The progressive imagination envisions a limitless future. Karl Marx thought that modern industrial production marked a new epoch in human history. Amid explosive growth during the industrial revolution, he thought we were on the cusp of material abundance. Marx argued that if we rejected the artificial scarcity of competitive capitalism (revolution!), then the curse of Adam, the necessity of hard labor to ensure survival, could be overcome. In a world of limitless plenty, each would be free to develop every aspect of his personality without limits. In the communist utopia we could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening,” while adopting the critical pose of the philosopher after dinner.
In 2022, our societies produce more wealth than Marx ever imagined. But few still believe the promise of communism and its dream of freedom from material limits. Aside, perhaps, from proponents of Modern Monetary Theory, most of us accept the enduring role of scarcity in economic life. Yet the dream of a limitless future has not gone away. By my reading of the last half century or more, it has migrated out of economics and class politics into dreams of a cultural revolution. Put simply, having given up on class war as a way to achieve a classless society, progressives now devote themselves to a bio-cultural war on the limits imposed by our bodies.
The 1960s were a key moment in this pivot from what was then called “the Social Question” to concerns about our bodies. For millennia, sex was bound up with marriage and children. This cultural link is rooted in biological reality: the intrinsic fertility of sexual intercourse. But the Pill and new moral norms in the Sixties severed the connection between sex and reproduction. Why, our cultural revolutionaries asked, should sex be limited by fertility? Second-wave feminism reinforced this trend, as did gay liberation. The first insisted that a woman’s body must not limit her professional and personal choices. The latter insisted that the biological reality of our sexual organs should not limit our choice of sexual partners.
In traditional cultures, society justifies itself by appealing to memory. Leaders claim to remain true to ancestors, origins, and divine laws. Modern culture is different. “Progress” is central to the story we tell about ourselves. And in this story progress means overcoming limits. For this reason, the power of the Pill to free women from fertility was widely embraced, and it served as the technological foundation for women’s liberation. The expansion of options for women, along with changes that freed homosexuals from censure, was welcomed as an extension of our long tradition of promoting political freedom from arbitrary power.
But overcoming our bodies is not the same as rebelling against kings or protesting against racial discrimination. In its essence, the American Revolution was a political act, as was the Civil Rights Movement. Neither one redefined marriage, altered what it means to be a parent, or rethought the natural family. By contrast, the sexual revolution, which is still unfolding, is metaphysical in character. As a rebellion against nature’s constraints, it touches on every aspect of what it means to be human.
Some people wonder why transgender issues got added to the agenda of gay liberation. Not a few feminists, and some outspoken lesbians, raised their voices in protest. I think they are naive. “Progress” is a wheel that must keep turning. John Dewey was perhaps the most influential progressive American intellectual of the twentieth century. At every step, he championed “boundless possibility.” Dewey recognized that progress must be open-ended. It seeks ever to overcome “fixed limits.”
In view of this conception of progress as the never-ending quest for “boundless possibility,” we should not be surprised that we are being stampeded into affirmations of transgender ideology. It is the next step that overcomes the constraints imposed by our bodies. If our sexual organs should not limit our freedom to have sex with whomever we wish—and please note this assumption underwrites a permissive sexual ethic for heterosexuals, not just homosexuals—why should biological facts limit our understanding of ourselves as men or women?
Unlike earlier stages of the sexual revolution, which can be framed as liberations from traditional cultural constraints rather than as metaphysical rebellions, transgenderism concerns our bodies in an open and direct way. The hormones at work in the Pill operate invisibly. The hormones used to block puberty effect changes that all can see, and gender-reassignment surgeries even more so. For this reason, transgenderism has tremendous metaphysical significance as a symbol of successful rebellion. Its open warfare on the body promises final victory.
This fact explains why progressives are so fiercely loyal to transgender ideology. By forthrightly and blatantly denying that our bodies can and should limit our sentiments, feelings, and choices, transgenderism puts an exclamation mark on the sexual revolution. It also brings into the open the theological ambition of progressive cultural politics. At Woodstock and Stonewall, the push to revise moral norms aimed to achieve sexual freedom. But hormonal therapies applied to children have nothing to do with sexual desire, and subsequent surgical interventions mutilate the organs that are capable of sexual stimulation. Except in the case of middle-aged men who “transition,” the transgender phenomenon is not about sex (and I argue below that even for the middle-aged men it’s not, finally, about sex). Instead, what we are witnessing in today’s transgender mania is the next step of “progress”: securing our freedom, not from inherited inhibitions and social censure, but from nature, and, indeed, from reality, which is why so much energy goes into controlling what people can and cannot say.
