My mid-size Tennessee town has been beset by controversy over a public drag show. It was originally planned for a public park. But after local resistance, the city decided to show solidarity with the drag show by sponsoring it and moving it to the civic center, thus moving from tolerance to endorsement. We are sufficiently modern that if the show were being held in a bar somewhere, I suspect the reaction would be almost nil. But the city’s sponsoring the event suggests that it is making an ethical statement. The moral sense of the community comes into play. What do we affirm? What do we disavow?
Some folks addressed the controversy with our mayor. At first, when the event was supposed to take place in the park, he took refuge in the viewpoint neutrality demanded by First Amendment jurisprudence. That was a reasonably sound position. But with the endorsement and the move to the civic center, he entered the mode of support.
There were efforts to stop the drag show entirely. One local politician cited a Tennessee law against the operation of “cabaret shows.” He rallied opposition to stop the event on those grounds. While I admired his energy, it seemed likely a court would find this sort of gay pride activity to be non-commercial in nature and non-obscene, as none of the performers would be nude. Jurisprudentially, the drag show would probably be seen as something akin to a parade and treated similarly to one. The event took place with a final concession that it would be closed to those eighteen and younger.
For Christians, there isn’t much wiggle room on matters of human sexuality. The Bible is clear about male and female as categories created by God. Genesis 1:27 declares, “Male and female he created them.” This is one of three essential features of humanity that are given in the first chapter of the Bible. There are roles that accompany these categories, such as mother/father, husband/wife, etc. To embrace the biological sexes and their relationship to one another is to embrace the order of creation. Liberal Christians will argue that this way of reading the Bible is unnecessary because they desperately desire two things. The first is to be kind (which is laudable). The second is not to be lumped in with the conservative Christians (which is not). One can play the game of cutting Paul out of the New Testament just as Thomas Jefferson cut out the miracles of Jesus, but it seems to me (as it did to J. Gresham Machen of Princeton Seminary’s past) that to do so is to create some new religion. Jefferson thought the Christians should all become Unitarians. It seems that many of our “Christians” have become the modern equivalents of the Unitarians—practitioners of the alternative faith Machen saw taking shape in their approach to scripture.
This lack of wiggle room does not mean Christians should attack the men who appear in drag shows. Indeed, we should not. It means we can’t approve of the activity of the male portraying and attempting to embody the female. We see it as a rebellion against the fundamental order of things God has established, and which is clearly exhibited in nature by the biological complementarity of the sexes. Nevertheless, we are called to love the individuals (including those in drag shows) because they bear the image of God. If we must be required to approve, then doing so would necessitate violence to our souls. Some may be able to perform the spiritual gymnastics necessary. I cannot. I will not be made to equate my affirmation of the imago Dei in my gay or transgender neighbor with having to affirm gay marriage or transgender identities.
The standard answer to any concern Christians might have about the developing state of affairs might be a shrug of the shoulders and the advice to “live and let live.” I would love to live in a world where “live and let live” actually meant something. If you look at the last twenty-five years, it is obviously a cynical lie. The original appeal to the public was to demonstrate tolerance by legalizing homosexuality. Then, it was to allow gay unions, which would convey the positive social benefits of marriage and ease institutional and legal relationships (as with hospitals and legal estates). The penultimate move was to embrace gay marriage. The person who objected was told to calm down: “If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t have one.”
At last, gay marriage has been conferred the status of a constitutional right. Rather than rest secure in the success of overturning thousands of years of marriage as an exclusively male–female institution (even the notably mild, moderate, and judicious Chief Justice Roberts wrote, in his dissenting opinion, “Who do we think we are?”), now the goal of many seems to be to marginalize and coerce every person who does not approve. “Live and let live” has been quietly filed away until the next time it is needed to set up a slippery slope that will indeed terminate wherever social gravity takes it.
Why must a baker be forced to make wedding cakes for events of which he does not approve? Because even this humble person must be forced to bend the knee to a new consensus that began by speaking of tolerance. It does not matter if he feels he will offend God if he ignores his conscience. To live his own life by his own principles offends the dignity of the bearer of the new rights. No one is interested in “live and let live” for the baker’s sake. No one says, “If you don’t like a baker who doesn’t make gay wedding cakes, don’t buy a cake from him.”
We can imagine a similar dynamic playing out with the drag show in West Tennessee, just as it has already in more progressive parts of the country. First, it occurs in a public place such as a park or a city-owned civic center. There is some unease, but generally speaking we endorse an open public square. It goes forward. Second, maybe in the next year it acquires prominent corporate sponsorship. The bosses may dread some pushback from local folks, but they more than make up for it in the esteem of all the right people. It might be okay to disagree with the now institutionalized drag show at first, but ultimately disagreement will be accorded no respect and will be interpreted by elites as mere bigotry. The next thing you know, adhering to a biblical view of human sexuality means that you are no better than a Jim Crow racist. The traditional Christian finds herself accused of wearing a white sheet when her intent was simply to adhere to the nature of the sexes as she believes God created them.
It is not fair. It is certainly not fair. But this is where the façade of “live and let live” takes you. Do you know why? Because “live and let live” is not satisfying for anyone. I wish it could be. Political liberalism actually depends on it, to some degree. There is much hue and cry about the damage being done to political liberalism by such figures as Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, and the like, but let us not forget that we live in a world where many on the secular left believe pro-life physicians should be required to perform abortions. Can you imagine what it takes to believe that people should be required to commit an act they believe to be murder? If we want tolerance, if we want free speech, if we want to protect conscience, then we’d better mean it and stop playing a shell game that suits the people of fashion.
Liberalism cannot survive as a political philosophy capable of fostering human flourishing if it abandons its supposed virtues of protecting freedoms of religion, speech, and commerce. Yet, as we observe the march of the left on human sexuality, we see an incredible Javert-like intensity in hounding those who offend its sensibilities. We’ve forgotten that liberalism means winning incomplete victories and living with disagreement. Winning a debate in the courts, then effectively shutting down all further discussion, and concluding by educating the young in the revolutionary ideas is hardly the sign of a doctrine committed to freedom of discourse and belief.
Is there an answer to the problem? Is there a way to save liberalism and to find some new equilibrium other than that someone wins and imposes their narrative full stop? I would suggest that it begins with a much stronger commitment to values such as freedom of speech and religious liberty. John Courtney Murray famously viewed the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment as “articles of peace,” by which we seek to respect each other’s convictions to the maximum extent possible.
But there is an unavoidable tension we face with the phenomenon of drag shows as “family-friendly” events. There is a sense in which such a thing is every bit as much an attempt at a spiritual conversion as a Christian evangelism rally. We need to figure out how to parse that dynamic other than through a puerile religious/secular lens. We might begin by thinking about our political clashes as confrontations between different kinds of faiths. This won’t resolve the controversy, but it would put the argument on a more realistic and fair footing.