Battle for the Public Square

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

24 comments for “Battle for the Public Square

  1. I would argue that the US has more religious freedom than it has ever had.

    1. Freedom from religion is an important component of freedom of religion, and freedoms from religion have increased.

    2. The freedoms of LGBTQ+-supporting religions is also another important component of religious freedom. Religions now have more freedom to marry same-sex couples.

    3. The freedoms of Muslims is also an important but overlooked aspect. This is the only area where I think we may actually be able to argue that religious freedoms might be under threat. But, still, overall Muslims appear to enjoy more religious freedom than they have ever had in the US. For one, Ilhan Omar is the first ever congresswoman to wear a Muslim headscarf. That is pretty significant.

    I think the LDS Church and many other conservative churches tend to confuse pressures for change from within with pressure from outside to change. The former pressures have been significant, but the latter pressures have been insignificant. Overall, I hear lots of cries of wolf.

  2. I expect the Latter-day Saint response to be largely, “biological sex determines gender” and to treat transgender issues as mental health issues. That response is incredibly unpopular in social and (some) traditional media (and the science on the issue, as you alluded to, isn’t settled at all from what little this layman could understand), and I expect to see significant push against that stance over the next few years. One ward in our stake has struggled over how to include two trans members. They want to attend Relief Society and the other members of the Relief Society don’t want them there (and frankly don’t want them at church). All I can say is that it’s very easy for us to say Lord, Lord, but much more difficult to sit and commune with those we deem publicans and sinners.

  3. Nate I ultimately don’t think the issue is religious freedom so much as it is norms in the public sphere. After all someone might be free to do something yet that something is against social norms. (Say adultery for an extreme case) I certainly agree that we are more free than we were in the 19th century (exceptionally so). Likewise I think that if we want to focus on freedom of religion looking at minority religions like Islam or native American traditions is the place to look. None of that really was what I was getting at though.

    Not, I certainly agree the Church doesn’t know how to respond to such issues. Is it mental illness? Is it something to be accepted? Is it something to be discouraged? I would make a distinction though between Jesus sitting with publicans and sinners and what he taught as required by his Church. It’s that distinction between acceptance and love that I think gets overlooked – although I think the trans issue is more more complicated than that. My sense is that often many (not necessarily you here) pointing to Christ’s loving the marginalized implies he felt like they should be normative. Yet that seems difficult to reconcile with his teachings. Acceptance vs. tolerance is a difficult needle to thread. Many critics with some justification suggest that toleration is not enough. Yet acceptance implies social norms are wrong.

    Some, especially following a kind of Lockean approach, suggest that the public sphere should just be what we all agree upon. That was always a problematic standard. It becomes even more problematic when we fundamentally disagree over what is a harm and lack a broad agreement over what is just.

  4. “My own feeling is that we’re in a transitionary period and society is trying to discover what the new norms should be.”

    Well yes. That transitory period started some tens of thousands of years ago (at least) and there is no (universal) society nor discovery. I suspect you know exactly what those norms ought to be. Are you really trying to “discover” norms? This blog (and most others in my opinion) exists to declare norms, not discover them. Is there anything in modern times that was not also disputed in ancient Greece by Plato and Socrates? Some details perhaps.

    So who chooses the norms? Some loudmouth in {Athens, Seattle, Rome, New York City, Salt Lake City, …}

    “incompetence in how other candidates treated Trump.”

    Hilary’s undoing was probably the “basket of deplorables”. Its a large basket and its easy to be deplorable. The least possible electable alternative choice nevertheless got elected. Hilary’s mistake was spectacular but I think at that moment she was actually speaking her mind; the left wing elite really does deplore most ordinary Americans and believe themselves enlightened when really it is me.

    The moment of Obama’s undoing is there on YouTube for all to see; insulting Donald Trump and a roomful of reports laughing at his expense. Regardless of who Obama was insulting it is poor character, but Obama incredibly chose to insult the one man with sufficient resources to unravel the Obama legacy.

    So yeah, as you say, incompetence — but was it? Obama has an IQ of 140; was he setting the stage for Trump’s presidency as an alternative to another Clinton presidency? Might an Obama have conflict with a rich white Arkansas politician? Trump at least is “what you see is what you get”, neither Democrat nor Republican.

  5. You do realise more Americans voted for Hilary, but because of gerrymandering by Republican governors you can’t have a fair election? An independent electroraI commision to set boundaries of electorates, and run the elections, with voting on Saturday to make voting easier could be a help. I suspect that those with money would be defending their positions too, and for example oil money opposing green, or renewables, often with lies.

    So the country did not reject democratic beliefs, or convert to republican or trumpian views.

