Ryan Anderson on a Decade of Debates, the Future of Conservatism, and a Time to Grow

Ryan T. Anderson
April 20, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

Micah Watson: Ryan, ten years ago you appeared in an "interview" on CNN. At the time, we were waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on United States v. Windsor, which now feels like the Middle Ages, way back before Obergefell. I recently went back and watched the interview again. It's so uncomfortable.

It made me think of three things I'd like to talk to you about, two explicit and one implicit. One of the explicit issues was this question of who decides about marriage. We know now that Justice Kennedy in Windsor says the federal government should not put its thumb on the scales of states deciding marriage policy. It's just incredible that he had the moxie to say that and then do what he did in Obergefell two years later. During the interview, you did try repeatedly to raise this procedural question about who decides when it comes to marriage.

The second explicit issue is the substantive question. What exactly is marriage? On CNN, you kept bringing that back up, and that's what Piers Morgan and Suze Orman really did not want to address.

Finally, there's the implicit issue, which is the debate about the debate. I'd love to get your thoughts on the status of debate today, in terms of how people are treated. During your CNN interview, Suze keeps saying, "That gentleman." She won't even name you. Even a Washington Post profile on you a couple years later pointed out that you were seated lower among audience members rather than at the interview table. It wasn't really an exchange of ideas between people respecting each other. It was an ambush.

Has the debate gotten better or worse today?

Ryan T. Anderson: The debate has gotten much worse. In fact, CNN wouldn't even bother hosting such a debate - or ambush, as you note - today. Not on marriage, but also not really on any hot-button issue where they're just writing off half the nation as bigots.

The interesting thing about the Piers Morgan interview is that you're more or less correct in describing it as an ambush. We had gotten a request from the producer for Piers Morgan to go on the show that night. So I bought an Amtrak ticket and took the train up to New York City, because I was invited to be a guest on his show. As the train is pulling into Penn Station, I get a phone call from the producer telling me that Suze had a regular slot on the Piers Morgan show, and that her contract stipulated that when she was a guest, she would be the only guest.

The producer said, "So, we're going to have you in the audience, but don't worry. From the perspective of a viewer at home, they won't know that you're not up on the stage on set. The camera angle and everything, it's going to look like the three of you are there just having a conversation." I didn't know who Suze Orman was, and I didn't know anything was "off" in this arrangement - because this was the second time I'd ever been on TV, if I remember correctly. I was like, "Okay, sounds good." Then I emailed my boss and CCed our team's communications person, whose response was, "Oh no, this is a setup."

Then we had the decision to make. We're like, "All right, well, do I do it anyway?" We've already booked the hotel. I took the train up here. Do we just cancel on them? We decided, "Well, it can't be that bad. Let's do it."

I show up at the studio, and I'm in the makeup room, and in the chair next to me is Piers Morgan. He never acknowledged my existence: didn't say "Hi," didn't introduce himself, nothing like that.

He had to know that I was the guest on his show, because I wasn't Suze. And for the next hour on CNN, it was just the three of us. So they do my makeup and everything, put a mic on my lapel, and then they seat me in the audience. And only then did I really understand what was about to happen.

That interview was one of the first major indications that this wasn't going to be like any other Supreme Court case, or any other social, cultural, political debate. There's a hierarchy here. This was 2013, so this was the year before Indiana's RFRA, before Obergefell in 2015.

After the Windsor ruling, a lot changed for me on campuses. When I was doing Fed Soc (Federalist Society) debates - I've probably now done a couple hundred Fed Soc debates, either on the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or state marriage laws, or the religious liberty implications in the aftermath - there was a marked change in how the other professors and the students and the administrators treated me in 2012 and 2013 compared to afterwards. I think prior to Kennedy showing his hand, they thought that there was a chance that DOMA would be upheld. Prior to the 2012 election, Obama was still against gay marriage. Then he evolved, and Kennedy ruled, and all of a sudden, it became utterly unacceptable in polite company to say that you're against the redefinition of marriage.

MW: In the Piers Morgan interview, you said, "President Obama says that people on the traditional side are people of good will, and they have reasons." That was your response to Suze saying that you were uneducated.

RTA: Yeah, that was funny. I'll just say that that Piers Morgan interview was one of my first experiences with the commanding heights of our culture taking the mask off when it comes to people on the traditional side of marriage. In the Windsor opinion, Scalia uses the Latin phrase, hostes humani generis, which means "enemies of the human race." He said: "It is one thing for society to elect change. It is another for a court of law to impose change by judging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race."

