Contrary to the idea that the government is entirely beholden to “viewpoint neutrality,” one story in particular shows that it is not: Bob Jones University.
The government revoked the University’s tax-exempt status for its odious interracial dating ban. The government did not shut the school down, but it used the tools of public policy to make its existence more financially difficult and turbulent. In effect, it was engineering a preferred moral outcome: Drop the racism or be squeezed out of existence.
Few found this objectionable, and justifiably so: Citizens did not want racist policies to find back-end government acceptance through the form of tax-exemption.
But this should make us consider: If the government is going to go so far as to lend its seal of condemnation on an institution, it ought to possess sound rationale for doing so, combined with an almost unanimous social consensus.
The growing attitude of the sexual revolution
Why bring this up? Because a similar situation of complexity is upon as society figures out what to do with Christians (and other religious conservatives, whether Muslims, Mormons, or Jews) who refuse to forgo traditions and convictions on matters of sexuality and gender that go back, literally, thousands and thousands of years.
Consider how this conflict is playing out. Last week, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke made the brazen suggestion during an “LGBTQ Town Hall” that any institution that fails to go all-in on LGBT rights should be stripped of its tax-exemption status. That’s right—churches, mosques, synagogues, or any other religious institution that dare question the stampede of the sexual revolution deserves to be marginalized by overt government action. It was breathtaking in its suggestion, but it was met with roaring cheers by the audience, which suggests that this attitude is far more prevalent than many on the Left are willing to admit (because of the electoral consequences, of course).
Thankfully, I saw a few religious progressives speak out against O’Rourke’s insipid tyranny. But here’s a question: By the standard of rhetoric that progressives and religious progressive alike use on the topic of LGBT rights and dissenting institutions, it would seem that institutions that hold out on LGBT affirmation deserve to be shut down. How can I say such a thing?
Harmful sexual ethics?
Well, because it is now completely commonplace to hear from just about every corner of liberal society that a failure to affirm an LGBT identity leads to harm. A parade of horribles is trotted out linking Christianity’s teaching on sexuality to LGBT suicide. For example, it’s possible to now buy a “bad theology kills” t-shirt. Accusations of harm are perhaps the most powerful rhetorical tool that progressives use to render religious conservatives silent.
I say all of this to get to my major point: The progressive rhetoric surrounding Christian sexual ethics leads to the conclusion that the government should do something to banish it from polite society. One cannot insist that something is “harmful” and sit back and say the government should do nothing to be an impediment to it, or even encourage it by way of tax-exemption. The biggest problem is not with Beto's policy suggestion, but that the rhetoric of progressives necessarily leads to the conclusion that Beto simply dared to honestly acknowledge. It's illogical to say that Christianity is "harmful" and then not want it punished in some form.
But progressives will refuse to take responsible ownership or intellectual honesty for where their rhetoric would take them, because it would appear too extreme to really suggest that, yes, an institution that fails to believe that biological men and women should share locker rooms should face punishment by the government. But that’s where the rhetoric leads, and it’s where massive policy proposals offered by the likes of Elizabeth Warren (who also mocked traditional beliefs at the LGBTQ forum) will bring us as well. She is leaving no stone unturned in bringing the LGBTQ revolution to every sector of American life, carelessly or intentionally plundering constitutional liberties with it.
I appreciate the intellectual honesty of those progressives who will look you in the eye and tell you that Christianity’s teachings on sexuality are harmful and dangerous. What I cannot accept are criticisms of O’Rourke’s policy by the same people who accuse Christians of holding toxic beliefs that endanger others. Which will it be? Are Christian views really toxic? If so, why protect them? Or, is this really all just an exercise in moral obfuscation? The time for talking out of both sides of one’s mouth is over.
Our society is refusing to have the most important question related to these debates: Whether Christianity does engage in invidious, irrational discrimination or whether Christianity has reasonable, persuasive, and rational explanations for believing what it does about the purpose of sexual design.
As I’ve written elsewhere, our society needs a joint exercise in sustained reason about sexual ethics in order to determine what it should promote or discourage.
It also ought to lead us to an even more scandalous question that society is completely incapable of having at this point, but honesty would require: Is there something morally problematic or morally questionable about identifying as LGBT? Or, in a free society, can there be compromises of goodwill that allow deeply divergent viewpoints to co-exist?
These are the questions we need answers to in order to find reasonable accommodations and compromise for all sides in a culture war. Sadly, the pitched state of American politics won’t allow this to happen.
The answer in all of this is, of course, that Christian sexual ethics are not remotely “harmful” or “dangerous.” They may be misunderstood, but something of divine origin meant for our good can only be designed for our flourishing.
Andrew Walker is the Director of Research and Senior Fellow in Christian Ethics at the ERLC.