather, it says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” I like the reference to “an establishment” of religion, which obliquely acknowledges the aforementioned distinction between a Christian and an establishment of Christians, a church. Congress doesn’t get to pass laws that make a church a church or a mosque a mosque or an establishment of religion an establishment of religion. It doesn’t get to organize the adherents of any particular religion. Rather, the government should leave the organizing of religion to the establishments of religion—to the churches and synagogues and mosques.
In short, there’s a difference between establishing religion and establishing a religion, or between establishing principles that have their basis in religion and organizing, subsidizing, and regulating membership in a particular religion. Congress cannot help but do the former; it must not do the latter. The latter work belongs to churches.
Pragmatic, Maybe; Principled, No
Back then to drag queen story hour. Every parent and pastor knows we cannot pick every fight, and sometimes picking fights makes things worse. If that’s all David French is saying, I understand. I’m no political tactician, but he might be right.
But let’s enter the conversation with our eyes apocalyptically wide open, knowing that liberalism puts the wrong signs on things. It names things “neutral” that aren’t and calls things “not religious” that are in fact religious. It cannot see the realities of heaven but has its own gaze permanently fixed on the stubborn, intractable fact of empirical pluralism here below. In that way, frankly, it serves us as Christians. It forces us to work hard at searching for common ground, which is a salubrious exercise.
Yet recognize the dangers of any arguments based on liberal principles. Liberalism is the counselor who always asks us to make a deal, to compromise, to save our bullets for another day, in the name of a greater good it calls “neutrality” or “rules of procedure.” It does not possess the resources from within itself for knowing when to say, “Enough is enough!” or “That is unjust” or “I choose disenfranchisement or civil disobedience over that!” In fact, liberalism isn’t just a counselor. It’s an ambassador for another god. How? It requires primary allegiance to upholding the liberal-democratic order over and against any of our substantive views of justice. It sanctifies the concepts of neutrality and its set of procedures with a moral “ought” that trumps all other (substantive and sectarian) moral “oughts.”
Over time, then, these liberal “oughts” work like acid. They slowly eat away at our more substantive views of justice. They disarm the independent consciences of a people by asking everyone to trade in their convictions in exchange for a seat at the table. French is worried about the tit-for-tat that occurs between one presidential administration and the next. Fair enough. But what might we be trading away over decades, even centuries?
My bottom line is, I might