A boss stands in front of his four employees and says: “I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to let one of you go.” The black employee says: “Well, I’m a protected minority.” The female employee says: “And I’m a woman.” The elder employee says: “You fire me, sonny, and I’ll hit you with an age discrimination lawsuit so fast it’ll make your head spin.” To which they all turn to look at the helpless young, white, male employee, who thinks a moment, then responds: “Uh … I think I might be gay …”
I remember the first time I heard the term “LGBT.” One of my high school students referenced it. I thought she was talking about a sandwich. Once corrected, I found it hard to believe that gender could be dissected into so many categories.
Then I got a Facebook page. And with it, seventy self-identifying gender options, like “asexual,” “gender fluid,” “polygender,” and “two-spirit person”—a veritable gender bender Babel.
It is no surprise, then, that on July 21, 2014, President Barack Obama signed an executive order protecting LGBT employees at federal contractors and in the federal government from workplace discrimination. “In too many states and in too many workplaces, simply being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender can still be a fire-able offense,” Mr. Obama announced to a group of activists in the East Room of the White House. “I firmly believe that it’s time to address this injustice for every American.”
The executive order is considered highly significant. First, it applies to nearly 30,000 companies that employ nearly thirty million workers, representing twenty percent of the U.S. workforce. But secondly, the order is ambiguous as to how it exempts religious organizations from the mandate, thereby opening the door to possible litigation which could affect adversely religious non-profits such as Catholic Charities and World Vision.
However, I think there is something far more significant going on here. I believe concerns about sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination as well as changing attitudes towards religious liberties involve a fundamental transformation in our politics and society.
Historically, anti-discrimination law goes way beyond the context of employment law and employment relationships, but has been found in criminal law, police practice, judicial review, family law, and property law. Indeed, anti-discrimination is codified even at the constitutional level, such as with the U.S. Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But recently, anti-discrimination laws and concerns have been caught up in what is termed “emancipatory politics.” Emancipatory politics involves utilizing the power of the state to liberate people from traditional social structures and arrangements that are deemed “unjust.” The injustice involves the arbitrary impediments traditional societies impose on the individual who wants to exercise social control over his or her own life circumstances. Because traditional societies tend to impose arbitrarily key identity markers such as gender, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation on their populations, the extent to which these impositions are overcome and corrected is the measure of what is labeled “justice,” “liberty,” and “equality.”
And it is here, in this emancipatory context, that the rhetoric of discrimination plays such an important role. While discrimination has linguistically and historically a number of applications (we technically discriminate when we choose what to have for dinner), to label a social disadvantage “discrimination” in modern society is by definition to claim that it is unjust and should therefore be eliminated. The significance of the word is so fixed, that if one were to dispute this label, he or she can only do so by denying any affiliation whatsoever with discrimination. But because the accusation of discrimination imports a host of emancipatory assumptions and implications, traditional social arrangements are increasingly excluded from standards of disputation. Appealing to “freedom of conscience,” “sin,” or “biblical norms” as reasons for religious exemptions is like trying to bribe PETA members with KFC. One can only dispute the charge by appealing to state-centered social arrangements and categories that are themselves the conventional foundations of modern discriminatory accusations.
However, there is a fundamental problem for the success of discrimination rhetoric. In the past, concerns over arbitrary social disadvantage were addressed and rectified within an inherently moral social order. In classical and Christian civilizations, it was believed that the world was governed by moral causes and effects, which meant that every person born into the world was obligated to conform his or her life to the moral order of the universe and thereby enable their humanity to flourish. With the advent of Christianity and the inauguration of a new moral order rooted in self-giving love and forgiveness, social discriminations were newly addressed and rectified. The late first-century church-order called the Didache (“The Teaching”) prohibited Christians from practicing abortion; the fifth-century legal Code of Theodosius II redefined divorce law decidedly in the favor of women; and Justinian’s reforms in the sixth century abolished all laws that prevented the freeing of slaves and made emancipation far less complicated. All these measures reflected initiatives to enable human flourishing from within a new moral order inaugurated in the Christ event.
