I wanted to thank Blair Hodges for calling attention to an article we ran earlier this year by Professor Robert P. George.
Blair has been a frequent critic of the magazine, and we appreciate his engagement and efforts in drawing attention to the work we’re doing. As one of the pre-eminent political philosophers working today, Professor George’s decision to publish with us was a major sign of legitimacy.
Hodge’s article was, in many ways, perceptive. He noticed that Professor George, and by extension, many of our editors here, is concerned that many people, especially religious people, struggle to justify their beliefs about family, marriage, and sexuality through anything other than appeals to religious authority. (We kindly disagree that these positions are anti-LGBT+ as Blair describes them.)
And he’s right about that motivation. Church leaders have been very clear about the doctrine of the family for more than a generation, as we highlighted earlier this year. But where the cultural messaging on sexuality is so dominant, it’s easy for Latter-day Saints to feel overwhelmed and struggle to explain to others why they accept what prophet leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ teach what they do.
And Hodges is right that we hope to make a difference in this regard with our work. But otherwise, his article falls into the same traps of many before him that George and others have largely dealt with.
Conflating “Hyper-Individualism” with “Expressive-Individualism”
Hodges attempts to address George’s concern with individualism. But he makes a category error.
Individualism, as Hodges uses it, seems to be a synonym for selfish. Individualism, as George uses it, means how we define the individual. These are two substantially different concepts.
On this basis, Hodges raises concerns about hyper-individualism (hyper-selfish)—pointing out this issue is no more relevant to LGBT+ issues than to anyone else. That’s a fine argument to make, but it really has nothing to do with the point George makes.
His point being, how we define the individual is of crucial importance to issues of sexuality. Because today the predominant cultural approach to defining the self is expressive individualism.
Expressive individualism is a philosophy that holds that who we are is defined by what we feel we are at our psychological core. And that the greatest good is expressing that psychological core to the world, including through our behavior.
As described by Carl Trueman in his recent book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, this idea has its roots in the work of Romantic philosophers like Jean-Jaques Rousseau and like-minded poets, literary figures, and artists of the 18th and 19th centuries, but largely took off in the 1960s at the beginning of the sexual revolution.
Expressive individualism has substantially become our culture’s default approach to defining identity. But many Christians push back on this idea as we choose to make our central identities based on a different foundation.
As articulated by President Nelson in a recent devotional for young adults, he explained that the three identities we should prioritize (and not allow to be obscured) are 1) Child of God 2) Child of the Covenant 3) Disciple of Christ
As Latter-day Saints, then, we choose to make those our central identities and base our choices on that foundation.
Hodges also suspects that “queerness would be less ‘central’ to a person’s identity the less social pressure and regulation they’d face about it.”
But what does Hodges mean by less central? If identity powerfully influences the choices we make, then the less central an identity, the less influence it has over our choices. These choices include why, how, when, and with whom someone has sexual relations. Prioritizing disciple of Christ and child of the covenant as identities, as Russell M. Nelson suggests, would lead to different choices about sex than prioritizing sexuality as identity.
Love and Disagreement
One of Hodges’ main requests is that George “spent more time saying how a person can be loving towards someone while also condemning an important part of their identity.” In our view, this is a tired argument in an already wearisome conversation. Sexuality is not an inevitably central part of identity.
Our editorial team falls across the political spectrum. In each of our lives, we have people who love us despite having serious concerns with that political part of our identity. Our editorial team are all Latter-day Saints. In each of our lives, we have people who love us despite harboring serious questions about the important religious part of our identity. We’ve also felt loved by people who thought it was a dangerous and outdated idea not to have sex until marriage, constituting an important part of all our sexual identities. But Hodges’ argument suggests it’s somehow impossible to love someone while having honest concerns about how they prioritize the sexual part of their identity.
But of course, it’s not. Not only is it possible, but Christian believers are under clear command to love those we disagree with.
It’s those who demand “you can’t love me unless you agree with my paradigm for identity” that are preaching an extreme and radically alternative approach to tolerance in a pluralistic society, not those who say, “I love you, but I disagree.” That has been the durable default of pluralistic tolerance that has helped make our diverse nation possible.
Race and Sexuality
Blair also goes to the old tired well of comparing race and sexuality. This is a comparison that many civil rights activists have rejected.
Dr. Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece, and William Avon Keen, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Virginia, the organization Martin Luther King Jr. started, have rejected the connection between sexuality and race in civil rights.
In fact, George takes on Blair’s point at length in his article in Harvard’s Journal of Law and Public Policy:
Revisionists today miss this central question—what is marriage? when they equate traditional marriage laws with laws banning interracial marriage. … But the analogy fails: antimiscegenation was about whom to allow to marry, not what marriage was essentially about; and sex, unlike race, is rationally relevant to the latter question. … Opponents of interracial marriage typically did not deny that marriage (understood as a union consummated by conjugal acts) between a black and a white was possible any more than proponents of segregated public facilities argued that some feature of the whites‐only water fountains made it impossible for blacks to drink from them. The whole point of antimiscegenation laws in the United States was to prevent the genuine possibility of inter-racial marriage from being realized or recognized, in order to maintain the gravely unjust system of white supremacy. By contrast, the current debate is precisely over whether it is possible for the kind of union that has marriage’s essential features to exist between two people of the same sex.
This is a trap Blair falls into when quoting Taylor Petrey’s work on race and sexuality in church history. No one denies that people of different races could get married, just whether or not they should. The question about same-sex marriage is entirely different. It asks what marriage is. And then considers whether a same-sex union could even meet that definition.
What is Marriage?
And this is ultimately the question that Blair skips in his article. What is marriage? He leaves this question out, perhaps hoping his readers will simply rely on the cultural norm in defining it when he says, “To me, basic gospel principles like faith, hope, and charity—as well as more generalized values like respect, commitment, and service—can just as easily (or with as much difficulty) play out in relationships beyond the heterosexual binary.” This is true as far as it goes, but it suggests that because same-sex relationships can be equal in respect and service that they are both marriages. But that only works if you define marriage as a relationship of respect and service.
Marriage is obviously more than that.
Many see the difference between other relationships and marriage again in terms of expressive individualism—that marriage is an ultimate expression of your inner self. Those who see marriage in this way would also be inclined to see unions between opposite-sex partners as definitionally equivalent to unions between same-sex partners because both express important inner desires of the individuals in them.
But Latter-day Saints see marriage differently.
Latter-day Saints believe in the centrality of the body to our eternal progress. And families are the most important way to help create and raise new children with those bodies. Those bodies only exist because of a specific sex act. It makes sense then to make that sex act normative in the creation of families to support those children and to unify the partners who raise those children.
Hodges is free to believe whatever he wants about marriage. But The Church of Jesus Christ teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman who become one flesh. He cites a changing understanding that marriage can exist between people of the same sex. Since the Church of Jesus Christ teaches differently, we hope that unofficial Latter-day Saint voices like Public Square Magazine and By Common Consent find additional ways to engage with the doctrine as it is and help members better understand it.
Thanks again for the engagement, Blair!
Editor’s Note: This article previously read, “Blair is friends with many of the founders and writers here at Public Square Magazine.” While he knows many of the founders and writers socially, he reached out to clarify that “he would not characterize any of the PS founders or writers as his friends.” The article has been updated to reflect his clarification.