Civil Rights And Homosexual Rights - A Flawed Analogy

Jonathan Sorum September/October 2004
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Advocates of the homosexual rights movement repeatedly draw an analogy between their own struggle and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in which African-Americans worked to gain the rights enjoyed by other Americans but denied to them on account of their skin color. Just as African-Americans struggled to gain equal rights and equal acceptance in society, they say, so also people who claim a homosexual orientation are struggling for equal rights and equal acceptance. Just as African-Americans are discriminated against on account of their race, so also people are discriminated against on account of their homosexual orientation. But can this analogy between race and sexual orientation be sustained?

The original civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and his associates, was a vigorous attack on the concept of race as a moral category. Racists allege that outward physical appearance is an indicator of the moral worth of a person. Those with dark skin and African facial features are morally inferior, they claim, and therefore should be in a subordinate position in society. Superficially, King's campaign for full civil rights for African-Americans may seem to have been a call for tolerance. But "tolerance" could be interpreted as tolerance of African-Americans even though morally inferior, or even as tolerance of the idea that race is related to moral worth.

King, on the contrary, called for intolerance of the whole question of the relation of moral worth to physical appearance. Not only did he insist that physical appearance has nothing to do with morality; he insisted that to make physical appearance a moral category is itself immoral. As he famously stated in his "I Have a Dream" speech, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Perhaps the deepest test of the success of King's movement is the extent to which it is today disreputable even to bring up the question of the relation of skin color and moral character.

King's struggle was to disentangle the alien element of race from our moral discourse. His plea was that a common moral standard should be applicable to all, regardless of race. The concept of race was introduced in the first place in order to justify the immorality of slavery and oppression, and its continued presence in our moral discourse hideously distorts our ordinary standards for what is right and just. King appealed here most basically and deeply to the Christian tradition. A large number of Americans, White and Black, north and south, regularly went to church, where they heard that God created all people as a single human race and that Jesus came for all people and that "God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:34, 35, NRSV).* This teaching of the essential equality of all people before God is such a pervasive implication of the Christian gospel that it cannot ever be entirely suppressed, even when the gospel is preached within the most racist contexts. (This concept is also a major theme of Judaism, helping to spur the significant participation of Jews in the civil rights movement.)

Moreover, the classic liberal political tradition, of which the United States is a product, affirmed the same thing. Almost every schoolchild memorized the words from the Declaration of Independence: "All men are created equal [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The notorious "separate but equal" justification of segregation, which admitted that a "separate and unequal" policy was immoral, was an attempt to dodge the combined force of the Judeo-Christian and liberal traditions.

But the two traditions vigorously reject both separateness and inequality. King's strategy was to force Americans to confront the contradiction between their own deeply held convictions and the continuing existence of racial discrimination. Faced with the nonviolent suffering of those who refused to be put in their place, Americans could no longer take refuge in lies about "separate but equal" or assurances that change would come about gradually sometime in the future. They had to face the full implications of their beliefs and act on them and make real changes in society, in politics, and in their own behavior and attitudes. The result would be not more tolerance, but less. Not only racism itself, but even the question of whether racism might be true, would become intolerable.
Race as a moral category would be rendered out of bounds and excluded from our moral discourse more in line with our deepest convictions. Moral judgments would be color-blind.
How does this compare to the homosexual rights movement? In the civil rights movement, the identifying characteristic of the group in question is race—outward physical appearance.

In the homosexual rights movement, the identifying characteristic of the group is homosexual orientation, the tendency to experience sexual desire for persons of the same sex rather than for persons of the opposite sex. By analogy, the goal of the homosexual rights movement is the recognition that sexual orientation is a nonmoral category.

Therefore, persons who experience sexual desire primarily for persons of the same sex should not be treated as if they were in some way morally inferior to other persons just because of their desire. Just as race must be excluded from moral discourse, so must sexual orientation.