The problem with emancipatory politics is that it is characterized by inherently amoral processes. The demographic, economic, and institutional dynamics that are dislodging social life away from traditional structures and beliefs are not propelled by moral concerns and considerations. There is simply nothing inherently moral about the technological, industrial, and telecommunicative revolutions that ushered in the modern age. The project of political emancipation is therefore no more than an attempt to impose arbitrarily moral significance on amoral processes. But this is precisely what discrimination rhetoric accuses traditional society of doing. It thus turns out that the justification Obama and others appeal to for emancipating people from the arbitrary impositions of traditional society is itself just another arbitrary tradition; but now with the power of the secular state behind it. This is an arbitrary tradition that will not tolerate nonconformity.
And so the extent to which the rhetoric of discrimination dictates such moral significance, it is, well, inherently discriminatory. If modern discrimination concerns revolve chiefly around impediments to the individual achieving social control over his or her own life circumstances, then subsuming the human person to an arbitrary political meaning system that no person has the right to opt out of is the epitome of discrimination. Modern discrimination claims do not so much describe social injustices as create them. Justice in the modern sense is a mere fabrication, the coercive projection of meaning and purpose upon otherwise meaningless and purposeless processes by those who have the power to do so.
What this means then is that the rhetoric and actions surrounding the executive order are not ultimately about rectifying discrimination and establishing justice, but rather are about dislodging human life away from the traditional structures of church, family, and community and recalibrating social life around the modern structures of industry, technology, and the state. For all of its rhetoric, political emancipation “liberates” us from traditional society only to subsume us into an economy of mass social engineering which, given its mechanistic structures, all too easily slips into new forms of social oppression, coercion, and disadvantage.
The only way to counter this is ultimately mass non-compliance. As cultural anthropologists have observed, the authority inherent in cultural meaning systems is contingent upon its acceptance by those presumably subject to it. The plausibility of the state of affairs that govern a society is directly proportionate to the fidelity invested by the majority of the participating social actors.
Traditionalists, those who esteem the classical social intersection of church, family, and community, need to counter the shrill rhetoric of discrimination with what we might call a “rhetoric of reconciliation.” In the Christian tradition, freedom is not merely negative, as in a freedom from restraint. Rather, freedom is more positive; it is the divinely imparted gift to become what we were created to be, the liberty to fulfill our divine calling and thereby enable our humanity to flourish.
And wherein do we realize such freedom? True freedom is found in Eucharistic equality. As St. Paul taught in his first letter to the Corinthians, the church involves social arrangements that transcend the world’s ethnic, social, and sexual identities with a reconciling unity found only in Christ. By partaking of the Eucharistic meal, the Corinthians become “one body” (1 Cor 10:17). And because the meal involves Christ’s own body and blood, the Corinthians learn to give up their lives for one another, to live a life of self-sacrificial mutuality and fellowship that considers the needs of others as more important than their own. For Paul, this is true freedom, a freedom that breaks down all social hindrances to the Christian gospel.
By living out faithful shared life-worlds that operate not according to the entitlements of the sovereign individual but rather according to self-sacrificial love and mercy, we can expose the inherent arbitrariness and self-centeredness of modernist political projects. In this way, we have the potential to radically relativize economies of social engineering and coercion to societies of grace and gratitude. Perhaps then we will enact a true emancipation, resolving real discriminatory barriers erected by self-centered infatuations and pandering political fads. Perhaps then, we will witness the flourishing freedom of a true humanity.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
1. Nicholas Bamforth, “Conceptions of Anti-Discrimination Law,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 24 (2004): 693-716.
2. Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), 211.
3. Janet Radcliffe Richards and J.R. Lucas, “Discrimination,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes Vol. 59 (1985): 53-83.