Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A friend emails thoughts on the recent firing of a transportation commissioner in Maryland for remarks about homosexuality:

Back in 2004, Rocco Buttiglione was nominated to be the commissioner of justice on the newly formed European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union. A distinguished political philosopher and a friend and confidante of Pope John Paul II, Buttiglione had a long and admirable career of public service, but various members of the European Parliament objected vehemently to Buttiglione’s views on homosexuality. A Roman Catholic, Buttiglione had said publicly that he believed that homosexual conduct was immoral. He was quick to add that he thought discrimination against individuals with a homosexual orientation was also immoral and indeed illegal under European law, but that made no difference. The committee considering Buttiglione’s candidacy advised against approving him, and when the whole European Parliament, which was to make the final decision, gridlocked on the nomination, Buttiglione withdrew his candidacy.

The lesson many people drew from this incident was that a devout Roman Catholic, or indeed anyone who ascribed to the traditional view in Western civilization that homosexual acts are immoral, was unfit for high office in the European Union. Some people thought, however, that such things could not happen in the United States.

But we live in rapidly changing times. Earlier this week, Robert L. Ehrlich, the Republican governor of Maryland, abruptly removed from office one of his appointees to the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), an interstate agency that oversees public transportation in the Washington, D.C., area. The appointee, Robert J. Smith, had been a regular guest on a local cable news show in Maryland, and on the June 9 program, the topics discussed on the show included the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, which would limit marriage in the United States to unions of one man with one woman. In the course of the discussion, Smith referred to gays and lesbians as "persons of sexual deviancy." He later reiterated to reporters that he "consider[s] homosexual behavior as deviant" and explained that this view stems from his Roman Catholic faith. To be sure, "deviant" is a harsh word, and Smith would have done better to stick close to the more careful formulations used in Catholic doctrine, but in context it was perfectly clear that Smith was affirming the moral doctrine taught in the Catholic religion and in a dwindling percentage of other Christian denominations.

The response to Smith’s remarks was explosive. In removing Smith from office, Governor Ehrlich said, "Robert Smith’s comments were highly inappropriate, insensitive and unacceptable. They are in direct conflict to my administration’s commitment to inclusiveness, tolerance and opportunity." The WMATA chairwoman said that Smith’s remarks reflected "a high level of intolerance" and that she "was surprised that someone who sits as a public official on a board would make that kind of a statement." One of Smith’s fellow board members, however, said it most succinctly, asserting, "To defend this point of view is beyond the pale."

That last phrase arrests the attention. What Governor Ehrlich and Smith’s colleagues on the WMATA board were saying is not just that they disagree with Smith about the moral quality of homosexual conduct, not just that Smith’s views are in error, not just that his views are unreasonable, but that they are immoral. Indeed, nothing less would justify Ehrlich’s decision to remove Smith. Ehrlich could hardly admit that Smith’s views were reasonable, the kind of thing that a person may in good faith believe even if Ehrlich himself disagreed, and yet nevertheless justify removing Smith from an office that has no significant connection to gay rights on the basis of those beliefs. No, what is being said here is that Smith’s views on homosexual conduct, which are the views of the Catholic religion and of a great many Americans (both religious and nonreligious), are, in the words of Smith’s former colleague, "beyond the pale"¯beyond, that is to say, the range of beliefs that moral people might hold in just the same way that, say, racist beliefs are beyond the pale. Only bigots think that way.

Asked to back up this claim, Governor Ehrlich might have cited the authority of the United States Supreme Court. Back in 1994, Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority in Romer v. Evans , held that a state constitutional amendment prohibiting the state and its cities and counties from enacting anti-discrimination laws related to homosexual orientation or conduct violated the federal Constitution, because it was "inexplicable by anything but animus toward" gays and lesbians and "lacks a rational relationship to legitimate state interests." Many have read this case as meaning that, in the view of the Supreme Court, a negative judgment on homosexual conduct or orientation lacks any rational basis and so must be the product of irrational animus. Such a reading makes sense of Justice Kennedy’s otherwise not especially coherent opinion in Lawrence v. Texas .

