Ethicist David Gushee’s evolve-or-else warning to religious conservatives about their inevitable clash of orthodoxies with progressives is a sober reminder of the question over what variety of liberalism they will face in the days ahead.
Will a reflexively intolerant progressivism prevail, or is it possible that goodwill, liberal pluralism can frame what happens in American public life as homosexuality and transgenderism become mainstreamed? Like The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, who has been an online hero documenting the pace of cultural change around American sexual mores, I am pessimistic at the prospect that liberal pluralism will win the day.
That’s not because I think such a pluralism is philosophically impossible or compromise undesirable, but because the intellectual center of progressivism now favors targeting, harassing, and marginalizing dissent about human sexuality. There are few signs that the Left’s aggression toward dissenters will evolve into an atmosphere of mutual respect. On the contrary, all the symptoms suggest the sexual revolution is now in a terminal late-stage progressivism that makes entertaining dissent impossible.
No Magnanimity From the Left
Consider the Human Rights Campaign. As the leader of the gay rights movement in America, HRC can control and frame the debate and rhetoric surrounding LGBT rights—especially in the most elite sectors of American culture, from where it draws its strength and support. There has been absolutely zero magnanimity coming from HRC or Chad Griffin, the organization’s president. The Human Rights Campaign has become a primary incubator for communicating the distortions that the media happily laps up concerning religious liberty.
In its worst forms, HRC creates campaigns that insinuate that anyone dissenting on sexuality is guilty of criminal behavior. Furthermore, Griffin’s Twitter timeline is filled with harsh caricaturing toward institutions or persons that believe in biblically orthodox sexual ethics. In the way that Griffin frames the discussion, there is no goodwill. Everyone who isn’t with him is against him.
This is very significant, because Griffin is arguably the most successful political tactician in America concerning gay rights. His inability to see that there are people of goodwill on opposites of the sexuality debate (even President Obama has said as much) is telling, and has disastrous consequences for the future of American discourse.
Then we also must consider the rhetoric from self-professed “progressive Christians” on LGBT rights. For them, LGBT rights has become, fundamentally, a matter of justice. Not only justice, but a form of justice that calls on the Old Testament prophets for their authority and indignation.
Where justice is at stake, like secular progressives these Christian social justice warriors are adopting the posture that any disagreement on LGBT sexual ethics equals directly harming LGBT people. Consider the words of Brandan Robertson, a young LGBT Christian activist.
When real lives are on the line, there is no longer room for “dialogue”. We must speak loudly, act boldly, and refuse to mince words.
— Brandan Robertson (@BrandanJR) September 2, 2016
While I’ll leave to Gresham Machen the debate of whether liberal Christianity at all resembles orthodox Christianity, Robertson’s rhetoric is telling. Only but a few years ago, all that progressive Christians wanted was dialogue around LGBT issues. All they wanted was a seat at the table to be heard. All they desired, we were told, was that evangelicals would adopt a more generous orthodoxy that would make biblical interpretations that affirm homosexuality a viable alternative to traditional readings of the Bible.
But now, with the wind at their backs, gone are the days when “dialogue” was championed as the highest Christian virtue, and here to stay is the ominous ultimatum, admitted by Gushee himself: “Culture warriors who criticize me believe they are defending the True Faith from compromising liberals like me. I believe I am defending the Religion of Jesus from intolerant ideologues like them. We will never, ever agree. Only God can judge.”
Dialogue: Oppression by Other Means
Where has the call for dialogue and debate taken us? Today, in the eyes of both secular and religious progressives, there is no room for debate, because to concede that people can have reasonable disagreement about the morality of LGBT behaviors grants that the traditional or conservative side has legitimate arguments grounded in rationality and plausibility.
This is now unacceptable because granting that religion offers an alternate perspective on the purpose of human sexuality fails to recognize the so-called harm being done to LGBT persons whose very lives are at stake, so such positions must be “stamped out,” to quote influential media personality Josh Barro.
