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Bias, Bigotry & The Benedict Option

More reflections on pluralism, sexuality, and Christian fidelity in a rapidly changing culture

Look at this tweet by the CNN anchor:

You can read the whole thread here, on his Twitter feed.

I bring this up not for clickbait reasons, but because it says a hell of a lot about why it’s so difficult to talk about the broad LGBT issue in a way that would satisfy the concerns of folks like Emma Green and Matthew Loftus. Here’s what David French has to say about the Cuomo tweet:

Not long ago, if school policies purposefully exposed girls to male genitals, they’d be subject to a backbreaking sexual harassment lawsuit. Suddenly, however, “tolerance” looks a lot like indecent exposure, and indecent exposure is what freedom looks like. This is beyond strange. I’m certain Cuomo would still object to a member of the football team walking straight into a girl’s locker room and disrobing, but he not only doesn’t object to the exact same anatomical features if they’re attached to a trans “girl,” he condemns those who feel uncomfortable. If the declaration that “preteen girls shouldn’t see penis at school” doesn’t resonate, I wonder if there’s really any hope for a common moral language when discussing the sexual revolution.

In this circumstance, not even consent — the final moral firewall — matters. We used to be told that boys and girls should shielded from unwelcome sexual images. Now we’re told that they can be exposed to genitalia even over their strenuous objection, and they’re intolerant if they argue otherwise. Extraordinary.

I completely agree. For Cuomo, this is about nothing other than tolerance. I find that to be morally insane. I mean that seriously: morally insane.

What’s so extraordinary about this is that Cuomo doesn’t even think there’s a rational argument to be made against his view. It’s all bigotry. Because a father doesn’t want his 12 year old daughter to have to see a naked boy’s penis in her high school locker room.

In her review of The Benedict Option, Emma Green observed:

Nothing in this language suggests that Dreher is ready to live tolerantly alongside people with different views. If progressives wrote about the Bible as “a lot of babble about Jesus and God,” using language similar to that of the parent Dreher cites, he would be quick to cry foul against the ignorance and intolerance of the left; his language is dismissive and mocking, and he peppers in conspiratorial terms like the “LGBT agenda.” At times, it seems like the goal of the Benedict option is just as much about getting away from gay people as it is affirming the tenets of Christianity. The book seems to suggest that mere proximity to people with alternative beliefs about sexuality, and specifically LGBT people, is a threat to Christian children and families.

As I said in this space yesterday, it astonishes me that this is how she read the relatively small parts of the book that deal with homosexuality (and do so in the context of resisting the entire Sexual Revolution, which I see as profoundly antithetical to orthodox Christianity). More Green:

Of course, it will be impossible for conservative Christians to fully escape any aspect of mainstream culture, including people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans. In fact, many of those people grew up in Christian households much like Dreher’s, or may identify with the feelings of cultural homelessness he describes. Their lives implicitly pose the hard question Dreher has failed to engage: How should Christians be in fellowship with people unlike them—including those who feel aggrieved by the church and its teachings?

To his credit, Dreher nods to this, ever so briefly. “The angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity is rooted in part in the cultural memory of rejection and hatred by the church,” he writes. “Christians need to own up to our past in this regard and to repent of it.” He does little to specify these past errors, though, and he never tries to answer the broader question: how Christians can live as one people among many in America without learning how to respect and relate to those who challenge their beliefs.

I don’t want to rehash yesterday’s response to the Green piece — you can read it here if you like — but I do want to point out that she has done me a favor. Several friends have told me privately that this is exactly how the mainstream secular media is going to read the book. One sympathetic friend who works in the national media said that it’s going to be impossible for most liberals to read this book with an open mind, because they are feeling so besieged by Trump that they lash out reflexively at anything culturally conservative.

The thing is, it’s not just cultural liberals. At Mere Orthodoxy, the Evangelical Matthew Loftus writes, commenting on Emma Green’s review:

Rod rightfully acknowledges that Christians do need to repent of the ways in which we have harmed gay Christians in the past and briefly mentions the need to love LGBT people, but then brushes off any concern that he needs to spell this out any further. Quite frankly, this doesn’t cut the mustard because all sorts of Christian mistreatment of LGBT people comes under the banner of “love”. I am sure that Rod means what he says by this, but the problem is that his readers don’t know.

