briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Wednesday, August 21, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Is Drag Queen Story Hour A Cultural Crisis or Not? The Massive Restructuring of the Entire Moral Universe in America

The New York Times recently reported a story that began this way, “Once upon a time at a public library in San Francisco, a drag queen arrived at story time and read to the children she met there.” The story continues as written by Liam Stack, “The children, no strangers to playing make believe, had fun and soon the idea of drag queens hosting story time spread to New York.”

As Stack explains, “It was an unconventional idea both for the normally staid libraries and the drag queens, many of whom were more accustomed to hosting late night events than M.C.-ing daytime singalongs, but it quickly caught on.” Now, we’ve discussed before the development and emergence of drag queen story hour, and we’ve tried to put it in perspective, understanding in worldview analysis what it means for our society, the agenda behind it, the ideology and worldview behind it. We asked what’s really going on here, understanding that that question takes on a particular urgency when the intended audience in this public library is indeed young children.

The article in the New York times is presented as if there is a normal America where drag queen story hour makes sense and then there is that other America where there is some kind of cultural or moral backlash. The headline to the story made that clear, “Drag queen story time continues its reign at libraries despite backlash.”

Let’s just think about that for a moment. The word “backlash” has negative connotations as if this is some wrongful negative reaction, probably some kind of conservative overreaction. It’s a backlash against an inevitable direction in the culture. And of course we are talking about drag queens dressing up as drag queens reading stories often about drag queens or LGBTQ issues to very young children in the public space of a public library. Putting that into context, just keep in mind that the public libraries are supposed to be emblematic of the culture. That’s been problematic for some time now, because even as the culture has liberalized, the librarian’s profession has liberalized in advance. As a matter of fact, looking at the professional associations of librarians, the schools that produce the librarians, the ethos that measures librarians, all of this is now tilted significantly to the left and has been for some time.

In worldview analysis, at least part of that goes back to the middle of the 20th century when public libraries fought back against any notion of censorship. Of course, there’s a bit of hypocrisy there. Let’s put it in a more positive frame. There’s at least a bit of inconsistency there, because the very purpose of having a librarian, the very essence of the profession of being a librarian is to curate, to decide what’s worthy of being in the library and not. What we have to note is that in a society where the issues are framed this way, both the public libraries, which after all associate with other libraries including academic libraries and the professionals who run them, the librarians, they tend to define themselves in terms compatible with the progressive left with a kind of moral liberalism.

The idea of something like drag queen story hour doesn’t come out of the blue. There were controversies in the early 1990s about the fact that the children sections of libraries began to include and to feature titles such as “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Daddy’s Roommate.” You’re probably beating me to this, parents who complained about the fact that public libraries are featuring these books for their children, their response was often defined as a backlash. The librarians fought against any suggestion that there ought not to be books with this kind of moral messaging available to children in the public libraries.

The librarians argued against any form of censorship, but wait just a minute. What’s the likelihood that there could be anything like say Bible story time in the public libraries? Why is it that in so many of those public libraries, you can basically find almost no Christian books that are addressed to children, at least books that would represent any form of biblical or Orthodox Christianity?

Going back to the New York Times article, it states that the drag queen story time began about four years ago there in San Francisco, and now it’s been spreading, “Drag performers regularly entertain children at libraries and community centers in progressive enclaves like New York and Los Angeles, as well as red state towns like Juneau, Alaska, and Lincoln, Nebraska.”

The article then goes on to describe that even though there are at least some open-minded people in places even like Juneau, Alaska, and Lincoln, Nebraska defined here as red state towns, there is a backlash. Jonathan Hamilt, he is identified as the co-founder of Drag Queen Story Hour, a nonprofit in New York, is cited in the article as saying, “I guess the backlash is growing because it is getting more popular.” He went on to say, “But the love and support for Drag Queen Story Hour has trumped the hate even though both have grown.” We’re told, “He also did the first New York event in 2016 as his drag alter ego Ona Louise.”

The main point indeed of the New York Times article is to suggest that even though there is widely reported backlash against drag queen story time, the reality is that the programs continue and continue to expand. An amazing point of candor came in the New York Times article. I’ll read the paragraph, “In Houston, organizers disbanded a drag event unaffiliated with the nonprofit after a series of unnerving events that included death threats, the removal of an armed protestor from a reading, and the revelation that a past performer was a registered sex offender.” In parenthesis, then the paper says, “The organizer said background checks not been conducted on its earliest performers.”

