Religious Freedom and Neighbourly Love

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Religious Freedom and Neighbourly Love

Thursday, 17 May 2018  | Emma Wood

In the months leading up to the same-sex marriage postal vote last year, much of the focus of online discussion amongst Christians revolved around religious freedom, as did most of the arguments from the ‘No’ campaign.

Many left-leaning Christians I know saw this as an annoying and unloving distraction from the real issue. For many ‘Yes’ voting Christians, the question of same-sex marriage was simply about whether or not we were prepared to start treating LGBT+ people as first class citizens. And so, for them, it was frustrating and disappointing to see conservative Christians ‘hijack’ the debate by making it about the potential persecution of Christians. The postal vote was supposed to be about improving the lives of LGBT+ people, and yet, they argue, we made ourselves out to be the victims.

Understandable as these thoughts are, I want to present an alternative perspective on the motives of those who want to see religious freedom preserved. As one of these people, I can say that many concerns about religious freedom also arise from a desire for the wellbeing of others.

Traditional Christian sexual ethics (henceforth simply ‘Christian sexual ethics’) are good for us: good for believers, good for non-believers and good for society. In our current context, then, it is loving towards others to be concerned about the religious freedom to promote this kind of sexual ethic. It is also urgent, given the danger facing religious freedom.  

 The fallout from the Sexual Revolution

Reserving sex for marriage - a life-long commitment of sacrificial love and faithfulness - is the essence of the Christian sexual ethic. The arguments in its favour will be familiar to most readers. Firstly, there are the arguments pertaining to emotional benefits. Reserving sex for marriage bestows on the act of sex ultimate meaningfulness (or, as some Christian philosophers would argue, properly recognises the inherent meaningfulness of it[1]). Sex, along with the chemicals in our brains that are released during intercourse, is like glue, made to bond sexual partners together in the way that life-long mates are meant to be bonded. To use this glue outside a life-long relationship brings with it the potential for great pain.

I wish everyone in my generation could have been exposed to these ideas as effectively as I was while growing up. I watch men my age wonder why, after strings of short-term relationships, they can’t muster the discipline to be monogamous, even when they are in a relationship with a truly amazing woman. I watch women of my age resign themselves to the acceptance of meaningless sex as an inevitable part of the trial-and-error process of looking for a man they hope will eventually commit. I watch people younger than me follow the social script of the hook-up culture, who then feel empty as a result, and who do not understand why, because no one has told them why.

How much happier we would all be if we followed the beautifully simple imperative of the Christian sexual ethic: reserve sex for marriage. If we did this, we would be incentivised to make early and purposeful decisions about marriage, and the world of courting would not be awash with uncertainty and mismatched expectations. We would stop sustaining a dating culture in which people use each other as means to ends. STDs would not be epidemic. And, to top it all off, we’d all have better, more fulfilling sex! The liberal ethic of the sexual revolution – the widespread worship of sexual autonomy and sexual self-expression – was supposed to bring us greater satisfaction, but we’ve come up empty.

The second kind of argument for the Christian sexual ethic used to be obvious before reliable contraception came onto the scene. One of the outcomes of sex is the creation of babies, and the fairest, most workable, and most beneficial way for those babies to be raised is by the two people who brought them into existence, in the context of a low-conflict marriage. (While we face increasing pressure to deny this traditional consensus, the evidence for it is robust, and research to the contrary is, on the whole, methodologically unsound[2]). It is good for society and for the next generation of children, then, for men and women to have sex only when they are in the kind of relationship that can best provide for the potential consequences of this activity: the creation of new life.

This argument should not be dismissed as irrelevant because of our technological advances. It is true that modern contraception is extremely reliable when used properly. But the tragically high rates of abortion, and of babies born to single mothers with little involvement from fathers, show that nothing can completely eliminate the socially destructive capacity of premarital sex that our grandparents understood well. Phrases like ‘the socially destructive capacity of premarital sex’ now sound quaint and embarrassing. But this is only because we have allowed ourselves to become comfortable with a status quo in which children’s needs (and unborn babies’ lives) are trampled on for the sake of sexual autonomy. Like other pagan religions before it, the worship of sexual autonomy requires child sacrifice.

Needless to say, the liberal sexual ethic not only interferes with the formation of families, but also breaks up families already formed. That there would be a link between the liberal sexual ethic and high divorce rates is intuitive: if sexual autonomy is all-important, the obligation to make a struggling marriage work is only as strong as the desire of the parties involved to do so.

The world’s need to rediscover the Christian sexual ethic is obvious. Men and women are designed to pair-bond for life through the act of sex, both for their own emotional wellbeing and so that they may together raise any offspring created through their union. Thus the design has always been, and modern contraception and IVF technology have not changed this. Children, in turn, are designed to crave and love their biological parents, who ought to strive to stay together for their children’s sake. Much pain and societal instability is caused by the fact that we persist, as a society, in denying these realities in our persistent devotion to sexual autonomy.

What about heteronormativity?

For some Christians, the controversial idea within our sexual ethic is not so much that sex should be reserved for marriage, but the idea of heteronormativity.

The heteronormative claim of the Christian sexual ethic, as I understand it, has two possible renderings; one harder, one softer. The hard heteronormative claim is that any homosexual relationship is by definition morally wrong. The soft heteronormative claim would be that, although there may be some circumstances in which homosexual relationships are morally permissible, the ideal human sex life excludes homosexual activity – in the same way that, though it may be morally permissible in some circumstances for people to divorce, God’s ideal excludes divorce. Both Scripture, and insights from philosophy and psychology, have convinced me of the soft heteronormative claim,[3] though I have often struggled to accept the hard heteronormative claim.

If at least the soft heteronormative claim is true, then the normalisation of same sex relationships – the promotion of the view that we are just as well designed for same-sex relationships as for opposite sex relationships – ought to be seen as undesirable. It is hard to argue that the legislative extension of the term ‘marriage’ to same-sex relationships does not represent a normalisation – an increased public celebration – of same sex relationships. That Christians retain the freedom to encourage others to think about our sexual design, and whether homosexual love fits it, is an important good to protect in this new legal context.

But there are other ideas that deserve a hearing, even from those who disagree with them or find them offensive. Among such ideas is the following line of reasoning that motivated many to vote ‘No’ in the postal vote. Marriage has historically had the social function of wedding heterosexual couples together, so that they can raise the potential offspring created by their union. Marriage, then, has always been regarded as that setting in which the next generation of children ought to be reared. To extend the secular definition of ‘marriage’ to include same-sex couples, then, one must be implying one of two claims. The first possible claim is that marriage still involves this child-rearing social function, and that the rearing of children by same-sex couples ought to be systematically endorsed by the state institution of marriage. But suppose, on the other hand, you acknowledge that it is a bad idea to systematically endorse biological orphanhood because this is less than ideal for children, but are in favour of changing the definition of marriage nonetheless. In that case you are implying a second possible claim: that the institution of marriage no longer has to be, as one of its aspirations, that ideal rearing situation for children. Either implication is bad for children, according to this argument: the first, because biological relationship to both parents is indeed beneficial for children; and the second, because no other social institution can do for children what marriage can. If marriage is no longer viewed as the ideal rearing ground for children, there is no other social institution that can adequately take its place.[4]

Will Christian academics in our country who voice the argument I just summarised retain the freedom to do so without fear of discipline from their institutions? One would hope so. If, contrary to popular belief, the argument for traditional marriage is sound, then it would do society good for this to be brought to our attention. If the argument is not sound, then it will do society good to know exactly why it is not sound. Either way, the freedom to discuss arguments in favour of traditional marriage is an important good.

Will Christian educators at independent schools still be allowed to present to teenagers the view that men are not designed to relate sexually to each other, but only to women? What about the idea that sex is best enjoyed within a life-long exclusive relationship – an idea that some notable LGBT+ thought leaders find offensively heteronormative?[5] Will churches and religious organisations be able to retain the right to employ only those who subscribe to their sexual ethics? If Christian sexual ethics are good for us and for our neighbours – including our non-believing neighbours – then one would hope, for the sake of those we are seeking to love, that Christians retain the ability to promote our views.

What is really going on?