When I was writing Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Liberty, I did a little research into this phrase. It's used in admiralty law to describe those outside the realm of legal protection. It was used to describe pirates, who could be dealt with as any nation saw fit. It's also the phrase that the pagans used in describing Christians. Hostes humani generis: enemies of the human race. John Henry Newman recounts Tacitus using this label to describe the early Church. I have no doubt Scalia knew exactly what he was doing in using that phrase and what it signaled for the future.

Anyway, I would just say to your third question, I wouldn't be invited on CNN or MSNBC for those types of debates today.

I'll just say that that Piers Morgan interview was one of my first experiences with the commanding heights of our culture taking the mask off when it comes to people on the traditional side of marriage.

MW: Do you see any bright spots of hope? Perhaps Florida? Among progressives there has been the rise of "TERFs" and the J. K. Rowling controversies. Ten years after your interview, there's basically been a freezing out of a traditional view of marriage and sexuality. Is that just a fait accompli, or might we see an opening there at some point?

RTA: Yes and no. It's been very interesting is to see who are the socially acceptable gender-critical voices. They call it gender-critical feminism, but it's transgender-critical, transgender-skeptical. Andrew Sullivan, J. K. Rowling -

MW: Bill Maher too.

RTA: Right. Then you look at the think tanker, public intellectual, pundit class, and the ones that are most socially acceptable, along with the elites, are those who say, "Look, I embrace all of the sexual revolution except for this." They're pro-choice on abortion. They're pro-gay marriage, and, for the most part, they're okay with adults transitioning, provided they don't compete in women's sports or go into women-only spaces.

The hopeful sign here is that we do have a potential bipartisan coalition - left and right, secular and religious - saying that if you're under the age of eighteen, you shouldn't have any pharmaceutical or surgical interventions in your body vis-a-vis gender ideology. No one who is male should be in a female-only space or compete against females.

MW: Such a low bar.

RTA: Exactly. You have to ask, what got us here?

I wrote a review last year for the Washington Examiner of Helen Joyce's book, Trans. It's a really good book. She's a center-left writer for The Economist who lives in the UK, and it's a very good book within that set of parameters. At one point, she mentions that the 2018 Irish referendum legalizing abortion "made me proud to be Irish." But should we be surprised that the logic of "my body, my choice" is now being applied to gender identity? The conclusion follows naturally from the premise. Can we insist on the biological reality of sex while denying the biological reality of the unborn child? Likewise, Joyce seems utterly oblivious to how her own rhetoric about "homophobes" and "homophobia" abets the very same social and cultural forces that accuse her of being a "transphobe." She seems to believe that those who opposed the legal redefinition of marriage are bigots, but that those, like her, who oppose the legal redefinition of sex have been unfairly maligned. But "this far and no farther" has its limits. The revolution will eat its own.

The bulk of the review is positive, but toward the conclusion, I say, "Look, if you want to say that our embodiment as male and female doesn't matter when it comes to the thing where it actually matters most - marriage, one-flesh union - and if you want to say that our embodiment doesn't matter when we are embodied in the womb, on what basis do you all of a sudden say, 'But our embodiment really matters when it comes to sports and when it comes to bathrooms'?"

The revolution is eating its own, and those who are being eaten are not being led to rethink their prior commitments. Those of us who say, "Look, this entire thing has been a train wreck, and this is the logical conclusion of a giant train of bad logic," well, . . . Public Discourse will platform us, but most mainstream publications won't.

Should we be surprised that the logic of "my body, my choice" is now being applied to gender identity? The conclusion follows naturally from the premise. Can we insist on the biological reality of sex while denying the biological reality of the unborn child?

MW: Let's turn to the "who decides" question.

RTA: Back in '13 and '15, the marriage question was mostly a procedural question: Who gets to decide what the definition of marriage is? Part of our argument with the "What Is Marriage?" law review article, and the What Is Marriage? book, was that you could only say that our historic marriage laws violate the Constitution if you had already smuggled in an understanding of marriage that saw it as inherently sexless, inherently a non-conjugal, non-sexually complementary institution. Regardless of whether it was a fundamental right to marry or equal protection of the law, whichever branch of due process or equal protection part of the Fourteenth Amendment you wanted it to hinge on, you could only conclude that as a constitutional matter if you already assumed an answer to the question "What is marriage?"