Notice, too, how quickly both Buttiglione and Smith were to refer to their Catholic faith. Supporters of both quickly cast the treatment they received as a form of religious persecution¯as if the belief that homosexual conduct is immoral were a peculiarly Catholic, or at least Christian, tenet, and that using that belief to exclude someone from public office would amount to religious discrimination. That may be, but in fact the Catholic Church has always taught that the moral norm against homosexual conduct is not peculiarly Catholic, that it is rather part of natural morality and can be known by reason in natural moral philosophy. In his Laws , for example, Plato argued against such conduct and would have prohibited it, all on the basis of purely philosophical arguments (636a-c, 835c-841e), not religious taboo. But we have reached the point that, at least in disputes conducted in the news media, rational arguments on the merits of this subject are hopeless; only an appeal to a different kind of nondiscrimination norm might work.

The removal of Robert Smith is thus an early-warning sign. Unless things change in ways now quite unforeseeable, it will not be very long before the principle of traditional Western morality that homosexual conduct is immoral will be contrary to the public policy of the United States. As this new public policy takes hold, it will filter through the law and society just as other anti-discrimination norms have. Adherence to the new policy will be a de facto requirement for holding public office, and, as private entities adopt the policy as they have other anti-discrimination norms, people adhering to the traditional moral view will become unfit to serve as directors of public corporations, as officers of professional associations, as union officials, and as university professors. Organizations that do not ascribe to the policy may lose government licenses necessary to carry on their business, become ineligible to receive grants and subsidies, and be disqualified from bidding on government and other contracts. Catholic Charities in Boston recently had to cease arranging adoptions because Massachusetts required that it not discriminate against same-sex married couples in placing children. Organizations not ascribing to the new policy may even lose tax-free status under the Internal Revenue Code to which they would otherwise be entitled. This happened to Bob Jones University because of its racist policies; there is no reason why, a few years hence, the same thing could not happen to Notre Dame because of what will be called its homophobic policies.

Many people will say that this is alarmist nonsense. Perhaps so, but in the long history of the world, human beings have shown themselves highly intolerant of those who disagree with them about their cherished moral beliefs. The Puritans, for example, came to the New World seeking religious freedom, gained power in Massachusetts (ironically, the same state that now gives us same-sex marriage), and promptly began persecuting those who dissented from their orthodoxy. Even among those who preach toleration most loudly, genuine toleration is often scarce once the power to be intolerant has been gained. One of the many wonders of the American experiment is that the American people, throughout most of our history and with some shameful exceptions, have been astonishingly tolerant even of those who disagreed most flagrantly with the majority’s values. There is no guarantee, however, that such generous toleration will continue.

Indeed, there is some reason to think it may not. For the Americans who have been so tolerant over the past two centuries have been for the most part deeply committed to a particular set of moral and religious values largely derived from Protestant Christianity. But as political scientists Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio wrote in First Things , during the last thirty years, self-consciously nonreligious people have emerged as potent actors on the political stage promoting an overarching secular worldview.

This worldview evolved organically out of the American experience, of course, and the people who uphold it are sincere advocates of various forms of tolerance. But they are also generally inclined to believe that the traditional view that homosexual conduct is immoral is the product of the irrational animus of which Justice Kennedy spoke. More to the point, such people have never yet, as a class, held sufficient political power to be intolerant of those who dissent from the core values of their worldview. As such, they are still untested, and it remains to be seen whether, should they come to achieve majority power, they will be as tolerant of traditionally religious Americans as traditionally religious Americans long were of them.

Perhaps they will, for many such people are clearly persons of genuine goodwill, but the general experience of human nature down the centuries does not encourage optimism, and if things end as they are now beginning, those who accept the traditional norms may well end up the moral equivalent of Klansmen.

In addition to which :

Father Richard John Neuhaus will be among the speakers in Philadelphia next Saturday and Sunday at the EWTN 25th Anniversary Family Celebration. He will be speaking 9:30 to 10:30 Saturday morning at the Liacouras Center of Temple University, and will be a guest, along with Peggy Noonan, for a live version of Raymond Arroyo’s television program, The World Over , that evening. He will also be signing his new book, Catholic Matters . He says he would be very glad to see you there.

In “Dechristianizing America,” Richard John Neuhaus examines the curious and complex ways in which analysts of American life—mainly, but not only Jewish analysts—seem determined to ignore the confusedly Christian character of this society. This reflection in the June/July issue of First Things touches on subjects of long-standing controversy that cannot be ignored in trying to understand how our public discourse contributes to our misunderstanding of who we are. Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to First Things ?

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles