Over the past year, conservatism has changed. At least, the way conservative intellectuals and some politicians talk has changed. Many now speak of orienting our society toward the common good, and about using government power to pursue that good. But has anything really changed within the Republican party? Politics and policy often run a course independent of philosophical debate. Are policymakers ready to go on offense and commit to a different strategy for combatting transgender ideology and the gay agenda? The answer seems to be yes.
Last month, NBC News announced: “Dozens of anti-LGBTQ state bills already proposed in 2020, advocates warn.” The story highlighted an interesting development. As the new year begins, conservative lawmakers in numerous states have started a fresh attempt to push back against the LGBT agenda. Unlike most of the legislative priorities of the recent past—Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs), conscience protections, and parental rights bills—the proposals being put forward in 2020 go beyond merely carving out a space for Christians to freely practice their faith.
Up against a movement set on not only erasing biological sex in law and culture but also subjecting children to this gender ideology at increasingly younger ages, conservative legislators are responding in a new way. Rather than asserting a classically liberal right to be left alone by government, they are instead defending biological reality as important for the common good. And drawing a lesson from recent efforts to pass “bathroom bills” in some states, they have honed in on the area most likely to galvanize popular support: protecting children. As one state policy leader told me, “We need to be bold and try to protect as many children as possible.”
Consider some recent proposed legislation. In South Dakota, the House passed a bill which would prohibit doctors from performing certain transgender “transition” procedures on children under 16. The NBC News story notes that similar bills aiming to discourage such practices have already been put forward in a handful of other states, including Illinois, Oklahoma, Missouri, and New Hampshire. Some state legislators have also introduced bills to clarify school athletic policy, ensuring that participation is based on biological sex and not on subjective gender identity. Legislation addressing this issue is currently being considered in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Washington. Arizona and Kentucky have also recently joined the list.
That these bills have garnered approval from conservatives—and panicked denunciations from the left—has perhaps concealed the shift in strategy taking place. Since at least Obergefell, the primary social conservative response to the LGBT movement has been to beg for a continued spot at the pluralistic table. By choosing to fight on religious liberty grounds, the cultural right inherently (if not intentionally) adopted the framework of classical liberalism. We were willing to respect the left’s views on sexuality and gender—if only we could have our own views respected as well.
However, as many predicted following Obergefell, progressives have for the most part shown little willingness to accept this détente. Instead, adopting the premise that the LGBT movement is the heir of the civil rights movement, they have sought to cast all who oppose its demands as equivalent to racists who deserve no place in the public square. Thus, progressives have sued faith-based hospitals and adoption agencies, challenged individual conscience protections, and even questioned the tax-exempt status of traditional churches.
These moves are logically consistent. If progressives are correct that LGBT and racial discrimination are the same, then social conservatives are no better than racists, and religious liberty merely permits bigotry. LGBT activists uphold a positive vision of good and evil, one which has proven far more captivating to the American imagination than conservatives’ classical liberal response.
Now that the left has turned to assaulting the biological reality of maleness and femaleness, it appears social conservatives have realized a more robust response is needed. On an issue as fundamental as this, there can be no détente. This is the essence of “common good conservatism.” If conservatives do not present an argument making the case for our vision of the common good, the left’s vision will triumph by default. People recognize that the absence of a counter-argument usually means the argument has already been won.
This is why what is happening in the states is so important. Instead of arguing for religious exemptions from the new status quo, conservative lawmakers nationwide, as well as the pro-family groups supporting them, are going on offense. This new legislation implicitly argues that the traditional vision of the human person as man and woman is not merely one legitimate view among many, but ought to be normative, especially for the sake of our society’s most vulnerable: children.
And as usual, those at the grassroots level are leading the way. The conservative establishment in Washington would be wise to follow suit—because if conservatism is to survive as a movement, embracing the “common good” is the only path forward.
Terry Schilling is the executive director at American Principles Project.