By not being more specific, Rod does not distinguish himself between those who have harmed gay Christians in the past. Would forbidding someone who is gay and celibate to be employed by a church be “mistreatment”? (This is by no means a given, as many celibate LGBT people can attest to). Would letting one’s child spend time at a friend’s house with gay parents “disrupt our ongoing formation in truth”? What would “love and hospitality” mean if a child in Rod’s church realized he or she was gay? In places where Christians do continue to mistreat LGBT people, how do we root that out? If we are trying to avoid the “LGBT agenda” and that agenda is usually carried out by people, how do we relate to those people?


If Rod and other BenOp enthusiasts want non-Christians to parse between not wanting LGBT activists to drive Christians out of business and not wanting to get away from LGBT people, they’re going to have to start that parsing themselves because Christians have failed to do this over and over in the last few decades. If they don’t want journalists to make bad faith assumptions about their work, they’re going to have to stop making bad faith assumptions about every possible manifestation of LGBT activism. Most importantly, if we expect the Church to endure the threat posed by the Sexual Revolution (and thrive beyond it!), then explaining how Christians love and serve LGBT people– particularly under the regime which the BenOp anticipates– is inevitably part of bearing witness. A Benedict Option that isn’t good for LGBT people will not stand the test of time.

Read the whole thing.  I take it as a good-faith effort to challenge me, and hope that this response is taken in kind.

It is difficult — really difficult — to come up with hard and fast rules for how Christians are supposed to respond to LGBT people. Do Christians have hard and fast rules for how Christians are supposed to respond to heterosexuals who are living outside Christian sexual norms? Not really, and if they do, I’ve never seen the list. On the other hand, St. Paul is pretty clear in 1 Corinthians 5, at least concerning those within the church:

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. I was not including the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a verbal abuser, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.

What business of mine is it to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.”

Do we know better than St. Paul? Are we prepared to say that? If you are a believing Christian and you can dismiss this passage without a second thought, then you are not as serious about the faith as you ought to be. And I would say that if you are a Christian who can accept it without at least a twinge of conscience about people you know in your own life, you are not taking those people seriously enough.

I think the various circumstances under which we may be tested in this way are endless. Matthew is right that Christians are going to have to start parsing this, but it’s hard to know where to start. The only people who have an airtight case are those who accept everything, and those who reject everything. Most of us live in the broad middle, and work our way through these challenges as they present themselves in real life — always remembering that we are dealing with flesh-and-blood people, not ideological abstractions. This is not easy! For example, I’ve told my own kids on many occasions that there is nothing that can separate them from the love of their father. I’ve even explicitly told them that if they were gay, I would feel the same way. But loving them doesn’t obligate me to say that something I do not believe is true, is true.

Many of us white Southerners have had the experience of learning how to love aged relatives who hold horribly racist beliefs, but who are otherwise compassionate people. Many gays have had the experience of learning how to love family members who reject their sexuality, but not them personally. Many straight Christians have been challenged on how to love their gay friends and family while still holding firm to their convictions. These situations are only easy for people who are willing to reduce flesh-and-blood human beings to nothing more than their opinions. Whether you’re a Christian or not, I believe this is almost always a bad way to live.

Matthew raises the question of what, exactly, is a Benedict Option that’s “good for gay people”. Well, what is good? For orthodox Christians, the answer is to live obediently to what we are told is true — and that means lifelong celibacy for gays, as well as unmarried heterosexuals. We cannot abandon what we know to be true, even though it’s a hard saying, especially today. (More on this shortly.) I would submit that learning how to love and serve people who don’t share our beliefs, and who are sinners (as are we) is what serious Christians do every single day. In fact, it’s what everyone in a pluralist society does, or should do.

Do LGBTs and their allies ever stop to reflect on how they should relate to conservative Christians and others who do not share their beliefs about gender and sexuality? Shouldn’t they?

A particular challenge we Christians face today, though, is that our opponents often don’t want to give us any quarter. For example, lawyers are telling Christian colleges and schools that if they don’t want to have courts strip away from them the right to run their institutions according to their convictions about the meaning of homosexuality, they have to take a hard line against letting gay kids, or the children of gay couples, into their schools. I once spoke to the headmaster at a conservative Christian school who said that the board there did not want to take that hard line, but their lawyers said if they stopped short of that, they left themselves open to a lawsuit.

And look at somebody like Barronelle Stutzman, the Washington florist and faithful Southern Baptist. She knew that her client Rob Ingersoll was gay. She still befriended him and served him. But when, after nearly a decade of friendship, she told him that she couldn’t in good conscience arrange flowers for his same-sex wedding — and did so not high-handedly, but holding his hand and speaking gently — he turned on her, sued her, and she is now on the verge of being driven out of business.

