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orlando shootingThis week, tragedy struck America. By now, the news of fifty murdered patrons of a gay bar in Orlando has circulated throughout the world; the Orlando shooting dominates news websites, social media streams, and the thought of American politicians looking for quick capital gains. Motivations for the attack are not yet fully clear: ISIS has claimed responsibility, the shooter’s father denies religious motivations, President Obama refuses to call it an act of radical Islamic terror. And yet, the ethnic origins of the attacker (son of Afghani immigrants) and the nature of the attack on a gay bar lend credence to the theory that this was a murderous act motivated by political Islam.

Russell Moore has artfully asked the question, “Can we mourn together?” This is a common tragedy on American soil; before posturing about gun control or acting to suppress homophobic tendencies, oughtn’t our corporate reaction be one of grief that fifty human lives were taken? In reading through the different responses to the Orlando shooting, an important  connection seems to be missing: Omar Marteen was, in fact, working out the radical implications of Sharia law as demanded by a conservative reading of the Quran, and that this tragedy should force the western world to recognize that Islam does not lead to freedom.

Other scholars (for example, Roger Scruton in his How to Be a Conservative) have noted these connections, and given it a more robust expression than an essay permits. The argument I want to make, however briefly, is this: The Christian underpinnings of grace, freedom, and the importance of individual conscience allow for a culture of freedom; that culture of freedom is worth preserving, and it stands in direct contrast to the culture created by the application of sharia law. I want to first explore how Christianity departs from the ancient near eastern tradition of legal codes, outline where these Christian ideas have influenced the American experiment, and contrast this culture of freedom with modern Islamic countries which follow sharia.

Omar Mateen

Omar Mateen

Christianity rests historically on the Jewish legal tradition, yet has always had a difficulty reconciling theological impulses of charity and grace with the demands of Old Testament law. The Old Testament presents the strict legal and moral requirements of YHWH which are intended to map out the specifics of what this God means when he calls Israel to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This specific nation will be one in which evil is not to be tolerated: idolatry, adultery, bestiality, homosexuality, and murder are all spelled out as crimes demanding death. In outlining specific crimes and practices, the Old Testament resembles other strict ancient law codes like the Code of Hammurabi or the Twelve Tables of Roman Law. Such law codes seem shocking to modern readers; penalties often involve public maiming or death. There is a harshness to these laws which has been softened over the centuries, much of which comes from the Christian tradition.

Christianity begins historically in the first century AD, in the context of the Roman Empire. Rome also practiced strict legal enforcement in its territories; violation of Roman law was punishable by death, with the most famous punishment being crucifixion. In reading the New Testament, a different ethos emerges from the writings of the Apostles that oriented the Christian intellectual tradition in a different trajectory. Christian morality will not be focused on a list of do’s and don’ts, but on the right use of the moral freedom purchased on Calvary. During his teaching ministry, Jesus brought this concept up in the Sermon on the Mount, shifting the moral lens from external actions to internal motivations. “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, ‘Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”

This shift from external actions to internal motivations is furthered by the message Peter received in Acts 10. In a vision, Peter learned that God no longer distinguished between clean foods (permissible to eat) and unclean foods (eating these would pollute the purity of a Jew). Instead, Peter learns that “What God has called clean, you must not call common.” The passage goes on to explain that God extends this grace to all mankind: No longer will God distinguish between Jew and Gentile, but all men may come to Him through the gospel.

St. Paul

St. Paul

In his masterful letter to the church in Rome, Paul adds to this vision of common humanity the replacement of legal codes (like the specific moral demands of the Old Testament) with the importance of the individual conscience. He argues that Christians who have been redeemed and transformed by the saving grace of Christ are not bound by the law, but free to act in accordance with the love of God. When Paul outlines the ethical demands of Christianity, he does so not by listing specific actions that Christians must completely avoid. Instead, he outlines the changed mindset and orientation towards life characterizing the freedom found in Christ. Paul writes:

Love must be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. Show family affection to one another with brotherly love. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lack diligence; be fervent in spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Be in agreement with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:9-18).

