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No One Is Immune
No.162: June 2, 2023
Welcome to The Square Inch, a Friday newsletter on Christianity, culture, and all of the many-varied “square inches” of God’s domain. This publication is free for now, but please consider clicking on the button at the bottom to become a paid subscriber to enjoy this along with Monday’s “Off The Shelf” feature about books and Wednesday’s “The Quarter Inch,” a quick(er) commentary on current events.
Have you heard of the “Overton Window”? Wikipedia explains it this way:
The Overton window is an approach to identifying the ideas that define the spectrum of acceptability of governmental policies. It says politicians can act only within the acceptable range. Shifting the Overton window involves proponents of policies outside the window persuading the public to expand the window.
That definition is far too narrow because it restricts the concept to “politicians” and “government policies.” There is also a cultural or social Overton window, and the key phrase in the definition is “spectrum of acceptability.” That is, there is a range of acceptable opinion or views that are respected in “polite society.” When people outside that spectrum wish to gain acceptance, they need to shift the Overton window—that is, expand the range of acceptable opinion. Actually, the goal is usually to shift the window, rather than expand it. That is, when one idea gains acceptance, another is losing favor.
Just a few decades ago it was a common belief and, frankly, obvious to most people that homosexuality is a deviant and destructive lifestyle. It was relegated to fringe communities in places like San Francisco. The idea that these relationships would somehow be codified into law as “marriage” was well outside the cultural Overton Window. But activists set out to expand that window of acceptable opinion and they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. It is now June, the month in which every major institution in the Western world affirms and celebrates the kinds of behaviors that used to be decidedly uncelebrated. Even more, the window of “acceptable opinion” has shifted so far that not celebrating Alphabet Ideology is beyond the pale. If you don’t affirm and celebrate sexual deviancy you’ll lose your livelihood or be perp-walked in front of the world to issue self-flagellating apologies for your wrong-think.
But we Christians are immune to the Overton Window. The culture shifts and the range of acceptable opinion moves but we just stand still, rock-solid in our biblical convictions.
I don’t know if you’re aware, but the East African country of Uganda just passed new laws criminalizing homosexual conduct, with a range of penalties up to and including the death penalty. Now, I am old enough to remember—well, that’s not hard, because it was just yesterday—when imposing our “Western” morals and values on indigenous peoples around the world was considered paternalistic and oppressive. But apparently that rule contained some kind of hidden exception allowing us to lecture with impunity on sexual matters.
Cue the hue and cry, the wagging finger of shame, the outrage that an African government would impose criminal sanctions for sexual behavior! How dare they!? And do you know some of the loudest voices engaged in this condemnation?
It first caught my eye when Senator Ted Cruz issued this statement on Twitter:
This Uganda law is horrific & wrong. Any law criminalizing homosexuality or imposing the death penalty for 'aggravated homosexuality' is grotesque & an abomination. ALL civilized nations should join together in condemning this human rights abuse.
That is a very curious Tweet. Any law criminalizing homosexuality is “grotesque” and an “abomination”? Did you know that the Senator’s home state of Texas had anti-sodomy statutes on the books all the way up to 2003? It was reversed that year in a controversial Supreme Court case called Lawrence v. Texas. Do you know who was the Solicitor General of the State of Texas in 2003, tasked with defending the Texas law? I’ll give you a moment to guess.
Okay, the answer is Ted Cruz. But I have to give him credit for consistency. As the Solicitor General of Texas, he declined to defend the anti-sodomy law in 2003.
Many others have “seconded” Cruz’s condemnation. Evangelical Christian columnist David French is equally outraged, as is the Editor-in-Chief of Christianity Today, Russell Moore. He wrote an Op-Ed entitled, “Don’t Pretend the Ugandan Homosexuality Law is Christian.”
Now, I’ll get back to Moore’s essay in a moment. I just want to observe the Overton shift in its broadest profile. Ted Cruz excepted, I would venture to say that every Christian public figure expressing outrage at Uganda today repudiated Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, and they certainly (Cruz included) repudiated Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. And a mere thirty years ago it would have been unthinkable for an evangelical Christian public figure to go out of his or her way to champion the civil rights of the LGBTQ community. That is a simple fact. I know it to be true because I’m old enough to remember: they were all warning about the dangers of the Alphabet Ideology—hysterical and outlandish warnings, even, that someday Christians would be hounded out of polite society, they’d lose their jobs and/or be coerced into celebrating and affirming all manner of sexual deviancy. Heck, there might even come a day when a whole month is devoted to celebrating gay pride!
Hmm. Those predictions all came true. And now those same voices are outraged at … restricting the civil rights of the LGBTQ community in Uganda.