There are so, so many stories like this. And now you have someone like Chris Cuomo saying that feeling uncomfortable with exposed penises in your female child’s locker room is bigotry. How are parents and others who do not accept the maximal interpretation of LGBT rights — a line that is constantly moving leftward — supposed to deal with this? When you cannot escape the accusation of hatred — and even legal consequences for it — unless you capitulate entirely, is it really so difficult to understand why some Christians want to avoid contact?

Why is this not obvious to progressives? When they convince themselves that dissent from their position is not only illegitimate, but a prima facie expression of hatred, finding common ground is impossible.

Please understand, I’m not trying to avoid the challenge Matthew Loftus and Emma Green have put to me. I am well aware from writing about these issues on this blog for many years that if I laid down some rules, that would elicit a storm of whatabouttery, e.g., “OK, you say that you wouldn’t object if your kid had a gay teacher, but what about the case where your kid’s gay teacher decided to stop using gendered pronouns in class as a matter of policy? Would you take your kid out of that school?”

Increasingly, we can’t even talk about these issues in good faith. The cost of dissent is too high — and this is a cost imposed on us by the power-holders.

I am open to hearing your suggestions, as long as you offer them in good faith — unlike the self-identified gay commenter in an earlier thread who said that we conservative Christians compel them to “destroy” us. Russell Moore has a very good essay advising Christians how to respond to transgenderism. Excerpt:

If Christians see ourselves as people who are “losing” a culture rather than people who have been sent on a mission to a culture, we will be outraged and hopeless instead of compassionate and convictional. If we do not love our mission field, we will have nothing to say to it. [<— that speaks directly to me — RD]

We should stand against any bullying of kids who different from other children, for whatever reason. Children with gender identity issues are often harassed and marginalized. They should be loved and protected. Schools can do this without upending all gender categories. More importantly, churches and Christians can do this. We should hate the bullying of our neighbors, especially children, even more than the outside world hates it.

We Christians believe that all of us are sinners, and that none of us are freaks. We conclude that all of us are called to repentance, and part of what repentance means is to receive the gender with which God created us, even when that’s difficult. We must affirm that God loves all persons, and that the gospel is good news for repentant prodigal sons and daughters, including for those who have trouble figuring out which is which.

Alan Jacobs has a really interesting short reflection on Matthew Loftus’s post, with which he strongly agrees, except for the last sentence. Jacobs, who is a dear Christian friend and a consistent critic [actually, a big supporter, but with some reservations] of the Ben Op, writes:

I, and most of my friends and fellow believers who have been highly critical of the BenOp, have very strong motives for thinking that Rod’s diagnosis and prescription are both wrong.

We have an interest in accepting the general cultural consensus about sexuality and gender. And if we can’t manage to accept it, we have an interest in soft-pedaling our beliefs, both publicly and to our children. Accepting, explicitly or tacitly, that consensus may in some cases open doors of professional and social opportunity to us and our families; vocally refusing to accept it would certainly close doors. We have an interest in believing that we can continue to live more-or-less as we have lived, that it is not necessary to change anything radically, or put ourselves or our families at risk.

Now, to be sure, there are certainly people whose interests lie in the other direction: who might lose social position, or be cast out of church communities, or even lose their jobs, if they were to express doubt about the traditional Christian take on sexuality. But that’s not where I, or my friends and BenOp debating partners, are. So what I would really like from many critics of the BenOp — and by the way, I don’t mean Matthew Loftus here, who has a very nuanced response to the whole movement, as you can see, for instance, in this post — is a frank acknowledgment of the dangers of motivated reasoning and an account of what they’re doing to avoid it.

He goes on to explain:

My particular situation, my particular personal and vocational path, leads me to want to be theologically conservative enough to be acceptable to the Christian institutions I love but not so theologically conservative that I can’t get published by reputable secular magazines and publishers. And lo and behold, my convictions perfectly match my interests! How remarkably fortunate for me!

Read the whole thing. Seriously, do. What he’s saying, with admirable candor, is that Ben Op critics among the faithful need to think hard about whether they are rationalizing their own failure to live up to their convictions.

One more thing in this long, rambly post. My friend Jake Meador, also writing at Mere Orthodoxy, has a good piece addressed to critics of the Ben Op.  He begins by talking about why the Ben Op proposal makes more intuitive sense to Catholics and Orthodox Christians than to Evangelicals. This is really helpful for me to hear:

Evangelicals, however, hear the same language and react quite differently. There are a couple reasons for this: Partly, it is due to an understandable reaction against more schismatic fundamentalist versions of evangelicalism that seem to have done the same thing Rod is proposing. The consequences were frequently disastrous. (As someone who grew up in such a church, I understand this concern.)

