Saturday, August 6, 2016

Post-Orlando Question #3: "Are Christians Creating A Dangerous Moral Climate for the LGBT Community?"

In the wake of the tragic shootings in Orlando, I decided to address several issues that dominated headlines for a time. Part One addressed the question of who was responsible for the shooting in Orlando. Part Two offered some thoughts on how we know when individuals truly represent groups. The third and final post in this series will address an even more complex dilemma:

“When it comes to the creation of a ‘moral climate’, is there a proper difference to be made between disagreeing, criticizing, discriminating, oppressing, dehumanizing, and killing, or is this all one thing on a continuum?”

After the shooting in Orlando, The Atlantic’s religion reporter wrote, “There is a loose connection that is very difficult to pin down between some of the anti-gay and anti-trans rhetoric that we’ve seen in the U.S. not primarily from Muslim groups but from Christian groups that have laid a foundation for homophobia and transphobia. Although most of the groups that are supporting that type of rhetoric would not condone the type of violence we saw in Orlando, it does create an environment of bigotry and acceptance of homophobia against LGBT people.” 

Is this true? And if so, how is this climate created? And if it exists, is it as bad as many commentators are suggesting? Let’s start by looking at some common definitions of the words I listed just so we have a common starting point for this discussion.

  • Disagree: have or express a different opinion
  • Criticize: indicate faults in a disapproving way; to talk about the problems or faults of something
  • Discriminate: recognize a distinction; differentiate; make an unjust or prejudicial distinction in the treatment of different categories of people or things.
  • Oppress: keep someone in subservience and hardship, especially by the unjust exercise of authority; to burden with cruel or unjust impositions or restraints
  • Dehumanize: deprive of human qualities, personality or spirit; divest of individuality; to treat someone as if they are not a human being.[1]

I am going to venture a guess that we all acknowledge that disagreeing and criticizing are just a part of life. We do it all the time. We think for ourselves; we have preferences; we believe some things are right and other things wrong.  It's a natural part of the human experience.

We also discriminate constantly. We do this when we shop, go out to eat, choose a college, and decide where to get our news. We do it when we choose friends or spouses. We do it when we decided where to live. It’s not so much that we make distinctions; it’s whether or not those distinctions are just or fair, and if we have navigated the process with proper emotional and relational decorum. We all practice discrimination in this form; the question is when it becomes unjust and prejudicial. We will come back to that shortly.

Does it go without saying that oppression and dehumanization ought to be avoided at all cost? We might disagree about when these things happen, be we all agree they should not.

So, how do we make a distinction between just differentiation and unjust discrimination? And how do we identify when unjust discrimination creates a moral climate that moves people from discrimination to oppression and dehumanization?

I'm not sure there is an easy answer. The larger the worldview gap, the more people will be wildly at odds about whether or not someone else displays unjust discrimination, and if that in turn promotes genuine discrimination, oppression and dehumanization. To illustrate, I offer two examples from recent events centering around beliefs about human sexuality (since opinions about sexuality were blamed for creating the moral climate that led to the shooting in Orlando).

The Same-Sex Marriage Debate

There is a theological argument Christians make concerning marriage, of course [2], but reducing it to just theology is too simplistic. I believe that marriage is a particular thing; that is, there is an ontological argument to be made that it must require a husband and a wife by its very nature.  Having one spouse be male and the other female is not an accidental property of marriage that doesn't have to be present; it is an essential one without which marriage does not exist. [3] Husbands are by definition males who are the spouse of a wife; wives are by definition females who are the spouse of a husband. Supporters of same-sex marriage do not agree on this point, of course. They would argue that what I have just said highlights accidental properties that are socially constructed by people who created the institution. Fair enough. It's the heart of the argument.

If the government wants to create an institution that formally acknowledges the union of two same-sex people for social, legal or personal reasons, that's the government's prerogative. Many Christians, in fact, supported civil unions when the issue was still being debated. But the union between same-sex and other-sexed couples is inescapably different, and thus a distinction of what type of institution is being entered into is justifiable. 

My argument is not a commentary on the essential nature of same-sex people as people; it’s a commentary on the essential nature of marriage as marriage. It’s why bakers and photographers have no problem doing business with same-sex couples for years when a belief about the nature of marriage is not involved. The Center For Public Justice explains the distinction well:

“The argument about the structural identity of marriage... is about whether homosexual relationships should be identified as having the structure of marriage, and only after that can civil rights considerations emerge about how citizens should be treated fairly with respect to marriage. Those who want homosexual relationships to be redefined as marriages say that many aspects of their relationships are like marriage—having sexual play, living together, loving one another, etc.—and therefore they should be allowed to call their relationships marriages and should be recognized in the law as marriage partners. But this cannot be a proper legal matter until the empirical case has been made that a homosexual partnership and a marriage are indistinguishable. Otherwise, the appeal amounts to nothing more than a request that homosexual partners be allowed to call themselves what they want to call themselves regardless of the differences that exist in reality..."
As an exercise in consistency, I challenge you to consider your own view on marriage. Do you draw lines? Do you believe that absolutely everyone who wants to should be able to marry? I doubt it. When Obergefell was handed down, the call for polygamy began immediately. Do you think this is a good idea? What about incestuous marriage?  Tom Gilson has articulates this tension well: 

“Everyone believes in marriage equality up to some limit, and no one believes in marriage equality beyond some limit. The belief in equality is the same; the limits differ... If marriage equality were a pure ideal without limit, then its supporters would apply it to a boy and his grandfather (or grandfathers!) as much as they do to a man and his roommate. So clearly, apart from clever sloganeering, the dispute has never been about whether marriage equality was desirable. It’s been about where equality reaches its limit.”

