We are now a year removed from the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. In the flurry of protests that followed the late June 2022 decision, LGBTQ-identified persons and organizations paid a surprising amount of attention to the Court’s decision. The rainbow flag was a mainstay at Dobbs protests. Even a shallow dive into written backlash against the Court’s decision revealed that LGBT people were concerned about Dobbs at least as much as women in heterosexual relationships were, despite the latter’s lopsided contribution to actual abortion numbers. The most obvious reason for the former’s concern was Justice Clarence Thomas’s reference, in his concurring opinion, to reconsidering other “substantive due process precedents,” like those in the Obergefell and Lawrence v. Texas decisions.
But some share of the political angst no doubt comes from the fact that there has been a surge in LGBTQ self-identification among young adults who do not display homosexual behavior. That’s right. New Gallup data analyses put the LGBT figure among Zoomers (i.e., those born between 1997 and 2012) at 20 percent. Data from the General Social Survey—a workhorse biennial survey administered since 1972—reveal that the share of LGBTQ Americans under age 30 exploded from 4.8 percent in 2010 to 16.3 percent in 2021. No matter the data source, it’s clear that in 11 short years, LGBTQ identification among young Americans tripled. And yet under-30 non-heterosexual behavioral experience, while climbing, remains just over half that figure, at 8.6 percent (in 2021).
Sexual behavior once comprised the key distinction to homosexuality. Homosexuality, however, has given way to ideological and political self-identity. In light of this shift away from using behavior to self-identity in defining homosexuality, LGBTQ antagonism to the Dobbs decision starts to make more sense. In fact, we should have seen it coming. In a study published last year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, my coauthor Brad Vermurlen and I found that the key predictor of adult attitudes about treating adolescent gender dysphoria with hormones or surgery—a topic you might not equate with abortion rights—was not age, political affiliation, education, sexual orientation, or religion. The best predictor was whether the respondent considered themselves pro-choice about abortion.
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This surprised us. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have. Opinions about abortion and gender medicine tend to turn on basic differences in how people understand the human person, their own body, others’ bodies, and the very ends for which we exist. Sociologist James Davison Hunter mapped this out in his 1991 book Culture Wars. In what he described then as the “progressive” worldview, bodily autonomy is paramount. We determine who we are, and we should be free to do so through body modification and the control and redirection of bodily processes. In what Hunter called the “orthodox” worldview, on the other hand, bodily integrity trumps autonomy and self-determination. As the Heidelberg Catechism famously opens, we are not our own, but belong—body and soul—to our savior Jesus Christ. Bodies—systems, parts, organs, and processes—have natural purposes and ends toward which they are objectively ordered. They are to be received as a gift. The two are strikingly different perspectives about the self.
The prospect of motherhood can no doubt undermine one’s sense of self-rule over one’s own body. This is particularly the case if you understand your body as “belonging” to you, and that you rule over it by making choices for it. You can permanently alter it, be harmed by it, or be at odds with it. It’s not surprising that a pregnancy can scare people, because—in the progressive worldview—you have the right not to be pregnant, just like you have the right to self-identify as you wish. It’s a cousin to asserting you have the right to body modification in service to your own self-definition. (And why should being a minor prevent such rights?) Dobbs appears to undermine all this; its three dissenting justices claim that “‘there is a realm of personal liberty which the government may not enter’—especially relating to ‘bodily integrity’ and ‘family life.’”
As previous legally effective arguments about fixed, stable sexual orientations give way to malleable sexual and gender self-identities, it’s tempting to wonder whether we’re not simply speaking about different worldviews—as Hunter’s terminology maintained—but alternative religious systems. LGBTQ, after all, is a big-tent system that contains its own rituals, creedal commitments, forms of worship, sacred items and places, a liturgy, a calendar with holy days, appropriate confessions, salvation accounts, martyrs, moral codes, and magisterial representatives. Religious belonging commonly begins with self-identification. Just as not all Christians practice their faith, so too not all self-identified LGBTQ persons demonstrate behaviors long associated with the movement. And just as there are many moral questions that divide Christians, so too is this the case in the LGBTQ world. But the emotional depth of disagreement here suggests core religious belief systems are clashing.
Language and authority structures are no less pivotal in the LGBTQ world than they are in our own faith. British social theorist Anthony Giddens—a leading public intellectual in England and one of the more famous sociologists alive today—articulated the importance of sealing new ideas with new words in his 1992 book The Transformation of Intimacy: “Once there is a new terminology for understanding sexuality, ideas, concepts, and theories couched in these terms seep into social life itself, and help reorder it.” This is why Hunter described culture (in his book To Change the World) as the power of legitimate naming. With regularity we now find ourselves wrestling with our opponents over basic terms. But sometimes even new religious movements get ahead of themselves, bungling their systematic ontology. As one Wall Street Journal columnist noted recently,
Those protesting the (Dobbs) ruling have a particular challenge in that there is now some disagreement among themselves about what exactly they are advocating and for whom. The left has been engaged in a confusing internal debate about what a woman is.
Indeed, this may prove to be a bridge too far. The recent flare-up involving Bud Light and Target Corporation, and the mystifying battle over whether drag queens should read stories to other people’s children, suggest that many people of any and no faith are fed up with the proselytizing. There’s plenty of religious tolerance in libertarian America—including among Christians—but little interest in revolutionary ideas about “queering” the gender binary. Sexual difference is not a problem requiring a solution. The Human Rights Campaign, as close to “headquarters” as it gets, should have seen this coming. Instead, it declared an LGBTQ “state of emergency” in the United States, akin to a plea for religious tolerance. But when parents’ rights are openly undermined by their efforts, the HRC should not be surprised when people of all faiths have heard enough talk about children’s “bodily autonomy,” or their supposed ability to express informed consent. As we are witnessing, mothers and fathers remain a powerful bastion of reason in our new post-gender turn, because they display with and in and through their bodies the reality that Roe sought to hide or ignore.
Christians have a distinctive anthropology of the human person and a better, happier long-term vision for human flourishing. Unfortunately, many of us are unable to articulate it. But the time for making explicit what we believe—the true, the good, and the beautiful—is now. While it remains to be seen how our post-Roe society will look and how the present cultural conflict will play out in courts, legislatures, and around kitchen tables, a few things are certain. Subtlety won’t cut it. Gradualism won’t do. Charity—courtesy, kindness, and love—is always in good form. But don’t think that being deferential or nice will evangelize effectively or preserve our longstanding vision of the human person and its design, purposes, and ends from its ideological challengers. To paraphrase one old saint’s remarks about laws concerning marriage and education, it is in these two areas that Christians must stand firm and fight with toughness and fairness, and—if I may add a category—good judgment. A world, and not simply one country, is at stake.