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.

Then:

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.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).

18 Comments

  1. Richie Sullivan March 3, 2022 at 2:28 pm

    I see one big issue with this argument. You believe the definition of a natural “family” is a heterosexual union within which, Lord willing, children are born. And it is this natural family that you believe arises out of creation, irrespective and previous to any government. I also believe this. The issue is that many of our fellow Americans do not share this belief. The solution to this impasse inside a multicultural, multi-faith democracy is to give others with whom we disagree the freedom to live according to their beliefs. In that sense, one cannot claim that the state has redefined marriage as something it creates via legal status, but that a certain group is given the freedom to practice their belief about family, a freedom you had already been enjoying.

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    1. Exactly. Same-sex families existed before Obergefell. The state simply recognized their existence in the same way that the state previously recognized opposite-sex families. There is no reason why the state ought to be denying the legal benefits of civil marriage to certain families merely because those families don’t conform to certain people’s sectarian religious view of the contours of what a family is.

      We live in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, pluralistic society, where the state does not grant benefits to certain such groups at the expense of others. The public institutions are already in place. The question is whether those public institutions grant benefits to some and withhold benefits from others based on whether they live their lives in conformity to sectarian religious creeds. These laws do no more than ensure that public spaces, including private entities that choose to operate as places of public accommodation, reflect our essentially pluralistic ethic as a society.

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  2. Do you happen to remember where you read the Brunner quote on inner infinity? I really like it.

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  3. Sorry Jake, but your article is way off base. We are talking about what should be allowed in society, not what should be prohibited in the Church. And before Obergefell, there was no marriage equality. Saying there was because each man could marry a woman does not stem from a decision made by a group of people where homosexuals had an equal say as heterosexuals about marriage. In addition, saying there was marriage equality before Obergefell because any man could marry a woman is like saying there is marriage equality for Christians in a nation where a Christian is prohibited from marrying another Christian.

    The crux of the issue regarding marriage equality is whether same-sex marriages will have an equal footing in society as heterosexual marriages. Should a heterosexual couple’s ability to reproduce mean that that couple’s marriage should have a higher status and thus more privileges than same-sex marriage? If so, then there is no marriage equality. Also, those couples in heterosexual marriages who either are unable or choose not to reproduce are also demoted to being less than those couples that can and do reproduce.

    It seems that while you follow the Reformed tradition of trying to deduce what all of reality should be before you live it, you fail to see the sometimes brutal effects that the marginalization of the LGBT community has produced. And it is those brutal effects that have caused laws written by people who want to eliminate those effects and prevent either their return or the exhibition of new brutal effects to write laws that overstep their bounds

    On the other hand, both the religiously conservative branch of American Christianity and the LGBT community provide mirror images of the same logical error when considering gender identification. Both groups conflate gender identification with biological sex so that while one side allows gender identification to override one’s own biological sex, the other side acts as if one’s biological sex is the only factor in determining one’s gender identification. The problem with conflating the two is that while biological sex is a physical construct, gender identification is a social-psychological one with the latter being determined by more than just one’s biological sex.

    The only time we have culture wars in a multicultural environment is when one subculture desires to conquer and marginalize the others. When Christians are involved with that, we go way beyond, and thus against, the teachings of Jesus and the examples of the Apostle in how we are to respond to unbiblical ways of living in society. And when we do that, we say and do things that, while trying to promote biblical ways of living, harm the reputation of the Gospel because of the harm we do to others. We Christians should be teaching what the Scriptures say about marriage and sex from a cultural coexistent perspective that recognizes the equality of other ways of living in society even when we must prohibit those same ways from being practiced by those in the Church.

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  4. Duncan Hollands March 5, 2022 at 3:11 am

    Thanks Jake that’s a very thought provoking and persuasive thought in many ways.

    How does the sexual revolution having an ‘inner infinity’ of its own that is ‘antithetical’ to the Christian one, fit with the Tom Holland *Dominion* idea that the LGBTQIA+ movement is based on thoroughly Christian assumptions–that all should have equal dignity; that we should protect minorities rather?

    Reply

  5. Romans 1:21-24
    New International Version
    21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

    24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.