    As for the discussion of sexual identies. Why can we not just accept that what a person believes about themselves can be respected and trusted. Why do some (often in the name of religion) want to decide for others what they should do, and label it as sin if they don’t approve. Obviously there are some things that are harmfull like pedophilia, or polygamy, but what individuals believe about themselves, or consenting adults agree to is their concern, isn’t it?

    I certainly think gay marriage is good.

  6. Gender and sexual orientation exist along a natural continuum for EVERYBODY, including the General Authorities. Genes & womb hormonal/antibody environment are determinative. Greg Prince correctly identified the determining factor in same-sex attraction as primarily, if not exclusively, biology. At some point the leadership has to come to grips w/ this. There’s right, there’s wrong, and then there’s reality (see POX). The Black priesthood ban was also rooted in pseudo-scientific/pseudo-theological ultra-conservative nonsense. I understand these are difficult issues for a conservative church but knew-jerks like POX badly damage the institution.

  7. “Why can we not just accept that what a person believes about themselves can be respected and trusted.”


    -I believe I can fly. (Taxpayer must clean up the mess when I jump; I may hurt someone else when I land; etc.)

    -Meth makes me more productive. (Family suffers when I spend all money and turn violent and paranoid; employer will fire me; neighbors will suffer burglaries when I can’t afford supply after losing employment; taxpayer foots criminal justice and drug treatment bills, etc…)

    -socialism is wonderful (ignoring that everywhere it’s implemented the consumer gets less, for higher prices, while quality dives, and taxes soar, and that many places where it’s been implemented the power of the state increases dramatically to the detriment of freedom.)

    -White supremacists believe quite sincerely in their inherent superiority over people of other races. (A self-evident lie that was dismantled philosophically by the principles of the Declaration of Independence and by Abraham Lincoln’s arguments.)

    -I’m some gender other than male or female. (This used to be impossible until “gender,” an old grammatical term signaling only inflection, was redefined recently to spearhead the liberal social agenda. Sex and gender used to be coterminous. Two sexes/genders. With gender severed from sex, Facebook recognizes something like 55 genders. This is absurd to all with common sense. Every farmer of livestock KNOWS that his cattle, sheep, and chickens come in TWO varieties: male and female. The animals’ “beliefs about themselves” are beside any cognizable point.)

    -This arm doesn’t belong to me [body integrity dysphoria]. (You rightly would call me an ambulance. Body integrity dysphoria is clearly a mental disorder, regardless, or epspecially because one sincerely believes it. It signals disharmony between physical reality and the mind.)

    -I was born homosexual. (This may be true in many or most instances, but it doesn’t follow that this fact should become any sort of norm. If everyone were to practice homosexuality, the human race would go extinct.)

    One could go on. While respecting what others say about themselves is polite and often the right or a charitable thing to do, many people these days often say the most manifestly absurd and ridiculous things about themselves. So long as those absurd things remain a thing unto themselves, they can be tolerated or ignored. But now the most extreme absurdity has become political and activist and belligerent. It lobbies and celebrates and parades. It votes and boycotts and censors. We cannot anymore ignore it. Where dysphorias and disorders seek to become the norm, they can expect opposition. Nothing less than human happiness and perpetuation are at stake.


  8. “One could go on.”


    ps – people are not generally classified as farm animals

  9. p,
    “People are not generally classified as farm animals.” Absolutely correct. But farm animals don’t generally advocate for the removal of their own genitalia. Cows do not organize and try to become bulls. Or vice versa. Thank heavens. The Vet bills would be enormous!

  10. @GEOFF -AUS
    For the record, US Republican governors do not control how many Presidential Electoral votes each state receives. The US Federal Government was a creation of the individual states and the states are given some deference in how the US Federal Government is constituted. The Presidential Electoral college is one of those mechanisms, as is the allotment of 2 Senators per state. All parties know the rules before the contest starts. I hope this helps…

  11. Clark, to your point about Christ sitting down with publicans and sinners, if the church building is truly a spiritual hospital, it’s going to be hard to heal the sick if the hospital staff are actively screening out patients who look different but are otherwise willing to try to comply with hospital protocols.

  12. Not, I think all are welcome at our meetings so long as they follow some semblance of decorum. But that’s not what was at issue was it? I knew lots of people not at all keeping the commandments who still came to Sacrament. That’s great and hopefully eventually many of them turned around to the right direction.

    Michael, I think part of the issue is we aren’t entirely sure what the norms should be. A lot of this is uncharted territory without revelation. For the rest I think I’ll avoid that tangent for now. I have my own feelings on them but I’d rather stay more focused on the issue of public norms.

  13. Chair, I think it was clear that I was suggesting we respect the individuals understanding of their own sexuality. Struggling to respect your processes that get not being able to fly, or population ceasing because 5% of the population is not hetrosexual.
    The problem as I see it is that one side believe in their agency to do what they believe is right for them, while the other side believe not only that they should do what they believe is right for them, but that they should also be able to make others do that too against their will.
    These are not comparable positions. If the conservatives win others loose rights. If the other side wins the conservatives loose the privelidge of dictating to others. Not comparable losses. When conservatives feel under attack, it is their past privelidge that is being attacked.
    In the past they have had that priveledge and abused it. Who decided it should be illegal to be gay, then to fight against gay marriage, then refuse to respect it when it became legal. To the rising secular generation historical abuse has lost credibility, so trying to claim credibility is a loosing battle.
    It is obvious for example that there is nothing a priesthood holder does in the filling of his responsibilities that a woman could not do at least as well. There is also no reason to believe that a gay marriage should be less than a straight marriage. (there are straight marriages that need help to produce offspring in this world, and no evidence of how either gay or straight couples will produce spirit children)
    I think the religious conservatives only have authority when they are seen to have something of value , that is undisputed. What proportion of members are progressive voters? They are able to say to themselves that they believe in the restored gospel, even though conservatives in leadership continually let their political beliefs lead them astray on issues, like racism, opposition to birth control,opposition to gays, and then gay marriage, sexism. But to continually choose the conservative view over the gospel does damage their credibility.
    Same applies in the real world.

  14. Geoff-Aus “The problem as I see it is that one side believe in their agency to do what they believe is right for them, while the other side believe not only that they should do what they believe is right for them, but that they should also be able to make others do that too against their will.”

    I assume you think the “other side…make others do that against their will” as above described is, in your mind, the “conservatives.” However, the “one side believe in their agency to do what they believe is right for them” (in your mind the liberals?) currently have many examples of trying to use the force of law to make others act against their will (e.g., must create a work of art that celebrates something they believe is immoral.)

    In a free society, don’t our various ways of living out our lives ALWAYS lead to some conflicts in the public arena that need to be resolved so that we can peacefully co-exist? The process for resolution can be long and uncomfortable, but I wonder if it can be peaceful when the voices are so strident, demanding, and militant. And the picture of absolute polarization which is fomented by media (more clicks = more $$) creates even more distortion.

  15. For instance, Eileen, two of our more strident & vociferous conservative commentators here, the chair and Old Man, utilize livestock references when discussing transsexualism – not uncommon behavior for that brand, where ideology trumps the gospel literally every time. In fact, for that set ideology IS the gospel. What I call that: deeply confused.

  16. P, what are you talking about? Do you bandy around phrases like ideology without understanding how you’ve completely absorbed the false consciousness of a hegimonic, at times outright demonic culture, and called it your own true mindset?

    Sheep vs goats?
    Or would you rather a parable of the vineyard and be related to dead wood?
    Maybe be related to a dog eating scraps from the masters table?

    We are living in a natural world and the non gospel scientific way would be compare us to evolutionary ancestors. But the Savior didn’t have a problem with that either so maybe he’s ok with comparing us to all of his father’s creations.

    Anyone that wants to cut off part of a healthy functional body because they believe it will make them more emotionally or sexually or romantically satisfied is almost certainly delusional and e who support it are likely insane or deluded as well.

  17. LibCon I refer you to the Age of Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution which is where most of this newfangled thinking began. Darwin started us on the path to genomics which will undoubtedly reveal a great deal re: the desire to change gender and many other aspects of the infinitely complex Human Condition.

  18. I would ask we be respectful of people and positions we don’t hold and not use offensive metaphors.

    P, as I said in the OP I would feel much more comfort on the issue of transgenderism if we could distinguish in a scientific fashion body dimorphism from transsexualism. If we can’t the assumption that each person knows falls apart a great deal. Regret among people who had surgery in that regard also is significant. Even if it’s just a sizable minority that seems a disturbing issue especially where social pressure is being brought to bear. Where this becomes more problematic though is with children.

  19. “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.”

    I don’t understand these statements, Clark. What does dimorphism have to do w/ transgender-ism? Science will likely point you to 46XY androgen receptor mutation as very clearly intersex, but you seem to be commingling psychology and physiology in your paragraph.

