The best way to win an argument is to control the terms of discussion. Any high school debater knows that, and those of us who forget it do so at the risk of finding ourselves in awkwardly defensive modes of public discourse.

Take the current and curious case of the term “homophobia,” a word ever more widely applied to those who in any way or for whatever reason find homosexual behavior objectionable or at all problematic. Now a phobia is not, in normal parlance, a good thing to have. The dictionary describes it as “an exaggerated, usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object or group of objects.” People with , phobias, we think, have problems. They need help, treatment; they are, well, sick.

The problem with the term “homophobia” is that we have in it an epithet in search of a condition. Beyond its ideological uses, it has no existence. It will be found nowhere in the clinical lexicon. If it were to be psychologically usable, it would refer to those depraved yet pitiable creatures so uncertain of or insecure about their own sexual identities that they find it necessary to indulge in gay-bashing, in assault”verbal, physical, or both”on those with same-sex preferences. That exaggerated condition aside, objection to homosexuality has been until recently an all but universal social norm. If most people understood obsessive opposition to homosexuality as abnormal, so also did they understand homosexuality itself.

A substantial change has occurred in recent years. With the rise of a militant gay rights movement has come a redefinition of terms, a recasting of common understandings. It is now customary among gays and lesbians, and increasingly in the elite culture, to regard any form of objection to homosexual behavior as homophobia. Norms have been reshuffled, even turned on their heads. It is now not homosexual behavior that needs to be defended or explained, but rather objection to such behavior. Opposition to homosexuality has become a suspect moral category: thus the increasingly common grouping of “homophobia” with racism or sexism.

Just how far the process of redefinition has progressed is revealed in that bellwether of moral fashion, the New York Times. The Times recently featured in its Science section a piece by reporter Daniel Goleman entitled “Homophobia: Scientists Find Clues To Its Roots.” Ostensibly an attempt to explain the particular problem of the increased incidence of physical assaults against gays, the article in fact lumps all forms of opposition to homosexuality”everything from anti-gay “feelings” to moral arguments against homosexual practice to actual gay-bashing”in the undifferentiated category of “homophobia.” The logic of the argument is clear, though nowhere explicitly stated: gays will only become safe from assault when the straight world concedes the unqualified legitimacy” on all grounds”of their behavior. Homophobia, in this view, is all of a piece, and to enter into it at any point for any reason is to be complicit in the beating up” and worse”of gays and lesbians.

The structure of Mr. Goleman’s argument reveals its presuppositions. Americans are wrong to assume, Mr. Goleman begins, that the rise in violence against homosexuals can be traced to the AIDS epidemic. Instead, “researchers have found” that the disease simply “has given bigots an excuse to act out their hatred.” For such people, “anti-gay bias” lies deep, deeper even than “defensiveness about their own sexuality.” “The greatest portion of anti-homosexual bias,” it turns out, “arises from a combination of fear and self-righteousness in which homosexuals are perceived as contemptible threats to the moral universe.” Such attitudes of moral disapproval (“affirmation of one’s own values through antigay sentiment”) are most deeply entrenched and most difficult to change when they are “based on religion.” Given these deep structures of bigotry, little wonder that anti-gay sentiment “is far more accepted among large numbers of Americans than is bias against other groups,” or that many teenagers, “while reluctant to advocate open bias against racial and religious groups, [are] emphatic about disliking homosexual men and women.”

All the “studies” from all the “researchers” (many of them self-described homosexuals) cited by Mr. Goleman apparently find it unnecessary to engage the arguments of critics of homosexuality, to ponder whether anything might reside there other than “prejudice” or “bigotry.” The assumption throughout is one of pathology. Mr. Goleman’s “scientists” give no indication of being able to distinguish between the attitudes, on the one hand, of philosophers, psychologists, and theologians who regard homosexual practice as an objective disorder, and on the other, of gangs of skinheads eagerly in search of gays to bash. It’s all homophobia, and it follows that decent people will have nothing to do with any of it. Thus is debate on the moral status of homosexuality effectively foreclosed.

America’s religious communities have a particular stake in seeing that the conversation-stoppers not be allowed to set the terms of public discourse on this matter. Both Judaism and Christianity insist that there is a divinely ordained right order of things, and that our sexual drives find appropriate expression within that order in monogamous heterosexual unions. Only in the quite recent past has that millennia-old understanding come into question. It takes no extraordinary perception to see that God made men and women for each other; indeed, it requires remarkable perversity of mind to get around that obvious intent. Homosexuals have the right to expect of the rest of us decent and respectful treatment as human beings and citizens; they have no right to insist that we surrender our fundamental moral and religious beliefs in order that they might feel comfortable with their sexual behavior. When the militants among them choose to conduct argument by insult”such as labeling all opposition to their agenda as homophobia”they consign themselves to the same moral category as the gay-baiters of the heterosexual world.

The vexed moral question of homosexual behavior requires humane and tough-minded conversation. In that conversation, exercises in reductionist question-begging like that of the Times have no useful place. A satisfactory response to the perduring phenomenon of homosexuality will be found, if at all, not in spurious invocations of “science” but in unsentimental engagement of our deepest moral intuitions and traditions.