A part of the article that parents and others ought to note particularly continues this way, “Edie Pasek, who organizes story hour events in and around Milwaukee, said her readings had been protested like the dickens, especially in smaller cities like Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and Zion, Illinois, but she said she and the performers tried to stay focused on the point of Drag Queen Story Hour. “We want to teach the kids acceptance, not bullying, learning to make good choices, how to be nice to other people.”

She went on to say, “I have a six-year-old daughter, and whatever I think we need to teach her is what we bring to story hour.” Later speaking of the children as audience, she said, “Normally, we say it’s okay to be the way you are, and the people outside, that would mean the protesters, are yelling because they don’t want us to be the way we are. And the kids do the Mr. Rogers thing,” says the article. “They say, ‘We like you just the way you are.'” That’s the moral messaging. Even if you’re a drag queen, the message is we like you just the way you are. The point of the article is that children are impressionable and easily influenced to come to the conclusion, it’s okay just the way you are.

Now, again, Christians need to know that that particular framing of the issue means that anyone who doesn’t believe that drag queens are just fine and that God is happy with them just the way they are, then they are just out of step with the times. They are driven by hate. The word “haters” was used in the article, and the article makes it very clear that the intended audience for this kind of moral messaging would be children and indeed extremely young children.

But that then leads us to an even bigger issue for Christians to consider, because just a few weeks ago, a controversy emerged within American conservatism over some of these very issues and oddly enough the catalyst was Drag Queen Story Hour. Two different visions of conservatism, two different conservative arguments emerged, one associated with Sohrab Ahmari who wrote an article against the conservatism he identified with David French of National Review. In coming days, we’ll look more closely at that debate.

The important thing to recognize is that Sohrab Ahmari was reflecting the fact that he had witnessed a Drag Queen Story Hour in Sacramento, California, and it became in his mind a symbolic event about the fact that our culture is collapsing, and conservatism has not had any adequate response. Furthermore, he looked at the society as we know it now and wondered if the entire experiment in Western liberalism had simply failed. Ahmari simply tweeted, “This is demonic,” and then he dismissed with words I will not use the entire liberal order. He accused many he identified as basically establishment conservatives, especially inside the beltway, as being far too tepid and failing to understand the moral emergency, the cultural emergency that we actually face.

It calls for a very different conservative response, a very different conservative philosophy of life than that represented by many of the establishment conservatives. That was Ahmari’s argument. Ahmari and David French had a form of an exchange, not so much a direct exchange, but something that was basically indirect, but even over drag queen story hour. Ramona Tausz, writing for First Things, writes, “Even David French dismissed Ahmari’s worries because of the relatively small size of these events.” That means the drag queen story hour events.

French wrote, “I’m having a hard time believing we’re having a conversation around some sort of library event that like 20 people might go to.” Tausz then tells us that French responded sarcastically by saying, “That’s the threat right there. That’s going to destroy the liberal order. I just don’t get it.” But Tausz then goes on to write, “Contra French, drag queen story hours are not all that small. The nonprofit DQSH started in 2015 in San Francisco by Michelle Tea and the queer literary arts organization Radar Productions. It’s,” she said, “a global phenomenon with chapters around the world in the United States, its 35 chapters hold events regularly at public libraries in 13 states and Washington, D.C.”

Tausz continues, “They draw large crowds. 127 signed up for the Sacramento public library’s last story hour in August. 275 attended a story hour in Evansville, Indiana, in February. 500 turned up for one in Brentwood, California. 200 showed up for one in Albany last August.” Tausz continues, “Moreover, the group has expansive aims. ‘We are going to groom the next generation,’ one participating drag queen stated. Events involve drag queens asking children, ‘Who wants to be a drag queen when they grow up?’ Featured books include ‘Red: A Crayon’s Story’ about a blue crayon who’s been labeled as red. According to its website, DQSH ‘captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models. Kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish whose dress up is real.’”

Tausz continues quoting California library and Brook Converse saying, “This is not a drag performance. There’s no agenda attached to this. It’s actually very sweet.” But that statement is betrayed by so many others in which the agenda is stated honestly, candidly, straightforwardly, and frankly by the very nature of the event itself.

Tausz goes on, “Videos of past story hours reveal pornographic adult entertainment, provocative outfits, sexual dancing.” I’m not going to read the rest of that sentence. I’m also not going to mention some of the explicit sexual messaging that comes later in this article. “It’s hard to interpret this adult entertainment as sweet, especially when the librarians hosting these events sometimes fail to do proper background checks. Two of the queens featured in story hours in Houston where later exposed as convicted sex offenders and pedophiles.”

