INTERVIEW: Ryan T. Anderson Was Made for This Moment

Published March 3, 2021

The American Conservative

Note from Rod Dreher: For the last nine years, Ryan T. Anderson has been active in Washington public policy circles as a researcher at the Heritage Foundation, and as a cheerful advocate across several media for religious liberty, traditional marriage, the sanctity of life, and other socially conservative positions. He has drawn the most heat, though, for his opposition to “gender ideology,” a term that covers transgenderism and adjacent ideologies that often contradict science, and seek to impose radical social constructivism on an unwary public.

Recently, Amazon quietly quit selling his acclaimed 2018 book When Harry Became Sally: Responding To The Transgender Moment, a science-based critique of transgender ideology and the laws based on it. You can still buy Hitler’s Mein Kampf on Amazon, but you cannot buy a well-written, scientifically-informed critique of gender ideology by a leading Catholic public intellectual. This controversy arose at the same time the Democratic-controlled House has once again passed a version of the Equality Act, which would elevate sexual orientation and gender identity to the same status as race in federal civil rights law — an act that President Biden has promised to sign if it passes the Senate too.

In January, Anderson, a Princeton graduate and protegé of Prof. Robert George, was made president of the Ethics And Public Policy Center, a leading socially conservative think tank in Washington. This puts Anderson, at only 39, in a top position to advance socially conservative policy in an era when all the signs for the social and religious Right look bad. I asked Ryan, an old friend, if he would answer some questions from me via e-mail. He just sent in his responses:

RD: I was shocked, but not surprised (if you take my meaning), to see that has cancelled your 2018 bestseller “When Harry Became Sally.” What does this mean in the short term, and in the long term?

RTA: Short term, I’ve sold a couple thousand books in the past week—which is unheard of for a three-year-old book. Long term, it’s part of an effort to discredit me and anyone like me who is willing to speak out against the unethical (and unscientific) experiments that are being conducted on children struggling with gender dysphoria. Because I had the gall to make such arguments and report on those studies the media refuses to, Amazon, the world’s largest retailer, has removed my book on the scientific, medical, philosophical, and legal aspects of transgender issues. That’ll have a chilling impact on any future author considering whether to write on this topic or not.

But it goes beyond just this one topic. It’ll harm the entire culture of book authoring, publishing, and reading—as it will have a chilling effect on all aspects of the book market. How many authors will think twice before telling the truth controversial issues? How many publishers will simply decline to publish books they’re afraid will be barred from Amazon’s shelves? How many readers will never even hear of the banned books?

Silver lining, this could be further catalyst that’ll interrupt the libertarian slumber of many conservatives and prompt them to think critically about what, for example, the natural law says about both the justification of and limits to economic liberties. I wrote a dissertation on this, and applied a little bit of that argument in an essay last week at First Things about Amazon and other Big Tech threats.

When he was running for president, Joe Biden vowed to sign the Equality Act if elected. Now that both the House and the Senate are in the hands of Democrats, odds are that the Equality Act will pass. Why does this concern you?

First, thankfully, odds are still against the bill becoming law. If the legislative filibuster remains, the Equality Act goes nowhere in the Senate. If they somehow convince Senator Manchin to vote to remove the legislative filibuster, then we’re in a different situation. The question would then be whether Senator McConnell can keep all 50 republicans opposed (and early signs are good as Senator Collins has said she now opposes the Equality Act). That would then leave a 50-50 split with VP Harris casting the deciding vote—unless, of course, Senator Manchin broke ranks and opposed the bill.

Second, why is the Equality Act so disconcerting? My most recent short treatment can be found last week in the New York Post. But I’ve been writing about the harms of the Equality Act, and its predecessor the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, since 2013. In books, law review articles, essays, op-eds, white papers, etc. etc. my basic argument has been that it gets the nature of the human person wrong, and by enshrining a false anthropology into law it’ll cause serious harms. (Basic idea being straight from MLK, who was building on Aquinas and Augustine, that for man-made law to be just, it needs to embody the natural law and the eternal law.)