This ambition to transcend the constraints imposed by nature sends transgenderism down the same spiritual grooves as transhumanism and doctor-assisted suicide. Both are body-freedom projects. If we see this connection, I believe we can better understand why transgenderism has gained so much influence so quickly.
Death is the greatest limit. And by this I do not mean simply our final moment. Rather, I take “death” to mean the downward spiral of life toward lifelessness. As someone on the far side of sixty, I’m aware that my body’s vitality is waning. Given my own experience, I’m rather confident that Bruce Jenner and other aging men embrace transgenderism as a therapy. Like Viagra, getting breasts is a technological way of revitalizing the body. Like Botox and cosmetic surgeries, it seeks to hit the pause button on aging. Very few progressive men or women want to mutilate themselves. But they are enchanted by the symbolism of transgenderism. This is especially true of Baby Boomers, for whom agelessness has become a singular preoccupation.
Boys can become girls and girls can become boys! This claim is now obligatory, and contradicting it brings opprobrium. As an assertion, it promises to liberate us from our bodies, allowing us to wiggle free of nature’s limits, of which death is the most dire. Transgender ideology says that gender is not our bodily sex—it is merely “assigned at birth.” This conceit encourages us to imagine that our bodily demise, too, is “assigned” rather than a given, and thus death can be “reassigned” rather than suffered. Doctor-assisted suicide should be understood as mortality reassignment. Our bodies do not determine when we die—we choose, just as a man can determine that he is a woman. Although transhumanism remains a techno-utopian dream, it promises more than “reassignment.” The ambition is to secure the indefinite deferral of death.
The promise of immortality is alluring, especially to educated, rich, and progressive Americans who imagine that they deserve every advantage in life, including the freedom to manage their mortality, if not escape it altogether. To my mind, this allure explains why activists, doctors, mental health protfessionals, politicians, and other adults countenance the mutilation of young people. Like Aztec elites, they sacrifice others to keep alive their theological ambition of overcoming all limits, even and especially those imposed by their own bodies, which are doomed to wear out.
I have emphasized the modern belief in “progress,” which underwrites never-ending efforts to overcome limits. Yet, the collective imagination of the West is shifting. Today’s watchword is “sustainability,” not progress. This preoccupation concerns more than the climate. Lots of responsible people anguish over populist and authoritarian threats. They establish websites and write endlessly, urging us to commit ourselves to the singular task of sustaining liberal democracy and the “rules-based international order.” This decidedly non-progressive call to conserve seems merited, given shifting public opinion. Polling suggests that young people believe their lives will be worse than their parents’ have been. Some are convinced that environmental catastrophe is around the corner.
The upshot is paradoxical. On the one hand, our collective mood is sour. The most we seem able to hope for is that tomorrow won’t be worse than today. That’s the spiritual meaning of “sustainability.” On the other hand, progressivism cultivates explicitly metaphysical and theological ambitions. Yes, liberals press for increases in the minimum wage and other traditional goals. But the lawn signs in university towns announce, “Hate has no home here.” This sentiment amounts to reversing the fall of man and proclaiming the kingdom of God. And as I have argued, today’s progressive cultural politics seeks to overturn the authority of nature. Thus we have at once widespread resignation—and God-like ambition.
It’s really very strange. One hundred thousand people die of opioid overdoses in a single year, and elites throw up their hands and do nothing. Meanwhile, they put untold millions into transgender activism and insist that the fullest resources of the medical-industrial complex must be employed to attain its goals.
I could go on with other strange paradoxes. But to my mind, the weird way in which American progressivism has been swallowed by a cultural politics that now revolves around transgender ideology is revealing. It makes evident that powerful elements of our society are engaged in an open war on reality. Ze and Zir are easy to mock and ridicule. But the now-ubiquitous use of “them” as a singular pronoun shows how deeply all of us are now implicated in the rebellion against bodily reality.
If we are physicians or counselors, we have specific moral duties. As parents and grandparents, we have responsibilities as well. And we need to discern what we are called to say and do as citizens, seeking laws that restrain the excesses of the progressive ambition to remove all limits. But there is a deeper imperative. We are living through what I have termed a metaphysical rebellion. To counter it we must become advocates of reality. As the French writer Charles Péguy wrote (and I quoted last month), “We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.” Let us see and let us tell.
What must be done after Roe is overturned? The question will, we hope, be asked this summer when the Supreme Court announces its decision in the Dobbs case. Writing for Public Discourse, Josh Craddock provides a comprehensive plan of action (“A Post-Roe Legislative Agenda for Congress”). We need this kind of thinking. Overturning Roe opens the way for substantive measures to defend the dignity of the human person.
