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A New Era of Moral Respectability

Thursday, 9 February 2023  | Paul Tyson


This short piece is entirely descriptive. Whether the transition I describe is good or bad, progress or degeneration, right or wrong, I do not say. How Christians should respond to the transition I describe; I do not say. I have thoughts on these important evaluative questions, but I am explicitly bracketing them out and am simply aiming to describe what has happened to the categories of broadly accepted moral respectability over the past 60 years.

In 1960, moral respectability in Australia was largely defined by culturally accepted Christian categories, as endorsed by the secular, liberal and democratic institutions of government, and by the tradition preserving (which is to say, slow evolving) customs of legislative interpretation and creation. But a lot has changed since 1960. By 2020, moral respectability in Australia was largely defined by post-Christian utilitarian, liberal individualist and egalitarian categories. Prior to the landmark Sex Discrimination Act of 1984, more traditional Christian understandings of public sex/gender normativity co-inhabited the same body politic as progressive post-Christian understandings of moral meaning. By now, traditional Christian categories are no longer in a dominant but uneasy status with progressive categories. Thus we observe a shift from one broadly accepted frame of moral respectability to another.

The new era of moral respectability we now live within is, of course, endorsed by the institutions of government and law. Since the early 1970s, a consciously reforming zeitgeist has defined legislative creation and interpretation, shifting us from a culturally Christian frame of assumed moral meanings to a post-Christian frame of community assumed moral meanings. This has been particularly evident in the domains of sexuality and gender, but at a deeper level, the shift from transcendently overshadowed categories of moral meaning to functionally materialist categories of moral meaning has been profound and sustained. A reforming legislative zeitgeist has been necessary – and is now normalised – because the very customs of legislative evolution in the earlier era of moral respectability were embedded in broadly Christian categories of public meaning and value. Dis-embedding legislative interpretation and creation from its assumed civic framework of Christian moral warrants, and inserting post-Christian utilitarian and individualist frames of moral meaning, has now decisively displaced the older categories of moral respectability.

Under peaceful conditions, the transition from one dominant form of moral respectability to another is never a simple rupture. Residual Christian normativities remain deeply embedded in the customs of government and law, and the moral categories of utilitarian and egalitarian individualism are themselves deeply shaped by the West’s distinctive Christian cultural heritage. However, it is clear that a real transition from one dominant life-world of moral respectability to another has occurred.

Three things are immediately apparent. Firstly, a range of formerly respectable Christian moral meanings – as normative for all – are now publically inappropriate, and any public expression of certain classes of traditional Christian moral meanings, particularly pertaining to sexual ethics and gender categories, are now considered offensive, or simply immoral. Secondly, and staying in the domain of sexual ethics and gender, the logic of assumed immorality and illegality that applied, for example, to sexual behaviours, orientations and gender presentations deemed deviant by pre-1970s Christian categories of meaning and value now apply inversely. That is, traditional Christian notions of sexual deviance and healthy gender profiles are now seen as deviant, oppressive and (even when freely embraced) unhealthy. Thirdly, the deep ties integrating the personal with the public are exposed by this transition: private morality and private religious freedoms are myths.

As I observe what might be called the sexually conservative Christian communities I belong to, we tend to assume that our own traditional categories of moral meaning still define public moral respectability. This is simply not true. For example, if Christian parents have a child who embraces a transgender identity, the State will stand with the child against the parents about what a morally appropriate way of supporting the best interests of the child is. And not only the State, but also the PR and policy organs in the clear majority of education, sporting, media and corporate institutions will side with the State against parents. This will entail supporting the rights and public respectability of the child undergoing social gender transitioning, and, should the child persistently request it, the State will support hormonal and surgical sex-reassignment for the child, whether or not the parents consent to this. Legislation in Victoria that allows ‘mature minors’ to over-ride parental consent, and ‘anti-conversion’ legislation that outlaws Christian parents and communities from treating gender-sex incongruence as a self-harming psycho-spiritual pathology, show very clearly that traditional Christian categories of the meaning and morality of human sexuality and gender are now deemed immoral under the categories of moral respectability upheld in the community and by government and law. So now, being labelled ‘transphobic’ is a direct inversion of the public shame categories of the older moral respectability that attached to any public sex/gender presentation/behaviour deviance from monogamous heterosexual fidelity.

Traditional Christian sexuality norms are no longer respectable, and if they come into any sort of disagreement with utilitarian, individualist and GLBTQI+ pride normativity categories, the Christian in conflict with the new respectability will be shamed as immoral and the force of legislation will be brought to bear against Christian deviance from our new public respectability norms. In this context no support to Christians from government institutions, laws and public opinion, or from the worlds of commerce, marketing and entertainment, should be expected in fighting what traditional Christians will perceive as outrages against the moral formation rights and distinctive sexual behaviour norms of conservative Christian families and their faith communities.

Every civic body requires a ballast of basic morality frames of meanings. The warrants of public moral meaning in Australia are now naturalistic (excluding intrinsic and divinely-given categories of moral meaning), utilitarian (pleasure is good, pain is bad), individualist (values, meanings and identities are personal constructions), libertarian (personal freedom centric), biologically determined (values are ultimately functions of animal needs, fears, desires and herd instinct) and egalitarian (there are no natural hierarchies and no categories of divine authority above the individual other than ‘The Majority’). These are the frames of meaning that anyone seeking to make a public morality argument about what is legitimate, what is good and what is bad is required to use if they are to be heard as making a credible moral argument. And the simple fact is, once you frame Christian sexual ethics and gender meaning categories within currently respectable moral discourse, any outlook on moral truth that has continuity with traditional Christian meaning disappears.

It is also the case that any defence of a right to private and religious moral convictions against the majority respectable morality will fail. This has, actually, always been the case, but the fictional secularised separation of the public domain from the private domain supported a Christian moral respectability culture until the late 1960s. As a result, Christians developed a false sense of security in notional separations of the public from the private and the religious from the secular. These separations are delusional. The integration of private and public reality is always basic to what it means to be human.

In short, compared with pre-1960s Australia, we now live in a new era of moral respectability. In this new era, certain aspects of traditional Christian morality frames of meaning and practice are not only no longer assumed, but are considered immoral and deviant.


Paul Tyson is an Honorary Senior Fellow at the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland.


Image credit

Photo by Juliette F on Unsplash.

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