The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Who is Being Hurt?

In a discussion, in reference to anti-dancing evangelical fanatics, I was asked: “Who are they hurting?” I sent a reply, which I would like to expand upon.

In part I think some confusion exists because many libertarians use the concept “harm” in two different ways. I “harm” you if I open I up a competing business to your own. I may actually do things so well I put you out of business. You are harmed, but no rights have been violated. I also can harm you by stealing your property, assaulting you, or denying you freedom. In those cases the harm violated your rights.

Much confusion began when John Stuart Mill explained his harm principle in On Liberty in 1859. Mill said, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” My problem with the concept of harm is that it is too subjective. Without the concept of rights, the concept of harm is so elastic as to justify almost anything.

Two fundamentalist Christians wrote a book defending their “right” to pass laws that regulate the private morality of others. The book, Legislating Morality, by Frank Turek and Norman Geisler, is rather popular in evangelical circles. It was hailed and endorsed by prominent evangelicals. It is a pathetically sad attempt to justify state interference in the lives of people who are not doing anything to violate the rights of others.

The book also showed pathetic scholarship — for instance they claimed Roger Williams signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Considering his birth date Williams would have lived to 173 years of age in order to sign the Declaration and 184 to sign the Constitution.

Turek and Geisler use the “harm principle” to justify state action. They believe being gay should be a crime because gays hurt other people. For instance, good Christian parents who discover their child is gay are emotionally hurt by the experience. They said: “There is also the psychological, emotional, and moral harm that those who choose to engage in homosexual acts inflict on others. For example, parents are hurt emotionally when their children choose the homosexual lifestyle.” That one statement has so many fallacies compacted into it that only an evangelical could manufacture it.

Evangelicals are offended by the very existence of LGBT people and they argue no one should “be allowed to bring psychological or emotional harm against you without punishment.” Of course, gay people hurt us all, they argue and allowing them their rights would “encourage such behavior among our children” and if “all of [our] children grew up and adopted the homosexual lifestyle” society would end. Of course, if they all grew up and became celibate society would end too but that doesn’t stop these same people from promoting celibacy.

What area of human existence would be free of state intrusion if this sort of “harm” were accepted as justifying state involvement? I am sure some Jewish parents were emotionally hurt when their children “found Jesus,” but it does not justify banning religious conversions. Clearly emotional “harm” ought not justify legal prohibitions or nothing would be legal.

It is thus possible for a libertarian to say something is dangerous, or harmful, as I do regarding evangelicalism, without saying it is, or should be, a crime. Much of the harm inflicted on people is done to themselves. They allow fundamentalist churches to harm them. This can be done in many ways. I allowed this to happen to me. I thank myself I had the wisdom and perseverance to get out of that cesspool of intolerance and close-mindedness. But the emotional pain I went through, at the time, was severe. The pain was quite real but the damage was done with my consent, albeit it I was young and rather naive at the time.

It is, however, critical that we keep an eye on these theocrats as they intend to inflict actual harm on others. They are not satisfied with preaching their “values” but intend on inflicting them on others through the pain of criminal sanctions when given the power to do so. And the entire purpose of today’s Republican Party is to give them just that power.

You would be hard pressed to find an evangelical church that doesn’t support censorship, laws regulating private sex acts between consenting adults, etc. Over and over I read Christians writing arguing gay marriage should be banned simply because these Christians believe “God established marriage as between one man and one woman.” Never mind the God of the Bible allowed polygamy and had no problem with child brides. They argue their private religious belief ought to serve as the foundation for the American legal system.

As far as I can tell this is true of the vast majority of born-again Christians to one degree or another. I recently made an effort to read some “Christian libertarian” sites. One so-called Christian libertarian simply avoided talking about the “culture clash” issues entirely. His libertarianism was all economic. The only references I could find to issues like same-sex marriage or homosexuality was somewhat insulting use of terms like “fairy” in his posts. Gary North calls himself a Christian libertarian yet believes sexual sinners, such as gays, should be stoned to death by their neighbors. He sees the killing as “private” and therefore not government and thus it qualifies as libertarian, in his biblically warped little mind.