Strengthening economic support for families and expectant mothers is crucial. Two Senate candidates, J. D. Vance and Blake Masters, have put the goal of a prosperous single-earner household at the center of their campaigns. It’s a good political objective, one that will certainly strengthen the institution of marriage and bring stability to families—and thus reduce the demand for abortion.
Craddock recognizes that we also need legal measures to protect life. He advises legislation recognizing “that unborn children are legal and constitutional persons within the meaning of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.” This action accords them constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection. The effect would be to require the states to apply to a child in the womb “any state prohibition against homicide, and require that any person who commits an abortion shall be subject to the same or comparable penalties as exist under state law for other homicide cases.”
Craddock foresees the legal strategies of the pro-abortion forces, which will try to use the courts to block legislative action on behalf of the unborn. In order to prevent Planned Parenthood from finding a sympathetic federal judge to stay such a law, he advises that a post-Roe Congress should pass further legislation that bars federal courts from jurisdiction on this vital matter. “By withdrawing from federal jurisdiction cases that challenge the validity of its personhood recognition, Congress can defend its determination against the meddling of unelected federal judges.” Such a measure does not require inventing new constitutional principles. Craddock notes that Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution “empowers Congress to make ‘such exceptions’ to its federal appellate jurisdiction as Congress deems fit.”
As we know, progressives often nullify laws by refusing to enforce them. It’s happening in many cities where woke prosecutors have announced non-enforcement of laws they deem unjust or unnecessary. To meet this contingency (which will certainly arise in states like California), Craddock advises Congress to “confer on private individuals a cause of action to sue any person—including any federal, state, or local official—acting under state law or in interstate commerce to deprive an unborn child’s rights secured by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments (and statutes enforcing those amendments).” Again, this does not entail wild innovation. Currently, “federal law authorizes private suits to enforce environmental protection laws, credit reporting laws, and anti-trafficking laws, to name a few.”
Congressional action requires the approval of both houses, and the filibuster rule means that getting this legislation enacted will require at least sixty votes in the Senate, which may not be possible, even if pro-life candidates win in the upcoming midterm election. But budget bills require only simple majorities. This fact opens the way for immediate action. Even a narrowly pro-life Congress can establish a provision that levies a special “sin tax” on abortion. Craddock recommends a tax of “$2,500 for each abortion performed or pill prescribed.” He points out that Congress has already used this kind of taxing power to “all-but prohibit automatic firearms and to effectively require individuals to purchase health insurance.”
Craddock’s proposals no doubt can be criticized and perfected. But whatever one’s opinions about the details, the activist thrust of his agenda is to be cheered. “After decades of tragedy and intense efforts, grassroots pro-lifers expect their elected representatives to do everything in their power to protect life.” As soon as the Dobbs decision is handed down, “pro-life legislators should seize the opportunity to enact a post-Roe legislative agenda that both empowers parents to raise their children and effectively prohibits abortion.” Hear! Hear!
James M. Roberts has worked for decades as a political economist, first in the State Department, and then after 2007 in the Heritage Foundation’s economic policy shop, where he was co-editor of the Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. With a wealth of experience in the conservative movement, Roberts looks back and has second thoughts, which he recounts in arresting detail in an essay for American Compass (“Taking the Right Off Autopilot”).
“Fusionism” is the most common name for the coalition that carried Ronald Reagan to power in 1980. It combined (fused together) economic libertarians, social conservatives, and anti-communist hawks. That combination made a great deal of sense. Deregulation and tax cuts freed up the economic potential that had been suppressed during the 1970s. Renewed defense spending did a great deal to bring the Cold War to an end. And social conservatism contributed to the stabilization of American society after the uproar of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But as Roberts notes, the coalition later ossified and became what I’ve called “rotting-flesh Reaganism.”
Over time, the consensus became far more libertarian than it had been in the salad years of the Reagan Revolution. Roberts tells of his own experience: “As a social conservative, I had always assumed that most people at a place like the Heritage Foundation would share my views.” Those views combined liberal freedoms with religious and moral constraints. “My support of classical liberal economic policies” continues Roberts, “hinged on the assumption that America’s Judeo-Christian ethics and social norms would constrain economic behavior, as they had historically.”