Let’s shift from reading about the agenda of Drag Queen Story Time to reading the organizers state their purpose. An article in The Guardian cites Michelle Tea, she’s the writer who first established a drag queen story time in San Francisco in 2015. The Guardian reports that the program was intended, “To give kids glamorous, positive, unabashedly queer role models.” That’s the word of the organizer. That’s the explanation. You can’t say this is merely sweet and there’s no agenda behind it. There’s a huge agenda behind it, and frankly, even if this kind of statement had not been made, though it has been made, the nature of the event itself cries out, this can only be explained by an agenda, and frankly, it can also only be explained by a degree of cultural insanity that most of the people in our society don’t want to admit straightforwardly.

That leads to a serious question for seriously minded Christians. Is drag queen story time a big deal or not? Is it a sign of cultural catastrophe or is it just another blip on the cultural horizon? I think upon reflection, it’s really clear that drag queen story time is not a mere blip on the culture. It is instead a sign that something transformational has taken place.

It’s not just taking place now before our eyes with Drag Queen Story Time, it is a signal that something has already happened, a transformation has already occurred. This has gone from being unimaginable to plausible to actual to celebrated in a stunningly short amount of time. Let’s face the reality here. Our society has not reached the point where drag queen story time for children in the public libraries, we are told, is something that must be tolerated. We are told that it now is something that must be celebrated. Seen in this light, drag queen story time is not the catastrophe. It’s the result of the catastrophe.

The catastrophe is the massive restructuring of the entire moral universe of modern America that makes drag queen story time plausible, and then actual and then celebrated. If you think it’s no big deal that there is now drag queen story time in the public libraries for young children not only in the coastal liberal communities but also in red state cities as well, if you think it’s no big deal that sexual perversion is now being celebrated for young children dressed up in a direct rejection of the so called gender binary, if that doesn’t represent a cultural crisis to you, then I simply have to press the question even harder. Answer it honestly. What then would it take for you to recognize a cultural crisis?

Part II

What’s New in California? A Ban on Plastic Water Bottles and a Human Defecation Crisis

But next, we shift to another story that comes to California, and actually not one story but two. The headline in the Wall Street Journal asking the question, “What will California ban next?” The purpose of this article is to point to the fact that the regime of regulation in the state of California has now reached a new symbolic moment. At San Francisco airport, they are now outlawing plastic bottles of water. Andy Kessler writes, “First, they came for our plastic grocery bags, then they came for our plastic straws, now they’ve come for our plastic water bottles at SFO.” That’s San Francisco International Airport.

Kessler continues, “Yes, you read that right. Starting Tuesday, the sale of plastic water bottles will be banned at San Francisco International Airport, one of the few places they actually make sense. California,” says Kessler, “has many dumb laws and statutes and bans, but this one is especially brainless, spurred by futile self-righteousness.” You’re going to have to buy or bring a kind of water bottle in order to fill it with the centers there for filling such bottles. “And your teeth will chatter if you drink through a paper straw. Of course, you could risk dehydration instead. Men lose up to a half gallon of water during a 10-hour flight. Oddly,” says Kessler, “you can still buy sugary drinks and plastic bottles at the airport. Only healthy calorie-free water is banned in plastic.” He summarizes, “You can’t make this stuff up.”

Kessler’s article then goes on to detail many other issues of excessive and often irrational regulation in the state of California. He points out that much of the regulation, by the way, is counterproductive even for the aims that are announced. California is one of the states where real estate prices and high taxation mean the income inequality is particularly represented by inadequate housing.

Housing is so expensive that most middle-class people couldn’t possibly live in San Francisco or even in many of its suburbs, and that’s true for increasing regions throughout California. These are the very people who complain about what they defined as income inequality, but their communities are the most income unequal imaginable. But from a worldview perspective, it’s really interesting that by the end of the article, Kessler points out that even though California has so many laws and regulations on the book, many of them are just routinely ignored, even by the police.

Kessler writes, “In some places, the right laws are in place but no one cares. San Francisco like Los Angeles has a nasty homeless problem. Fed-up voters in 2010 passed a sit lie ordinance that outlaws loitering between 7:00 AM and 11:00 PM. Outlaws in this case mean perpetrators are supposed to get a ticket, but the police don’t bother with that anymore.”

