Thursday, May 28, 2009

Whom are they hurting?

In a discussion on this site one of our readers, in reference to the anti-dancing church fanatics, asked: Who are they hurting? In a short reply I made a reply which I would like to expand upon.

In part I think some confusion exists because of the way some libertarians use the concept "harm" in two different ways. I "harm" you if I open I up a competiting business to your own. I may actually do things so well that 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 my harm has 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 any action.

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 fundamentalist circles. It was hailed and endorsed by prominent fundamentalists. It was 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 was also pathetic scholarship—for instance they claimed that Roger Williams signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Consider his birth date Williams would have to have lived to 173 to sign the Declaration and 184 to sign the Constitution.

Turek and Geisler use the "harm principle" to justify state action. They believe that 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 fallicies compacted into it that only a Christian fundamentalist could manufacture it.

Fundamentalist Christians are offended by the very existence of homosexuals and they argue than no one should "be allowed to bring pyschological 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 that 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 that something is dangerous, or harmful, as I did regarding fundamentalism, without saying that it is 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. Thank myself that I had the wisdom and perserverance 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.

I believe fundamentalist Christianity is dangerous and harmful for several reasons. Part of the harm is that they tend to demand theocratic solutions to problems. Some are worse than others in this regard but you would be hard pressed to find a fundamentalist church that doesn't support censorship, laws regulating private sex acts between consenting adults, etc. Over and over I read Christians writing that gay marriage should be banned simply because these Christians believe "that God established marriage as between one man and one woman." Never mind that the God of the Bible allowed polygamy and had no problem with child brides. They argue that 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 yets believes that sexual sinners, like 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 that 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 that one could find a handful of Christian fundamentalists who are actually out and out libertarians. But what does that prove? I posted a video on this site 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 that hippos are not dangerous? No. The exception does not invalidate the generality. Most fundamentalists would happily strip you of freedoms given half a chance, damn few would be libertarians in the full 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 a fundamentalist to become a libertarian is such that few ever manage. And the few fundamentalists I've met who might be libertarian complain that 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 in recent years, men like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. I've followed the careers of most of them. I've studied their theology, attended their schools, attended their seminary, and read the history of American fundamentalism. I can't think of a similar group that so uniformly opposes freedom as do fundamentalists, outside of groups that identify themselves exclusives as being anti-freedom. So I believe they 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. They have done so, for the most part, in a non-violent way through the use of state power. In this sense they are like socialists who inflict damage on society via the coercive powers of the state.

But unlike socialists the fundamentalists often inflict heavy emotional damage to their own adherents or to those unfortunate to be reared by fundamentlist parents. Here is a stort that I read today which corresponds with this. I saw this sort of pyschological damage inflicted on many people who I knew in fundamentalist circles. Remember, I am not saying it should be banned, but it sure does deserve criticism. This is by Kelvin Lynch and recounts his own experience within fundamentalism.
I was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado--a hub of fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity. I went to private, Christian school most of my life, and was privileged to grow up in a family that resembled what so many Americans hope for. My parents were deeply concerned and loving--always acting in the best interest of their children. Always, that is, until shortly before my fourteenth birthday.

I had known from an early age that I like other boys, but it wasn't till I hit 11 or 12 that I realized that this fact made me different from the other kids I grew up with. At the time, I belonged to a religious denomination that harshly condemned homosexuality, and for the next several years I struggled in the fear that I was an evil person because I was attracted to other boys, and that I would burn in Hell because of this. It was a very difficult time in my life, and unfortunately, things got progressively worse.

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.

I found myself at the young age of 15 having to choose between extensive, willful psychological damage, or being who I was. I had long ago realized that being gay was a fundamental part of who I am, like my height or skin tone, and not a changeable aspect. I had been suffering in a horrifically abusive environment (trust me, having your very Christian mother declare that she wishes she had aborted you, among other things, does some irrevocable harm to a kid). I also came to terms with how I felt about my homosexuality. Misunderstood by many, being gay isn't about sex or choice, it's about who you are attracted to, physically, emotionally, romantically, and spiritually. We all seek out love-relationships, because, "loving deeply in one direction, allows us to love more deeply in all directions". In this quest for Love, the most noble of all human acts, I understood that if God would condemn two people for loving each other, than I would willfully disobey Him. A God who condemns love, however it is found, is not a God that I will serve. I hold Love (God is Love) above any human idea of what God is.

I chose Love--to be who I am and to stand for my Right to Freedom. What followed next were traumatizing periods in my life: drawn out legal battles, homelessness, drug addiction, struggling, major depression, suicidal thoughts, and pain upon pain. Little by little, over the next 12 years, I picked up the pieces of Ryan, melted them down, and forged a new self. This experience was by far the most trying I expect to personally live through, but it has had a permanent, lasting impact in every area of my life. I survived because of sheer determination, luck, friends, and God's protection. The Ryan you know now could easily have died many times in many ways in the past decade, and it is a testament to the miraculous nature of God that I'm still alive, let alone somewhat functional.

Mary Griffith's book, Prayers for Bobby, recounts how she used her fundamentalist faith 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. And I could fill many columns with proof but these two should be enough.