  20. Body dimorphism is the class of phenomena where people have incorrect views of their body they can’t shake. We don’t know a biological reason for this yet. The problem is that the psychological conception that one is properly of the other sex fits both body dimorphism (incorrect view of body) and the claim that gender is actually innate in the brain and not matched by sexual organs. Hermaphrodite biology obviously is a case where one can’t know the sex of the person and thus we accept that the desire to be a particular sex is appropriate. The reason body dimorphism poses a problem is that we know it’s a rather common phenomena. Anorexia is the obvious common example but there are many other manifestations. The problem is that in this case mental illness over perceiving ones body can’t be distinguished from a more “proper” cognitive development of the perception of gender.

    Why that matters is that by trying to be accepting to those who properly have their gender in the brain developed in a particular way we may push those suffering body dimorphism into unhealthy practices and even surgery. The two seem to be importantly different. We can, after all, distinguish between someone naturally thin and someone with an eating disorder. With regards to distinguishing body dimorphism from transsexualism we have no way to do so. Even if we find one receptor that correlates to some degree with intersex, that doesn’t resolve the problem since not all people thinking they are transexual are apt to have that receptor. Further, if science does eventually agree on such a thing, do you think the left will accept it as a way of socially distinguishing transsexualism from mental illness? (I don’t.)

    As I said, in a certain sense while that inability to distinguish is tragic for adults who think they are transexual while not, it is far worse for children. I think it makes complete sense for social conservatives to worry about this.

    Now there’s a rising social push for gender fluidism where the very notion of gender itself is rejected. Everyone should be bisexual and even transgendered in a certain degree. I think even for those who want to be accepting of people’s complex gender that is out of their control such a social norm is deeply disturbing and problematic.

  21. Clark,
    There’s nothing problematic about it if you have no ideal concept of humans being prototypes for Gods who exist as heavenly parents.

    Modern society divorced sex from procreation more effectively than ever before, and in the last couple decades we’ve then gone on to divorce marriage from family.

    So to sum up, 1. we lack an understanding of who our original parents are (who we will, or can become like); 2. the connection and growth that comes when sexual activity is linked with a high of confidence of procreation; 3. transformed marriage from primarily a gateway to building a family to mere individual romance and fullfulment.

    See? Sex is about fullfulment. Marriage is about fullfulment. Living true to who you feel like? Fullfulment.

    Along the way we’ve exploded the availability of pornography, sexual addiction, diseases, disorders and more.

    There’s no doubt that each subsequent generation is either losing more and more connection with our true purpose as it relates to sexuality.

    It’s hardly articulated that well in the church, and we have so much of the truth at the foundations of the generations of eternity. So naturally society has accelerated it’s misunderstanding.

    We’ve cut the anchor and are moving adrift so fast it’s now bigoted if gay women don’t want to have a relationship with a male claiming to be female with male anatomy.

    It’s all bigotry and bias to these types, because there is no ideal other than fullfulment. If it can create pleasure, you must accept it as long as the person claims to be a nice person.

    I respect your even handed attempt to balance out the issue by looking for scienctific consensus to solve the issue. But surely it’s obvious that path is fraught with analysis bias and confirmation bias and so on. There’s no doubt we have something somewhere in our body that can point to the presence of anger, impulse, depression etc. We are physical beings after all. Something chemical must be going on.

    None of that has any bearing whatsoever into what we *should* do. That’s 100% cultural and our culture has already separated sex from procreation.

    Public acceptance of whatever marginal behavior is always just a generation away at that point.

  22. I am not in the conservative loop, but what I am seeing with this blog is conservatives not seeing their arguments against gay marriage being believed, now saying but what about all these other non hetrosexual people. A distraction to try to divert from the present discussion about gay marriage. So rather that accept gay marriage you are trying a diversion tactic.

  23. Your disenchantments w/ modern life are remarkable, LibCon. You allude to more ideal times, which are fictional and belie the authority w/ which you speak.

  24. Geoff, I think you have a somewhat distorted view of American conservatism. I think most recognize gay marriage is a done deal in terms of American practice. To assume that our posts are an attempted diversion tactic seems quite odd. I think the issue of how to deal with people who have homosexual attraction has a ton of theological issues with it. The purpose of this post is just to note that there are even bigger issues coming precisely because gay acceptance is socially a done deal in the United States. So now the topic is moving to trans rights nationally. I think you’re right that the Church hasn’t figured out how to handle homosexual issues. Although I also think that’s right in the OP.

    Libcon, the issue isn’t the ideal, but what to do with situations that aren’t ideal.

    While I certainly agree that what “is” (i.e. science) doesn’t necessitate what we ought do, neither is what we ought do unaffected by what is. So I find your dismissal of science kind of surprising. The obvious case is a person born with both sexual organs. In the ideal case they are male or female, using your consideration. But if a doctor “decides” for them surely we have to acknowledge the doctor might choose wrongly. In which case what are they to do? It’s that question I think you’re avoiding.

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