We are all shifting right along with the Window. We used to call it the Zeitgeist, the “spirit of the age.” I can even lie to myself and maintain that I am standing still, unmoved. But guess what? The mere fact that I personally feel uncomfortable writing about this topic at all reveals that as farce. Some things have shifted outside the realm of “acceptable opinion,” and we are all affected by it to some degree. Why does Russell Moore have so much to say about the criminal code of Uganda, but his magazine has published exactly nothing about the bevy of state laws in America prohibiting gender transition drugs and surgeries for minors? I don’t pretend to know the answer to that question, but I have more than a sneaking suspicion it has to do with the Window, the “range of acceptable” views. Nobody—nobody—eagerly seeks to be hounded out of polite society, and certainly not a flagship magazine that hopes to influence broader culture. Condemning Uganda gets you broad approval; supporting laws banning sex transitions will not. The Window shifts as incentives shift, and if we think we are somehow immune to this process, we are extremely naïve.
Back to Moore’s essay. So far as his biblical theology goes, I mostly agree with him. I do not believe that the penal sanctions in Leviticus are binding beyond the borders of Old Testament Israel or beyond the expiration date of the Old Covenant. I wrote my reasons for that in my book, Politics & Evangelical Theology, if you’d like to know more. But that is not the same thing as calling those penal sanctions immoral, which is certainly what Cruz said— “any law criminalizing homosexuality is “horrific,” “wrong,” “grotesque,” and an “abomination”—and Moore, if read somewhat ungenerously, could be read that way, too. Newsflash: God doesn’t sin. So, sure: the Bible, properly interpreted, might not require specific criminal penalties for certain sexual conduct, but it certainly doesn’t condemn them, either.
Not everything that’s a sin is a crime. To equate all sin with crime, without the authority to do so, is itself a sin against God—to take the name of the Lord our God in vain.
I emphatically agree. But there are a couple of things missing. First, we are left to wonder how to tell which sins are crimes, and which are not? Where do we get that information, if not the Bible? Utilitarianism? A bare, abstract Rawlsian “harm principle?” We are left to guess. I mean, the Bible says that this particular sin is also a crime—or at least was in ancient Israel—and Moore doesn’t give any rationale for why or how we are to conclude otherwise other than his say-so. Second, Moore produces no evidence that Uganda has “equated all sin with crime,” or even that its new laws are based on biblical misinterpretation at all. Indeed, Moore gives no specifics about what Uganda’s laws actually are.
Might it be helpful for the reader to know, for instance, that the headline-grabbing sanction of capital punishment is reserved for what the Ugandans call “aggravated” homosexuality, including rape, sex with minors, and infecting others with HIV? Could it be that Uganda has its own context and its own problems, and this law is seeking to address some real societal ills that we aren’t experiencing (yet) in our context? Could it be that we are perhaps being a bit superior and condescending? Could it be that a nation that just went through an unspeakable scourge of an HIV epidemic might have a better grasp of their criminal justice needs than we do? Well, as my Dad always says, “Don’t let facts get in the way of a good story.”
I’m not even defending Uganda here, but I am intent on scrambling the narrative a bit. The fact is that, despite the Alphabet Brigade rhetoric we are all supposed to parrot, every society must have a penal code relating to sexual matters. It isn’t true that all “love” is just harmless “love.” Healthy societies understand the deep harms and costs of polygamy, rape, adultery, prostitution, exploitation of minors, and, yes, homosexuality (and if you wonder what the harms might be with respect to that one, here’s some key findings from a serious study, and you also haven’t spent enough time considering the multi-billion dollar industry of exploiting women for eggs and Rent-A-Womb, as well as the commodification of children).
It is easy to signal your virtue these days. It’s easy to condemn those backward Africans (this new rule that allows Western chauvinism will take some getting used to). But what are we going to say when the Overton Window ratchets to its next groove, and sex between men and boys is redefined as “love”? Believe me, it’s coming. Are we to scrap all our laws against statutory rape? I mean, to hear Ted Cruz tell it, any law criminalizing homosexuality is an “abomination.” Well, I’ll stand athwart the Overton shift and confess my admittedly unpopular opinion: not true.
Societies inescapably must debate which laws, not whether there will be laws governing sexual conduct. It would be a good and important debate to have. But the fact that we pretend to be beyond any such debate—and that Uganda’s laws are considered obviously “horrific”—is an indicator of just how far the Overton Window has shifted.
We went from Christian public figures warning about the social and legal dangers of LGBTQ “civil rights” to Christian public figures championing LGBTQ “civil rights” in just two decades. And in some cases, they are the exact same person.
No one is immune from the Zeitgeist.
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