COLUMBIA, Mo. – Left-wing cancel culture is going after churches, even here in the mid-Missouri heartland. Recently, the pastor of The Crossing, a large local evangelical church, delivered a sermon explaining Christian views on sexuality and gender — specifically, that men cannot become women and women cannot become men. Outrage ensued, which meant something had to be canceled.
As part of its community engagement, this church had been involved with the local arts scene, sponsoring an art gallery and a documentary film festival. Those sponsorships have now been canceled by the recipients. The University of Missouri’s theater department also tried to get in on the action, until lawyers reminded them that government entities are not allowed to issue ultimatums demanding that private groups disassociate from nonconformist churches.
Activists at Mizzou doing something stupid and illegal was to be expected, especially with First Amendment issues at stake. However, I am disappointed that Ragtag Cinema, a small local theater where I have seen a few films (“The Death of Stalin” was a particular favorite), decided that Christians are too icky to do business with. I do not actively screen businesses for disagreement with me, but if one declares that Christians are moral lepers whose patronage must be shunned, I will take the hint, even if my congregation is not targeted.
Transgender Ideology Exemplifies a Huge Cultural Conflict
These businesses have the right to associate with whomever they please and to decline sponsorships if they wish, although many urging them to sever ties with Christians also want the government to force Christians to participate in promoting and celebrating same-sex weddings. But that is just ordinary hypocrisy. What is more fascinating is how this unhappy local story illustrates a general cultural problem that is particularly obvious with regard to transgender ideology — to wit, how to adjudicate competing claims of morality and identity without any shared authority or method of reasoning.
Transgender ideology exemplifies this problem by insisting that an interior, subjective sense of “gender identity” is what truly makes one a man or a woman. According to this view, a man may not only want to be a woman, but may in some metaphysical sense be a woman. This claim is subjective, unverifiable, and requires as much faith as any religious teaching, but activists are determined to impose its observance upon everyone.
Thus, moral disagreements over claims of transgender identity appear intractable, which is why, upon learning of a sermon with which they disagreed, local LGBT activists and their allies responded by trying to coerce and shame the pastor and his church, rather than by attempting to demonstrate why he was wrong. These activists sought not to persuade but to purge.
This is in large part because our culture lacks a common philosophy or theology that these activists can appeal to in making their case, and many would explicitly disavow the possibility of any such standard of truth or goodness. But this acceptance of moral relativism does not make our sense of moral imperatives disappear or seen less urgent. Rather, it has made moral arguments more emotive and irreconcilable.
Differing moral viewpoints seem as arbitrary and irreconcilable as sports fandoms, where we support teams based on locality, ancestral loyalties, or personal whimsy. Thus, when emotional appeals or demonstrations fail, pressure replaces persuasion, and shunning takes the place of reasoning — but on subjects far more important than hoping the Nationals beat the Astros in the World Series.
The radically subjective claims of transgender ideology, combined with the bullying approach its activists often take, offer a clear example of how moral relativism can reduce tolerance and encourage rage. Those who believe that it is liberating for a young woman who is uncomfortable with her body to amputate her breasts and inject herself with testosterone are all the angrier because they do not believe there is a common rationality by which they could persuade those of us who view such “treatments” as mutilating, rather than healing.
Relativism Pervades All of Culture
Although this issue is particularly illustrative, the phenomenon extends throughout our culture. Without a common ground of reason or revelation, moral discourse becomes a matter of emotive performance and intimidation. This is why, in practice, the sort of ironic liberal relativism promoted by Richard Rorty and similar philosophers has produced people who deny the possibility of real moral truth but nonetheless indulge in, and even seek out, perpetual moral outrage.
Intellectually denying the existence of moral truth outside of human creation does not eliminate our moral sensibilities. We will still feel angry at perceived injustice, but relativism reduces the attempt to demonstrate the wrongness of injustice to an expression of subjective sentiment. Power relations may be analyzed and social norms deconstructed and declared oppressive, but these efforts cannot, either in theory or practice, establish justice.
This dismaying situation is the source of much of our cultural crisis. Not only do we disagree about what is good, true, and beautiful, we disagree about how we might come to agreement, with many insisting that nothing is really good, true, or beautiful — our views on goodness, truth, and beauty being only the products of cultural conditioning and personal idiosyncrasies. Conflicting claims of morality and identity therefore appear irreconcilable.
Christianity Provides True Identity Through Christ
Thus, it is not so much that people are challenging Christian moral and theological beliefs to disprove them, but people who do not believe that anything can be proved about what is right or wrong are rejecting those moral and theological beliefs. Morality is understood as a product of happenstance, preference, and power, not truth. And moral relativism, the belief that moral proclamations are arbitrary, intensifies the struggle, rather than soothing it.
Here Christianity offers hope. Its moral teachings are not rooted in the idiosyncrasies of personal desire, yet neither are they an absolute system or methodology, as dreamed of by Enlightenment rationalists who sought to make moral reasoning as precise and provable as mathematics and geometry. Christian moral philosophy includes a great and glorious tradition, but the heart of Christian moral teaching is a person, not a set of philosophical propositions. The moral truths of Christianity arise from divine love for us and the divine will for our good, which are embodied in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Christianity provides an identity based on the divine person of Christ, rather than the contingencies of life or the self-indulgence of desire. Christian moral teaching is thus personal without being arbitrary. Its moral precepts protect human flourishing. Although often difficult, they give healing and wholeness. Instead of wrath, they offer peace to the soul, which we all need.