Friday, December 27, 2002

Few debates in modern society are so rife with deep confusion over principles and motives as the debate over the relationship between sexual conduct and the state. Consider, for instance, Tim Noah's article in Slate on President Bush's recent executive order allowing federal "faith-based initiative" funding to religious institutions that "discriminate on the basis of religion". The order was designed to allow religious charitable organizations to preferentially hire members of their own faith without jeopardizing their access to federal grants. This permission has both obvious justifications and worrisome implications, but Noah, who generally accepts the idea, focuses on one of the latter in particular: that once the power to judge "membership" is granted, "other forms of discrimination can slip in the back door". His example: a Methodist children's home "decreed that homosexuals and unmarried heterosexuals who engage in premarital sex are....not Methodists—or at least not sufficiently Methodist to be eligible for employment there."

Now, the "discrimination" case for granting full, unconditional equality to homosexuals is a bit like the "perjury" case for impeaching former president Clinton: it's really a moral argument about sex masquerading as a legal argument about rights. In its most reasonable form, it targets an underlying weakness in most claimed justifications for singling out homosexuality (uniquely) for opprobrium: they apply equally to other traditionally shunned forms of sex, but are rarely (or at least rarely vocally) invoked against, say, extramarital sex in general. Casual heterosexual sex is also, after all, a sin in the major monotheistic religions; it undermines marriage and family just as much (or as little, depending on your point of view) as homosexuality; and when practiced promiscuously, has comparably disturbing public health consequences. (It's no surprise that the "gay liberation" movement followed directly on the heels of the sexual revolution; the anti-traditionalist, sexually libertinistic principles embraced by the latter lead easily and naturally to an embrace of the former.) Singling out homosexuality and homosexuals for moral condemnation while remaining silent on other deviations from traditionalist sexual norms is thus at least somewhat hypocritical, and gay rights proponents (such as Noah) thus implicitly invoke the sexual laissez-faire spirit of the times when arguing for gays' right to "equality".

But the Methodists Noah denounces, in effect, as bigots are not vulnerable to such an argument. They endorse a completely traditional view of (all) sex that, while possibly not attractive to Tim Noah, has the advantage of being strictly faithful to its own religious teaching, completely consistent in its embrace of a particular ideal of family structure, and even defensible as a public health strategy. To argue that it is unjustly discriminatory is thus to argue the same of virtually all marriage and family law, all religious (or other) moral teaching about sex, and, for that matter, all denunciations of promiscuity (even, for example, on public health grounds). If Noah actually embraces absolute sexual and domestic libertinism so completely that any deviation from it amounts, in his eyes, to bigotry, then it is he, not the Methodist children's home, that has adopted a rigid and intolerant fundamentalism that brooks no dissent in its desire to impose its own uniform moral vision on all of society.

It's hard to believe, though, that Noah really means to suggest that religious denominations, to avoid discrimination, must be utterly silent on matters of sexual morality. More likely, he, like so many who discuss this topic, is simply confused.

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