Recently, there has been no small amount of fervor and controversy over the subject of Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) among religious conservatives in the United States. Indeed, the preceding months have seen this controversy develop into something of a firestorm over the future of the conservative movement. It has become an avatar through which conservatives are refracting many issues related to public engagement; among them, determining to what extent the state can privilege certain viewpoints to the exclusion of others. And, ironically, at the center of this controversy lies a moral debate altogether unlikely to divide religious and social conservatives: drag queens reading to children in public libraries. No one engaged in the so-called “French-Ahmari” debates insists that such gross demonstration of personal liberty is actually praiseworthy.
At this point, there is little need to revisit the genesis of the French-Ahmari debate. Nor is there a compelling reason to consider in detail the various points and counterpoints that have been made along the way by both sides. Summaries of each are readily available. Instead, it is desirable to focus solely on the root issue of the debate precisely because the question at the center of this conflagration remains unresolved.
Social conservatives in America are hardly divided over the virtue of grown men dressed in drag reading to children in public libraries. To say the least, our contempt for such an activity is universal. But despite our unity at this juncture, there is an enormous divide over a related question: is it appropriate for government to prohibit such activities in public spaces?
Baptists Take Up the Question
At a recent private convening of Baptist scholars, that question drew forth responses in both the negative and the affirmative. Moreover, it introduced no small amount of uncertainty for others in attendance who remained undecided. But even so, it would be wrong to conclude from this apparent lack of unity that these Baptists lack any consensus on the current debate.
The principle of religious freedom is a key distinctive of the Baptist tradition. Indeed, it might be the defining hallmark of Baptist identity in America. This means the integralist or semi-integralist position, or attempts to order society according to the highest good, represents a trajectory that Baptists simply cannot follow. As principled pluralists, we believe social uniformity or hegemony represents a sort of over-realized eschatology that runs the risk of paving over divergence in a secular age. We are wary of majorities, because majorities can easily squelch the views of minorities. Baptists firmly reject the notion that the state has any authority to prescribe religious belief. This does not mean, however, that this cordons off the question of morality from the state. Obviously, the state has to be committed to morality and justice — “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:14). While morality is inseparable from questions of religion, the formal jurisdiction of the state ought to concern itself only with moral outcomes. Because of the divine gift of conscience (Rom. 2:14–16), state actors can look on and determine whether an action comports with justice without determining whether and how religion is the underlying catalyst. In exercising the just judgment given to it by divine decree, the state is determining whether the action aligns with that which is evil or good.
This does not mean, however, that Baptists are necessarily all-in for an ideological liberalism. But it does mean that despite their disdain for the practice, Baptists are unwilling to adopt any measures to counter even something as objectionable as DQSH if doing so requires placing undue burdens on religious freedom or rights of conscience.
As a people birthed amid intense persecution, Baptists cannot support using the power of the state to stifle the conscience rights of others. And they certainly cannot do so for the sake of privileging an alternate religious viewpoint. But this brings us to an important question: can something as morally reprehensible as DQSH be banned from public space without trampling the rights of conscience or equal access to public space? Or, to put it another way, is there any basis from which Baptists can consistently support the prohibition of DQSH without burdening other civil liberties?
Defining the Debate
Before going any further, it is necessary to make a few clarifications. First, though it is deeply disturbing, the crux of the issue being debated here is not actually Drag Queen Story Hour. The scope of that particular issue is fairly limited (perhaps to several dozen communities), but it has become an effective and pointed form of shorthand to describe the moral decay and cultural rot taking place in the United States today, especially as it relates to sexuality and gender. The concept of moral decadence is indeed a nebulous one, but mental images of drag queens parading themselves in front of impressionable children below the age of ten, however, strike one in a specific and visceral manner.
Second, as stated above, it is important to note that social conservatives in the United States are united in their diagnosis of these ills. Even in the most contentious moments of the recent debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French on the campus of Catholic University, it remained clear that the men were of the same mind not only regarding the merits of DQSH, but of the regrettable moral and social decline taking place in American culture.
Finally, it must be understood that the real center of this debate is the appropriate response of government to this decline. In the face of these signs of decay, Ahmari and others are truly alarmed by what they perceive as a fundamental breakdown in the moral fabric of American culture. As such, they’ve prescribed various options for reordering both our common lives and political order to push back against this decay and promote a higher vision of the good. In response, French and others, while lamenting these societal ills, have doubled down on what French describes as procedural liberalism — insisting that in our secular and plural society, prohibiting something like DQSH would violate the principles of viewpoint neutrality, which are essential to liberal democracy.
Pushing Past the Boundaries
Speaking as two Baptists, we’re not at all prepared to jettison the foundations of the liberal order in the name of combatting this decline. At issue in this debate are the very principles of liberalism that were once used to bring an end to the persecution to which our Baptist forebears (and Catholic co-belligerents) were subjected. And because of our origins, Baptists often manifest a particular kind of sensitivity to discrimination and bigotry; the idea of prohibiting an activity or behavior simply because one finds it objectionable is something Baptists cannot abide.
But something rarely asked in the midst of this controversy is whether liberalism itself leaves us any recourse to prohibit something like Drag Queen Story Hour without forsaking its fundamental principles. One must not forget that liberalism is not a system without values or a vision of the good. As David French wrote in a recent essay for National Review, “the protection of individual and associational freedoms — as defined by the Bill of Rights and the Civil War Amendments — is . . . a powerful moral affirmation of the equal dignity and worth of citizens before the state.”
