One of the headlines ran, “Kirk Cameron faces backlash over anti-gay remarks” (Jessica Derschowitz, March 6, 2012, CBS News website). The backlash was in response to a March 2 interview with Piers Morgan. It seems the purpose of the interview was to discuss Cameron’s views regarding morality in America and, somewhat related, his documentary, “Monumental”, due out March 27. During the interview, Morgan asked Cameron a very direct question: “Do you think homosexuality is a sin?”
Cameron was asked for his opinion on a moral issue. He had only a few options. He could decline to answer, lie, or answer honestly. To withhold his opinion would be cowardly; we should be prepared to call evil “evil” and good “good”. Even more cowardly would be to lie and give the answer which seems safe; besides being deceitful, this would be a betrayal to yourself and your allies. Cameron chose to answer truthfully, “I think that it’s — it’s unnatural. I think that it’s — it’s detrimental and ultimately destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization.”
To sum up, Cameron gave his opinion on the morality of homosexuality and the crowd went wild. I do not suppose anyone would have expected him to decline to answer, or to lie about his views, so I must conclude from the backlash that people simply cannot stand the fact that someone considers homosexuality to be immoral. Suppose Cameron had said he thought polygamy was immoral, or murder, or gambling, or kissing, or shaking hands, or smiling. The reactions would have ranged from nodding heads to laughter, but certainly not outrage. Why all of this outrage when the topic is homosexuality? More importantly, is he right, or wrong?
I think the outrage is owing to the fact that in the minds of many, homosexuality is a part of a person’s identity. Thus, they perceive Cameron’s claim as an attack not on a person’s behavior, but on a person’s identity – on the person himself. Note that the headline I quoted uses the term “anti-gay”. For my own part, when I hear the words “gay” or “homosexual”, I think of a person. When I hear the word “homosexuality”, I think of a behavior. The headline portrays Cameron’s statement as “against the person” rather than “against the behavior”, which really isn’t fair to Cameron. However, it is easier to attack Cameron’s position by casting him as being anti-gay than to say he is anti-homosexuality and then to have to make a case for the morality of homosexuality. To illustrate with a less objectionable issue, suppose you said, “I believe murder is immoral” and then I went around claiming you were anti-murderer. This would be a wrong portrayal of you just as “anti-gay” is a wrong portrayal of Cameron.
Thus, the first point to be made is that when we are talking about the morality of something, we are generally talking about behaviors. To say that homosexuality is immoral is to speak against the behavior. We object to the behavior. We object to a person’s carrying out that behavior. We do not object to the person himself. Admittedly, people sometimes have trouble with this distinction. Probably everyone does, at some point. Murderers, rapists, and child molestors probably receive very little pity, sympathy, forgiveness, or love. We are wrong, though, when we fail to distinguish between an immoral act and the one who commits it.
As I said, I believe many people consider homosexuality a part of a person’s identity, and I think this is one reason many consider it a moral behavior. Thus, someone may say, “Homosexuality is moral because it is simply a part of who a person is; it cannot be controlled.” This argument falls apart quickly when you speak more precisely and reword the statement as, “Homosexual behavior is moral because it is simply a part of who a person is; it cannot be controlled.” Our behaviors are not intrinsically a part of who we are. We do have control over our behavior. This argument has emotional appeal, but it is not an argument for the morality of homosexual behavior.
There is another claim that might be made in favor of homosexuality. It also treats homosexuality as an essential part of who a person is and tries to ignore the distinction between a person’s desires and his behavior. This claim is summed up by the phrase, “free to be me.” We all have a strong urge to say that people ought to be free to be themselves. To say that homosexuality is immoral seems to go against this. Aren’t we urging people to live in self-denial? Well, yes, but we all expect others to live in self-denial whenever we expect them to do what is morally right and resist a temptation to do what is morally wrong. The call to self-denial is not extraordinary. The real question is whether homosexuality is immoral or not. If it is, then of course those tempted to act homosexually ought to be urged to resist that temptation. Those who do the urging should not be frowned upon.
