I want to make a distinction between two ways of addressing the issue of homosexuality. I think Christians have made some mistakes here focusing on an internal approach—quoting the Bible—rather than using an external approach—finding some means other than Scripture to persuade. Quoting Bible verses is great when dealing with Christians who are inclined to obey God. It’s different, though, when dealing in the secular public square.
We have a very specific goal when addressing the issue of homosexuality in the public square—specifically the area of policy-making: What do we teach in schools about homosexuality? What do our laws reflect about it? What about our social institutions like marriage?
The Christian goal in this situation is not to win people to Christ. This is not an evangelistic endeavor. The goal here as the church is to be a salt and light, to minimize the amount of unrighteousness in our culture and increase its moral health and stability because that is an intrinsic good in itself. Our goal here is to discourage an unrighteous behavior, and sometimes it’s easier to discourage harmful, unrighteous, culturally-damaging behavior by appealing to something other than Scripture.
When people have called this show and asked questions like this, my point of view has almost always been that if we’re going to make an appeal in the public square regarding public policy, our appeal should not be from the Bible, but on the basis of the common good: What is good for our culture? What is good for our community? What kind of community do we want to be?
Last year, for example, a gentleman called in and said that off the cliffs in Palos Verdes here in California are some secluded beaches on public land, accessible to anyone who wants to get down to them. He said there was a lot of male nudity on those beaches and, as a result, a lot of overt homosexual behavior. This was illegal, but the law had not been enforced, essentially because of the political ramifications of taking on homosexuality.
The caller wanted to know how to deal with it. I encouraged him to go back to the city council, but not to go with Bible in hand, self-righteously calling down fire from heaven. Instead, simply ask the council this question: What kind of community do you want to have in Palos Verdes? Do you want to be a community known for its homosexual beaches, where people engage in public sex on the beach in plain view of everyone—including children?
Notice I am not posing a moral question about homosexuality or about what consenting adults have the liberty to do in the privacy of their own homes. I’m simply raising the question of the public good.
When this caller went to the city council with that kind of appeal, he prevailed. The city began enforcing the law. As a consequence, a moral eyesore was removed from the community without inappropriately—in the minds of others at least—restricting someone’s personal liberties and without making any moral judgment on the behavior itself.
I’m not reluctant to make a moral judgment. My question is: What am I trying to accomplish? If I’m trying to make a moral statement, then I’m going to have to make a moral judgment and give my justification. But if my goal is simply to minimize a particular behavior in the community, I’m going to find the best means to do that. I’ve found that the best way to do this is to focus on the public good.
In this regard, the public health argument is a very powerful argument. You might offer the question, “Isn’t it appropriate for us to guard our community from health dangers?” If that’s a good goal, then two points could be made here.
First, homosexuality is an activity that is inherently dangerous and cannot be made healthy. It carries with it health risks that, though they may be reduced in some cases, can’t be avoided entirely. Second, homosexual conduct also puts people at risk who are not engaged in the activity. Since this activity can’t be made healthful, and puts people at risk who do not choose to be involved in the activity, it seems to make sense that, as a community, we ought not do anything to encourage it.
At this point I’m not even suggesting we actively discourage homosexuality—though I think, on public health grounds alone, we would be justified in doing so. Minimally, it seems wise not to go out of our way to encourage the behavior, though, as some programs seem to do.
So, there are two very good external approaches (i.e., non-biblical approaches) to dealing with this issue in the public square.
Here is another angle on dealing with the issue. I have a friend who is a deeply committed Christian woman and whose boss is a lesbian. That in itself wasn’t a problem. My friend has the maturity to know that you can’t expect non-Christians to live like Christians. But her boss posed a difficult question to her. The boss wanted to know what my friend’s attitude was toward homosexuality.
Now that’s a tough one, isn’t it, because she’s a Christian and has strong views about homosexuality. At the same time, she was concerned that expressing her own personal views to her employer (for whom the question was not merely academic) might compromise her situation.
My friend’s response was, “Please tell me what my feelings about homosexuality have to do with our professional relationship?” In sword fighting that’s called a parry. She deflected the question, pushing it aside by asking about its relevance. Because she was quick, my friend avoided what might have been an unpleasant confrontation.
It was a fair response. Sometimes you’re asked a personal question when it’s not the best time to express your opinion. When we make our case about the Lord or our religious or ethical views, we want to choose the time and place so we can be the most sensitive to the person we’re talking to. We don’t want our views misunderstood or twisted.
In less-than-ideal circumstances it’s entirely fair to say, “You know, I’m not really comfortable offering my point of view at this time,” or something akin to that. Or saying, as my friend did, “I’m not sure what this has to do with our relationship. Could you clarify that for me?”
My friend successfully parried the issue for a time, but she suspects it will come up again. She might not be able to sidestep again. What should she do?
Here’s what I suggested. Her answer would depend on precisely how the question was put to her. “How do you feel about homosexuality?” is different from, “What do you think about homosexuality?”
If someone asked me what I felt about homosexuality, I’d answer honestly: I don’t feel uncomfortable simply because someone is a homosexual. Some homosexuals are likable, some are not. I treat persons as individuals.
If I were asked what I think about homosexuality, however, my answer would be different. I think that homosexuals are human beings that should be treated with respect, should not be bashed or called names, and should be given the same rights that any other citizen has. That’s what I actually think.
I also think, though, that homosexuality is unnatural and immoral. I say this not as a personal preference, but as a personal conviction—I think that statement is actually true. I’m also glad to give you reasons why I think so. This is my moral, cognitive conclusion about homosexuality, as opposed to what I feel.
What this has done is made a distinction between my attitude about homosexual people and my point of view regarding homosexuality. When dealing with people in the public square, it’s very important to make this distinction because it isn’t unusual for people to mistakenly infer your feelings from your thoughts. So if you start off by saying, “I think homosexuality is immoral,” or “I think it’s a sin,” people will infer from your ethical conclusions about homosexuality that you actually hate homosexuals, that you are condescending towards them, etc. And, of course, they’ll take offense.
You want to cut them off at the pass. You don’t want to hide your moral point of view, but you also don’t want them to draw wrong conclusions about your feelings—and how you might be inclined to mistreat homosexuals—from your moral assessment of homosexuality. By offering how you feel about homosexuality up front, you minimize that risk.
There’s another thought I offered as a postscript to my friend with the lesbian boss. There’s a really clever way to answer her question directly, but eliminate almost all the risk.
If you’re placed in a situation where you suspect your convictions will be labeled intolerant, bigoted, narrow-minded, and judgmental, turn the tables. When someone asks for your personal views about a moral issue, preface your remarks with a question.
You say: “You know, this is actually a very personal question you’re asking, and I’d be glad to answer. But before I do, I want to know if you consider yourself a tolerant or an intolerant person. Is it safe to give my opinion, or are you going to judge me for my point of view? Do you respect diverse points of view, or do you condemn others for convictions that differ from yours?” Then when you give your point of view, it’s going to be very difficult for them to call you intolerant or judgmental without looking guilty, too.
This response capitalizes on the fact that there’s no morally neutral ground. Everybody has a point of view they think is right and everybody judges at some point or another. The Christian gets pigeon-holed as the judgmental one, but everyone else is judging, too. It’s an inescapable consequence of believing in morality.