Then we argued, look, there's nothing in the Constitution itself that actually answers this question. Since the Constitution itself doesn't tell us what marriage is, then it's going to fall to the legislative branches of government, both federal and state, to define it. Then those of us who exercise legislative authority, whether it's a ballot initiative or an elected representative, we should be voting to enshrine natural law in human law, which is straight out of Martin Luther King, Jr. This isn't some foreign theocracy imposition. It's in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: "Just law is a manmade law that squares with the natural law and the eternal law." That's exactly what we were arguing on marriage.

MW: Looking back, knowing what we know now, would there have been another strategy that traditionalists should have taken, if we could go back fifteen years? Or did we just have to fight the good fight, and show people who believe the true definition of marriage that they weren't alone? Could there have been another strategy that would have stopped the tsunami of cultural opinion from flowing the way that it has?

RTA: Possibly. I mean, I don't know what could have been done. Some people did criticize the approach that Robby George, Sherif Girgis, and I took, saying, "Why didn't you focus more on the theology of marriage?" Or "Why didn't you focus more on the sinful nature of sodomy?" I'm like, "You guys could have done that." When I see tenured professors of theology saying, "Yeah, the reason we lost is because Robby, Sherif, and Ryan made an argument based on a secular, philosophical natural law," I'm like, "Where was your theological marriage book? Why weren't you doing this?"

I was a grad student at the time. I hadn't finished my dissertation yet. Tenured faculty members who were afraid to speak out then are the ones who lob the most outrageous criticisms now. As if we don't remember that when it mattered, they were silent.

Partly, our goal was to argue in a way that might actually convince Anthony Kennedy. I don't think a theological argument or a "sodomy is a sin" argument would work with Kennedy. We had to count to five, and we got to four. Sure, there might have been a better way of getting Kennedy's vote. I just don't know what that is. And I haven't seen anyone propose something that Kennedy would have bought.

I will add that there were people who read What Is Marriage? and said that it changed their mind. That is another thing that has changed in the past ten years. I don't know if students today are as open to that. One of the leading reviews on Amazon for What Is Marriage? was by a student who read it and said, "I was in favor of gay marriage, and this actually changed my mind." And then he gave a wonderful summary of the arguments. I just don't know if students are open to that sort of intellectual encounter any longer. I mean, you have more contact with students than I do, but my sense is that things on campus have gone in a bad direction.

MW: Yeah. Carl Trueman opens his latest book by pointing out that in our culture, the statement, "I feel like a man trapped in a woman's body" is intelligible. People know what that means. But if we went to your grandparents or mine, it would not be an intelligible statement to them. How is that?

RTA: I think there's a technological role here. If there's no synthetic testosterone, no synthetic estrogen, if there's no plastic surgery, and not just the plastic surgery to give me breasts or remove my breasts or tinker with my genitalia, but also soften my jawline, electrolysis for my facial hair, procedures to remove my Adams apple and make my knuckles smaller, . . . the amazing technological innovations -

MW: This is the first I've heard about the knuckles.

RTA: Yeah, it surgically is possible. So you have the role of technology, and then you also have ideology. Carl does a great job tracing this. It's expressive individualism. It's philosophical gnostic dualism. It's various forms of will to power. It's transhumanism. I also think it's second-wave feminism, although a lot of people don't see that connection. Once you separate sex from gender, you can then separate gender from gender identity, which can then define sex. Then there's nominalism, there's voluntarism. Depending on how far back you want to go, you can identify lots of bad ideological parts of this.

Then I would say there's a political aspect. We forget about the "Dear Colleague" letter, for example. Right around the time of the two same-sex marriage cases, the Obama Administration started setting the legal groundwork by saying the word "sex" now means "gender identity." I remember the day when this happened. It was the day after the Becket Fund's annual gala, and I was on the train from New York City going back to D.C. We were getting all these email and text message alerts that the Department of Justice and the Department of Education had just said that for the purposes of Title IX and HHS section 1557 of Obamacare, the word sex now means gender identity. This is where we got the healthcare mandates and the school mandates.

One last thing. There's a community aspect in which technology plays a role. It's only where you have so much human brokenness and breakdown of the family, breakdown of churches, breakdown of community, that you have people who I think are particularly prone and susceptible to these bad ideologies. You talk to the parents of children who have transitioned, and they say, "My kid got sucked into what seems like a cult via social media." They found their identity not in their family, not in their church, but in this new alternative community they found online.