Even progressive Christians’ framing is deeply Orwellian: LGBT Christian advocates like Matthew Vines label those Christians who celebrate LGBT ideology as “affirming” and orthodox Christians as “non-affirming.” It is important not to miss this rhetorical sleight of hand: According to revisionist interpretations of Christian theology, if someone affirms what Holy Scripture, 2,000 years of Christian history, and the unquestioned consensus of moral theologians have all witnessed to, one is now “non-affirming.” Framing the discussion in this manner puts the “non-affirming” category on the defensive.
This type of posturing makes reasoned debate impossible. It is akin to being asked “When did you stop abusing animals?” The question assumes a guilty party.
This is where the conversation is in America on matters of sexuality. It is a tragic state of affairs poised to depict any citizen or institution on the opposite side of the sexual revolution as on the opposite side of justice. Secular progressives and Christian progressives are uniting together in chorus to the sexual revolution’s hymnal. Anyone who fails to catch up is not simply wrong, but violent.
Debate and discussion, we’re told, doesn’t take the lived experiences of LGBT persons seriously, so it cannot be entered into. It is inappropriate, apparently, to ask questions about whether LGBT persons’ unhappiness is caused by external moral shaming, or is an effect of living in an identity that Holy Scripture and moral theologians have deemed immoral and against nature. The Christian moral tradition teaches that sin thwarts human flourishing.
You’re Telling Me Feelings Are the Only Truth
But such framing by progressives is also morally incoherent. To insist that debate about human sexuality and embodiment is prohibited gives moral license to any intuition, experience, or desire a person experiences. This is unsustainable. Why? Because once lived experience is the baseline moral foundation or criteria to deem something moral, it results in a moral relativism that makes it impossible to call any desire immoral or wrong; or worse, to even question the experience as engaging in direct harm. Moral discourse is thus held hostage by progressives who want to control not only the debate, but the language as well.
But what of compromise and pluralism? An ideal compromise or true pluralism would entail the public recognition that individuals can disagree about the telos (ultimate end) of human sexuality without impugning the motives of the other side. This would mean that individuals and institutions that desire to live out the truth of their convictions about sexuality would not target the other side; nor would citizens face government censure.
This is akin to the disagreement over abortion or organizations that supported same-sex marriage before Obergefell. Concerning abortion, since 1973, citizens and institutions have not generally been targeted for believing that abortion is a moral evil despite the federal government legislating otherwise. Laws like the Hyde Amendment recognized that Americans have deep moral division around abortion and targeting any one side would be wrong.
Concerning marriage, prior to Obergefell government never targeted or harassed advocates for same-sex marriage for wishing to overturn that government’s definition of marriage. All that religious conservatives are asking for is the return to a pre-Obergefell environment where believing that men and women are uniquely made for one another is not a thought crime.
Will Anyone Tap the Brakes?
So what’s the point of this? I am under very little illusion that progressives within the LGBT movement will read this and believe, suddenly, that orthodox Christians and the like deserve equal treatment in the public square. But I am hoping that those who have their foot at the accelerator would be willing to tap the brake and ask whether the discourse they are pursuing will result in a long-term gain not just for themselves, but for the millions of Americans who disagree with them and who still occupy the same country.
There are good-faith American liberals. This bears repeating: As a political and theological conservative, I am happy to admit that there are liberals whose commitment to pluralism strengthens society by challenging both themselves and their political opposites to charity and respect. Individuals such as David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch (both of whom I am honored to know as friends) and Andrew Sullivan are the liberals we need at a time like this.
None of them equate disagreement with the LGBT community as automatic expulsion from polite society. Each understands that the Christian moral tradition is woven together by a coherent narrative that sees beauty and intelligibility in its sexual ethics, even if they reject those ethics for themselves. These voices believe religious liberty is something more than a “license to discriminate.” Unfortunately, a cacophony of their own peers is drowning out their voices. A better liberalism must prevail. But will it?