The equality act would take a just law—the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which banned discrimination on the basis of race, and then add “sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity” everywhere that race is protected. It expands the number of private businesses that would now be classified as public accommodations. And it explicitly exempts itself from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). And it’s important to point out that because “sex” isn’t currently a protected class in Title II (public accommodations) or Title VI (federal funding recipients), by adding “sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity” to those titles the only religious liberty protections the Equality Act allows for would be those available to racists.

So the short answer is that the Equality Act treats people and institutions that believe we are created male and female, and that male and female are created for each other, as the legal equivalent of racists. And then all of the negative consequences for privacy and safety in single-sex facilities, for equality and fairness for athletics, for medicine when it comes to gender dysphoria (and abortion, see my NYPost op-ed) follow from that. If you get human nature wrong in law, there are consequences.

Because the vast majority of those consequences are not simply about “religious liberty,” the so-called Fairness for All alternative to the Equality Act isn’t actually fair, at all. As I argued last month in the Wall Street Journal, secular girls care just as much about their privacy and safety and athletics and medicine. My most recent piece on the misnamed Fairness for All bill is a short article in the Notre Dame Journal of Legislation co-authored with Princeton professor Robert P. George.

The LGBT acronym lumps transgenderism in with homosexuality, but a vocal minority of lesbians are critical of trans rights claims. On what basis?

The short answer there is that they know that the T is radically different than the LGB. Their argument is that the Equality Act erases actual women as a legal category. Their argument is that a lot of gender ideology is based on the very stereotypes that they’ve been combatting. Don’t take it from me, though, watch the two events I organized and hosted at Heritage (back when I worked there) where these courageous women (not all of whom are lesbians, by the way) spoke for themselves.

Anecdotally, when I talk to ordinary people about the Equality Act, they are shocked by what it would require. The media, in my estimation, are once again doing advocacy journalism instead of fairly reporting on the issue. Am I wrong?

You’re not wrong at all. The media is carrying water for the Left on this. But there’s a deeper problem. Most people haven’t thought two seconds about the T in LGBT, nor have they thought about what counts as “discrimination” for the LGBT activists.

What I mean by this is that most everyone agrees that a hospital shouldn’t refuse to treat someone for Covid because they identify as LGBT. But, thank God, that doesn’t seem to have actually ever happened. Still when people hear about a law that bans LGBT discrimination, that’s what they have in mind. They don’t realize what it means for sex-reassignment procedures in general, let alone what it means for children with gender dysphoria in particular. So activists pull on people’s heartstrings by saying we need a law banning truly unjust discrimination (which is virtually non-existent) and then that law isn’t nuanced and measured, but a radical bill imposing a radical ideology. A law that is sold as a shield protecting vulnerable minorities ends up being a sword to persecute people who don’t embrace a new sexual orthodoxy.

Likewise, I think a lot of people—including politicians—have said to themselves “I’m an ally,” “I support gay marriage,” therefore….I now support the Equality Act and transgender rights. They haven’t given it any thought at all—which is a terrible disservice to people who need real healing for their gender dysphoria, and a disservice to women when men who identify as women would have to be treated as women under civil rights law.

It’s not just the media, though. Over the weekend, I had lunch with a friend who just graduated from seminary within a conservative denomination. He did graduate work on gender ideology, and told me that pro-trans activists within his denomination are making headway because so few of its pastors and other thought leaders understand the nature of the challenge. You’re a serious Catholic; what are American church leaders failing to get?

It’s a lack of courage. And a naïve hope that if we just ignore the transgender issue the ideology won’t spread here, and the activists won’t harass us, and the law won’t get us. But that’s wrong. I think many religious leaders feel like they put their necks on the line on the marriage issue, and it didn’t make a difference, and it came at a cost, so why should they do anything here. So there’s a theological, vocational mistake in terms of what the Church is supposed to do in bearing witness to the truth. There’s also a pastoral mistake in terms of the formation that pastors need to be providing to their own flocks. And there’s a legal mistake in terms of a failure to engage as good citizens in the shaping of our laws.