Perhaps I should expand slightly on this idea of self-denial. Everyone expects his neighbor to practice self-denial whenever his neighbor may happen to desire something which is his, whether it is his money, his car, or his wife. We do not care how much our neighbor’s desire is a part of him; we expect him to deny himself. Indeed, the temptations we yield to are precisely those which most strongly appeal to who we are. Virtue lies in resisting temptation to the end and yielding to temptation is always considered wrong. A man who has built his life on the love of money will be especially vulnerable to a temptation to defraud others. When he does defraud you, you do not excuse him on the grounds that he was being his own money-loving self. If a married man who habitually lusts after women finds himself alone with a beautiful naked woman, offering her body up for his pleasure, his lustful habits may have taken away his ability to resist the temptation. Yet, however much we may understand his failure, we do not consider him innocent. All of this is to say that morality limits our freedom to be who we are and we all accept this. In fact, we might even say that morality demands that we not be ourselves. However much homosexual desire may be a part of a person, if homosexual behavior really is immoral, then that person has a moral obligation to self-denial. Therefore, again, the key question is whether such behavior really is immoral or not.
A final failed argument for the morality of homosexual behavior is that it doesn’t hurt anyone. How can it be immoral? Whether an act hurts others may help us think about the moral status of something, but it does not decide it. Most people consider it perfectly moral to punish wrongdoers, but one could certainly argue that any such punishment hurts the offender. Or, most people consider it moral to kill in self-defense, and that certainly hurts someone. Hurting someone is not necessarily immoral. Neither is something moral simply because it hurts no one. If I tell my neighbor how I have feed the hungry, clothed the naked, and given enormous sums to charity, all of which are false, I have deceived my neighbor and acted immorally, but I haven’t hurt him. Or, if I come upon a man, beaten and bloody, his life obviously in danger and in need of immediate help, and if I quietly pass him by, letting him die, I have acted immorally. I didn’t do him any harm (the harm was already done), but I had a moral obligation to help him. Thus, an act may be immoral without hurting others. To say homosexual behavior doesn’t hurt anyone doesn’t prove it is moral.
Before we can discuss the morality of homosexuality, we need to deal with a few preliminaries. Here is how the remainder of this paper will go. First, I will argue that unless there are absolute moral truths, this whole discussion is pointless and Cameron’s objectors have nothing to object to. Second, I will argue that we have consciences which, when functioning as designed, give us knowledge of these truths. I will argue that, if our consciences give us knowledge of absolute moral truths, it is because they were designed by God, and if they do not do so, again, this whole discussion is pointless. I will also explore the implications of the fact that our consciences are not entirely reliable – they do not always function as designed. Fourth, I will consider the sense in which heterosexuality is natural and homosexuality is not, namely, the sense of being in accord with the apparent design of nature. Finally, I will apply this all to the question of the morality of homosexual behavior, and then I will make some concluding remarks.
If there are no absolute moral truths, then morality is either relative or non-existent – an illusion. If morality is relative, it seems obvious that we should all be free to define morality for ourselves, for why should the moral opinions of my neighbors place any moral obligation on me? In this case, we see morality is nothing but opinion. If this is so, why shouldn’t Cameron be free to express his view that homosexuality is immoral? Who cares? It can be immoral for him, but completely moral for me. Not only should no one be upset by this, but it becomes pointless to argue whether homosexuality or anything at all is immoral, for everything can be both moral and immoral at the same time, varying from person to person. Or, if you insist that morality is determined by group consensus, then take a poll, find out what the majority view is, and be done with it. On this view, this whole discussion is pointless.
If there are no moral truths at all – if nothing can be immoral – then to say homosexuality is immoral is like saying that a square is round. It is to speak nonsense, really. Again, the whole discussion is pointless. If you want to object, your objection ought to be not “homosexuality is moral”, but rather, “there is no such thing as morality”. Perhaps Cameron’s objectors really wish to say this, but I do not think so. If someone stands up and says something factually false, such as, “The distance between Philadelphia and New York City is a mere 10 miles”, no one would get very worked up about this. They would state the truth and move on. If, however, this false claim was being made to somehow defraud the (heinously) uninformed, then people would be justified in getting worked up over it. Why? They would justifiably feel moral indignation at the would-be fraudster. However, on the view that morality is an illusion, moral indignation is never called for. Yet, I believe Cameron’s objectors do show moral indignation. What they would really like to say is, “How dare you impose a non-existent moral obligation on someone!” That is moral indignation.
For those who want to argue in a matter-of-fact kind of way, without hot moral indignation, that no moral truths exist, I say good luck to you. No one can live like that. If this were true, all of society would be undermined. It would mean that in our legal system, criminals are punished though they have done nothing wrong; in commerce, our trading partners could not wrong us whatever they may do; in social interactions, we could not wrong our neighbors. We simply cannot escape the belief that some things really are wrong, which brings us to the conscience.