There is a reason I began this piece with an exploration of the goodness of the Christian principle of reserving sex for marriage, as if it also has something to do with this topic of religious freedom. I do not believe Christians can separate the pressure we are facing to deny heteronormativity from the more general pressure we have faced ever since the birth of the sexual revolution (arguably, a pressure that has been slowly increasing ever since the Enlightenment): the pressure to stop making normative claims about sex altogether. We are not now suddenly facing just one piecemeal objection to one aspect of our sexual ethic. It is part of something bigger: a secular philosophy that views traditional or Christian sexual norms as part of a system of oppression and as the enemy of sexual self-determination and expression. Against such oppression, sexual minorities throughout history have rebelled. First were the famous libertines like Jean-Jacques Rousseau who rebelled against the idea that sex should be confined to marriage (and who left many orphaned children in his wake). Second were the practitioners of ‘unconventional’ relationships like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Third were the leaders of the gay and lesbian movements who invented the language of identity politics through the elevation of sexual orientation to a person’s entire identity. And now, trans-activists urge us to rebel even against the biological confines that either God or nature has ‘imposed’ on us. What we have seen since the sexual revolution – indeed, for over two centuries – is the normalisation of deviation from God’s design for sex and sexual relationships in the name of autonomy, sexual expression and sexual self-definition. This paradigm can’t help but render people increasingly deaf to the goodness of the Christian sexual ethic, which is premised on the belief that there are objectively good and not-so-good ways to channel our desires, and that our true sexual identity and freedom are to be found in living in accordance with a design that has been bestowed upon us – created for us – without any self-invention on our part.

If the push for the legalisation of same-sex marriage is a symptom of this larger phenomenon, it would explain a great deal. It would explain why so many seemingly unrelated consequences have followed the legalisation of same-sex marriage in so many other countries. Why, since same-sex marriage was legalised in New Zealand, teenage girls have had to campaign to retain the right to use their change rooms without the fear of female-identifying biological boys being present. Why university campus speech codes in the US now are just as viciously opposed to ‘slut-shaming’ (read: critique of promiscuity) as to ‘homophobia’ (read: presentations of traditional Christian views on homosexual relationships). And why many sex-ed programs in vogue since the legalisation of same-sex marriage question the goodness not only of heteronormativity but also of monogamy. (Indeed, what is often most notable about new sex-ed programs is not the anti-bullying messages but the normalisation of hook-up culture.) Perhaps what explains all of this is that the legalisation of same-sex marriage is, at least in the eyes of some of its powerful advocates, just one step further in our rejection of and liberation from traditional Christian sexual ethics. Most of those who voted ‘Yes’ were only thinking about affirming the love between our same sex-attracted friends. But the main driving force behind the twenty or thirty year-long campaigns for same-sex marriage is arguably something more sinister.

If my hypothesis is correct, it would also explain the fervour with which the state has been used to silence religious organisations in the wake of the legalisation of same-sex marriage. If, as the language of identity politics assumes, sexual minorities are ethically equivalent to racial minorities, then they need state protection from oppressors. This would explain why, since the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Canada, public servants in that country have gained the discretion to bar Christian couples who hold to traditional sexual ethics from adopting children. Why, meanwhile, Canadian churches face being dragged before human rights commissions for discussing traditional sexual ethics in their services. It would also explain why UK politicians have been able to so brazenly voice their desires that religious organisations lose their right to hire and fire on the basis of employees’ beliefs. And why, in Ireland, the amendment of section 37 of the Employment Equality Act has rendered Christian schools unable, in practice, to demand support for a Christian sexual ethic from their employees.

While none of this is actually happening in Australia yet, the early warning signs are with us. If my hypothesis is correct – if the worldwide marriage equality movement is a symptom of the liberal ethic of the sexual revolution (no less real in Australia than anywhere else) and its totalising tendencies – then there is no reason not to expect such restrictions of religious freedom here. At the very least, we ought to expect some very determined attempts at such restrictions. This is not needless scaremongering: what is so different about Australia that we are immune to phenomena happening everywhere else in the West?

We ought to be grateful for the fact that, in our country, we can still expose young people to the Christian sexual ethic who would otherwise not learn it. Such exposure spares many young people much heartache and sets them on a course of good decision-making for life. We should passionately, and jealously, guard the ability to participate in these ministries. We should be alarmed at the possibility that this arm of God’s providence could be forced underground in the future.

