Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is they are not even superficial.” By that logic the work of Matt Walsh is so superficial it barely registers as two-dimensional.
A media commentator for the Daily Wire, Walsh tackles big questions like the scientificity of a black mermaid and the fertility of sixteen-year-old girls. But Walsh has become most well-known for the relentless bile he directs at the LGBTQ movement, particularly in his widely cited documentary What is a Woman? and its sister book.
While the competition has become stiff, Walsh’s truly obsessive fixation on what people do with their genitals has made him the US right’s homophobe and transphobe in chief. And he pairs this bizarre preoccupation with a crusading right-wing Christianity, on full display in Church of Cowards: A Wake-Up Call to Complacent Christians.
A More Right-Wing Christianity
Walsh is an equal opportunity offender. When he isn’t spending a curious amount of time talking about Disney movies, Walsh likes to chastise other conservative Christians for spending too much time on love and compassion. As he puts it in Church of Cowards, Walsh thinks the lamb of God would be better served by a little more hatred:
I’d like to say a word about hatred. While our world proclaims easy virtues, it also condemns easy vices. Even the most limp-wristed and cowardly of pastors, the kind who will not denounce sin in any form, will still have no problem wagging his finger over the alleged evils of hatred. But hatred in and of itself is not evil. Hatred can in fact be a good thing, even a beautiful thing. We should bear in mind that indifference, not hatred, is love’s opposite. Hatred is a part of love and a sign of its vitality.
Ergo vindicating Dante’s wisdom that above the entrance to hell will be written: “I too was created by the Might divine, the highest Wisdom and the primal Love.” True to his word, Walsh devotes many pages to liturgizing on what he hates, which often seems to be most things and people in God’s creation. A non-exhaustive list: any and all broad-minded forms of Christianity, excessive positivity, subpar evangelical films like the God’s Not Dead series (no argument there), and “cheap repentance.” In Walsh’s hands, Christianity becomes less the “good news” than pharisaical fire and brimstone.
Much of Walsh’s animus appears motivated by his disdain for the perceived sentimentalism of liberal Christianity, which he derides as a capitulation to the secular world. His response to liberal Christian kitsch is near-Manichean Christian bloviation, where darkness and doom are omnipresent and only maximalist and masculinist discipline can deliver redemption. In one amusing chapter, Walsh chastises twenty-first-century Christians for ceasing to believe in the literal Devil, dropping in passages like:
Religious leaders will attract special attention from Satan. If they are weak, he will topple them with ease. The higher on the ladder they have climbed, the farther they will fall. It takes an angel to make a demon, after all. That is another Christian doctrine that seems to be verified by experience.
This is the same guy, mind you, who excoriates leftists for not believing enough in empirical science and advancing irrational, ideologically driven views of the world.
The funniest thing about Walsh’s Christianity is that I’m not convinced he takes it that intellectually seriously. For all the preening hectoring in Church of Cowards, so much of it operates at a theologically and historically surface level. Early in the book, he appeals to the nineteenth-century thinker Søren Kierkegaard to argue that “there is no use telling a godless person to enjoy life” because “if there is nothing beyond this life, and no greater purpose behind it, then he is right.”
This badly misconstrues the great Christian existentialist’s account of “spheres of life,” which Kierkegaard divided into the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. Kierkegaard recognized that all have their charms, and even their qualities — the title of his early Either/Or implies that we must choose which sphere to enter. At points Kierkegaard even stresses the superior intellectuality and grandeur of the aesthetic over the ethical sphere.
Kierkegaard would have also found bizarre Walsh’s belief that a religious person should behave ethically according to socially conservative “common sense.” The whole point of his early masterpiece Fear and Trembling was that God’s demands often appear as not only punishing, but profoundly contrary to common-sense ethical requirements. So much so that a person of faith will often feel compelled to “teleologically suspend” the ethical. Kierkegaard’s position grew so radical near the end of his life that he took the notably anti-Walsh position of wanting a reduction in the number of Christians to save “authentic” Christianity from the polluting ties to “Christendom” — which deflated the highly individualistic demands of faith to the banalities of moralism.
Another, even lazier example of Walsh’s historical fatuousness comes when he appeals to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Walsh whines about how “Christ has been ripped from the center of human existence and sent out to the hinterlands.” He refers to Taylor’s notion of “buffered selves” by saying that secularization created a world where “between ourselves and God lies a giant buffer that obscures the mystical light of divinity.”
