It happened again this week. It will doubtless happen many times in the weeks and months and years to come.
A Christian dared to elaborate publicly on why he thought homosexual practice was morally wrong, and was greeted not with counter-argument or rebuttal, but outpourings of abhorrence and anger, as well as regret and apology on the part of the event organizers (that such a view had come to be to be expressed on their platform).
In this instance the perpetrator was respected Oxford philosopher and professing Christian Richard Swinburne, and the context was a conference of the Midwest Society of Christian Philosophers.
When even the Christians start apologising for the faux pas of allowing someone to expound traditional Christian moral teaching, and when Christian philosophers give up reasoned argument in favour of name-calling, you know that something profound has happened to our public discourse—to the way our society talks about moral and political issues, and in particular to the way it deals with dissenters to the prevailing orthodoxy.
It’s not just that Christians are being shouted down or silenced or in various ways vilified for saying only what every orthodox Christian for 20 centuries has believed and said. That is happening, and will in all likelihood happen with increasing regularity and vigour in the coming years in Western cultures.
The more insidious effect on Christians themselves will be self-censorship. We will learn very quickly what the Midwestern Christian Philosophers have apparently already learned: that dissenting from certain unchallengeable cultural truths is a bad idea, that it will only get us into trouble, and that therefore we will do better to stay quiet, or to express our disagreement only in the mildest terms.
Rod Dreher, writing about the Swinburne incident quotes Polish author Ryszard Legutko on how strikingly similar the current tendences in Western liberal-democracy are to the communist rule he grew up under:
Today, when someone is accused of homophobia, the mere fact of accusation allows no effective reply. To defend oneself by saying that homosexual and heterosexual unions are not equal, even if supported by most persuasive arguments, only confirms the charge of homophobia because the charge itself is never a matter of discussion. The only way out for the defendant is to submit a self-criticism, which may or may not be accepted. When the poor daredevil is adamant and imprudently answers back, a furious pack of enraged lumpen-intellectuals inevitably trample the careless polemicist into the ground.
Prudent people—both then and now—anticipate such reactions and made a preemptive move before saying anything reckless. Under communism, the best tactic was to start by condemning the forces of reaction and praising the socialist progress; then one could risk smuggling in a reasonable, though somewhat audacious statement, preferably wrapped in quotations from Marx and Lenin. In a liberal democracy, it is best to start with a condemnation of homophobia followed by the praise of the homosexual movement, and only then sheepishly include something commonsensical, but only using the rhetoric of tolerance, human rights, and the documents issued by the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice. Otherwise one invites trouble.
The characteristic feature of both societies—communist and liberal democratic—was that a lot of things simply could not be discussed because they were unquestionably bad or unquestionably good. Discussing them was tantamount to casting doubts on something whose value had been unequivocally determined. (From Legutko’s book, The Demon in Democracy, [Encounter Books, 2016] quoted without page references in Dreher’s article.)
Such is the climate in which we have to figure out how to talk about ‘same-sex marriage’—not just in the context of the forthcoming plebiscite here in Australia (if that ever happens), but in our homes and schools and communities, and in our broader society for years to come.
Perhaps our climate is becoming uncomfortably similar to the one that Peter describes in the New Testament, in which the Christian confession and its moral implications were regarded as despicable (e.g. 1 Pet 2:11-12; 4:1-5).
And perhaps Peter’s encouragement to his readers is therefore also encouragement to us: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet 4:12-13).