Legislating against drag queen story hour
If the law won’t protect children’s well-being, why have laws?
I admit that fixating on a topic like drag queens runs the risk of appearing a bit ridiculous. A whole column dedicated to the unseriousness of gender-bending debauchery? Really?
For whatever reason that I cannot morally compute, though, the number of drag queen events only seems to increase as time goes on. What began as a transgressive push to mainstream LGBT activity in general, and in the form of reading books to children in public libraries in particular, has become almost routine. Anyone who follows intellectual debates within the conservative movement knows that for several years now, a conservative’s response to whether drag queens should be afforded the ability to read to small children in public spaces has become a Rorschach test for the underlying tenets of one’s conservatism.
If you support the rights of drag queen story hour events to occur, you likely find yourself animated by a vision of conservatism geared to maximizing liberty. Proceduralist conservatism of this stripe is concerned with protecting civil liberties under the rule of law. You may not like drag queen story hour, but you’re afraid of what the government could do to you if it bans the drag queens. On the other hand, if you find yourself opposed to drag queen story hour events in public places, you’re more likely to support morally muscular conservatism that believes that even as reciprocal rights are valuable and necessary, they cannot be used to undermine a child’s innocence or public morality. Count me on that side of the argument, unapologetically.
Drag queen story hour events are no longer just an intellectual debate. Conservatives in Tennessee have passed legislation in the Senate that would ban drag queen story hour events from occurring on public property or in spaces, more generally, where minors could view the activity. The proposed law categorizes activity of this nature as within the realm of obscenity and pornography. How else should we define it?
The rights of adults to free speech and association and the goods of protecting children and public morality are microcosms of the perennial debate of configuring liberty and morality in proper proportion. Balancing them is the necessary equilibrium between moral anarchy or suffocating moralism. Adjusting for one without stampeding the other is the calling of government.
In my ethics and public theology classes, I raise this debate to discuss civil rights, moral goods, public morality, and the scope of government. The need, as I teach my students, is to draw meaningful distinctions between what the government is called to do alongside the question of whether government can reasonably police certain behaviors or not. For example, the students who want to ban drag queen story hours in public spaces become uneasy with attempting to criminalize drag in the privacy of a drag queen’s home. Questions about the scope and size of government to monitor private behavior rightly raise concerns. Likewise, whether it is an adults-only event versus an event where children are present introduces new category distinctions. Regardless, everyone must draw lines somewhere.
But the Tennessee legislation in question is right, good, and necessary. It does not create a morality police. No one is arguing for the police invasion of private homes in search of drag queens. Children have the right to have their innocence protected from sexualization. If the law cannot draw meaningful distinctions between speech that is provocative but important from speech that is prurient and obscene, government has failed the critical call “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14). If our lawmakers cannot legislate with the goal of children’s well-being in mind, why have laws in the first place?
The legislation reminds me of one of the most important things I’ve ever read about the government’s calling. It comes from a 1983 column from George Will where he observes a key point relevant to the debate about drag queens.
As Will explains, “all government takes place on a slippery slope.” He continues: “Anything can be imagined carried to unreasonable lengths. That is why the most important four words in politics are: up to a point. ... Sensible government is impossible when the citizenry succumbs to the corrosive suspicion that governors are incapable of reasonable distinctions.”
In this instance, a reasonable distinction has been made by Tennessee’s legislators. There is no value, and indeed there are harms, in exposing children to the gender-bending proclivities of adults. As Darel E. Paul has observed in First Things, the celebration of drag queens represents a deconstructionist revolt against the limitations of nature. Law should give it no public quarter.
Should the bill make its way to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk, he should sign it. Doing so would set a moral example for the rest of the nation in legislating to protect children. Not only that, it would be a key moral victory in demonstrating that government is tasked with making critical distinctions in its judgments on how to go about protecting liberty in the broadest possible ways. But, at the same time, Tennessee would be setting liberty alongside other public interests, including, namely, moral sanity.
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