As I have noted, this debate over the moral status of homosexuality is pointless unless absolute moral truths exist. In fact, the backlash against Cameron suggests that the objectors believe in absolute moral truths. They feel compelled to defend the morality of homosexuality. The objectors care about this issue because they believe that Cameron is objectively wrong. They believe not that homosexuality is moral merely for them, but that it is moral for everyone. They certainly defend homosexuality as if they believed in absolute moral truths, and, again, unless there are absolute moral truths, it isn’t worth discussing and Cameron’s objectors really have nothing to object to. Presuming, then, that absolute moral truths do exist, how do we know them? Where do we get the moral principles upon which we build our moral arguments? For starters, we may listen to our conscience.
I would argue that the fact that we even have a conscience suggests that there are absolute moral truths and that God designed our consciences to give us knowledge of them. We all have moral beliefs. Where did they come from? It is hard to imagine that we invented them, because they feel to be such a part of us. Plus, throughout human history, we have so consistently broken them. If we invented them, why did we invent so many obstacles always standing in the way of what we really wanted to do? It is also hard to imagine that they arose through evolution. First, humans alone are concerned with questions of morality. Second, a moral belief could only have given an evolutionary advantage to us if it were obeyed, and again, we have excelled at not obeying our own morals throughout human history. I haven’t really developed this argument here, but I wanted to make the observation. In any case, we have already agreed to accept the existence of absolute moral truths (the entire discussion being pointless otherwise). If absolute moral truths do exist and our consciences do not give us knowledge of them, then we are cut off from the primary way (or, for some, the only way) of knowing them. Again, our discussion becomes pointless and the absolute moral truths may as well not exist. So then, we assume that absolute moral truths exist and that our consciences give us knowledge of them. The only way that can be true, I think, is if God made our consciences to work in that way.
How can this be, when we don’t all agree on the contents of these absolute moral truths? We should modify the above statement to say that our consciences, when functioning properly (i.e. as intended by God and not interfered with) give us knowledge of absolute moral truths. For, we can all agree that our consciences can be influenced by “group think” and by habit. Consider for a moment Nazi Germany or the moral outlook of a hardened criminal, and I think you will see what I mean. This suggests that our consciences can be, or have been, damaged and are not entirely reliable. We must therefore approach them with care. But how? How do we know whose consciences are functioning properly and whose are not? I think a few observations will help us here.
A person’s conscience can malfunction in only a few possible ways: a) my conscience may instinctively believe that something which is immoral is morally permissible; b) it may instinctively believe that something which is morally obligatory is not obligatory; or c) it may instinctively believe that something which is morally permissible is immoral. Human nature is such that we tend to want to have things our way. Moral prohibitions and obligations constrain our behavior, so we are predisposed against them. It is not in our nature to invent prohibitions where none exist. Thus, it seems far more likely that a corrupted conscience will instinctively believe it has no obligation when it really does, or else instinctively believe it has permission to act when it really doesn’t, than it is likely that a corrupted conscience will instinctively believe that it is prohibited from doing something which is really permissible. Therefore, if a minority of people instinctively believe something to be immoral while the majority instinctively believe it to be permissible, my money is on the majority having a corrupted conscience and the minority being correct.
At this point, someone may object that religions have a history of burdening people with rules and regulations which are invented and that therefore it is quite common to see the sort of corruption which I say is unlikely – namely, that my conscience declares the morally permissible to be immoral. The accusation against religions may be true, but I do not believe that such rules and regulations are instinctively felt as moral prohibitions, and so they do not represent a corruption of the conscience. For example, if my religion declares that I should not eat meat, I may accept that as a rule that I must follow. However, that does not mean that I instinctively feel it to be immoral to eat meat. There is a difference between believing something to be immoral because your religion declares it to be so, and deeply, instinctively feeling it to be immoral apart from anything your religion happens to say about it.
Speaking of religion, besides listening to our conscience as a source of moral truth, we may listen to God. One way to listen to God would be to look to a sacred text. This is what Christians do when appealing to the Bible. Since I assume many in my audience do not believe that listening to the Bible is listening to God, I won’t make my appeal to it. I will note, though, that a living faith in the living God is a good antidote to a corrupted conscience. Anyway, we may have another way of listening to God speak, and that is by looking to nature.