The Christian ethic, then, is oriented towards freedom. Rather than listing the places Christians can go, the foods they can eat, or the possessions they can have, Paul gives a list of attitudes and virtues that the church should pursue. St. Augustine famously argued that a Christian should “love God and do what [He] want[s].” The Christian is called to live in light of his salvation, and the New Testament points the believer in specific directions, but leaves the working out of salvation in specific contexts to the believer and his conscience.

Over the past 1500 years, these principles have become more and more enshrined in western legal codes. The encouragement of individual freedom is a fascinating thread to study in modern Western history. As church and state become more separated over time, individual freedom becomes a larger emphasis in Western societies.

Christianity marks a shift in Western attitudes from the traditional methods in the Ancient Near East of listing forbidden and permissible actions, and that Christian Europe incorporated an orientation towards freedom within the confines of European Christendom. The flowering of freedom came to fruition in the American experiment.

James Madison

James Madison

The Founding Fathers were believers in limited government and self-government. James Madison famously said that the federal experiment would only work with a moral people who could govern themselves. Of course, government still needed to provide ordering functions since men are not angels. The American experiment with a largely self-governing people is an intellectual product of Christian theological convictions that grew out of the writings of the Gospels and the Epistles. Eighteenth-century philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes consciously drew on the mentions Paul makes of the conscience, and these modern philosophers built up individual conviction and the human conscience as foundations of their philosophies. Such ideas manifested themselves in a new nation without an established church and in a vision of a unified nation conceived in diversity. Each state in the United States could, for the most part, determine its own laws and cooperate in the federal vision.

Here is the controversial part of this essay’s argument: This Christian dedication to freedom and to following one’s conscience creates the atmosphere in which homosexuality can exist. Let me be clear: Scripture condemns homosexuality as a sin. And yet the United States has historically been a nation inhabited by Christians of all stripes committed to the biblical concepts of liberty and conscience. Even as the nation has become less Christian over the past fifty years, these commitments, shaped by centuries of Christian conviction and practice, have allowed for an environment in which the Sexual Revolution could occur, eventually leading to a cultural moment where Obergefell could exist.

It is important to contrast this orientation toward freedom and this emphasis on the individual following his conscience (an idea rooted in the Christian intellectual tradition) with the origins and practice of Sharia law, which underpinned Omar Marteen’s attack on a gay bar in Orlando.

In 632 AD, the prophet Mohammed died. Over the previous thirty years, he had formed a group of ragged nomads into an army. Their identity came from the series of divine revelations Mohammed recited, and their leadership instituted a new military expedition to conquer the world for Islam. As the Islamic Empire expanded across North Africa during the eighth century, cities were placed under the legal code Mohammed recited. This strict law code echoed the harshness of the desert. It defined permissible habits, forbidden practices, and cultural norms with the authority of divine revelation. The Quran contains these laws, and they remain the basis for the law codes of modern Saudi Arabia (where women cannot drive), Iran (where any non-conformists are imprisoned, tortured, or killed), and seemingly Western-friendly countries like United Arab Emirates (which just fined a Dutch tourist who reported being date-raped nearly $900 for having extra-marital sexual relations).

quranThe Quran teaches that Allah demands righteousness, and it then proceeds to define that righteousness rigidly. There is no room for different contexts, historical change, or recognizing different ideas of human freedom. At the same time, it is a compelling vision, inspiring adherents with the knowledge that they can participate in Allah’s project of establishing the global Caliphate. It appeals to a superficial sense of justice. We know pornography is wrong; we know adultery is wrong; we know stealing is wrong. Sharia promises to end all of these and replace sinful practices with external righteousness.

It is this theology, philosophy, and dream of cultural change that undergirds the young Islamic terrorist. He longs for a world of righteousness, to fight evil, to bring about anew world order. These hopes took Omar Marteen into a gay bar and prompted him to murder fifty individuals.

Where does that put us as twenty-first century Americans wrestling with this attack on our soil? It should prompt us to three realizations.