Roberts came to realize that many of his colleagues in the conservative movement had quite different assumptions. “They leaned more heavily toward an unconstrained classical liberalism, unmoored from traditional values, as a desirable goal in and of itself—not only in America, but also around the world.” These libertarian colleagues came to dominate the conservative movement. As an example, Roberts cites the new department on technology policy at Heritage, established after Trump took office. “Here was an opportunity to bring desperately needed conservative insights to a sector of the economy that was tearing apart America’s social fabric.” (As an aside, let me mention one such insight, the longstanding conservative suspicion of “giganticism,” not just in government but in business, philanthropy, and other areas of life.) “Instead, we focused only on the undeniable benefits of tech for economic growth. People like me who sought more robust policies on antitrust, Section 320, and elsewhere to rein in Big Tech were mocked.” Free-market dogmas were reiterated and never questioned. Roberts was told, “If you don’t like Google, start your own search engine.”
“The problem wasn’t the principles,” argues Roberts. “It was the refusal to learn from a changing world or recognize that [the principles’] application would mean something different in the 2020s than in 1980.” I agree. When Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, the Baby Boomer generation was coming of age. The resulting wave of energy and creativity powered the American economy forward. Our situation is very different. Median wages have been stagnant for decades. Globalization has eroded middle-class prosperity. The halcyon years of American hegemony after the end of the Cold War have given way to hard choices about how to sustain our global commitments. Whatever conservatism aims to achieve in 2022, it surely cannot be recycled Reaganite or Bush-era goals.
What, then, should be done? Roberts pulls no punches: “Abandon fusionism. Today’s challenges—from China to globalization, to Big Tech and woke capital, to the decline of the family and the working class—are ones on which libertarians and conservatives fundamentally disagree about both diagnosis and treatment. The contradictions in their alliance render it unworkable.” Roberts argues that we need “broad-based prosperity,” a foreign policy focused on “the national interest,” and—this is my addition—hard-nosed thinking about how government policies can help restore traditional norms of marital fidelity, civic loyalty, and common decency. We need a coalition in which social conservatives like James Roberts supplant libertarians as the superordinate voices shaping the future of conservatism.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ First United Church of Oak Park, Illinois, adopted an au courant discipline for Lent: “fasting from whiteness.” Associate pastor Lydia Mulkey explained, “In our worship services throughout Lent, we will not be using any music or liturgy written or composed by white people.”
♦ Count me a great fan of John Waters. He’s a writer who can make the English language sing. And he thinks in original ways, often counter to the mainstream consensus. Some years ago, he asked whether I’d like him to review a collection of writings by Franz Fanon. By John’s reading, Fanon grasped the ways in which those subjected to colonial rule often suffer self-doubt to the point of self-hatred, even (and perhaps especially) after they achieve political liberation. This pyscho-cultural dynamic, John argued, goes a long way toward explaining the twenty-first-century Irish zeal to conform to Euro-elite thinking, which is uniformly progressive on cultural issues. In view of the fact that conservatives take a dim view of Fanon, I was delighted to publish such a positive reading of his work.
Of course, running counter to received opinion can get you canceled, especially these days, and John’s strong public stand against the cynical use of the pandemic to enhance elite control over society has not won him many friends. Which made me all the more appreciative of a defense of John by Gerry O’Neill in his Substack column, “The West’s Awake.” O’Neill’s summation captures the reasons for my admiration of John and his work:
Whatever you may say about John Waters he has the courage of his own convictions. It is a most admirable quality to possess not just in a writer but as a human being. Almost alone amongst the so-called elite Irish journalistic class he attempted to hold [the Irish] State accountable for the outrageous covid laws. He stood tall in the face of mockery and derision and last time I looked he’s still doing it. That is the calling of the true journalist—to question. To hold the powerful and power centres to account.
And not just to question. I’d add that the true journalist knows when to commend truths and deeds worth championing. I’ve seen John do this—and do it well.
♦ Rather like Caesar Augustus, who issued a decree that a census should be taken throughout the Roman world, Pope Francis has inaugurated a global process of “synodality” within the Catholic Church. The features remain vague, but the aim seems to be that of a large-scale “listening” exercise. This is the sort of thing public relations firms advise for large organizations in order to create the impression of employee engagement, allowing leaders who have already made up their minds to parry criticism when decisions are announced. (“After a careful process of listening that involved all stakeholders of the Acme Company, we have determined that workforce reductions are the best way forward for our community. This will be painful, but as your CEO I am grateful to have heard the voices of so many.”) Count me among those who have tuned out.