A second motivating factor, I am increasingly convinced, is a classically evangelical craving after the approval of our peers. For 30 years we have been trying to tell the world “no no no, we aren’t weird like those otherChristians,” we say with our voice dropping on the word “other.” “We’re normal people like you.” The ways our parents did this differ from how millennials tend to do it, but the end result is the same.

Turning to Emma Green’s review essay, Jake writes:

Perhaps the thing I found most odd about Green’s piece is that she granted that Dreher is coming at the issues he talks about in the book from a fundamentally different worldview that than of most modern Americans, writing that “He is working from a different frame of reference, one that is increasingly out of step with Americans’ ways of thinking about culture.” But then she went ahead and judged the book on the basis of those, from Dreher’s standpoint, foreign moral norms anyway.

In one sense, this isn’t a problem: I don’t know Green’s own religious beliefs, which is to her credit as a reporter, but certainly the beliefs of many of her readers will overlap far more with the mainstream progressive American views on sexuality, which tend to emphasize individual autonomy, non-binary understandings of sexuality, and a high value on acceptance and inclusion. Critiquing the book in terms that your readers will find familiar and agreeable makes sense.

That said, I wish Green would have given more attention to what she called Dreher’s “frame of reference,” because it would have helped her get at one of the key points behind Rod’s book. As more and more polling numbers make plain, we increasingly live in a country that has multiple nations within it. The idea of a cultural consensus that exists across most of the population is increasingly foreign and even non-sensical. Americans increasingly do not simply have disagreements on select matters of public policy; they have disagreements about what goods public policy ought to be oriented toward and even about the basic nature of reality itself.


Green’s piece does a good job of highlighting key points of tension that many non-religious people and more liberal religious people will feel as they consider Dreher’s project.

But it would have been helpful for Green to try and say more about Dreher’s fundamentally different point of reference. What is that point of reference? How do people who share it end up believing the things they believe? She’s an excellent reporter and I’ve always found her to be fair-minded so I would have enjoyed seeing her delve more into this specific point.

Yes, this. Exactly this. Jake said what I have struggled with but failed to articulate. And to be fair to Emma, I could have and should have worked harder to articulate this in our interview. I’ve noticed that I don’t often try to explain why I believe what I believe about sexuality, creation, and teleology, because I have found that critics don’t actually want to hear it. I ought not be that way. I ought to give people more of a chance. Thing is, it can’t be summed up in a few slogans or a tweetstorm. I default to arguing for religious liberty, which entails the right to be wrong, because I know that what separates Christians like me from social progressives is metaphysical, and therefore irreconcilable at a philosophical level. The best we can hope for, I think, is some form of detente. Still, I would probably be better off taking the Ryan T. Anderson Option more often than I do, and offering some kind of case for traditional belief.

This post is already too long, so I’m not going to go into it at length here, but let me give you a rough outline of it. First, “because the Bible says so” is a strong argument within the church, or ought to be. The Bible is very clear about sexual behavior, including (but certainly not limited to) homosexuality. We cannot easily dismiss its authority.

But that is not a satisfying explanation for most Westerners in the church today, I’d wager, and certainly not for those outside of it. The deeper answer is theological, anthropological, and, ultimately, metaphysical. Traditional Christian thought holds that there is divine order (the Logos) that runs through Creation like DNA does a human body. It is the rational ordering principle. And it is not only a principle, but a Person, Jesus Christ. We Christians believe from Genesis that God created man in His image and likeness, and that God also created humans male and female. Because Creation is ordered by the Logos, it also has intrinsic purpose, which can be known. When we humans choose our own will over God’s, we violate the divinely ordained purpose for which we were created. We fail to harmonize with Creation as God intended it to be. This is called sin.

Over the past six centuries, Western man has come to reject the idea that there is intrinsic purpose built into Creation, and instead come to see meaning as something extrinsic — that is, imposed from outside. We put ourselves in the place of God, assigning meaning to our bodies, our acts, and the things of Creation, instead of receiving them from Him. Russell Moore, talking specifically about transgenderism, explains the stakes:

Ultimately, the transgender question is about more than just sex. It’s about what it means to be human. Poet Wendell Berry responded to techno-utopian scientism with the observation that civilization must decide whether we see persons as creatures or as machines. If we are creatures, he argued, then we have purpose and meaning, but also limits. If we see ourselves, and the world around us, as a machine, then we believe the Faustian myth of our own limitless power to recreate ourselves.

