Conversion therapy—the use of psychological or spiritual interventions to attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity—has proved controversial in the U.S. It is banned in the case of minors in some twenty American states. The District of Columbia bans such therapies completely, regardless of age. Such laws could be viewed as government support for the LGBTQ+ cause, but they do not need to be seen entirely cynically. They could well reflect a desire to protect the vulnerable from paying for treatments that legislators consider to be bogus.
The state of Victoria in Australia, however, just passed a bill that will considerably intensify the conflict between religious freedom, individual choice, and identity politics. And it might well become a model for laws elsewhere in the democratic world.
The legislation that just passed is the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020. Its basic intention is “to ensure that all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, feel welcome and valued in Victoria and are able to live authentically and with pride.” It is hard to argue with that, both because the aim seems laudable enough (who wants to live in a place where she does not feel valued?) and because it embodies the nebulous jello-speak of our current therapeutic age. Feeling valued and living authentically are useful, empty phrases that sound wonderfully reassuring but can be given whatever content the month dictates. I assume, or at least hope, that those whose “sexual orientation” leads them to abuse underage minors are unlikely to feel welcome and valued in Victoria despite this new legislation.
The law defines a change or suppression practice as follows:
a practice or conduct directed towards a person, whether with or without the person's consent on the basis of the person's sexual orientation or gender identity; and for the purpose of changing or suppressing the sexual orientation or gender identity of the person; or inducing the person to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Note that the consent of the person is immaterial to the legal point: The change or suppression practice is illegal regardless of the attitude of the person involved.
But the really important part of the bill from a religious perspective is its list of “change or suppression practices.” This includes: “carrying out a religious practice, including but not limited to, a prayer-based practice, a deliverance practice or an exorcism.”
In short, if someone asks a pastor, a priest, or a Christian friend to pray for him that his sexual desires or gender dysphoria might be changed, that pastor, priest, or friend runs the risk of committing a criminal offense. Presumably this also applies to parents praying for their children—or perhaps even parents teaching their children that untrammeled expressions of sexual desire (at least within the canons of contemporary bourgeois taste) are inappropriate.
This provision is clearly not based on any coherent metaphysical objection to the practice of prayer. If the legislators believe God exists, they presumably believe that he is wise enough to ignore such prayers if they are indeed truly harmful. And if they do not think he exists, then it seems reasonable to assume they would regard such prayer as a rather pointless, even nonsensical, exercise.
If the policy is not metaphysical, it nevertheless reveals one of the aspects of the new identity politics: Traitors to the cause cannot be tolerated. Whether it is John McWhorter calling out the revivalist fervor of the new religion of anti-racism that grips the United States or some anonymous person in Australia who feels that his gender dysphoria is a problem of his mind, not of his body, the traitor is someone who is at worst malicious, at best somebody who needs to be protected from himself.
The legislation also demonstrates one of the oddest results of the modern emphasis on the radical freedom of the individual. In such a world, all must theoretically be allowed to have their own narratives of identity. But because some narratives of identity inevitably stand in opposition to others, some identities must therefore be privileged with legitimate status and others treated as cultural cancers. And that means that, in an ironic twist, the individual ceases to be sovereign and the government has to step in as enforcer. The lobby group of the day then decides who is in and who is out, with the result that, in this instance, the gay or trans person who wants to become straight or “cis” (to use the pretentious jargon), cannot be tolerated. His narrative calls into question that of others. We might say that his very existence is a threat. To grant any degree of legitimacy to his desire is to challenge the normative status of the desires of others.
And so prayer for such heretics must be prohibited, even if they specifically ask for it. This is not so much because it harms the people for whom it is being offered, but simply because it witnesses to the fact that not all people—not even all gay and trans people—buy into the current confections of the politics of sexual identity.
Perhaps that is encouraging. Perhaps at long last Western societies are beginning to wake up to the fact that Christianity at its very core witnesses to the fact that the world is not as it should be. But it is also an ominous sign when such a basic religious practice as prayer—so often decried by the irreligious as pointless hokum—is now the target of hostile legislation in a democratic country. We may not yet be at the point where thought is a crime, but we seem to be at the point where the expression of certain thoughts, even in prayer, could be considered criminal behavior. At the risk of encouraging people to commit high crimes and misdemeanors, I would urge everyone to pray that other countries do not follow Victoria's example, for if they do, it might be illegal to pray for almost anything of which our lords and masters disapprove in a few years' time.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College.
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