    Reply

    1. Romans 2:1-4

      ‘You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. 2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3 So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? 4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?’

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  6. Chris Maldarella March 8, 2022 at 2:53 pm

    Excellent, if not of course also tragic. Thanks Jake. I have to wonder—and would not be surprised—if Oliver O’Donovan’s “dimorphic” sexual ethics rooted in creation and the imago dei are not happily lurking in the background of Jake’s ‘political’ ethics. I just recently started reading O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order, and though difficult, is really good and again, suspect it undergirds Jake’s thinking on this—and other related—subjects. In terms of our larger sexual milieu and the critical turning points in recent Western history that got us here, I can’t help but be reminded of Carl Trueman’s Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

    Reply

    1. But how does such a political theology work in a nation, such as ours, whose fundamental principle is that of cultural and religious pluralism? These sorts of teleological arguments are only persuasive to those who share your sectarian presuppositions.

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  7. Thank you, Jake. A smart and persuasive write-up.

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  8. I don’t think the sexual revolution necessarily has to be illiberal; I myself would be fine living in a society in which the state allows gays to marry but nobody is required to bake a cake for it. From the standpoint of a public policymaker, though, there are three choices>

    1. No religious exemptions for anyone. If the law requires you to do something that violates your conscience, then too bad for your conscience.

    2. Religious exemptions for anyone claiming a religious exemption. If your religion forbids you to pay taxes, or requires that you have sex with children, or hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings, then you have an absolute right to do them and society will just have to suffer the consequences.

    3. Some kind of balancing test between those two extremes. If someone has a religious objection to something, whether they win depends on things like how high are the stakes, and whether the cost to society of them not complying is greater than the cost of them of being forced to comply.

    I fall in the No. 3 camp, which is where I suspect most Americans are as well. If your religion requires you to abstain from alcohol, nobody should force you to drink alcohol, because the stakes are so low: Nobody else is going to suffer because you don’t drink.

    On the other hand, the 9/11 hijackers, who most assuredly were practicing their religion, do not get a religious exemption because the stakes are so high. Society cannot function if people are allowed to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings.

    In the case of the baker who doesn’t want to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple, the stakes are low enough that I am fine with allowing him to not sell them a cake. Your mileage may vary.

    Reply

    1. As a gay guy, I’m fine with the third option. I’m fine with allowing a baker to refuse to make cakes that explicitly or implicitly make statements that violate her conscience. But I find it problematic when a proprietor who’s chosen to operate a business as place of public accommodation chooses to deny goods or services generally to customers on the basis of sexual orientation. So, I support the baker in Colorado who refused to make a cake that explicitly endorsed the moral propriety of homosexuality. But I object to the Washington florist who refused to sell stock floral arrangements to a gay couple merely because those stock arrangements may be used to decorate a venue hosting a gay wedding.

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    2. Krychek_2,

      Should we let religion be used to allow a person to discriminate against a formerly marginalized group? Am not sure if the significance of loss in the issue should determine the answer. Who gets to determine whether the loss is significant enough.

      We simply can’t allow religion to justify discrimination in the public square. In addition, we need some education as to the roles businesses play in a society that is dependent on capitalism for its economic system. Businesses are not private ministries; businesses provide goods and services to the public at large.

      Reply

  9. Mark van Heusden March 18, 2022 at 2:23 pm

    “What Obergefell did was redefine marriage—and, given the primacy of marriage, this inherently involved a tacit redefining of the human person.”

    No, what Obergefell did was redefine the legal definition of marriage. That legal definition was already out of step with traditional christian understanding of what marriage was. Obergefell made it, perhaps, more explicit and clear but the day that Government just simply recognized a marriage were long gone before the idea of same-sex marriage even arose.

    My parents have been married for more than forty years. The value of that marriage nor it’s recognition by the Church, community or God was dependent on some legal definition by the Government. It wasn’t diminished by no-fault divorce, it wasn’t diminished by society decoupling marriage and childbearing and it wasn’t diminished by broadening the legal definition of marriage.

    Perhaps less dependence on legal minutiae and more faith in our communities and traditions is the way forward.

    Reply

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