I suspect that, when you draw lines, you don't consider yourself to be acting with an unjust discrimination that creates an ugly moral mood. Me neither. You have principled reasons that you'd like to have taken seriously. Me too.

I don’t think disagreement on this issue contributes to a climate of hatred and bigotry. We are not debating the essential worth or nature of people as people. We are debating whether or not a particular institution called marriage has an essential nature. The argument I just presented provides neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for unjust discrimination, oppression and dehumanization. Clearly there are bigots, but not because of the philosophical argument, and certainly not because the Bible teaches Christians to respond that way.

The Transgender Rights Debate

In my worldview, our biological sex is an essential, inescapable property of who we are, and to deny this is to deny reality. If someone is born biologically male, he obviously cannot become biologically female; however, he may find that he identifies with a gender [4] at odds with his biology (Gender Identity Disorder). The debate is not about the right of someone to identify with what is considered gender normative for the opposite sex. Many don't believe it's the right way to address the gender/sex tension, but they allow for the freedom to choose. There is a lot of room for reasonable accommodation and acceptance even as people disagree on this issue.

At issue are a few particular situations in which one's biological reality creates some difficulties: 1) usage of bathrooms and locker room and 2) participation on sports teams.  These are unique situations because of nudity and genetics, two areas in which biological reality becomes obvious in the public square.

No matter what the law decides people must do, it will affirm one worldview. It cannot be neutral. And when it does so, it will be focusing on particular behaviors and situations, not on people as people. No one is challenging the notion of reasonable accommodation; they are challenging the notion of what is reasonable. To opponents of bathroom parity laws, allowing biological males into a girl's locker room is not reasonable because of public propriety, modesty, safety[5], and a right to privacy that includes the reasonable expectation of a peer group of the same sex in that setting (especially for minors). Requiring women to athletically compete against men whose bodies have been shaped by male genetics and hormones is not reasonable because it's not fair. [6]

These are unique situations that address particular situations in which one's behavior cannot be separated from one's biology.  The coach/teacher who has no problem having a transsexual student in class might have a problem with that same student wanting to play on a team that does not match his or her birth sex. The parent who has no problem with her child being in the school play with a transgendered student might have a problem if they share a locker room. The store that has no problem selling to or hiring transsexuals might not allow them to use a bathroom at odds with their biological sex. To not make these distinctions strikes me as a failure to make proper distinctions between different situations - and a denial of the reality that there are times when the essential differences between males and females must be acknowledged.

Once again, consistency is important. In the same way that everyone draws a line about marriage, everyone makes distinctions when it comes to issues of  what rights should accompany self-identity. Some people have Body Identity Disorder; they are amputating perfectly healthy limbs because they identify as transabled. Some think they are animals (species dysphoria). Others claim to be otherkin or furries, and they are ready to be taken seriously. A Norwegian woman thinks she is a cat; another is convinced she’s a dragon (you can watch a documentary on this phenomenon here).  Some think they are vampires, and not everyone is convinced they should be told differently. People like Stefoknee are identifying as a different age than they actually are. Others are creating a lot of tension by identifying as having an ethnic background different than their actual one.

I suspect we all agree that they are free to self-identify as they wish. But are you willing to say that others must accommodate any and every associated behavior in order to avoid unjustly discriminating against them as people? I doubt it. Does that then mean you are contributing to an unjust discrimination that will lead to oppression and dehumanization? I doubt that as well. We agree in principle that lines can rightly be drawn; we just draw them different places. 

* * * * * 

So does what I have described lead to oppression and dehumanization? I don't think so. Let's go back to the meaning of those words. No one is being forced into subservience; no one is being burdened with cruel or unjust impositions or restraints. None of the issues mentioned in this article automatically deprive people of human qualities, personality or spirit; divest them of individuality; or treat them as if they are not a human being.  If this is happening, it's coming from somewhere other than the argument itself.

I don't know how else to persuade anyone that I – and millions of others Christians like me – have no desire to discriminate against or oppress the LGBT community. Or that my opinion about social policy is based on principled reasons (both philosophical and religious) meant to value people as people while making distinctions between different situations. Or that I believe I can disagree with people in the LGBT community about these issues and still not only love them but like them. Why would I think this is possible? Because I do that already. LGBT people are my friends, relatives, students, and fellow church attenders. We are well aware of our differences on this issue and yet we genuinely care for each other.

If certain Christians are promoting a climate of oppression and dehumanization, it is not happening because that result is necessarily embedded in disagreements and criticisms. It's because sin is deeply rooted in their hearts. That's a huge problem. Those who truly follow Christ are commanded to love others in the same way the Christ loves us: sacrificially, profoundly, and without qualification. If there is an ugly moral mood coming from the church, it's not because a Christian Theology of the Body or certain philosophical commitments demands it. It's an indication that the hearts of those who claim to follow Jesus are badly in need of redemption.

[1] I got all these definitions from online dictionaries.
[2] If you want a more specifically biblical discussion of these issues, here are the notes from a sermon I preached on marriage and sexuality.
[3] The debate about essentialism is not settled. See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry for a more thorough discussion.
[4] From Merriam-Webster: "the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex."
[5] This is not a claim that people are in physical danger from transgendered people who use bathrooms or locker rooms not aligned with their biology. This is a claim that women's safety is compromised in these situations by predatory men who have and will take advantage of these accommodations. 
[6] I am well aware that the Olympics and the NCAA allow transgender athletes to compete. However, they require a process meant to erase the genetic differences. This is at least an attempt at parity, though I am skeptical. The claim is made that this can be accomplished in high school, but I believe there is good reason to question both the efficacy and wisdom of this. 

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