In the August/September print edition of First Things (Subscribe!) R. R. Reno comments on the puzzling fact that bathroom access for transgender students ranks as high as it does on the presidential policy agenda. Given the many critical issues facing vastly more Americans, Reno asks, why so much attention to this issue?
Reno locates the answer in the legacy of post-sixties liberalism. While this explanation is useful to a point, I don’t find it fully satisfying. After all, the question is not simply how we got here, but how we got here so phenomenally fast. It wasn’t so long ago that gay marriage was the reductio ab absurdum in policy arguments over sexual orientation. And transgenderism, let alone questions of bathroom access for transgender students in public schools, was so far off the policy radar it was inconceivable that it would receive presidential attention.
The rapidity of the change cannot be ascribed merely to the political power of liberals, though they’ve done their part. Even among liberals, opinion has lagged the legal and policy changes. (Think of President Obama’s speedily evolving positions on gay marriage.)
There’s something deeper going on, something that renders Christian and conservative arguments on these issues particularly ineffective. These issues are framed by a fundamental outlook that is shared by most Americans, including most conservatives and Christians. This outlook sets up the liberal win and the Christian and conservative loss. For want of a better term, I call it the Whig narrative.
Historians deride as “Whig history” accounts that describe history as the ever-progressing movement toward more freedom, equality, and democracy. The Whig narrative is the popular version of Whig history. It sees history as always progressing toward the abolition of arbitrary differences between people: between lord and commoner, free man and slave, man and woman, the propertied and the property-less, black and white, rich and poor, etc. For Americans, America’s Founding is a singularly powerful unfolding of the Whig narrative, and with it the Whig narrative jumps into hyperdrive.
The Whig narrative might also be called the liberal or Progressive narrative. But those labels miss the centrality and breadth of the narrative. American Christians and conservatives imbibe this narrative as deeply as do liberals and Progressives—sometimes even more deeply. All Americans are Whigs, distinguished only by their more-liberal or more-conservative Whiggery.
Though the present-day implications of Whiggery are hostile to Christianity, Whiggery and Christianity walked in tandem in the U.S. for centuries. Many sermons of pre-revolutionary and revolutionary America glided all too easily between the political freedom promised in and by the revolution and the spiritual freedom promised in and by Jesus Christ. Likewise, the (Protestant) Whig narrative of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries emphasized increasing freedom from superstition (i.e. Catholicism) and from bondage to a foreign potentate (i.e. the pope).
Indeed, it is on the issue of “freedom” that the Christian narrative and the Whig narrative intersect (and diverge). Both narratives value freedom, but they understand it in different ways. For Christians, “freedom” ultimately looks to freedom from bondage to Satan and sin, albeit with implications for bondage to other humans. The Whig narrative adapts the Christian emphasis on freedom, with a different end in view. The Christian narrative has proven persuasive and powerful in the past. Whether it can rival the power of the Whig narrative in the current climate in America is the big question of the moment. (How it might do so, and the likelihood of success, is a topic for future posts.)
The intersection of the Whig narrative and American Christianity was merely tactical; the Whig narrative turned against its Protestant Christian counterpart in the twentieth century. Today, freedom from superstition means rejecting all religious belief, not simply Roman Catholicism. An enslaved conscience now is one that recognizes any religious authority, not simply one that submits to a human pope.
Because of the centuries-long vocabulary of the Whig narrative whereby Americans (largely) understood themselves and the American project, the recent progression of the Whig narrative beyond Christian comfort zones has caught American Christians and conservatives flat-footed. But the Whig narrative never recognized American Christianity as its terminus. The abolition of arbitrary difference continues its advance—abolishing limits on the marriage right based on the gender pairing of the couple, and now abolishing differential access to bathrooms based on a person’s gender self-identification.
Many American Christians who endorse the earlier phases of the Whig narrative balk at its more recent applications. But the power of the Whig narrative derives from the interlocking continuity of the narrative itself. In the logic of the Whig narrative, to reject any one phase of the narrative—such as the extension of transgender bathroom access—is to reject all previous phases as well. It implies the rejection of civil rights for blacks, votes for women, the abolition of slavery, the abolition of property requirements for voting; it implies the rejection of the whole historical march against arbitrary difference and power. It means being un-American, at least as the Whig narrative powerfully conceptualizes Americanness.
To be sure, there are other narratives—significant and powerful narratives. But the Whig narrative is long-lasting and broadly shared. It is almost, if not quite, the official confession of American civil religion. It articulates an anthropology (to be human means to define oneself), an ethics (maintaining difference arbitrarily is wrong), and an eschatology (the progress of history). It contains a Great Commission and a form of redemption offered not only to America, but to the world.
Constructing and spreading a full-fledged Christian counternarrative won’t be the work of a moment. Such a counternarrative must not consist of mere rejection and reaction. The Whig narrative is entwined in the very warp and woof of what we think and how we think. Engaging it persuasively, both personally and culturally, will be no mean feat.
James R. Rogers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.