North recognized his “libertarianism” is a threat to those he calls “humanists.” He wrote, “we need the noise of contemporary events to hide us from our humanist enemies who, if they full understood the long-term threat to their civilization that our ideas pose, would be wise to take steps to crush us.”

I have no doubt one could find a handful of evangelicals who are actually out and out libertarians. But, what does that prove? I saw a video of a hippo that adopted a family in South Africa. It would come and sleep on their porch, allow them to feed her, pet her, etc. From this experience does one conclude hippos are not dangerous? No. The exception does not invalidate the generality. Most evangelicals would happily strip you of freedoms given half a chance, damn few would be libertarians in the legitimate sense of the word.

I wouldn’t say this about Christians in general. While I think a certain amount of contradictory thinking is required by Christians in general, the mental gymnastics necessary for an evangelical to become a libertarian is such few ever manage. And the few I’ve met who might be libertarian complain their fellow believers find them odd and find “Christian libertarian” circles to be pretty lonely.

I’ve met the main leaders of the Christian Right over years, men such as Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson. I’ve followed the careers of most of them. I’ve studied their theology, attended their schools, attended one of their seminaries, and read histories of American evangelicalism. I can’t think of a similar group, which so uniformly opposes freedom as do evangelicals, outside of groups that identify themselves exclusively as being anti-freedom. So, I believe evangelicals are dangerous to liberty; therefore they deserve criticism. They have harmed me and you and every American, to varying degrees, by working to strip us of certain rights.

Evangelicals often inflict heavy emotional damage to their own adherents or to those unfortunate to be reared by “Christian” parents. Here is a story I read which corresponds with this. I saw this sort of psychological damage inflicted on many people who I knew in evangelical circles. Remember, I am not saying it should be banned, but it does deserve criticism. This is by Kelvin Lynch and recounts his experience within evangelicalism.

Shortly before I turned 14, my parents discovered my journal, and some pictures I had downloaded from the Internet (God Bless AOL). In my journal, I had finally come out to myself, using the word “gay” for the first time to describe myself. Knowing this about myself and that I would be rejected by my community, I had been living in utter terror. Needless to say, girls were mighty scarce in the pictures my parents found. What followed next was beyond the worst of the worst scenarios I had envisioned.

Overnight, my parents ceased to be the loving, supportive people they had been, and instead became extremely emotionally, verbally, and at times, physically, abusive. My family disintegrated before me, and I lost most of my friends. During the next several years, I went from one horror to another, all of them damaging. I was shuttled from one therapist to the next, eventually winding up at an organization called the National Association for Reparative Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH — they have since changed Reparative Therapy to Research and Therapy). Here, I was to be taught how to “suppress” my “homosexual tendencies” so that I could be normal. My parents were told that I would never be genuinely attracted to women, but that I could force myself into a heterosexual lifestyle. Suppression is unbelievably damaging, and adds to the pain suffered by many GLBT youth.

Mary Griffith’s book, Prayers for Bobby, recounts how she used her evangelicalism to torment her gay teenage son. She and her church wanted him to change and she never let up, pushing her “gospel” message at him because of his “sinful lifestyle.” Bobby’s diary was filled with passages describing the torment he felt. One day this young boy wrote:

I can’t ever let anyone find out that I’m not straight. It would be so humiliating. My friends would hate me. They might even want to beat me up. And my family? I’ve overheard them…. They’ve said they hate gays, and even God hates gays, too. Gays are bad, and God sends bad people to hell. It really scares me when they talk that way because now they are talking about me.

Bobby Griffith ended the torment by killing himself. Who are they hurting?

Does their preaching violate rights? No. It doesn’t. I didn’t say it did. Does their preaching hurt people? Yes. I stand by that.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.