This is, it seems to me, the question at the heart of the transgender controversy. Are we created, as both the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus put it, “male and female,” from the beginning or are these categories arbitrary and self-willed? Do our bodies, and our sexes, represent something of who we were designed to be, and thus impose limits on our ability to recreate ourselves?

This basic question also applies to homosexuality. Traditional Christians believe that both the Bible and natural law disclose the purpose for sex, and how humans are to use it (as well as laying out the limits on the use of sex). Sexuality is inextricably bound to desire, and therefore is inescapably moral. You may think of it as morally good, certainly, but you cannot plausibly deny that it lacks a moral dimension, unless you’re willing to cheapen the most intimate act human beings can perform together by saying it has no more meaning than buying a box of laundry detergent at Walmart. This, by the way, is what makes sexual desire categorically different from race. Race has no moral component. Sexual desire has to do with how we use our bodies — and our bodies have meaning and purpose.

So, when you say to somebody like me that my views are bigoted, this is about like saying that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is an expression of bigotry.  Michael Martin explains metaphysical realism cleanly:

Indebted to Plato and his Christian Neoplatonist interpreters, realism affirms the existence of universals: abstract, general concepts possessing objective reality anterior to particulars. For realism, universals, that is, are real things (res). The ideas of ‘woman’ and ‘man,’ for instance, precede and inform the actualities of particular women and men. Medieval nominalism, on the other hand, held that only particular things are real and that what the realists called ‘universals’ are only names (nomina), possibly useful for categorization (conceptualism), but devoid of any kind of reality in themselves. In a famous example, Roscelin (1050-1125) held that the idea of the Trinity is, in fact, only a concept that only the Divine Persons — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — can claim reality. . . .

“Two centuries after Roscelin, the nominalist William of Occam (c. 1287-1347) divided reality into two categories: 1) that which we can know through intentionality (observation and experience); and 2) that which we can know by faith. Nominalism, that is, separated knowledge from wisdom and effectively divorced philosophy from theology. It placed most of what had been traditional metaphysics under the sphere of faith and claimed logic and analysis as the tools of the philosopher. Thus, at least at a conceptual level, the microcosm of the mind (or the soul) had been cut off from an integral, cosmological, and spiritual reality, at least as far as medieval epistemology was concerned. . . .

“Our current, postmodern moment — materialistic, technological, technocratic, atheistic — exemplifies a nominalism writ large. Here there are no universals. There are no ideas, no archetypes. Only names. ‘Marriage,’ for instance, no longer embeds universal cultural archetypes of ‘husband’ and ‘wife.’ . . . Marriage, previously assumed as the union of a man and woman into organic whole, has been relativized beyond the point of recognition. A collateral ontological shift has also occurred in the postmodern understanding of the word ‘family.’ Perhaps most emblematic of this shift is the new conceptualization of the term ‘gender,’ which, tellingly, has proved the most plastic of all. Does not the notion of elective gender reassignment surgery, like nominalism, assert in the clearest terms that universals do not exist?

Opponents of traditional Christians think we’re talking about morality when we talk about gender and sexuality, which, yes, we are. But more deeply, we’re talking about ontology. This may sound like philosophical jibber-jabber to you, but if you have any interest in being fair, and in understanding your opponents’ point of reference, you should explore this idea.

I can’t expect people who are neither Christians nor metaphysical realists (in philosophical terms) to agree with us, but I believe it is reasonable to expect them to try to understand why we believe what we believe.

Read the whole Jake Meador essay.  There’s a lot more in it well worth your time.

It is true that we live in a nation that is no longer Christian in any thick sense, and that it has been many centuries since the West accepted nominalism. This is the world that traditional orthodox Christians have to live in, and to which we have to accommodate ourselves as best we can without violating our consciences. From my perspective, our opponents don’t come at this from the point of view of advancing pluralism, and figuring out how we can live together in a kind of peace, despite our radically different views, but rather treat it like the Inquisition, determined to stamp out heresy, and to promote tolerance by crushing dissent.

A national newscaster denounces a father concerned about his 12 year old daughter having a biological male undressing in her locker room, calling him a bigot. In other words, it is an irrational prejudice to do anything other than affirm and embrace the new order. And critics still wonder why so many of us feel the need for the Benedict Option!