Confronting the secularist offensive against traditional Christianity is difficult for Christians in America, because while we have a strong basis in the Constitution for the free exercise of religion as the first of rights, secularists appeal to the Constitutional ideals of freedom and equality in the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment. Effectively they say that religious freedom has been amended by the requirements of personal freedom and equality, as implemented by anti-discrimination law and policy and the “right to privacy” discovered by the Supreme Court. That this could not possibly be what the American founders intended by the “free exercise” of religion is clear from the First Amendment’s principle author, James Madison. The clear statement in his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments is that citizens’ duty to God is superior to their duty to civil society. Together with this is the compelling moral intuition that it is wrong to take action believed evil. The first should be religiously and legally decisive, the second morally decisive.
But of course it is not decisive where Christian morality is deemed immoral. The cultural left, from the 1960s on, has sought to expunge the Judeo-Christian concept of sin from law and culture. They had no easy way to do it using Constitutional guarantees. Their solution, worked out slowly in court decisions and legislation over more than 50 years, has been to make sexual choices into an absolute right and categories of sinners into anti-discrimination categories.
Articles by this writer have repeatedly returned to the theme of the irrationality of using behavior and inclination as an anti-discrimination category. Personal behavior and inclination do not pick out any definite group of people, and even if they did, membership in the group can change from moment to moment. Also, the ideals of liberty and equality simply cannot be applied to personal behavior and personal inclination. All behaviors are manifestly not equal. Some behaviors must be penalized. Nor is it obvious why one must not make an adverse judgment (and thus discriminate) against a personality characteristic that one does not like. It may not be pleasant to the person on the receiving end, but the alternative is requiring everyone to agree with everyone else, which is practically impossible. What has in fact happened is that particular personal behaviors have been declared immune from discrimination, and inconsistently held to be “equal.” Sexual behavior traditionally thought sinful has been singled out for immunity from discrimination. Any rule banning such behavior is then held to “single out” persons engaging in it for discrimination, although the rule in fact applies to everyone.
But all behaviors are plainly not equal. Nor is there is a clear criterion of “harm” that can be used to pick out just from unjust discrimination against behavior. Calling anything “harmful” depends on a common understanding of irreducible goods, and there are none in a project to re-engineer humanity. From the viewpoint of all human societies so far, the claim that consensual sex is harmless is highly debatable, given that the family has been the cornerstone of society, and the marital breakdown, illness, and death that have resulted from promiscuity. In essence, an absolute right to sexual choice and gratification has been found by proponents of the new morality.
Today controversy is focused on immaterial harm, i.e., giving offense to what one values. But again, all values cannot be legally protected. What there must be for personal offensiveness to be impermissible is a judgment about what is truly worthy in life. It cannot be a judgment derived from the equality of persons. What has really happened in behavior based anti-discrimination law is that various categories of sin have been declared rights, and discrimination against them (or even condemnation of them) is then understood to be immoral.
Making sin into a right is the genius of the liberal/left side of the culture war. It becomes impossible to condemn sin without attacking the personhood of sinners. In some measure this agrees with the Christian doctrine it is attacking. Christianity teaches that sin is indeed deeply embedded in our lives, and seems natural. We indeed love sin. The claim that condemnation of sin attacks what many people find most important in their lives is quite true. But we are commanded to turn from sin no matter how painful repentance is. We should seek the truth rather than hide from it. Hate speech doctrine, and the claim that Christian doctrine is “hurtful” should be seen in this light. Christian doctrine and morality indeed hurts, but that does not justify sin, but condemns sinners.
Important to the moral force of anti-discrimination doctrine is the claim that membership in a particular category is irrelevant to whether one is a good or bad person. But personal behavior and inclination are critical parts of what establishes virtue. They cannot be irrelevant to whether one is good or bad. To condemn a particular sin is indeed in some sense to condemn every sinner who commits that sin. Think, for instance, of the non-sexual categories of the New Testament vice lists, such as slander, theft, or kidnapping. We are indeed hostile to people in those categories, although we love them as sinners in need of salvation. Someone in one of those categories may be otherwise a good person, with many fine qualities, perhaps a genteel person. A white collar criminal may be very genteel. Or the person could be very different, a truly vicious person behind a mask of decency. But we still condemn the sin, and we condemn the sinner insofar as they are guilty of that sin. The person has dignity, while it is the sin that is condemned.
But it is precisely that kind of dignity, dignity for personal behavior and personal inclination, that the Supreme Court was surely claiming in its decisions advancing sexual liberation. And dignity cannot be given to all personal behaviors, and would be wrong even if it could. It is people, not their behavior, who have dignity. Nor can dignity (which is not at all mentioned in the Constitution) really be “given,” it must be based on reality. It is hard to see how a strictly scientific, empirical account of reality can give anything dignity. If God is the source of reality and human dignity, dignity makes sense. If God is excluded, one can only appeal to the uniqueness of human beings in the world as giving some kind of dignity, but that is still a dignity based on what one really is, not what one does or feels.
Dignity for sinful sexual behaviors is effectively what the Supreme Court has decreed in making contraception in non-marital intercourse (Eisenstadt vs. Baird, 1972), and homosexual sodomy (Lawrence vs. Texas, 2003) constitutional rights. This effectively turns morality on its head. Perhaps more than dignity, pain and humiliation were what the court was focused on, and yet pain and humiliation are precisely what Scripture prescribes for sin. A striking example is Ezekiel’s appeal to conquered and devastated Israel, which urged Israel to “be ashamed” of its sin (identified as idolatry and sexual immorality). But condemnation on any basis, whether Biblical or not, aims at inflicting pain and humiliation, however much redemption may also be in mind.
The singling out of certain sexual behaviors for immunity from public judgment was originally done on the basis of the extremely personal and private nature of sex (Griswold vs. Connecticut, 1965). But however crucial sex is to one’s humanity, that hardly demonstrates that it should be immune from judgment. The importance of sex to humanity could be a reason why judgment is important. The alleged suspension of judgment (which with same-sex marriage, has turned into a requirement for public approval) has now rendered sex and privacy practically meaningless. Beyond same-sex marriage, transgenderism has rendered the words “male” and “female,” strictly speaking, meaningless terms. As often happens with the revolutions of the Left, the liberation destroys what it was intended to protect. Just as the unfettered “free speech” of the 1960s led to “hate speech” doctrine, so the “right to privacy” and suspension of public judgment about sex has destroyed privacy in public rest rooms.
Even if sinful requirements were not as irrational as they are, it would of course still not be possible for disciples of Christ to obey them. But that is somewhat irrelevant in our current society. The anger and resentment of those who hate certain of God’s commands may succeed in making obedience to those commands criminal (as they already are where SOGI laws exist). But it will remain imperative for faithful Christians to be obedient and take the penalty, and to know why they are right.