Carl largely tells the ideological narrative. He's a historian of ideas. In addition to the history of ideas, there are other things to say about this: the technology, the politics, and the social breakdown. Why is it that historically gender dysphoria affected primarily prepubertal boys and middle-aged men, and now, there's an explosion of it among high school and college-aged girls? Why are they most susceptible to this kind of social contagion?

Our culture is so inhospitable to high school and college-aged girls. It places such unrealistic sexual expectations on them. A lot of trans-identifying young women aren't embracing masculinity, they're just rejecting femininity. They're opting out of the gender binary entirely. That's where you see them identifying as gender-fluid, gender nonbinary, gender ambidextrous.

Plus, when we have identity politics all over campus and you're a vanilla, white, cisgender, heterosexual Christian girl and then all of a sudden you start to identify as non-binary or gender-fluid, you go from the bottom of that victimology totem pole to the top. Again, talking to parents and teachers and guidance counselors, they described this as one common pathway. But really, there's no one description or pathway that explains it all. There are lots of different ways in which someone could end up embracing a nonbinary or a transgender identity.

MW: I'm reminded of a line from C. S. Lewis, who observes that spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served. Deny it food, and it will gobble poison.

So, Ryan, what should we hope to see ten years from now? What are we aspiring toward, such that we could say ten years in the future, "We've made some progress. Things have turned around a little bit."

RTA: That's a big question. Do we want to limit this to areas that I have direct influence or control over? I mean, I would love to see the third great awakening ten years from now. I can pray for it, I can fast and give alms, but ultimately it's not quite within my power.

MW: You mean you didn't ask God to do something in Asbury two months ago?

RTA: That was me. Yeah.

But more seriously, there are two things I want to say in response to that question, though. One is more personal. I think about the different stages of my life. When we first met, I was in my teens, still an undergraduate. Then we got to know each other well when I was in my twenties working at Witherspoon and you were finishing up your dissertation. The first decade of my adult life was largely one of learning stuff. It was finishing up my undergraduate degree, being Robby George's and Jean Elshtain's research assistant, being an assistant editor when Father Neuhaus was still the editor of First Things, then being a graduate student at Notre Dame. That's more or less my twenties: learning a bunch of stuff.

In my thirties, I wrote five books, either authored or co-authored. I wrote a bunch of law review articles. I gave a bunch of talks on college campuses, civic groups, TV interviews, radio interviews. It was my personal scholarship and teaching.

For my forties, I think my project is going to be different from both of those prior decades, because my professional life is no longer about me learning stuff for the first time or doing my own research and writing. Obviously, learning is a lifelong thing. I still read, and I try to read a lot of books, in particular. Stuff that's published on the internet may or may not actually be worth reading a week, a month, a year from now. Books, if you pick the right books, went through a long enough process that they're going to be worth reading.

I don't know if I'll write another book this decade. I became president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) two years ago. I was 39 at the time. The abortion book that came out last June, I think of that as the end of that stage of my professional life. Now, I want to do what Yuval Levin described in A Time to Build.

MW: Institutions.

RTA: Some institutions should say, "All right, we've been around for a while. We succeeded at what we set out to do. Now we're shutting up shop." I don't think that's the case for EPPC. This institution has not run its course. Still, it does need rejuvenation. When I became president, a bunch of our marquee scholars were in their sixties, and unfortunately they won't be around forever.

My project is to preserve the legacy and promote the promise of EPPC. We have scholars who do work that matters. My job - and this is something I learned from Alan Sears, the founder of Alliance Defending Freedom - is to make stars of others. It's to identify people who - with the right mentoring, the right resources, the right institutional colleagues, and the benefits that can bring - could, five or ten years from now, really be some of the leading scholars for the church and for the state.

EPPC's focus is unique. We're one of the few think tanks that self-consciously identifies as within the Jewish and Christian traditions. We're one of the few research institutions that self-consciously says "We're at the service of religious institutions. We are here to help priests and pastors and bishops and rabbis better understand what's going on." So we have training programs for dioceses and Catholic schoolteachers, but we're also at the service of state house members and senators and congressmen. If a decade from now there are five to ten new stars at EPPC, whom we can develop, mentor, and accelerate the careers of, that would be a success. Just personally, that's how I'm going to measure my project for the next decade.