First, while as Christians and conservatives we may disagree with homosexual practices on solid grounds, we must defend the equal humanity and human dignity of homosexuals. There is no room for homophobia or for denying their humanity. We have both the Christian tradition and the Western tradition to draw upon to ground our recognition that, regardless of lifestyle choices, we all possess equal human value. The value of another does not come from his agreement with my position or his adoption of a certain creed; instead, he is infinitely precious because he is made in the divine image.

americaSecond, we need to recognize the constitutional responsibilities and freedoms regarding religion. America as a secular state is governed by the Constitution, which guarantees the right to private religious practice, expression, and association. This freedom is a vital one for Americans to uphold as a unique cultural good. And yet, it comes with limitations. America cannot survive unless the different religious identities within her recognize the legitimacy of other religious expressions. An Islam which follows the teachings of Mohammed yet also respects the practices of Christianity, Judaism, and atheism is an Islam which can flourish in America. The majority of cultural and practicing Muslims fit in this category; it is the minority which cannot join in the American experiment. An Islam which operates with murder is not an Islam we can permit within the public square of American life.

Thirdly, we must recognize the intellectual fervor and attraction of radical Islam. There is a strength and beauty to absolute claims; as a college student, I found Roman Catholicism attractive precisely because of its claim to be the correct expression of Christianity grounded in history, theology, and tradition. While I did not embrace that expression of Christianity, I recognize that its argumentative appeal is stronger initially than the Protestantism I embrace. I think the weakest part of Protestantism is its reliance on individuals reading Scripture correctly. In a sense, Catholicism has it easier: The Magisterium removes the possibility of misreading divine writ. And yet I believe that this is the position Scripture calls us to. I raise this example to highlight the strength of Western culture today. In the West, we value a multi-cultural experience unique in human history. That pluralism is both our glory and our shame. Radical Islam looks at the pluralistic West and argues that we have abandoned any adherence to truth, beauty, and goodness beyond materialism. In place of vapid consumerism, radical Islam upholds a coherent theological vision asking men to die for an ultimate Good.

The vision of radical Islam is not compatible with the western world. Christianity and the West are not identical, but in many places they are compatible. Christianity promises a vision of human flourishing which can exist within the secular state; radical Islam demands the death of the secular state and the enshrining of sharia as the public good.

Until we recognize the nature of our cultural enemy, we will continue to misdiagnosis the Omar Marteens of the world. Stronger gun laws will not prevent terror; celebrating gay rights will not stop homophobia; ethnic persecution of Muslims will only increase tragedy. Recovering a firm view of the good, the true, and the beautiful will accomplish two ends: It will give us a cultural ground on which to stand, and it will allow us to recognize that there are those in the world who oppose goodness, truth, and beauty, and that we are called to stand firm against them.

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Published: Jun 13, 2016
Josh Herring
Josh Herring is a Humanities Instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University's Great Books program. He has written for Moral Apologetics, Think Christian, and The Federalist; he loves studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.
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22 replies to this post
  1. Interesting perspective Mr. Herring. I don’t know enough about Islam to validate your argument, but it does strike me as a correct one. Bottom line for me is more fundamental: I am sick of Islam and all it stands for and would prefer they just lived at their end of the world. It’s been 15 years since 9/11, almost a third of my life. I’m tired of tolerating it.

  2. All good points. I would add to this:

    “America cannot survive unless the different religious identities within her recognize the legitimacy of other religious expressions.”

    A careful reading of Washington’s letter to the Hebrew congregation demonstrates that Washington explicitly noted that toleration was not the bedrock of religious freesom in America, only adherence to constitutional and republican law. In a seperate expression of his thought to the Quakers Washington derides their religion for keeping them out of military service, though concludes that on a whole, Quakers are excellent citizens so they can abstain from service not on account of religion, but because prudence dictates that a religion which makes excellent citizens of people in all respects but one ought to be preserved.

    My point is that religious freedom as understood by Washington (and I suspect not only him) was not rooted in tolerance and relativism but in prudence with a view to the relation of religion to excellent citizenship.

    This begs the question: does the Muslim religion as practiced in our day and age make for good citizens and does it deserve protection under the Constitution if it does not? Does the Constitution really exist to protect religions that wish to overthrow it?

