Recently, Kenneth Howell, an adjunct professor who worked for Newman Center at the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana, was told by his department chair that he could no longer teach there. His offense: explaining and clarifying the Catholic moral teaching on homosexuality while teaching a class on Catholicism. A couple of students complained to the department chair with the usual charge: his moral reasoning is hate speech that creates a hostile environment for gays and lesbians.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Keeton, a student at Augusta State University in Georgia, was forced to undergo "sensitivity training." Her offense: believing Christian teaching on homosexuality. She was told that if she did not change her moral beliefs and affirm homosexuality, she could not graduate with a degree in counseling.
Note the difference. Ken Howell did not insist that students believe or affirm the reasoned Catholic arguments against the moral legitimacy of homosexual acts. Rather, he required students who had chosen to taken an elective course on Catholicism to know and engage those arguments.
But the faculty of the Counselor Education Program at Augusta State apparently requires their students to agree with them. Students must affirm—or at least learn how to appear to affirm—homosexual sex. And the faculty at Augusta State seems to think nothing of intimidating students to ensure that they comply.
The juxtaposition captures one of the most glaring moral failures of higher education in America today, a failure that should be evident to most of us, no matter what we think about the moral status of homosexual acts. When it comes to sexual liberation, a culture of intimidation has taken the place of reason, debate, and civility. The otherwise favored ideal of academic freedom suddenly disappears, to be replaced with other absolutes that seem to demand intellectual submission.
If, like Howell and Keeton, you make any suggestion that homosexual acts are immoral, you are censured and your career is threatened. If you're a pro-gay professor or department, you can censure and intimidate as much as you like.
This seems an impossibly simplistic generalization, but I can’t see how to avoid it. My experience is of course limited, but from what I’ve seen Augusta State is not unique. Professors like those in Augusta State’s counseling department think nothing of withholding credentials and destroying careers, and administrators support them in creating this culture of intimidation.
Advancing the cause of sexual liberation is not negotiable in most of American academia. Graduate students have told me that being labeled as “anti-gay” means getting blackballed when entering the job market. And not just at secular schools. A whisper campaign (“he’s anti-gay”) against a recent candidate for a job in the Notre Dame philosophy department apparently succeeded.
People can be very cruel when they imagine their beliefs to be self-evident, which happens when all dissent is silenced and censured. In a group-think atmosphere, those who disagree are seen as unthinking "fundamentalists" or hateful "bigots." Even the most highly qualified and nuanced moral statements about homosexuality will be denounced as “homophobic” if they fall short of a full and unqualified affirmation of homosexuality.
Sexual liberation seems to have become the great moral cause. It is true that American schools expect ideological homogeneity on all manner of topics, and being pro-life or a person of faith—or even a Republican—can get you in trouble. But homosexuality alone seems to call forth the full repressive power of educational institutions.
On the surface, the culture of intimidation would seem a case of moral passion fused with institutional power. The reasoning goes like this: Gays and lesbians have been an oppressed minority, as blacks have been, and as we resisted racism by banning it where we could, so we should use our positions to ban prejudice against gays and lesbians and to promote equality and inclusion.
However, I’m not convinced. Traditional moral judgments aren’t like the old racists theories. They concern behaviors—the usual focus of moral judgments—not the ontological status of persons as genetically inferior.
I do not dismiss the moral passion felt by many proponents of sexual liberation, misguided as it may be. But I look elsewhere to explain the culture of intimidation, which seems so out of proportion to the cause and so contradictory to their belief in academic freedom.
Perhaps the force of conscience plays a role. St. Paul wrote that the law is written on the gentile’s heart (Rom 2:15). We are in a certain sense hardwired to recognize certain moral truths, however dimly, and the immorality of homosexual activity is one. Our internal censor, our interior sense of shame and guilt, often limits, restrains, and disciplines us as we try to follow our desires, perhaps especially those for sexual liberation.
Thus the need to use a kind of intellectual Agent Orange to destroy even the slightest judgments of immorality, because they reinforce what the voice of conscience keeps telling us, and what we would like to avoid hearing. Those who say that homosexual acts are immoral are oppressors, because their words—however dispassionate, however well-reasoned, however subtly expressed, however concerned for others—agitate consciences and block the free flow of desire.
Indeed, even those who are diffident are under suspicion, because that voice of conscience needs complete support to be suppressed. In the cause of sexual liberation nothing is acceptable short of full affirmation, or at least a scrupulous silence that expresses no reservations.
Sexual liberation is a Gucci freedom. Upper middle class Americans possess the resources to get a great deal of what they want, and part of what they want is sexual liberation. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the modern institution most closely associated with elite culture—higher education—should devote a great deal of energy to removing those who believe in moral limitations.
R.R. Reno is a senior editor at First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, to which he contributed the commentary on Genesis.