Michael Hanby suggests I should be less complacent. The Church’s embrace of the therapeutic-managerial ethos must be seen for what it is. In “Synodality, Sociologism, and the Judgment of History” (Communio, Winter 2021), Hanby observes: “There is considerable danger that the implementation of ‘synodality’ will become the occasion for replacing what remains of the Church’s sacramental, organismic, and Marian self-understanding with bureaucratic and political understanding.” Though synodality is marketed as the empowerment of the laity, the opposite obtains. Hanby continues, “This would be the most tragic of ironies: promoting, in the name of anticlericalism, the most clericalist conception of the Church imaginable—the Church of pure administration, though with its functions now distributed more ‘democratically’ among various parties and agencies.”
♦ Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah, Georgia, is one of America’s oldest synagogues. In 1789, the congregation sent a letter to congratulate George Washington on his election to the presidency. Washington wrote a warm response that concludes:
May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land—whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation—still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.
Ephraim Radner brought this remarkable line to my attention, writing: “This isn’t really Deism at all; nor a cover for the virtue of religious liberty; it’s something far more profound about the God of Israel at the heart of any society’s flourishing.”
♦ The North American Patristics Society has jumped onto the woke bandwagon. A recent notice calling for nominations for committee membership ran down the lead-lined grooves of the usual invocations offered up to today’s political deities:
The Nominating Committee supports the Society’s efforts to be a more inclusive, diverse and equitable organization. To that end, we encourage nominators to consider the diversity of the membership’s races, ethnicities, genders, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expressions, disabilities, economic status and other diverse backgrounds. We also seek diverse research expertise (regions, languages, methodologies, and disciplines that strengthen this Society’s work) in various governance bodies. And we seek nominations that will foster governance that better reflects the diversity of institutional settings, academic ranks, independent non-tenure-track scholars, and other historically underrepresented groups that comprise NAPS.
No doubt these measures will lead to a blossoming of scholarly excellence. Though one wonders about the organization’s name. Patristics? Doesn’t that sound frighteningly similar to patriarchy? Surely it’s got to go.
♦ C. S. Lewis writing about the proper virtue of patriotism:
For a long time yet, or perhaps forever, nations will live in danger. Rulers must somehow nerve their subjects to defend them or at least to prepare for their defense. Where the sentiment of patriotism has been destroyed this can be done only by presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light. If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for “their country” they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity. This is a step down, not up.
As Lewis goes on to say, it is humbug to pretend that the interests of one’s nation, however just, are simply those of Justice herself: “And nonsense draws evil after it. If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things very much of this world.” When it comes to world affairs, it’s a very American habit to claim this kind of false transcendence.
♦ Black Lives Matter founder Patrisse Cullors recently purchased a $6 million mansion in Los Angeles, in just the most visible warning sign that all is not above board at the charity for racial justice, which raised $90 million in 2020. Lack of accountability has led a number of states, including California, to order BLM to stop raising money until proper paperwork is filed and funds are accounted for. At a recent public event, Cullors was questioned about controversies concerning the finances of her organization. Her response refers to IRS Form 990, which non-profit organizations must file each year: “It is such a trip now to hear the term ‘990.’ I’m, like, ugh. It’s like, triggering.” She went on to argue that BLM should not disclose any financial details. “This does not seem safe to us, this 990 structure—this nonprofit structure. This is, like, deeply unsafe. This is literally being weaponized against us, against the people we work with.”
♦ The Center for Christian Studies is a newly established theological institute, based in Austin, Texas, that aims to provide ongoing education and formation for pastors and church leaders. Keith Stanglin serves as the Center’s director. He is an experienced seminary teacher and accomplished scholar. I’m inclined to cheer any Christian organization that is committed to deepening and spreading Christian orthodoxy in our difficult times. But I have a special reason to applaud the Center for Christian Studies. Over the years, Keith has worked with First Things to host an annual lecture in Austin. Suspended during the great COVID pause, the lecture series will restart this fall. Carl Trueman will speak on the evening of Monday, September 19, at the University Avenue Church of Christ in Austin. For more information and to register to attend, visit christian-studies.org.
♦ A longtime reader writes to complain about pseudonyms. He does not object to the decision of the author of “Defeating the Equity Regime” (May) to mask his identity. Today’s punitive cancel culture is reason enough. But my correspondent thinks that First Things owes its readers an explicit acknowledgement that the author writes under a pseudonym, so that readers are not sent on search-engine wild goose chases in the hope of finding the author. I agree. For the record, Frank Resartus is a real person, but that’s not his real name.
♦ John Keough of Dubuque, Iowa, would like to form a ROFTERS group. If you live in the area and wish to gather monthly to discuss the latest issue of First Things, please get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anthony Hennen would like to form a ROFTERS group in Philadelphia. To join, please contact him at email@example.com.
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