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The cross and the rainbow
What the changing status of Christian and LGBTQ+ movements tells us about liberalism, tolerance and the tyranny of majorities
Ostensibly, Christian and LGBTQ+ movements are very different. The first is a religion; the second is a group of sexual and gender minorities. Historically, the two have been antagonistic, certain Christians censuring LGBTQ+ identities and lifestyles. Notwithstanding these differences, the changing societal positions of both movements tell us much about the foundations of liberalism and tolerance. In this essay, I argue that the attitudes of both movements towards opposition hinges upon relative strength. When either group achieves high levels of public sympathy, the rights of dissenters tend to be threatened, presenting challenges to liberalism and evoking longstanding debates about the power of majorities.
The development of liberalism and tolerance are bound up with Christianity. Though some argue that there is a liberal essence of Christianity, reflecting Pauline emphasis upon individuals, others contend that liberalism was a reaction to Christianity. According to this position, the emergence of liberalism reflected tiredness with religious wars; thinkers such as Locke wrote in the shadow of the Thirty Years War. At times, liberalism has had an uneasy relationship with Christianity. In societies which were predominantly Christian, liberalism defended the rights of those who dissented from certain Christian doctrines. Initially, this was religious minorities and freethinkers. Later, this was LGBTQ+ people.
Christian history shows us that tolerance reflects numbers. When they are majorities, Christians tend to adopt belligerent attitudes towards dissent. Denominations such as Anglicism and Catholicism have been particularly associated with this, reflecting majority status and links with the state. Contrastingly, nonconformists have tended to value freedom of speech, reflecting minority status. Though the US Constitution embodies such values, emigrants to the country having fled state religions, American Christians have sometimes been less tolerant to others, reflecting dominant positions. Path dependence is relevant and sometimes supersedes numbers, certain traditions being more or less conducive to tolerance. For example, early modern English Presbyterians were a minority, yet joined persecutions of sects.
This brings us to the LGBTQ+ movement. Though LGBTQ+ is not an ideology and individuals hold different attitudes, these groups have been associated with liberal positions. This reflects the minority status of LGBTQ+ people and negative attitudes in wider societies; as with religious minorities, liberalism is attractive in such circumstances. But in recent decades, the situation has changed. In modern societies, majorities tend to adopt liberal values. Whilst LGBTQ+ groups remain minorities, there have been key attitudinal shifts; most people accept LGBTQ+ identities and lifestyles, support being strong among elites. In some regards, advocacy of LGBTQ+ groups resembles historical support for Christianity. As in religious societies, the symbols of LGBTQ+ groups increasingly penetrate the public sphere, corporate and police use of the rainbow flag being notable. Though Christianity is ostensibly different – in theory, everyone can be a Christian and many societies have high reported rates of belief – the extent to which majorities are actual believers is debatable. Daniel Dennett notes that certain societies have ‘belief in belief’, rather than high levels of actual belief. The symbols of belief pervade such societies, echoing the contemporary prevalence of LGBTQ+ symbols.
Consequently, the aims of LGBTQ+ groups have become more ambitious. Much of this is laudable, these groups deserving equal rights and social acceptance. But in certain spheres, liberal standards have been strained. Transgender rights are a notable area. In recent years, activists have campaigned for reforms which reflect transgender identities, notwithstanding the contested nature of these identities. As Helen Joyce notes, there is a tension between certain positions and liberalism; transgender activists ask others to accept their identity, raising issues of freedom of conscience. The language of transgender activists even resembles certain Christians (‘trans people are who they say are’; ‘Jesus was who he says he was’). In Western societies, it has been many years since people were forbidden from disputing the divinity of Christ. Resultingly, many liberals worry.
Changing attitudes towards LGBTQ+ groups underscore another tension in liberalism. Though liberalism advocates tolerance, the ideology also promotes autonomy; several liberal theorists are concerned with self-realization. This also explains the popularity of liberalism among LGBTQ+ groups, sexuality and gender identity being central to autonomy. Historically, there has been no conflict with tolerance, yet recent developments have exposed a fault line. As majorities have advocated the right of LGBTQ+ people to autonomy, those who dissent (many of whom are Christians) have faced backlash. Resultingly, liberals have been forced to choose between tolerance and autonomy.
Thus far, many liberals have chosen autonomy, attitudes towards those who disapprove of LGBTQ+ identities and lifestyles becoming austere. This is part of a wider trend of liberal intolerance, surveys showing rising liberal support for censorship. These attitudes are prevalent among the young, suggesting that such trends will endure. Though liberal societies cannot tolerate certain forms of intolerance - this is the Popperian paradox of tolerance - it is difficult to argue that disapproval of LGBTQ+ identities and lifestyles is an existential threat to liberal democracy. Rawls had related reservations, arguing that just societies must tolerate the intolerant.
Though predicting future trends is notoriously difficult, these trajectories seem established. In Western societies, Christians are set to remain minorities. Given this, Christians will continue to emphasize freedom of speech. Admittedly, parts of Christianity lie in tension with this. Aside from biblical injunctions against blasphemy, some Christians adopt authoritarian cultural positions. Such authoritarians tend not to be genuinely committed to liberal freedoms, denying them to others. Notwithstanding this, Christianity is famously supple, believers combining it with numerous ideologies. And there are biblical mandates for freedom of speech.
Public attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people will remain positive, probably improving. In these circumstances, most LGBTQ+ groups will probably emphasize autonomy over tolerance. Admittedly, there will be exceptions. The transgender issue inspires discord, certain LGB groups disagreeing with the established movement. Given their minority status, at least thus far, these groups are committed to tolerance.
There are challenges for liberals. A liberalism which emphasizes autonomy over tolerance is possible, the ideology having multiple varieties. But whether this is in the spirit of liberalism is another question. Early liberals were preoccupied with the ‘tyranny of the majority’, worrying that the onset of democracy would diminish individual rights. This was prescient; in democracies in which Christianity is strong, there have been threats to the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people. In countries such as Poland, these pressures endure. Yet Western countries face inverse challenges, associated with the rise of liberal values. Confronting the power of majorities is always difficult; by definition, it entails defending unpopular positions. But if individuals do not have the right to express different opinions, even ones which are offensive to majorities, liberalism is diminished.
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