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Privacy, Tolerance, and Social Morality

Greenville, South Carolina, located in the deep south Bible belt, and home to Bob Jones University, has only fairly recently experienced the homosexual revolution.

  • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D.,
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Greenville, South Carolina, located in the deep south Bible belt, and home to Bob Jones University, has only fairly recently experienced the homosexual revolution. On April 19, 1996 Greenville's first ever "Gay Rights" march was held — encouraged, directed, and attended by Atlanta and Charlotte gay rights advocates. Even the conservative South and fundamentalist dominated cities are not immune to the moral decline and degradation of our culture. Having experienced the birth of these tragic moral events in my city, I thought it might be of historical and theological interest to the readership of the Chalcedon Report.

A firestorm of controversy exploded in Greenville over a May 21, 1996, County Council resolution regarding homosexuality. The controversial resolution reaffirmed "established state laws regarding gay lifestyles" by stating that "lifestyles advocated by the gay community should not be endorsed by government policy makers." As one who supports the resolution and current state laws prohibiting homosexual conduct, I would like to respond to some of the charges, both local and national, being hurled against evangelical Christians and social conservatives. The same sorts of charges have recently been levied against Cobb County, Georgia, Spartanburg, South Carolina, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and other localities that have adopted similar resolutions.

Several prominent Greenville opponents of the resolution called the resolution "restrained" (Beth Padgett, Deputy Editorial Page Director, Greenville News) and a "mild expression" (Tom Inman, Editorial Page Editor, Greenville News). Yet at the same time they and several others have vigorously attacked it as "intolerant," an "invasion of privacy," "disrespectful of diversity of opinion," and a "senseless government intrusion." Well over a hundred letters to the editor, dozens of counter resolutions by liberal churches, the Chamber of Commerce, Furman University, and other organizations, and numerous public pronouncements have lashed out at the County Council and its resolution.

Unfortunately, the whole controversy is a study in muddled ethical thinking, contradictory assertions, sloganeering, and outlandish charges. The resolution, though deemed "mild" and "restrained" by the editors of the local paper, has been ridiculed as: "a breach of the separation of church and state," "Nazism," "menacing authority," "an atrocity," "right-wing extremism," "poisonous," "ayatollah-like," "warped," "a return to the dark ages," "frightening," "appalling," "a witch hunt," and more. Consequently, the dispute exposes our inability to think through moral issues. But public socio-political discourse is not the place for such moral confusion.

So for these reasons, even if for no other, the methodology of the moral charges levied against the council statement demand careful analysis. I will focus on the two highly charged issues so prominent in the debate both locally and nationally: privacy and tolerance.

The Right to Privacy
Those who fear this resolution as an "invasion of privacy" by "senseless government intrusion" seem unaware of current legal realities. The resolution did little more than reaffirm current South Carolina state law. What is more, government is already (and necessarily) involved in private moral concerns. The libertine ideal that asserts the primacy and inviolability of privacy rights has never existed in America. We have many laws restricting the private acts of consenting adults, including laws against polygamy, prostitution, incest, illegal drug use, bestiality, consensual sado-masochism, suicide, and more.

We also have anti-privacy laws demanding compulsory education, overriding private family convictions regarding medical treatment (e.g., forced blood transfusions), forbidding cruelty to animals, and so forth. Privacy is only one value among many other competing values. At points of collision, privacy values must give place to other values such as justice, security, and human life.

Private morality cannot be a matter of public indifference. If civil law fails to witness against the abnormality of homosexual conduct, then governmental authority will allow a progressive degeneration of moral values in society. This is detrimental to society's moral stability, government's legal substructure, the dignity of human life, the monogamous foundation of all civilized societies, the ability of parents to raise their children in a stable moral environment, and more. The issues relative to privacy are of gigantic proportions and poorly understood.

The Toleration of Diversity
The call for "tolerance" is a moral demand. That being the case, it must come from within a particular moral system. And the system that best supports and gives meaning to public, universal, invariant moral principles must be recognized and defensible. This, then, requires public moral discourse that cannot preclude the Christian system at the outset, as so many try to do. In fact, on historical grounds this "one nation under God" that asserts "In God we trust" should not disallow Christian moral values. The U. S. Supreme Court has noted in Zorach v. Clauson that "we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being" (343 U.S. 306 [1952]). Neither may the Christian sit idly by, for he must "have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them" (Eph. 5:11).

In addition, though the term is carelessly tossed about, "toleration" has limits. Those limits must be defined by moral considerations, not loud assertions. The tolerance of all opinions would lead to moral relativism, which would undermine a stable and just society. Tolerance also becomes self-refuting in that it destroys any and all moral objection to any actions, including the call to tolerance. The very existence of an orderly society of men and laws militates against absolute moral toleration. Social rectitude and civil justice, rather than absolute tolerance or maximum personal freedom, should be the goals of the civil order.

The issue of civil legislation discouraging homosexual conduct is not a question of whether values will be imposed, but whose values. All law necessarily involves the imposition of values (we have different values from cannibals, for instance), or else laws are merely suggestions. Law is always an imposition of someone's religious values, in that all law is rooted in morality, and morality is based on ideas of ultimacy and value that are intrinsically religious conceptions. Consequently, all law is fundamentally religious in character. Historical evidence of this has been noted by the Supreme Court in Abington v. Schempp (374 U.S. 203 [1963]): "Nearly every criminal law on the books can be traced to some religious inspiration."

Greenville County Council's resolution is justified as a concern for the moral well-being of the community. This concern is warranted not only by America's continuing moral decline in general, but by recent national debate seeking to expand homosexual influence by legally endorsing same gender marriages. As Edmund Burke warned long ago: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

  • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D.

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., holds degrees from Tennessee Temple University (B.A.), Reformed Theological Seminary (M. Div.), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th. M.; Th. D).  He also attended Grace Theological Seminary for two years.  He is Research Professor in New Testament (Whitefield Theological Seminary), a theological writer, and conference speaker. He has written numerous books and articles on issues such as theology, ecclesiology, eschatology, theonomy, six-day creation, presuppositionalism, worldview, Christian education, and more.  He also offers a Christian writing correspondence course.  He is the Director of GoodBirth Ministries, a non-profit religious educational ministry committed to sponsoring, subsidizing, and advancing serious Christian scholarship and education.  He is a retired Presbyterian minister holding his ordination vows in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Assembly.

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