How to Support Religious Liberty

July 18, 2014

Gordon College, a Christian college on the North Shore of Boston, is the latest Christian institution to come under attack for its commitment to live biblically. Numerous stories and opinion pieces in the Boston Globe have vilified the College for seeking a religious liberty to discriminate against homosexuals. Civic organizations and municipalities, public intellectuals, and even the governing accreditation agency are attacking the College’s conduct and hiring policies, which require members of the College community to reserve expressions of sexual intimacy for marriage, defined consistent with the Bible, Christian teaching, and Western tradition as the monogamous union of a man and a woman.

The administrators and board of Gordon College deserve approbation for standing firm amidst this firestorm. At a time when leadership is in short supply, their moral courage is inspiring. Many friends of Gordon College have rallied in support. They also deserve praise for their courageous words on behalf of the College and its religious freedom. Yet those of us who support Gordon College should be careful that our words do more good than harm.

To explain why Gordon College should enjoy religious liberty we must explain why its religious exercise deserves protection. Obedience to conscience and the exercise of faith are valuable exercises in themselves. But in this case, a claim for religious liberty without more can actually strengthen the case against Gordon College by bolstering the critics’ premise that Gordon College seeks a religious liberty to discriminate unjustly. From the perspective of the Boston Globe and other cultural elites, discrimination on the basis of sexual preference is the same as racial discrimination. In their view, defenders of Gordon College’s policy are indistinguishable from church-going racists in the Jim Crow era.

Both civility and pragmatic self-interest demand that we who support Gordon College and other Christian institutions make a real effort to understand and respond to the concerns of the College’s critics. Many people are convinced that Gordon College intends to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, which they understand to be an immutable characteristic and largely irrelevant to one’s ability to participate in the life of institutions such as Gordon College. Others understand that Gordon College does not intend to discriminate on the basis of an immutable characteristic. But they worry that the effect of Gordon’s policies will nevertheless be to discriminate unjustly and unlawfully.

It is unnecessary to accept the premise that Gordon College seeks a religious liberty to discriminate, either intentionally or in effect, against gays and lesbians. The premise is false. We can respond to those who attribute animus to us and assuage those who are skeptical but open to persuasion. Gordon College harbors no animus toward people with same-sex attraction. And though we should not minimize the challenges facing those people, the conduct policy’s primary effects are not to treat different sexual orientations differently. Rather, the policy is aimed at promoting the virtues of chastity and marital fidelity, and thus to strengthen marriages, which are essential to the flourishing of our communities.

Though we cannot expect to convince everyone that Gordon College should enjoy religious liberty, we can allay the good-faith concerns of many skeptics if we will state the reasons behind Gordon College’s policies. Those policies are grounded in a rich conception of human reasoning and human goods, which Jews and Christians have preserved and cultivated for millennia.

Our explanation can begin but not end with the distinction between what a person desires to do and what she actually does, a distinction that Gordon’s conduct policy assumes. We can affirm the unique nature of humans as beings created in the image of God, who govern their appetites according to reasons, and thus exercise dominion over the present as God exercises dominion over all eternity.

Yet that is not sufficient. In a state like Massachusetts that has redefined marriage in law to do away with the distinction between men and women, same-sex intimacy and marital intimacy are considered the same act, both legally and morally. If two men or two women can be married, as the laws of Massachusetts and other states say they can, then their actions are no different than the actions of a married man and woman. For a Christian College to refuse to hire a man who is “married” to another man is therefore to discriminate unjustly and unlawfully.

So the surest way to defend Gordon College’s policies is to explain Christian teaching about the good of natural marriage. Unless Christians can describe and defend the unique human achievement that is the committed union of a man and a woman, all other distinctions that Christians draw in the realm of sexual ethics might seem arbitrary or legalistic. And any attempts to distinguish between marital and non-marital conduct may appear to constitute irrational discrimination.

A winsome and persuasive defense of Gordon College begins with a winsome and persuasive defense of the natural good of marriage. Unlike the liberty to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, affirming the gospel of natural marriage is a valuable exercise of religious liberty.

The College should have freedom to affirm the truth about marriage: that marriage has an essential nature; that the monogamous union of a man and a woman is a unique human achievement; that humans are created male and female, each of which is half of a divine image-bearer, completed in the important respects of unity and procreative potential when joined together with the other half; that humans are distinct from animals in their capacity to govern their sexual appetites according to nature and reason; that intact, biological families make children better off.

The message of natural marriage is the gospel of the twenty-first century. In a society in which fewer young people are getting married and divorce remains high, the message of marital fidelity is radically good news. Marriage helps our neighbors to live better lives and to make better lives for their children. Study after study shows the benefits of intact marriages and biological families: children do better, adults do better, communities are better off when men and women get and stay married. Christians should invoke religious liberty to proclaim that good news and to act upon it.

This approach might change the dynamic of the conversation. In this light one can see that the critics of Gordon College are asserting (they cannot be said even to be arguing) that no institution which stands for the Judeo-Christian understanding of marriage–the one-flesh union of a man and a woman for life–can justly have a place in a society that respects the equal dignity of all human beings. This is beyond absurd. There are many, many reasons why Christians can be confident that we have the best conception of marriage on offer (first of which: If marriage is not the one-flesh union of a man and woman, then what is it?).

Worse than absurd, it is tyrannical. The very persistence of liberalism and liberty–indeed, even the very principles that ensure equal protection of the law for all–require that our intellectual and ruling elites remain committed to freedom to promote the common good in its various aspects. If they are going to use the force of law to drive out of civil society all individuals and institutions who affirm natural marriage, the rights of children to be connected to their biological parents, freedom of conscience, obedience to Christian duty, and much else, then liberal society is no longer possible, and the American experiment has ended in failure. We can therefore say with some confidence that all people–Christians and non-Christians; conservatives, liberals, and libertarians–should stand with Gordon in this moment.

Adam J. Macleod

Adam MacLeod is an Associate Professor at Faulkner Law, where he has taught since 2007.  During the 2012-2013 academic year, he was a visiting fellow in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, and since 2014 he has taught private law theory in the Witherspoon … Read More