  3. Just to be clear – in this article I distinguish between two different kinds of Islam. I think the kind of Islam which can tolerate other religious expressions can fit within the American experiment; expressions of Islam dedicated to destroying the public square and wiping out religious competitors cannot.

    • Thanks for the clarification, but your headline and many statements (like “this tragedy should force the western world to recognize that Islam does not lead to freedom”) are inflammatory and betray your argument that Christianity cultivates religious freedom.

  4. As a Muslim, I often enjoy articles on the IC but this is very disappointing. Firstly, the jury is still out on why the shooter did what he did. The latest news is that he himself may have been a repressed homosexual. Lesson: let’s wait till all the facts are in. Secondly, it’s a breathtakingly bad sketch of the Shariah. I suggest that if the author is going to write on something like this, he at least take the time to study a good academic introduction to the Shariah and appreciate at least some of its complexity. Muslims are massively diverse and the Shariah has been very accommodating of this diversity. It’s not as monochromatic as the author makes it out be. (As to Manny’s comment that he (she) would prefer Muslims to live at their end of the world, I’m sure many Muslims would love to do the same! But there was this little thing called colonialism, and there’s this other thing called imperialism, and then there’s the oil thing, and then there’s the Iraq war thing etc. – it seems that the West loves the other side of the world… and its kind of complicated matters.)

    • The problem re: Muslims seems to be the movement from a ‘moderate’ position to a ‘radical’ one. All that is required is for the ‘moderate’ to read particular passages in Islamic doctrine, engage a more radical interpretation of said passages and bingo-bango we have a Jihadi.

      Are we Constitutionally bound to ‘tolerate’ that capability in any religion?

    • What does colonialism and imperialism of over 100 years ago have to do with increasing the population of Muslims today in western countries? What does the middle east having oil to sell to the world(I assume the Islamic countries are very happy to sell it to us) have to do with increasing the Islamic population in western countries today? That’s all irrelevant. The motive and justification for immigration (and this goes for any host country in the world) is if the immigration is in the best interest of the host country. Period. if it is no longer in the host country’s interest for ewither immigration as a whole or a partial immigration from specific groups, then immigration should not occur. If it is deemed that the Islamic population poses a significant risk to host countries, then clearly the logical choice is to halt immigration of Muslims. Western countries don’t owe anyone the right to freely immigrate.

    • Auwais,

      The author is not required to paint a glowing picture of Sharia whether it is deserved or not. In a sense, Sharia would have already been “vetted” for any use, or benefits to mankind, and has been resoundingly rejected. As the essay points out Westerners are free individuals, and as such, have over the centuries “vetted” any manner of law or ideology. Our laws and customs are constantly evolving. Adopting this idea, or that, discarding what no longer works, and borrowing from others. Sharia may not be understood by the man on the street, but the west has enough scholars, Theologians, and other “thinkers” who would long ago have worked any elements into our society that might bring benefit. The free world has no use for Sharia, and it has nothing to do with “Islamophobia”, and everything to do with the fact that it is just a bad idea. Sharia is only possible in countries where it is imposed on it’s citizenry by autocratic theocracies. It is understandable why almost all Muslims will champion Sharia, because in oppressive cultures, ones efforts to advance the state imposed ideology is about the only way one may have influence, or advance their own standing. This is the very manner by which human nature in such cultures is corrupted, and what free people find offensive. Westerners reject Sharia because we understand it, and are free to do so.

    • One big problem is that your religion seems to be very thin skinned about criticism of any kind. Even the most gentle of critiques are met with screams of “Islamophobia”. Note there is no corresponding term in Christianity, there is no such thing as “Catholic-O-Phobia”, for example, indeed, Christians of all types are used to having their religious views trashed on a regular basis.

      • Exactly. Christianity has withstood the test of mockery, and criticism, by “free thinking” individuals, and still holds appeal under it’s own merit. Sharia, or Islam in general, has not yet been subjected to this same testing, while ever effort to do so, is instead silenced.

  5. This was an enlightening read.

    “Recovering a firm view of the good, the true, and the beautiful will accomplish two ends: It will give us a cultural ground on which to stand, and it will allow us to recognize that there are those in the world who oppose goodness, truth, and beauty, and that we are called to stand firm against them.”

    I’ve always appreciate the first end, but never really thought about the second end. Thanks for that.

  6. Fabulous reflection. I would only add that we as a nation need to embrace what makes our nation tick. We need to embrace the Constitution and as a nation stand in National solidarity. I love that we can embrace many people from many countries, but our unity must be our citizenship in the Untied States of America and all it stands for and sadly, I rarely see it expressed or even highlighted. Instead, we as a society are told, it’s our heritage that is important. This, in my opinion, separates us as a people even more than religious issues.

  7. I enjoyed this article, but there are two things that I’d like to point out:

    It is NOT illegal for a woman to drive in Saudi Arabia. The situation is more complicated. As in many things, we should check our sources. Consider people that have spent some time there to get a more realistic, less stereotypical picture. This points to the way we like to repeat what we hear without checking. It’s a bad habit that most of us have.

    Second, as I do not believe in homosexuality, really a clinical term, does that really make me a homophobe, another clinical term? During half-time, I invited a homosexual into my dorm room near the football stadium to dry off during a rain so bad that there were maybe a dozen of us in that half of the stands; I turned around and literally tried to get a count. I’m still against his life-style, but if I were against HIM, I would have let him soak and suffer. I’m a little sick of being put in a class supposedly guilty of homophobia because I don’t celebrate their life-style. The term is a trap set up for those who don’t like that life-style, including those who, like me, stick to the Bible.

  8. Awais:

    Let me preface by saying I had good Muslim friends as a teenager (from Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and have Muslim colleagues now from Syria.) I honor and respect them.

    So please understand and explain if you can one thing :

    The Polish people were just as much victims of Western colonialism and imperialism as Arabs were. In fact Poles sympathize with Palestinians who yearn for their own state because Poles were long in a similar situation .

    But you know how many Polish Catholic terrorists there have been ? Zero. Because Catholicism teaches to fight evil with good and to suffer like Christ suffered: loving your oppressor.

    There seems to be a problem with a certain branch of Islam which teaches to kill and destroy and this branch is gaining ground. What is the Muslim community doing to stop it?

    We all know the bad things the West needs to change but so long as people like this Orlando killer are around: self proclaimed Muslims whose US citizenship and heritage give them the opportunity to work for positive political change but who instead do this – so long Muslims will have a problem that Muslims must confront in their own communities. Where is the American Muslim condemnation of acts like this?

  9. Peter and Manny:

    I actually agree with Manny that Western countries have the right to be circumspect about who they take in- and that they are no obligation to do so. And that Muslims who wish to settle there need to respect the ethos and culture of their host countries.

    But there’s a broader issue. Nobody willingly wants to give up hearth and home and travel to a foreign country where they likely to meet with hostility. But it’s precisely because they feel forced to do so that they move and fundamentally we need to ask why they feel so compelled. Local and national political crises seem to be the obvious answer but these crises themselves are intricately connected to international politics and the global balance of power. And so, yes, we cannot ignore the lingering effects of colonialism as well as very obvious manifestations of neo-imperialism (the basically uncritical backing of Israel being a case in point). This is not a question of blaming the West (I abhor victimhood) and Muslim countries and others also carry the can for the present state of affairs. But we need to acknowledge that our countries with all their high-minded ideals and constitutions are also dripping in blood and global instability and turbulence is unfortunately inevitable.

    Peter: I don’t deny that there is a fringe element in Islam that is highly problematic. It’s worth bearing in mind that the majority of people who have suffered at the hands of this group are Muslims themselves. And it’s simply wrong to say that Muslims have not condemned acts like these. They have not only condemned the Orlando massacre but have also launched a fund for its victims.

    One also has to ask how one stops a mentally unstable ‘lone wolf’ who almost after the fact declares his affiliation to Isis- who even the FBI says has somewhat tenuous ties to this group? Is it fair to ask the Muslim community to be responsible for each and every random individual who does something terrible, apparently in the name of Islam?

    Peter and Manny: my post is actually not meant to be as combative as it sounds. My broader point is that we live in very unstable times obviously: there is growing economic inequality, an huge environmental crisis, and a massive erosion of the notion of community and family. The political crises (whether Orlando or the refugee crisis) are symptomatic of a deeper crisis we are facing, particularly in this age of neoliberalism. I firmly believe that while our various religions may have their principled theological differences, we share common ethical understandings that challenge the unrestrained greed and hollow view of human nature that underpins this deeper crisis. And so despite my disappointment with Mr Herring’s article, I agree with him when he says that we need to recover a firm view of beauty, truth and goodness.

    • What can I tell you Auwais. I or anyone living today had nothing to do with colonialism, even if that’s a contributing factor. I don’t see why anyone in this generation should have to pay for the sins of someone over four to ten generations ago. And frankly it has nothing to do with colonialism It’s what’s in the Koran and Hadith and Sharia and the life of Mohammed. That’s what the terrorists and Islamists are telling us, and from the experience of the last fifteen years, I believe them. The problem is a strict interpretation of Islam.

  10. Well, I would add one thing:

    When I run across articles/people on the internet/in real life who complain about Catholics (for pedophilia, burning people at the stake, etc etc and who are often very hostile to Catholicism or religion in general I always start out by a) agreeing because I too condemn pedophilia, burning people etc and b) lamenting that there may still be Catholics who put any aspect of the religion above its basic idea of universal love.

    If we are going to talk about crisis – look at our own religions. Catholics often do not make the effort to uphold the better aspects of their religion and certainly there is a problem with Muslims that goes far beyond being mean spirited or nasty.

    I guess what I am saying is that a big crisis we face today is the amount of people using religion as an excuse for their evil.

    I am sure that it pains you to see your religion so twisted as it pains me to encounter Catholics who are not good. The crisis is within our religions as well. You can see its fruits unfortunately .

    The US Constitution was not made to protect religious beliefs which run contrary to law and order. This is why pedophiles cannot hide under the frock and terrorists cannot hide in a Mosque.

    The government can and should regulate houses of worship where “worship” is actually the preaching of hatred and terror. After Orlando , I think that is clear. How many more people are going to have to die?

    As for a religious test for immigrants : President Obama is wrong. The constitution says there will be no religious test for citizens seeking public office. We already have immigrants fill out forms asking if they are associated with terrorists. It’s time to raise the bar.

    We have Visa laws which stipulate a waiver only if less than a certain % overstay their visas. Poles don’t qualify so despite being staunch American allies they need tourist visas while radical terrorists with French passports can come in without a visa.

    That is the definition of stupid.

    In Russia, Muslims have their own autonomous islamic republic in Chechnya. Grozny is a fully Muslim city. But they live in peace there partially because Russia demonstrated the alternative to them. We need to smarten up. Stop trying to overthrow Assad. The Syrian government is begging us not to take the mass migration but to help them defeat ISIS . But we are stupidly taking in migrants while helping destroy their home.

    There are no easy answers but getting NATO and the world to zero in on the real problem is necessary and getting Arabs and Muslims in general to do their part goes without saying.

    A moratorium on Muslim immigration to the West is a good idea. Look at Australia – they have the biggest shortages of people but are very careful about who to take in.

    Western elites just seem to hate their cultures and want to purposefully destroy them. How else do you explain keeping out those who are easy to assimilate while letting in those who are impossible to assimilate ?

  11. I suppose this was inevitable – that eventually the forces of “Islamophobia” and “homophobia” would smash headlong into each other. For the left wing, whose only form of “Sin” is “Intolerance”, this will cause real cognitive dissonance, after all, what form of “Phobia” will they blame this on?

  12. The writer’s good arguments are tainted when he opines that “there is no room for homophobia.” That is a word intended to portray those who don’t agree with the decrees of homosexual activists as mentally unsound and fearful of what they don’t understand. “Homophobia” is not a real condition and certainly has no clinical grounding. To use it is to play into the hands of the word’s inventor, George Weinberg, who was instrumental in establishing the idea that there are no grounds for objecting to homosexual behaviour (and that those who don’t think so are disordered).

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