In part the analogy seems to hold. By the standards of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the liberal democratic tradition, discrimination against persons merely because they experience homosexual desire is reprehensible. The mere experiencing of desires that differ from those of the majority is no reason for making a moral judgment on a person; and certainly no reason for denying that person's inherent dignity as a human being and participation in society and in the church. The analogy, however, quickly breaks down. Skin color and sexual desire are not, in fact, simply analogous human characteristics, since sexual desires, like many other sorts of desire and unlike skin color or bone structure, are necessarily the subject of moral evaluation in any ethical system.

Moreover, the homosexual rights movement means something more by sexual orientation than merely the private experience of a sexual desire; sexual orientation, in their definition, includes acting on that desire. As a moderate statement of the pro-homosexual movement in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America states, "today we know homosexual activity is engaged in and experienced as natural by those whose homosexual orientation goes to the core of who they are" (The Church and Human Sexuality: A Lutheran Perspective—First Draft of a Social Statement [Division for Church in Society, Department of Studies, ELCA, 1993]).

"Natural," here, certainly means "morally good." (The word "natural" casts a penumbra of wholesomeness and goodness on anything to which it is applied, without necessarily meaning very much, as modern advertisers know. Simply labeling something "natural," as here, is a way of begging the moral question rather than answering it. Because of this potential for abuse, it may be a good idea for ethicists to avoid using the word altogether, despite its venerable history and potential usefulness when carefully defined.) The presumption is that both the desire and acting on the desires are in principle good. This means that the goodness of homosexual activity as such may not be questioned. Indeed, suppressing homosexual desire because it is homosexual is precisely what the homosexual rights movement rejects. The minority they envision is one in which homosexual desire is expressed in action. The homosexual rights movement equates a minority that faces discrimination and moral condemnation because of its members' physical appearance with a minority that faces discrimination and moral condemnation because its members act in a certain way. Just as no moral judgment should be made based on race, so also, they say, no moral judgment should be based on sexual orientation in its expanded definition that includes both experienced desire and acting on that desire. In other words, sexual orientation—always including the implicit justification of acting on that orientation—is outside the realm of morality. The only immorality involved is bringing it within the realm of morality.

But this move overthrows morality as such. As soon as an action that springs from a desire, and not the mere experiencing of a desire, is exempted from moral consideration, then there is no morality. Morality, by all accounts, appeals to some authority to decide which desires should be expressed and which desires should be suppressed and to what extent. To declare a desire "natural" and good and rule out ahead of time any moral evaluation of the expression of that desire in action short-circuits morality. Desires are not the source of morality, but that which morality evaluates and regulates. Morality is what intervenes between the desire and the action. The sureness and skill with which persons now restrain, now express one desire or another in accord with their moral training is "the content of their character."

Christian morality appeals, finally, to the Scriptures as the external source of moral norms. This appeal does not mean that the Scriptures must be interpreted as a law code whose every precept is directly applicable to us today. The Lutheran tradition, for example, insists that the scriptural law can be discerned only from the perspective of the gospel, the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. From that perspective, the tradition insists, the Scriptures provide a coherent view of the basic shape of a human life consistent with God's redeeming work, which also reflects God's work as Creator and sustainer of the world. For example, the tradition clearly teaches that, according to the Scriptures, marriage is rooted in God's creative intention (Matthew 19:4-8) and finds its final fulfillment in God's redemptive work (Ephesians 5:31, 32). From such a Christological perspective, it is possible to evaluate all the biblical texts related to marriage, including some we may find problematic, and construct an authoritative biblical answer to the question about how we should conduct ourselves with respect to this area of life. Our needs, desires, prejudices, and preferences do not have any authority in this process. Of course, we can't fully escape such things, and inevitably they color our interpretation. But the constant work of biblical interpretation, under the power of the Holy Spirit and aided by the communion of saints in space and time, aims precisely at eliminating such factors from the church's teaching so that the church may discern the will of God. The church's moral debate is internal to the tradition. If we are to revise our moral teaching, we must do so on the basis of the Scriptures themselves, within the context of our tradition of interpretation.