We should be grateful that we enjoy the right to hire people in ministry roles based on faith-based criteria, including on beliefs about sexual ethics. (I hope the fairness of this needs no explanation: I would not expect an LGBT+ lobby group to give me a job if I did not agree with their sexual ethics and if such agreement was core to my role in their organisation as an employee.) If these rights are eroded, our effectiveness at promoting the badly needed Christian sexual ethic will be blunted.

It is important that we retain the freedom to present the Christian sexual ethic as organisations, and not merely as individuals. If we are coerced into only ever discussing the Christian sexual ethic in hushed voices with close and trusted friends, there will be far fewer people reached with it. And the fewer people reached with it, the more ingrained opposition to it will become, and the more the damage of the sexual revolution will continue.

Furthermore, the belief that the Christian sexual ethic is implausible, restrictive or inimical to human flourishing is a barrier to relationships with God. If believing the gospel involves following Jesus, and following Jesus involves living by the Christian sexual ethic, then we must all participate in the task of showing people that the Christian sexual ethic is as good and plausible as the rest of the gospel. In the early years of our history, Christians had to work hard against Gnosticism’s negative view of the body and denial of the Incarnation. In the 19th and 20th centuries, we had to work hard against philosophical naturalism. In the 21st century, we have to work hard to promote our sexual ethic – our world’s ignorance of its goodness is arguably the greatest barrier to faith that people now face.

Not all of us who are concerned about religious freedom are concerned only for our own sakes, or for the cleanliness of our consciences. Many of us are looking around with sadness at a world that has been scarred through widespread ignorance of God’s good design for sex. We want to lead hurting people back to joy. For the sake of those we are trying to help, we do not want this task to become more difficult than it already is. This is why we care about religious freedom.

Emma Wood completed her PhD in ethics in 2015 and is now a philosophy and theology teacher at Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Sydney.

[1] See John Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex (2013) and Alexander Pruss’ One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics (2013) for explorations of this idea.

[2] See Loren Marks’ metastudy on alleged evidence to the contrary, and the APA’s ‘No differences’ claim: ‘Same-Sex Parenting and Children’s Outcomes: A Closer Examination of the American Psychological Associations Brief on Lesbian and Gay Parenting’, in Social Science Research 41 (July 2012): 735-751. For a methodologically sound source on outcomes for children with same-sex parents, see D. Sullins, ‘Emotional Problems among children with Same Sex Parents: Difference by Definition’, British Journal of Education, Society, and Behavioural Science 7 no. 2 (2015): 99-120. For a collection of summaries of other research paper on the data, see Ana Samuel (ed.), No Differences? (2012), published by the Witherspoon Institute.

[3] For those interested in exploring a range of well-articulated views on all sides of these debates, I recommend the anthology by John Corvino (ed.), Same Sex: Debating the Ethics, Science, and Culture of Homosexuality (1999).

[4] For the best defence of this kind of argument, see Sherif Girgis, Robert George and Ryan Anderson, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: a Defence (2012).

[5] Louise Richardson-Self’s Justifying Same-Sex Marriage: A Philosophical Investigation (2015) provides an interesting insight into this stream of philosophy. Among gay male academics working in the field of psychology, the idea that non-monogamy is definitional to gay male identity is common as well. This was the conclusion of McWhirter and Mattison’s landmark 1984 study The Male Couple, who found long-term monogamous relationships were comparatively rare amongst gay male couples and, accordingly, called for a redefinition of ‘faithfulness’ amongst gay couples as ‘emotional dependability’ rather than ‘monogamy’. More recent work seems to be resigned to the same idea. See Lanz Lowen and Blake Spears’ Beyond Monogamy: Lessons from Long-Term Male Couples in Non-Monogamous Relationships (2010), in which the authors quote a participant in their study: ‘Having an open relationship feels like a funny way of being in the closet again. Family and friends expect that we’re monogamous, and we don’t tell them we’re not. It’s like a secret…. In our community and society, it feels like something huge isn’t being talked about or studied or understood’.

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