In fact, Taylor’s argument about “buffered selves” refers to a process that was carried out in part through the spread of Christianity. Whereas premodern pagan societies made no strict demarcation between the human self and enchanted nature, Reformist and individualistic forms of Christianity turned the moral focus of people inward — creating a deeper sense of self at the cost of an increasing disenchantment with nature and one another. Secularization, far from being a process external to Christianity, emerged from tendencies within the Christian tradition itself.
Matt Walsh’s Retro Queer-Bashing
Walsh’s pseudotheological scribblings are important to keep in mind when dissecting the pseudoscientific transphobia of What is a Woman?
There, in head-spinning fashion, he veers from insisting on the existence of demons and implying the literal truth of the Genesis myth to posturing as a disciple of scientific rationalism. Of course, since overwhelming majorities in the “medical establishment, professional organizations, and psychiatrists” don’t support Walsh’s regressive view of so-called “gender confused people,” he must dismiss them as “ideologues” and “in it for the money.” By contrast, anti-trans figures like Dr Miriam Grossman who are willing to give Walsh the time of day get to be “certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist(s).”
This vacillating respect for scientific and academic authority continues in his interpersonal evaluations. Walsh switches between posing as a calm rationalist, just asking questions to irrational “trans ideologues,” and calling his enemies “poison” and “predators” and “pathetic little gutless cowards.”
The reason for these about-faces is that Walsh’s appeals to scientific rationalism are nothing more than rank opportunism. Walsh makes his underlying views very clear at the end of the book version of What is a Woman?:
The question ‘what is a woman’ is certainly about sex, gender, biology, social roles, and the like. Yet more profoundly, it is a question about identity. Where do we find our identity? How do we define ourselves? Is identity something we fulfill within the grand and ornate structure of nature, community, duties and responsibilities — rooted in words like father, mother, son, daughter, friend, or child of God? Or is identity something we define from within ourselves. Maybe happiness comes not from making the world affirm ‘who we are,’ but by becoming who we were created to be.
To Walsh, trans individuals and LGBTQ people broadly embody the decadent worship of personalized “identity” in modern society. Allowing individuals to express their inner sense of self through various “experiments in living” challenges his sense that there’s a stable cosmic order where each thing has its ordained natural place and essential characteristics.
The political takeaway is that figures like Walsh think their imagined natural order is one to which we must subordinate ourselves, since the “Promethean” yearning to overcome it generates anarchic chaos. Walsh’s entreaties map very cleanly onto a hierarchical and authoritarian worldview, where trans and queer individuals are to remain shut away so Walsh and his brethren have a safe space from fears of existential disintegration.
Meanwhile, his rhetorical bombast papers over the contradictions cutting straight through his worldview. It’s why surgery to remove cancer — as scientifically natural a phenomenon as one can imagine — is fine, but gender-affirming surgeries are some kind of metaphysical crime. The former doesn’t trouble Walsh’s metaphysical sensitivities through its (often-profound) reconfigurations of the human body to alleviate natural conditions like disease or harm, but gender-affirming surgery that often alleviates harm to trans individuals does.
A Rotten Worldview
The key question Walsh should have been asking isn’t “what is a woman?” Given how frequently he admits to not understanding the science around trans identity or gender, those kinds of metaphysical questions aren’t up his alley. Instead, the key question is whether individuals should be legally allowed to transition and have their choices respected. For adults the answer has to be yes. Adults should be given wide latitude to do as they wish with their body to the extent that it doesn’t harm another person.
Adding to this, we can ask whether it should be an ethical norm to not misgender people. Some, like Walsh, insist that they will refuse to call anyone by their identified gender since it deviates from (crudely conceived) biology. But as Ben Burgis points out, this is an absurd claim that doesn’t even conform to already-existing social expectations. For instance, when someone describes their adopted child as “my daughter,” no one except Matt Walsh would take issue with it by saying “she wasn’t born that way and I’ll never call her your daughter!”
For youth, the question is more complicated, but also more pressing. Walsh often makes light of claims that trans youth will take their own lives without gender-affirming care or acceptance from their families, while ignoring the reams of evidence that suggest his opponents are right. His condescension is all the more disturbing since the transphobic rhetoric he peddles makes suicides more likely.
The best form of care for trans youth is a complex question that will continue to be debated. But Walsh and those like him only make it harder to investigate dispassionately with their shrill invective, straight out of the 1950s, about “trans violence” and pedophilic grooming.
In the end, Walsh’s worldview is deeply contrary to the “Christian” philosophy it espouses. In fact, for all Walsh’s anxieties about secularization, he perfectly embodies Nietzsche’s observation about the worst tendencies of moralistic Christianity to provide a license to demand hatred through a perversion of the language of love. Believer or nonbeliever, I can think of nothing that would make Christianity less appealing.