The homosexual rights movement, however, insists that the discovery of a "homosexual orientation" in and of itself demands a revision of the church's moral teaching. Some people, they say, experience sexual desire for persons of the same sex as "natural," and its expression in actions is therefore in principle good. But here the moral judgment is made before ever consulting the Scriptures or the church's teaching of the Scriptures. The desire is declared good ahead of time, and whatever the Scriptures say will have to agree with this judgment or else be rejected. Advocates of homosexual rights in the church may believe they want to change only one plank in the church's moral position. But in reality they reject the authority of the Scriptures and the church's teaching altogether.

Indeed, they reject morality as such, for if desires are their own moral justification, then all values are overthrown. Of course, most advocates of homosexual rights in the church do not consciously intend to overthrow morality as such. In church circles the pro-homosexual argument usually maintains that homosexual relationships should be morally evaluated by the same standards as heterosexual relationships. Such relationships ought to be loving, faithful, mutual, compassionate, and so on. What is not legitimate, according to this position, is to pose the question of whether homosexual activity is right or wrong simply because it is between two persons of the same sex. But why does the homosexuality of homosexual desire have such a privileged position? If the expression of homosexual desire as such cannot be morally evaluated, then by what right, for example, do we morally evaluate the desire to have impersonal and promiscuous sex, whether homosexual or heterosexual? If desires are their own justification, then such values as love, respect, and commitment must also give way to any desires to the contrary. Any restriction on desires they might imply is an attack on a person's identity, "the core of who they are." This, in fact, is the position of the homosexual rights movement outside the church, and it is the basis of the whole sexual revolution. So the basic position of the homosexual rights movement within Christian circles requires that the values its members may want to retain, such as love, respect, and commitment, are deprived of all validity. Morality as such is overthrown. While King's struggle was for the purification of moral discourse, purging it of an alien element that distorted it, the homosexual rights movement is an attack on moral discourse itself, making any evaluation of behavior or character logically impossible.

Someone might reply: Granted, sexual orientation is not very much like outward physical appearance. But what about right- or left-handedness? Surely this is a compulsion. Formerly some parents and teachers considered left-handedness a moral issue and punished children for using their left hand to write or to eat. Now we consider it wrong to treat left-handedness as a moral issue. This would seem to be an analogy to sexual orientation. If we have excluded handedness from moral discourse, making it positively immoral to evaluate the dominance of either hand in moral terms, then we also can exclude sexual orientation from moral discourse. And presumably we can do both without thereby attacking all morality whatsoever, because we have made a distinction between desires that ought to come under moral scrutiny and those that ought not to come under such scrutiny.

But this argument fails to grasp the essential point. We can decide whether a desire ought to come under moral evaluation or not only on the basis of a moral tradition. We have seen that King appealed to a powerful confluence of the Christian and liberal traditions to insist that race as a moral category was intolerable. A similar appeal to the same traditions, though perhaps less explicit, underlies our present belief that the impulse to favor one hand or the other similarly ought not to be made a moral issue. There is nothing in the normative Judeo-Christian and liberal democratic traditions condemning the use of the left hand where most use their right, and the issue is irrelevant to life in community and to its institutions, such as marriage, family, government, and the economy. According to these traditions, making left-handedness a moral issue is an arbitrary distortion of the moral order.

Similarly, homosexual desire must come under the scrutiny of the moral tradition in order to determine whether its expression in actions ought to be a moral issue. In other words, is the mere fact that persons having sex with each other are of the same sex morally relevant or not? Only moral tradition can answer this question.

The End of Dialogue

The whole point of the homosexual rights movement, however, is to rule the moral question out of bounds ahead of time. Homosexual desire is a part of one's identity, and any moral examination of that desire that does not automatically affirm it as morally good is a personal attack on one's identity. The result is the end of the dialogue, especially moral dialogue. Confrontation and violence (verbal and otherwise) become the order of the day.