We have supposed that there is a God who has implanted into us a conscience. Perhaps we may also suppose that the universe is God’s creation, designed by him. This means that nature is not entirely random, but, having a particular design, is meant to work in a particular way. Even atheists will sometimes acknowledge that the universe appears to have a design, which means that things appear to be meant to work in a certain way. People are leery of “messing with nature”. Who knows what may be the result? The universe is a complicated system, and we cannot always predict the consequences of our actions. It is worthwhile to consider whether we are acting against nature’s design (whether real or apparent design). When we do this, we see that heterosexuality is quite natural.
What do I mean by natural? I mean “in accordance with nature”, or “in accordance with the apparent design of nature – the way things appear intended to work”. In this sense, heterosexuality is clearly natural. Heterosexual desire clearly serves the purpose of bringing male and female physically together. The sex organs are clearly designed to fit together to deliver pleasure and produce offspring. In this sense of “natural”, homosexuality is not natural; it is unnatural. Homosexual desire does not fit with the apparent design of nature, nor does homosexual behavior. Or, to put it another way, the simple and plain fact is that human beings appear to have been designed to be heterosexual. Nothing suggests we were designed to be homosexual. This does not make all heterosexual behavior moral, nor does it make homosexual behavior immoral. But, if nature’s design reflects God’s intentions for us, then we should weigh this carefully. To violate God’s intentions seems equivalent to opposing God, which would be immoral.
Returning to our conscience, we see that it tells us quite a lot about sex. We are instinctively repulsed by the idea of a man walking down the street, masturbating in full view. When involved in a monogamous relationship, we consider it a serious offense to engage in sexual experiences outside of that relationship. We are instinctively repulsed by certain sexual acts, such as man on beast (homosexuals, in fact, often resent references to bestiality in the context of debates on gay marriage). Unwanted physical contact between two people may be unwelcome, but unwanted sexual contact, and rape in particular, is abhorrent. We clearly have some notions of sexual morality wired into us.
When it comes to homosexuality, many people, even non-religious people, instinctively feel it is immoral. Of course, there are many people who think it is morally permissible. I have argued that there are absolute more truths and that our God-given consciences, when functioning properly, give us knowledge of these truths. If this is so, then the people in one of these groups have corrupted consciences. One of these groups is right, and the other is wrong, concerning the moral status of homosexual behavior. As I have argued, it seems to be more probable, given human nature’s inclination to make morality suit its own desires, that the more permissive conscience is the one which has been corrupted.
To conclude then, both sides in this debate are really taking for granted the existence of absolute moral truths which they claim to instinctively know. If we know such truths, it is because God has given us a conscience. The fact that many people instinctively know homosexual behavior to be immoral, and the fact that homosexual behavior is unnatural (in the sense above) strongly suggests that homosexual behavior really is, in fact, immoral. I will be the first to admit this is not a proof – how could one prove a moral statement? I only hope it is a persuasive argument. If nothing else, I hope those who insist that homosexual behavior is moral will pause and think it over and be more generous to those with whom they disagree. For, in the end, I believe the arguments favoring homosexual behavior as moral fall apart (I addressed what seems to be the primary ones: that homosexuality is an essential part of a person’s identity and that it doesn’t hurt anyone).
Finally, Cameron claimed homosexuality was destructive and detrimental. Is this true? If human flourishing means following God’s design for our lives, and if homosexual behavior is necessarily contrary to that (as nature’s design suggests), then homosexual behavior is harmful to ourselves, whether we realize it or not. Moreover, if homosexual behavior really is immoral, then its acceptance as being moral is destructive to society. To deny the immorality of one sex act makes it easier to deny the immorality of other sex acts, until we come to completely abuse sex as simply an avenue for pleasure rather than also being for intimacy. It can never be good when society agrees that immoral acts shall be called moral. It damages our consciences and cannot be isolated to a single act but in time will spread to others.
Now for a few closing remarks. Sometimes people believe Christians like to single out homosexuality as a favored target. I believe the reason it seems this way is because this is one of only a few areas where there is a concerted effort to redefine what Christians believe to be immoral as moral. There are no “Adulterer Pride Parades” or “Absentee Father Parades.” Divorce happens, but it is not celebrated. If homosexuals would stop making an issue of homosexuality, I think we would see Christians talking about it much less.
Lastly, every one of us has broken some of the moral laws that we instinctively know. Christians believe this is part of human nature. We also believe that God grants forgiveness for these violations to everyone who calls on him by calling on the name of Jesus. Only in walking with Jesus can we find the strength to resist those temptations which are particular to us. Whether you are especially vulnerable to lust, greed, anxiety, and yes, even homosexual behavior, calling on Jesus is the path to victory.