You’ve moved in Washington policy circles for a long time. Why have Republican politicians made such a hash of standing up for religious liberty in the face of LGBT politics? For that matter, why is it so hard for them to find their voice to defend women-only spaces? Is it really risky to stand up for girls’ athletics?

Same answer as above: lack of courage. But also a political error of listening to political strategists who simply are out of touch with the American people. But there are notable exceptions, see what my friend Chip Roy did last week, or what Senators Rubio, Lee, Hawley and Braun did.

You recently took over leadership of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, one of Washington’s top think tanks. How has the political and policy landscape changed for religious and social conservatives since you’ve been in Washington?

I don’t think I could overstate how quickly one of the major political parties explicitly positioned itself as hostile to orthodox biblical faith—think things like the HHS mandate, Catholic adoption agencies, and Beto O’Rourke saying the quiet part out loud on non-profit tax status—while the other major political party is so afraid to and inarticulate in defending its own base. My sense is that any organization that isn’t explicitly socially conservative will either go silent or actively become hostile in the coming years.

How should religious and social conservative activists change their tactics and their strategy in this new environment?

First, don’t be taken for granted. Back in 2017 I shared this scatterplot on Twitter.







The electoral reality is that the GOP can’t win without social conservative voters. Make them work for that support. Which means second, we need an NRA for social conservatives. We need political organizations that will take scalps of elected officials who betray us and reward and protect our heroes. When the left took Rick Santorum’s scalp, it sent a loud and clear message to all of his colleagues. We still haven’t developed the political infrastructure to support people like him.

Big business will make it painful for an elected official to do the right thing on social issues. Social conservatives need 501(c)(4)s, PACs and super PACs, 527s, and other organizations to engage in direct political action, supporting bills and politicians that are good for religious liberty and human sexuality — and opposing those that do them harm. What the Susan B. Anthony List has done for the pro-life cause should be done for religious liberty and human sexuality. There’s a Club for Growth, but no Club for Virtue. The NRA can whip members into voting to protect gun rights, but no NRA for families. When it comes to human sexuality and religious liberty, we merely ask members to do the right thing because it’s the right thing. We don’t make it painful to do the wrong thing.

If you had the opportunity to speak in churches across America, talking to conservative congregations that don’t pay close attention to the political environment, or moral controversies at the national level, what would you tell them about the road ahead? What should they be seeing, thinking, and doing differently?

I’d tell them to read Carl Trueman’s new and excellent book [The Rise And Triumph Of The Modern Self]. And I’d encourage them to develop a curriculum of readings and lectures to combat the rise of therapeutic expressive individualism within their own flock. Don’t see the challenge as something “out there,” but realize it has already entered your church and is influencing the moral imaginations of your own people. I’d tell them to be intentional about formation, and intentional about community. I’d tell them to be intentional about families, and developing programs to assist parents in forming their kids. One hour, one day a week for Sunday school isn’t going to cut it anymore—in fact, in never did. And then I’d encourage them to equip themselves on the Theology of the Body, and a philosophy of the body, and a psychology of the body, and a sociology of the body.

Bad philosophy needs to be answered by good philosophy. Bad science needs to be responded to with good science—this is true with the biological science of embryology and the social science of marriage and the psychological science of gender identity. Pastors can’t allow their own people to think of these debates as ones that pit faith against reason, that force a choice between backward superstition against enlightened science.

And then I’d encourage active citizenship by engaging in the political process at all levels.

Readers, if you would like to hear Anderson’s basic presentation about the challenges of transgender ideology, here is an hourlong lecture he gave about it in 2017. And please buy “When Harry Became Sally” — it’s a well-researched, compellingly argued book, one that doesn’t want you to read.

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