Bear the standard for religious orthodoxy with First Things. Make your contribution to our 2023 spring campaign today at firstthings.com/donate.
In a strange but eloquent example of irony, the news that the U.K.’s National Health Service is banning hormone treatment and transgender surgeries for minors arrived just as I was reading the text of a proposed California bill that would make refusal to affirm a child’s transgender confusion an offense for which a parent could lose custody. The bill, called the Transgender, Gender-Diverse, and Intersex Youth Empowerment Act, would require courts to consider a parent’s acceptance of his or her child’s gender identity when deciding custody and visitation cases.
One lesson to be drawn from this is that America is once again determined to be exceptional. As Europe apparently becomes a tad more sane on the trans issue, America’s gender dementia only deepens, with the full weight of the law behind it. The political leadership of the U.S. is committed to the transgender cause, though it is likely that few in the White House or Congress have bothered to read any of the gender theory that legitimates it. And it apparently has the kind of backing from sections of the medical establishment that would make Trofim Lysenko drool with envy. Apparently we must follow the science—but only where the demands of our anarchic identity politics lead. Both bode ill for the nation’s future: Politicians mortgaged to the latest therapeutic fad and scientific knowledge based on lobby groups do not inspire confidence.
Yet while the trans issue is the presenting problem, the California bill points toward something of much broader significance: the rise of the notion that parents are defined by function rather than biology. Now, according to the Oxford Dictionary, “parent” as a verb existed as early as the sixteenth century, but it did not gain currency until the twentieth. And its prominence today is likely significant, reflecting a world where “parent” is primarily something you do rather than something you are.
In one sense, parents have always “done” things. They care for and protect their children, nurture them, raise them to be adults. That we can talk of “good parents” and “bad parents” indicates that parenthood involves functions. But the assumption has always been that the biological relationship is basic and that the judgment of “good” or “bad” is understood relative to the moral obligations that relationship necessarily implies. What is interesting is the way in which this biological relation is slowly being attenuated by an increasingly expansive set of functions defined in law and demanded by governments. Add to this the scientific marginalization of natural reproduction—first via IVF and surrogacy, then by gay marriage, and soon (it seems) by the production of embryos from stem cells—and the notion of being a parent has become more and more removed from the simple biological relationship of being the source of half a child’s DNA. And as biology has faded as a stable basis for definition, so a functional definition of “parent” has risen in prominence. Thus now, with psychological categories coming into play, the way is open for “parent” to be defined ideologically by the state. That is what the California bill is, in practice, proposing.
Much of this derives from the dominance of therapeutic or psychological categories. In a world where many adults increasingly see every criticism as a personal attack and every disagreement as some form of malicious gaslighting, it is not surprising that children’s mental health has been expanded to include affirmation even of the most egregious confusions that our anarchic culture of identity has generated. What is deeply troubling is that this subjectivism is now becoming an instrument for attenuating the relationship between parents and children. In the past, a bruise or a broken bone might well trigger an entirely appropriate intervention by social services. But our present age is a new and rather nasty one. Here the bizarre excesses of the most implausible academic theories combine with the commercial concerns of the pharmaceutical industry and the moral bankruptcy of a political caste interested only in pandering to the most unhinged of sexual revolutionaries. In such a world, “parenting,” to use the egregious verbal form, becomes a matter of political taste, to be policed by the state. Children become the means by which lunacy is enforced by virtual fiat: “Toe the line or lose your kids” certainly looks as if it could be a remarkably persuasive strategy.
Of course, if California were really concerned about children’s mental health, it would ban the use of social media by children and prosecute parents who permitted them smartphones. Given the role of both in the high levels of anxiety and low self-esteem among the younger generation, such would seem a prudent strategy. But that will not happen any time soon, as social media is one of the primary tools by which the trans movement is capturing the imagination of the young.
Despite this latest lunacy, I remain confident that the trans madness will come to an end, though sadly not without significant human carnage. Those responsible for this child abuse—the doctors, the clinics, and the pharmaceutical companies—are going to be sued and will pay a heavy price. This is America, folks: The establishment’s ideology is ultimately only plausible as long as it is making, not costing, money. Once those groups start paying out to settle such suits, as if by magic their beliefs will change overnight. We might also hope that the long arm of the law also eventually feels the collar of those lawmakers who have enabled this scandal. Sadly, of course, this will only come about after the willful destruction of the lives of many children who were simply in the wrong place, a morally bankrupt society, at the wrong time, when there was big money and political capital to be made out of treating “parent” as a verb rather than a noun.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Did you know that for every dollar in program revenue, readers like you give $2.50? Your support is urgently needed to champion the truth of orthodoxy amidst a proliferation of false religions.
Take your stand by supporting the 2023 First Things spring campaign with a gift today at firstthings.com/donate.