At best, the question of religious liberty and LGBT rights is one of gridlock. At worst, it’s a zero-sum, winner-takes-all contest that pits the legitimate desire for conscience freedom against the legitimate desire for legal protection of one’s general welfare.
The purpose of this essay is not to propose a detailed legislative compromise. Instead, it is to rehabilitate a neglected instrument in this conflict: reason and reasonableness. If we were able to distinguish what is morally reasonable for religious conservatives to believe and act upon from unreasonable convictions and the unreasonable actions that follow from them, that would help bring clarity and understanding to this pitched battle, with the possibility of compromise, even the possibility of carefully crafted legislation.
Because we’ve lost reason in the conversation about religious liberty and LGBT rights, we’ve lost empathy; and empathy is one of the necessary ingredients for a sustainable political community. Empathy depolarizes. Without empathy, the dialogue between religious conservatives and the LGBT community will persist in a state of cold war.
The use of practical, reasoned judgment can help us distinguish what is morally repugnant from what is culturally disfavored. We need reason, and careful deliberation, to think critically about these two categories. In particular, we’ll need to determine whether the views held by religious conservatives are reasonable.
Are Conservative Views on Marriage and Sexuality Reasonable?
Do religious conservatives have good reasons for defining marriage as a conjugal union uniting a man and a woman? Do religious conservatives have good reasons for understanding maleness and femaleness as embodied, fixed, biological realities?
I would answer in the affirmative for each. The biological foundations of male and female are oriented toward a particular end: bodily organization with respect to reproduction. Conjugal acts, which consummate a marital union, are bodily acts made intelligible by their biological telos in unity toward reproduction. This presumes biologically stable concepts of maleness and femaleness for the purposes of identifying each sex’s role in reproduction.
Plenty of people who hold progressive views on human sexuality will disagree with some or all of this argument. Still, even if they believe that this argument is mistaken, they should be able to acknowledge that it is a reasonable one. Again, reasonableness is not the same as agreement or persuasion. Rather, reasonableness is a test for measuring whether someone has an intelligible basis for believing what they do.
Reasonableness and the Law
Here’s why this focus on reasonableness matters: it helps answer the question whether the law should make allowances for viewpoints that dissent from the emerging orthodoxies of same-sex marriage and transgender conceptions of male and female.
Unfortunately, current non-discrimination proposals do not employ any test of reasonableness. In fact, they run counter to it.
Consider the Equality Act, for example. This bill would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to add sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) as protected classes. And this act is not viewpoint neutral. It communicates that Christian beliefs about what it means to be male and female, and the nature of what marriage is, are incompatible with what US law considers to be decent, reasonable, goodwill convictions. The Equality Act treats the Christian baker who objects to using his creative talent to design a same-sex wedding cake the same as an individual who would irrationally, and bigotedly, deny an LGBT person a seat at a restaurant. In short, the Equality Act equates Christian ethics with hatred and bigotry.
Even more troublingly, it has a specific—and stunningly audacious—provision that guts the Religious Freedom Restoration Act from being appealed to in situations where the Equality Act applies. Where reason is needed more than ever, the Equality Act undercuts any last recourse for making reasonable arguments. It specifically subjugates constitutional and statutory precedent to the ever-evolving (and often incoherent and contradictory) norms of “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.”
Morally Repugnant vs. Culturally Disfavored
Some beliefs and viewpoints within a society—for example, racism—are morally repugnant. They advance no rational purpose. Racism is born of irrational prejudice. Our constitutional framework allows such attitudes to exist on the margins of society, where they belong.
There are also viewpoints, held in good faith by millions of Americans, that are culturally disfavored. This category includes the definition of male and female as fixed biological realities and the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. But what is culturally disfavored is not necessarily synonymous with what is morally repugnant. The burden is on those favoring SOGI laws to demonstrate that the truths of Christianity are unreasonable. Considering the rich philosophical tradition underlying Christian anthropology and traditional marriage’s history of providing the moral framework for the family stability that enables flourishing societies, it would seem that progressives have an uphill battle.
Instead of rationally engaging with Christian beliefs, by codifying the ideas that (1) sexual activity has no core ethical limits other than consent, and that (2) the definitions of “male” and “female” are psychologically based, rather than biologically based, the Equality Act and proposals like it launch an assault on Christian institutions. They will lead to the further corrosion of our public discourse. One only has to look to Tim Gill (who infamously remarked that he intends to “punish the wicked” who fail to endorse LGBT politics) or Harvard law professor Mark Tushnet (who compared those who fail to endorse LGBT policies to Nazis) to see how threatening this conversation has become.
I’m not asking progressives to suddenly agree with Christian beliefs on sexuality. Rather, I am asking them to consider whether religious conservatives have valid arguments and explanations for why we believe that our convictions are true. If so, then our laws should respect citizens’ individual rights of conscience, and we should respect the good will and sincerity of our neighbors, even when we disagree. It is the loss of reason and the regression to emotion-based policymaking that is at the heart of our civic mistrust and zero-sum policy prescriptions.
Any piece of federal legislation that fails to differentiate culturally disfavored views from morally repugnant views is legislation that Christians cannot support. In short, legislation like the Equality Act turns Billy Graham into Jim Crow.
Rationally Defending Christian Beliefs
The truth is, Christians reject all forms of invidious discrimination. We believe all persons, including those who identify as LGBT, are made in God’s image and deserve respect, kindness, and neighborliness. But this truth does not necessitate Christian capitulation to beliefs that violate Christian ethics. No Christian who believes that the Bible’s depiction of created reality is both sacred and authoritative can accept the underlying tenets of progressive anthropology.
What’s more, Christians believe our convictions are true and capable of being defended on the basis of reason. As Archbishop Charles Chaput argued in Strangers in a Strange Land, if moral beliefs are reduced to “purely religious beliefs,” then “they can’t be rationally defended. And because they’re rationally indefensible, they should be treated as a form of prejudice. Thus, two thousand years of moral truth and religious principle become, by sleight of hand, a species of bias.”
To be sure, Christians need to do a much better job of explaining the rationale and merits of their beliefs about gender and sexuality. We do not believe these are sectarian truths applicable only to Christians. Rather, we believe that how God patterned creation is the blueprint for human flourishing knowable by the human mind that God also created. Christians insist that we do not have to choose between general revelation and special revelation, between reason and faith. If we do not contend for the legitimacy and rationality of our views, they’ll end up being sidelined as intolerant and harmful—to the detriment of all.
God calls us to love Him with our heart, soul, strength, and mind while at the same time loving our neighbor. A part of loving God and loving our neighbor is striving to understand the world that he has ordered. By loving God with our mind—by employing reason—we come to understand the world we live in, its inhabitants and their familial institutions, and the obligations that are owed to every person. We do not love our neighbor by automatically endorsing anything and everything that a person wants or desires or perceives. Instead, we are called to the use of reason oriented toward our neighbors’ highest good. Loving our LGBT neighbor requires the use of reason to determine what actions are truly loving. Disagreement on these questions should not be equated with contempt, hatred, bigotry, or a desire to inflict harm.
The use of reason has the potential to bring clarity to our conflict. Even so, reasonable explanations will still fail to persuade some who are convinced that Christians only hold such views out of animus. To that, we must say that it is the sexual progressive who is being unreasonable—not the Christian.