The culture war arrived in my hometown a few weeks ago with the approval of a new fairness ordinance by the Lincoln City Council. The ordinance is designed to provide protections against harassment and discrimination for LGBT+ people in Lincoln. But how it goes about doing that is worth considering.
The public conversation about the proposal has, predictably, been mostly unedifying so far. Local media has barely succeeded at concealing their own support for the bill, publishing multiple pieces that read more like advocacy reports than journalism. Meanwhile, conservatives have mostly fixated on the debate about bathroom use, often describing the ordinance as a “transgender bathroom” ordinance (which massively undersells what it is), though there have been some better treatments of it as well.
The bathroom issue is for the most part a red herring—many restaurants, businesses, and coffee shops around Lincoln only have single stall bathrooms, currently designated separately one for men and one for women. It is not difficult to change those to being two unisex bathrooms. Indeed, a good many have already done this. Even for those churches and businesses that do have larger multi-stall restrooms, many also already have single-stall restrooms available as well which could easily be treated as unisex bathrooms. In most cases, it’s just not that hard to figure out accommodations here.
Moreover, despite the concerns raised on the right, I’ve yet to see any stories of people actually posing as trans individuals and entering bathrooms for the purpose of harassing other people. The one story that initially seemed to fit that concern is from a Loudoun County high school and, after further reporting, it turned out to have nothing to do with trans issues, although plenty of right wing outlets reported on it as if it did.
So the bathroom question doesn’t concern me much. Indeed, if all I knew about the conservative response to the ordinance was based on conversations I’m having with folks locally, I wouldn’t think anyone was particularly concerned about this aspect of the ordinance.
The bigger issue is two-fold.
First, the ordinance refers to “public accommodations,” in an incredibly broad way. Virtually any space in Lincoln outside private homes is a “public accommodation” in the language of the ordinance.
Second, the ordinance specifically includes speech that “has the effect” of giving offense as an example of harassment that would violate this new ordinance. So intent does not matter, per the language of the ordinance.
On the most plain and obvious reading of this proposal, a pastor reading Romans 1 in a pulpit during public worship or a small group meeting for a book study discussing the orthodox view on sex and gender in a park or coffeeshop could be charged with harassment under this ordinance. In short, it’s a deeply illiberal free speech nightmare, and it is difficult for me to imagine it surviving a court challenge.
All of this, however, is mostly preamble. What I’m interested in has less to do with the ordinance itself and more to do with how the human person is imagined under the logic of the ordinance.
In What are Christians for? I make the argument that modern life is defined in part by a tendency to allow institutions to mediate reality to us. We are born in hospitals, educated in schools, work for large corporations, and die in nursing homes. Especially since COVID started, we socialize on Zoom. Today, we are all Julia.
At each stage of life, a large and impersonal institution is ready-made to confine reality and present it to us in simple packages. What is lost in such a world is the direct encounter with created reality, with the world as it is given to us—unmediated encounters with the outdoors for children, a free and self-determined relationship to one’s work for adults, and the opportunity to die amongst one’s family with dignity for seniors.
While making this broader argument about the importance of unmediated encounters with the world, I also noted in passing that the United States effectively sided with institutionalization through the Obergefell ruling:
No other human community could be said to come before the family because the family alone arises out of creation as men and women have children and then seek to raise them well. One application of this, especially relevant in our own day, is that the government did not create the family but merely recognized it. The family is more basic than the government…. The family comes first because it naturally occurs in the world. The government comes later because governments, though accountable to the natural law, are created when people choose to form them. They only tangibly exist in the world when people take steps to establish and preserve them.
A same-sex family is incapable of reproducing itself naturally. So when such a relationship is placed on the same legal status by the government as a heterosexual marriage, the implication is that marriages are created by the state’s legal recognition. Do you see what has happened? The family, which grounds society because it is the first place where we learn peaceable living, and because it is the community in which human love actually becomes incarnate through the bearing of children, has been replaced as the seminal social community. Its replacement—the state—is by its very nature defined not by peaceableness and love but by the use of violence and coercion as part of its responsibility to protect its members from violence and injustice. Thus we have shifted from a picture of the world in which the most basic community we belong to is defined by peaceableness and exists outside the world of institutions, and have moved into a world defined by coercion, a world that quite literally cannot exist apart from the sanction of established institutions. To affirm the legitimacy of same-sex marriage is to accept the stultifying, mediated world that comes to us only in prepackaged boxes handed on to us by large institutions.
We might make the point in a simpler, cheekier way too: Obergefell did not give us “marriage equality.” Marriage access was equal before Obergefell: Every man had the right to marry one woman. Every woman had the right to marry one man. All that changed with Obergefell is that now every person has the right to marry one other person.
What Obergefell did was redefine marriage—and, given the primacy of marriage, this inherently involved a tacit redefining of the human person. Specifically, it took an institution that exists outside of institutions that is, by its very design, outward facing and transformed it into merely another contract, merely another form of expressing the internal self in the external world. It’s no wonder, then, that so many people have lost all interest in marriage. It has lost its uniqueness, indeed it has lost its very function in society. But this move to turn against nature and replace it with detached individuals and force is the inherent logic of the entire sexual revolution. The only way this sort of sexual progressivism can function is through a constant war against nature, which can only be sustained through the immense might of government and big business.
The problem this creates is what, finally, brings us back to this fairness ordinance we are now considering here in Lincoln. It should tell us something that under whatever regime or social order we want to call the current program, the felt sense of self is so brittle that the world must be made to be hospitable and the only way of doing this is through the creation of a world in which speech that has the effect of giving offense must be dealt with by fines starting at $10,000 and escalating to $50,000.
To put a point on it, the entire sex and gender regime of today is unimaginable apart from neo-liberalism, that union of large government and large business that seeks to institutionalize the world and isolate the human person. Indeed, many people quite literally cannot fully express their stated internal sense of self apart from the various apparatus of late capitalism: a state that is willing to reimagine marriage, corporations and medical establishments willing to finance gender reassignment surgeries or hormone treatments, and so on.
What this means is that Matt Anderson was right years ago when he noted that the sexual revolution is inherently illiberal because it has to be. The entire conception of the world that gives us contemporary sex and gender ideology cannot exist apart from an interventionist state, big business, and a wholly reimagined conception of modern medicine in which it is now licit to do irreparable harm to the physical body in service to one’s gender identity.
The sexual revolution contains a world entire within itself, a world that is lonely, that relies on force to accomplish virtually everything, and that is utterly cut off from nature, starting with our bodies but certainly not ending there.
What is perhaps most striking of all is this: The Christian tradition has deep resources for helping the unmarried discern their calling and live fulfilling lives in the world outside of marriage. St Ambrose likens the celibate life to the life of heaven, because it satisfies itself in God rather than natural relationships, and says that such people draw the life of heaven into the life of the world.
So to draw the point out most explicitly: The Sexual Revolution follows the logic of further unmaking nature, riding over it with the brute force furnished to it by power. The Christian response to sex runs in the opposite direction not merely for married people, but for singles as well. Those who marry highlight the good of nature as it is today. But the celibate help draw the world to come into the world of today. In a sense they help hasten nature’s restoration by grace. This is a high calling and the fact that virtually no one, including many Christians, understands this point is a scandal.
In short, the bathroom debate is the least important thing about this ordinance. Emil Brunner once said that God’s law possesses an inner infinity: If you truly sit with the idea that a God of love made an unnecessary world because of love and, when that world fell into decay, he wrote himself into the story and suffered with the world in order to save the world, if you truly believe that then there is nothing in your life or your nation’s life that will be left untouched. But the sexual revolution has an inner infinity of its own and it is utterly antithetical to the Christian one. And that is the most important thing about this debate.