Is the Gay Rights Movement the Rightful Heir to the Civil Rights Tradition

February 11, 2015

“How do you respond to people who locate the gay rights movement within the civil rights tradition?”

When a friend asked me this question in a Sunday School class that I was teaching a couple weeks ago, I was fighting the clock, and felt slightly frustrated because I could not, on the spot, figure out how to answer him concisely. So I rambled through a desultory answer. I hate doing that.

Ten minutes after class was over, the concise answer crystallized: It all depends on your anthropology. If you have no distinction between humanity created and humanity fallen, you will have a hard time maintaining the distinction between ethnicity and sexual orientation from the standpoint of the civil rights tradition. If you have little to no concept of Genesis 3 in your anthropology, then, yes, homosexual rights absolutely belong in the civil rights tradition.

I couldn’t help but tweet it: “Does gay rights = civil rights? Depends on your anthropology. If evolutionary materialism, yes. If both Gen 1 AND 3 true, not necessarily.” (And you can insert any number of things in the place of evolutionary materialism: moralistic therapeutic deism, positive thinking spirituality, Oprah-esque self-actualization, etc.)

The civil rights tradition of the 1960s, to a Christian way of thinking, is grounded in the fact that all people are made in God’s image. Think of Martin Luther King Jr’s claim: “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Ethnicity, on this account, is a basic and created element of the human person. Ethnicity belongs to Genesis 1, you might say. It belongs in the “creation bucket.”

Yet historic Christianity affirms this and also acknowledges that other basic facts about human beings grow out of Genesis 3, things that belong in the “fall bucket.” And not just external things, but the deepest things: our very nature has become corrupt. A good tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bad, Jesus said. And apart from being born again, all of us have a bad nature (even though we remain capable of good).

Historically, many Americans, whether Christian or non, had more room in their anthropology for something like the fallenness of human nature. Just think of James Madison’s mixed anthropology in the Federalist Papers. Yet best I can tell, the general public’s anthropology today is far less mixed. We prefer to think of humans as basically good, even if, yes, they might do bad things from time to time.

Suppose then that your anthropology has no room for Genesis 3 and the idea of a pervasively corrupt human nature. How will you respond to someone oriented to same-sex attraction? You have no choice but to affirm it as natural, created, and therefore good. “Natural”—by nature—is basically always good. “Natural” cannot be bad. Why? Because you have no Genesis 3 in your anthropology, not really, anyhow, even if you give lip service to it.

So let’s revisit the MLK quote above. If you read it from the perspective of someone with a strong concept of Genesis 1 and Genesis 3 in their anthropology, homosexuality does not necessarily belong in the civil rights tradition. It might, of course. Matthew Vines, for instance, has both buckets. He simply places same-sex orientation in the creation bucket, as in, “God created me this way.” I disagree with that, but, fine, my argument here is not with him. Rather, I want you to try reading the MLK quote above from the perspective of most (I assume) Americans today, people who really only have a Genesis 1 bucket and little to no concept of a pervasively corrupt human nature. From this perspective, the MLK quote absolutely requires same-sex orientation to be placed inside the civil rights tradition. In fact, it would be positively immoral not to affirm such an orientation as good and worth protecting.

Here’s the big lesson: if an anthropology only has a category for humanity created and not for humanity fallen (whether you can articulate that to yourself or not), there is no reason why homosexual orientation should not be protected by the civil rights tradition. You will find it nearly impossible not to affirm homosexuality as morally good. Therefore when someone like a Christian comes along and does not want to affirm same-sex marriage, or does not want to acknowledge sexual orientation as a special category for civil rights purposes, equivalent to gender or ethnicity, you won’t be able to comprehend what they are saying. It cannot but seem mean-spirited and discriminatory. After all, a person’s sexual orientation, to your way of thinking, is a Genesis 1 reality, not a Genesis 3 reality. Remember, you have no category for Genesis 3.

In fact, we can go a step further: “Without a distinction between man created and man fallen, the civil rights tradition can be employed to justify nearly every desire.” That was my follow up tweet. Here’s where conservatives start to make slippery slope arguments, where progressives cry foul, and where history, I dare say, sides with the conservatives.

In 2012, for example, conservatives would say things like, “If two men can marry, why not three men, or ten men, or a man and a horse, or who knows what else?!” Progressives would cry foul because they weren’t asking for these things, and, perhaps, the yuck factor still hindered them from considering these other permutations. But by 2014, the court decisions and feature articles in national magazines—sure enough—began to toy with these other ideas (see here, here, and—don’t read—here).

And such slippage is inevitable because the foundations have fundamentally shifted. When an anthropology has little room for Genesis 3 or humanity fallen, then every desire, every orientation, every possibility, no matter how crazy, deranged, or off-the-wall, gains access to a Genesis 1 status. Everything can be blanketed with the moral covering of “I was created that way.” You personally might not be able to imagine pursuing some other permutation, but other people might, and you’ve destroyed the moral foundations for telling them not to. You have nothing left to say.

Here’s the sad irony of it all: the civil rights tradition, once a force for so much good and born out of judeo-Christian ideals, becomes a force for new discriminations, particularly against Christianity, when placed in the hands of the LGBT lobby. My last tweet of that particular morning: “The civil rights tradition, if joined to an anthropology of humans as basically good, will lead to new forms of discrimination and injustice.”

The civil rights tradition, when it’s wed to a worldview that depletes the Genesis 3 bucket of all its content other than the mere idea of discrimination itself, must be put to work discriminating against anyone who wants to place more things in the Genesis 3 bucket. The tradition must fight against the religious person who maintains more substantive ideas about “humanity fallen,” and who dares to suggest that a person’s deepest desires or loves or ambitions might actually a property of the fall, and not creation. Such a claim, by definition, is irrational, because the landscape of this rationality, again, has no category for Genesis 3, not really.

What’s the solution? I’m not sure. I’m sympathetic to the argument that Christians should better figure out how to employ rights language, as the right-to-life movement did. But that has its own problems, and my goal here really is just to help Christians understand the landscape. Our civilization’s movement away from the nominal (and, yes, hypocritical) Christianity which so long defined it, means we no longer have the same access to Genesis 3 and the idea of a corrupt human nature. And without that, the civil rights tradition will be used in all sorts of ways its originators never intended.

If nothing else, it gives us another reason to share the gospel. The Holy Spirit is pretty good at giving people categories they don’t already have!

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan Leeman (PhD, University of Wales) is the editorial director for 9Marks and an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist in Washington, DC. He has written for a number of publications and is the author or editor of a number books. He is also an occasional lecturer at Southeastern Baptist Theological … Read More