Far from being “value-neutral,” liberalism, since its inception, has been undergirded by natural law. The Constitution was operationalized by the Declaration’s insistence of there being a divine Creator who is the ground of our rights. Liberalism’s vision of individual self-rule and autonomy is derived from its conception of human dignity, which is fundamentally a natural law principle. Indeed, the notion of personhood and self-constitution are deeply Christian as well. Likewise, the primary freedoms issuing from liberalism (e.g. freedom of religion, speech, assembly), as well as the basic prohibitions stemming from liberalism (e.g. murder, theft), can be traced directly to natural law. Ultimately, because liberalism via natural law recognizes the dignity of every individual, it endeavors to guarantee that every individual enjoys equal access in the public square to share, exercise, and advocate their beliefs.
Approaching an Answer
As Baptists, we want to be careful to avoid introducing viewpoint discrimination into the public square. Yet when it comes to the question of whether or not the government should subsidize public space for moral perversion, we believe we are standing on solid ground in answering in the negative, and that it is possible to do so without presenting an undue burden to the civil liberties of others or breaching the grounds of religious establishment.
To explain, we take for granted that everyone agrees that there is some kind of line to be drawn in moral decision-making. Consider this example: suppose the events in the library went beyond mere story time, and the drag queens began to strip down to the nude — a scenario which ironically nearly came to fruition recently. In such a case, we would not struggle to find consensus to prohibit that activity. Clearly, exposure to such would not only be inappropriate, but harmful for the children in attendance. Public access does not negate the threat of prolonged exposure to the corrosive effects of obscenity.
In response to that scenario, some might argue that such an act would also be illegal and should be prohibited on those grounds. But that response draws out the very principle at issue here. If it is reasonable to prohibit adults from stripping nude in front of children because doing so causes actual harm, is it not also reasonable to prohibit DQSH on precisely the same grounds? There’s a line crossed, somewhere, and due diligence requires establishing a consistent principle for knowing where the lines are and what constitutes crossing them.
In the same way that the government has a compelling interest to restrict religious liberty using the least restrictive means if real public harm is being threatened, we believe that governing bodies are endowed with the deliberative ability to determine when a threat to the social order is present. Whether we deem this an “obscenity” test or “public health” test, we believe that a commitment to viewpoint neutrality does not mean that government is prohibited from stopping real threats to childhood innocence, especially when the targeted audience lacks the cognitive maturity to know the effects that sexual grooming can have on them. And to be clear, that’s what makes DQSH so reprehensible and condemnable: whatever arguments its apologists want to make, allowing children to be exposed to adult crossdressers who are cloaking their every action in sexual innuendo is utterly repugnant. It is sexual grooming of a particularly nefarious sort. No Bible verse is needed to surmise this. Our conscience tells us this due to the existence of natural law. Children are not sexual creatures, and to invite premature sexualization is to erode part of the essence of childhood. Crossdressing rightfully shocks the conscience, and placing children in the pathway of such perversion is a violation of their own dignity. It is moral rot, and parents who bring their children to such events are evading all responsibility to protect their children.
Though we are firmly on French’s side of the debate concerning the pragmatic value of liberalism, we agree with Ahmari that Drag Queen Story Hour and similar atrocities are not to be passively accepted in the name of viewpoint neutrality. As Baptists, we favor an open and pluralistic public square where citizens enjoy robust freedom to exercise their civil liberties. We believe in checks and balances and due process. We believe in the power of representative government to make necessary distinctions in those situations that threaten children from those situations that see only adults abuse their liberty. But our belief in liberty is not without limits, and neither is our belief in the contours of liberalism. And in such cases where the victims of “liberty” are the most innocent and impressionable among us, we are convinced the state is right to use its coercive power to step in. Call this natural law or the Golden Rule, but if I were a child, I would want my neighbor to defend my dignity. And so, if I want my dignity protected, I must work to protect the dignity of others as well.
One can easily identify the problems with dressing in drag on the basis of natural law. It is a form of license, sexual grooming, and childhood predation. Still, the fact that something is problematic or immoral does not necessarily necessitate its prohibition. Other grounds must be satisfied, such as public health and public safety. Intentionally subjecting children to what surely are violations of both public health and public safety convinces us that limits can be rightly administered without spurious harms to civil liberty. For us, it is no betrayal of liberal principles to insist that government should prohibit any activity that poses such a direct threat to a child’s sense of identity and understanding of sexuality. Indeed, it is perplexing that such is even a question.
We acknowledge that government taking such a step will require careful deliberation so as to not then turn around and misapply this principle in other scenarios. Such is the deliberative process that is entailed with the responsible use of liberty.
Andrew T. Walker is the Executive Editor of Eikon and Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh Wester is Director of Strategic Initiatives at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and a ThM student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
 David French, “Embracing Liberty in No Way Means Embracing Moral Relativism,” National Review Online, September 20, 2019, available at: https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/embracing-liberty-does-not-mean-embracing-moral-relativism/
 This refers to a scene at King County Library in Washington State. For more, see: https://twitter.com/zyntrax/status/1179967775042867200?s=21
 We have in mind here the obscenity test standards set forth in Miller v. California (1973). There, a three-pronged test was established to determine whether something met the criteria for being labeled “obscene.” They were: “Whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work as a whole appeals to the prurient interest; whether the work depicts or describes sexual conduct or excretory functions, as defined by state law, in an offensive way; whether the work as a whole lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
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