The violence at the heart of the homosexual rights movement is manifestation of a much larger phenomenon—the descent of Western society into nihilistic individualism and moral relativism. Today, for large numbers of people, moral positions are understood mostly as mere personal preferences. The only sin left is to say that there is a sin, explicitly or implicitly criticizing a person's lifestyle choices from a moral point of view. The homosexuality issue has become so painful because it exposes the extent to which even people in the church have accepted this common viewpoint. We have already crossed many boundaries. We have accepted divorce, cohabitation outside marriage, and premarital sex. Many of us, however, hesitate to accept homosexuality. Those who identify themselves as homosexual are understandably furious. The prevailing logic is irresistible: if it doesn't harm anyone else and it makes persons feel happy and fulfilled, how can we condemn it? Reluctance to accept homosexuality can be only a prejudice, a form of bigotry. Since there is no common moral framework, moral arguments make no sense. So moral arguments against homosexuality, when they are made, can be interpreted only as personal attacks. The breakdown of dialogue on the issue of homosexuality is a symptom of the larger moral fragmentation of our society.

The parallel with the civil rights movement may again be instructive. Prominent African- American leaders turned away from King's vision, especially after his death in 1968, and retrieved race as a moral category. A concept originally invented to justify oppression now became the basis for a positive identity and a matter of pride. Significantly, it was at this time, too, that these leaders increasingly turned away from Christianity to various forms of Marxism, an idiosyncratic form of Islam. (Normative Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is resolutely antiracist.) From a Christian and liberal democratic point of view, their reappropriation of the concept of race for the purpose of instilling a unique identity reintroduced a distortion into moral discourse, destroying the fundamental equality and solidarity of humankind. Black racism was no improvement on White racism, and it was also a betrayal of Martin Luther King's dream. King tried to correct an injustice in society condemned by that society's own moral authorities, thereby reinforcing and strengthening those moral authorities. Some of his successors abandoned and attacked those very moral authorities by asserting race as its own moral authority.

Similarly, the homosexual rights movement has exalted sexual identity to a positive identity, the shaping force for persons' lives. But it has an advantage that the Black power groups did not enjoy. However hard they struggled to articulate their new racial identity, in the end the Black power movements found it hard to conceal the violence at their center. It was hard to mistake them for groups that might be beneficial or even innocuous to the goals of most people, including African-Americans. The homosexual rights movement, by contrast, has a much easier time. Its goal is the setting free of desire. This goal fits in well with the individualistic "pursuit of happiness" and ethos of tolerance so prevalent in Western society, which seeks as much as possible to let each person find and express his or her individual identity, without interference or fear of oppression. This goal seems, in the short run, to be no threat to the larger society. On the contrary, it promises harmony as the policy of "live and let live" prevails, allowing a rainbow of lifestyles and identities to express themselves.

But the sweet reasonableness is deceptive. At the core of the movement is not reasonableness, but a demand that there be no reasonableness. It is the sheer demand that their identity—that is, their desire and its expression in action—must be fully accepted and approved without question. When it meets resistance to this core demand, the movement shows the violence at its core. Since it has no reasoned arguments—its very essence is the rejection of reasoned argument—the only way it can maintain its position is by launching personal attacks on anyone who tries to bring up the moral question. Those who say that the morality of the expression of homosexual desire must be determined on the basis of an external moral authority are, they claim, merely acting out of fear and hate. They are "homophobic," trapped in their own narrow prejudices against those who are different from them. In this way they bully their opponents into silence and make political headway. At the core of this movement is sheer willfulness and violence, which is death to any community, not only in the church, but also in the larger society.

Jonathan Sorum is docent in systematic theology at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia. This article is part of a larger one published in the Lutheran Forum, Summer 2003.

*Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright
Article Author: Jonathan Sorum