But that leads us to an interesting point of worldview analysis, which is that governments by nature regulate. That’s what governments do. They adopt laws. They pass ordinances. They establish regulations. They often manage many parts of the entire society in some cases seeking to manage or at least to influence or to regulate the economy, and then sometimes even invading issues of personal life and family life. It’s not a question as to whether government will regulate. It is a question as to which regulations government will put into place, and the detail and complexity of the regulation. It is extremely clear that too much regulation means that number one, no one can even know all the rules. Furthermore, you have a bureaucracy that lives off of the rules and the interpretation of the rules, and then you have the problem that when the rules become too complex and unenforceable, law enforcement then just basically shrugs because it can’t possibly enforce the laws and the regulations.

That leads us to the second article that also appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal about California. Here’s the headline for you: “California’s biggest cities confront a defecation crisis.” Yes, that’s the actual headline, and it’s a quite newsworthy and necessary headline. The article is by Charles Kesler who writes, “They say there’s a smartphone app for everything, and doubters should know there are now at least to dealing with excrement on the sidewalks of San Francisco.” Yes, dear listener to The Briefing, there is actually an app for that. It’s a civilization that now needs an app for that.

As Kesler writes, “Lawmakers banned plastic straws as a far worst kind of waste covers the streets of San Francisco and L.A.” One authority cited within the article admitted that homelessness in those two cities is the leading edge of the epidemic. Kesler then writes, “The majority of the nation’s homeless people now live in California.” There are myriad causes at work, no doubt, but he writes, “There was no defecation crisis, a term usually associated with rural India in the 1930s, even with unemployment at 25% vagabonds roaming the country and shanty towns and Hooverville springing up everywhere.”

“Today’s homeless and the hobos of the Great Depression are different in many ways,” writes Kesler. “The triple scourges of drug abuse, mental illness, and family breakdown had produced anomie and derangements far deeper than those seen in the 1930s when the widely shared nature of the economic and psychological distress provided its own grim comfort.” Kesler acknowledges that there are economic, political, and sociological issues at stake here, but interestingly, he presses the case that when you’re looking at a problem like this, the essence of the problem is moral, thus his distinction between the homelessness of the 1930s and the homelessness today.

The reality is the same, but the objective effect is quite different, because the morality is quite different. I never expected, honestly, that this would be an issue I would need to discuss on The Briefing, but I certainly never considered that there would be tourist warnings routinely issued to people visiting San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example, that they must watch out for this problem because they are surely going to confront it. It is now reaching epidemic levels in both of these cities. Frankly, even though these two are the center of this particular problem, it’s not limited to them.

I want to step back and consider this issue at an even deeper level than the Wall Street Journal’s article. Let’s ask the question: if you’re going to list the first and most fundamental responsibilities of civic government, of municipal or city government, wouldn’t you think that not having human defecation in public and on the streets would be at the very top of that list? What does it say about a government that is now incompetent or at least unwilling, which might be even worse, to confront this issue and to acknowledge that it is a problem? What kind of a society is at this point unwilling to take whatever action, remedial action would be necessary and indicated in order to prevent this problem or once it exists to solve it? Modern people used to look with pride at our own times and our own hygiene compared, for example, with medieval Europe where the sewage ran in the streets. “Not here,” we said, and yet here we are in 2019 with this being headline news in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere as well. Furthermore, we have to keep in mind that this is a moral problem. It couldn’t be anything other than a moral problem.

Part III

Leading Companies Seek ‘Brand Safety’ in Advertisement Placement

Finally, thinking about the state of our culture, again, turning to The Wall Street Journal, in recent days, there was a headline story, “Advertiser blacklists hobble publishers.” It turns out that the story by Susan Vranica tells us that advertisers don’t want their advertisements to be placed on pages of print newspapers or in digital contexts where certain words appear. They’re words they don’t want associated with their advertising. But, what’s the problem? In today’s news contexts, there is almost no context in which at least some of these words do not appear.

The Journal gives us a list of forbidden words. The top 25 words include these: dead, shooting, murder, gun, rape, bomb, died, attack, killed, crash, crime, explosion, accident, fire, shot, shooter, killing, assault, disaster, recall, war, arrested, and ISIS. The issue here is defined in the Wall Street Journal as brand safety, and it turns out there aren’t many contexts in which these days in advertising a brand can be safe. I do close by wondering this: how many of these leading companies want to ensure their brand safety by making sure that their advertisements don’t appear in any context in which, oh, I don’t know, the words, “drag queen story time” might appear?

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Birmingham, Alabama, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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