In terms of the big picture, success would be some major reform of our abortion laws at both the state and the federal level. I think that's entirely within reach, if we are both prudent and courageous. You could go wrong in either way, either being a little cowardly or being a little foolhardy. You need both of those virtues, courage and prudence, to go together. I think we could see reform in many red states at the state level, certain purple states as well, with more compromise bills. I don't have much hope for blue states at the state level, but I do think there's hope at the federal level.

Most European nations prohibit abortion after 15 weeks. Why can't we? Actually, it's not even 15. Some of the bans are at 12, some of them are at 10. We could have a federal floor, and then states could enact laws that are even more protective. I could see a 15-week bill at the federal level being enacted. Obviously, that's not good enough, and that's why we'd then need the six-week bills at the state level. But we've got to make progress.

I think a decade from now, we could see some progress on transgender issues on what we spoke about earlier, those three areas of where we have some bipartisan agreement. Pediatric gender abuse of medicine. I don't even want to call it pediatric gender medicine, because I think it's the corruption of medicine. Children, female-only spaces, and female-only competitions: I think those are three areas where we could see improvement.

This concept has been central to my twenty-year professional life: both that there is an essential role for the state in protecting the good, and that there are ways in which liberty is essential for the good. We need to have both.

Center-right politics: I do think a decade from now we could see some real improvement here. There are some aspects of center-right political groups that have overemphasized the role that liberty plays. They make an "ism" of liberty. Then there are other people who have downplayed the importance of liberty. There's been an overreaction in the criticism of this, but I think as a whole, this can move the pendulum in a much better direction. The dissertation that I wrote was titled "Neither Liberal Nor Libertarian," focusing on natural law, social justice, and economics.

There's a parallel within conservatism, which should be neither authoritarian nor libertarian. My sense is that, a decade from now, these various intramural debates will actually bring the conservative movement as a whole to a better place that respects and promotes liberty as one among many goals. Having that tension in mind, we'll see that there is a role for the state in promoting the good. This concept has been central to my twenty-year professional life: both that there is an essential role for the state in protecting the good, and that there are ways in which liberty is essential for the good. We need to have both.

There's been a lot of conversation on this topic that I've been engaged in the past couple of years. I see signs that some legacy institutions are moving in better directions, but I also see some bad signs. We'll see how it all plays out. I think it's a conversation we'll be engaged in for the next decade.

MW: Let me interject a little bit. When you were describing the personal side, it struck me that one way to characterize what you're doing is that you're going to be growing things. You're going to be fostering, tending. And not to get too personal, but you're also doing this at home.

RTA: Yes. I didn't mention that part.

MW: There is something to the idea of cultural apologetics. Healthy kids and healthy families can't help but have a ripple effect and provide a witness. It's been delightful to see that, even from a distance, in the pictures of you and Anna, the kids, the different projects on the farm, all of it.

RTA: We've been married five and a half years, and God has blessed us with four kids (the youngest still in utero). It's great, but it's tiring. It's exhausting, but it's wonderful.

MW: Of course.

RTA: I grew up in the Baltimore city, so all of this farm stuff is entirely foreign to me, and it's been wonderful. I wrote a short piece for The Lamp, reflecting on raising children on a farm and the philosophical and theological lessons I've learned from that.

The writing process was really good, because it forced Anna and me to have a bunch of conversations to make explicit what had been tacit or implicit. There were things that we were doing that we hadn't theorized, but writing that essay forced us to talk about it, to articulate it. I was reluctant to write it at first, as it's a first-person essay. I never write that stuff. I write law review articles. I write arguments, logic, and so it was a different writing genre for me, and it took a lot of work. There were more drafts and more fits and starts than I'm used to, but I was happy with how it ended up.

So I think you're right about that idea of growing things. When I compare my twenties, thirties, and now my forties, the big change is getting married and having kids. During the two years prior to getting married, I spent more nights in hotels than I did at home, because I was traveling and giving lectures. I did my day job editing Public Discourse, working as a research fellow, and meeting with people on Capitol Hill; nine to five was like that. Then the evenings and weekends were writing books. Now that's all family time. I don't travel as much. Nights and weekends are with kids, with my wife.

That really forces you to say, "All right, I have a more limited amount of time to devote to my professional vocation. What are the highest, best, most important things for me to be doing?" For me, taking the job as president meant even my professional work was going to look different now, because I wouldn't be focusing on my own intellectual projects but on facilitating the work of my colleagues. As you say, it's growing season.