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If you’ve been monitoring our little blog lately, you know that I’ve been concerned about a trend towards social tyranny. Social tyranny is often called the tyranny of the majority. Social tyranny is a kind of shunning where those who don’t tow the ideological line are ostracized or made very very uncomfortable if they don’t just shut up. Here’s what philosopher and statesman John Stewart Mill thought was so dangerous about it:

[Society] practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.

We Christians have certainly done our fair share of social tyranny. And as I wrote a while back that sort of power has a way of cutting both ways:

Democracy is however a double-edged sword that swings viciously with every new election cycle. One can enjoy the heady call of war when one is part of the majority. One can treat the outliers like wayward parishioners who need a stern talking to and a hopefully a hug to enter back into the fold. Not anymore. The sword of Damocles has swung against the late moral majority. Democracy has moved on past the fad of Christian America. 

In recent post on the first openly gay NFL draftee Michael Sam, Matt Walsh voices the feelings of Christians who are feeling the subtle poke of the social tyranny sword:

Nothing is acceptable but complete and total adherence to the prevailing cultural dogma. You are only allowed to think a certain way about these kinds of things. Any thought, or statement, or phrase, or utterance that deviates from the zeitgeist by even the slightest degree will earn you the label of homophobic bigot, and that’s just all there is to it.


Social tyranny admits of no nuance of sentiment or opinion. Recently at a faculty meeting at my university, there was a proposed resolution that the faculty support a LGBT group on the campus of my Franciscan Catholic university. We were asked to vote on a show of support for the Gay and Lesbian education organization on campus. last time I checked the Catechism of the Catholic Church considers homosexuality disordered:

Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

So this resolution put the Catholics in our faculty in a bit of bind. I admit it put me in one too. Why? well because as a member of a prophetic minority in the world, how should I respond to this call for my approval? I suggested that the resolution be amended to say that as a faculty we fully support the right of the group to meet on campus. A nuanced position sure. But here’s the thing, I was met with grumbles for my conciliatory suggestion. I haven’t been on the receiving end of mild social disappointment very much  but I think I might have experienced  what the cool kids are calling micro-aggression.

The nuance of my position was met with subtle disapproval. I also risked my quiet place in the status quo when I voiced my concern about the “Safe Program” where faculty could designate their offices as safe places for gay and lesbian students. I worried aloud that the rainbow stickers on the doors designating them “safe” would serve as a marker for who was “gay friendly” and who wasn’t. In other words, the “in group” and the “out group” (pun intended). I worried that there was no nuance in that signal. I’m safe. Furthermore, I worried that the stickers would signify “safe” as those who approve and by extension subtly imply those who don’t approve are not “safe.”  As Walsh said, you are only allowed to have certain thoughts about these things. Either you are safe or you are probably a bigot. In a social tyranny, no nuance is allowed. This may not be true. I may be paranoid about the safe program. My fears were dismissed. “Its just what they call the program across the country.” No reason for me to worry. I haven’t done any research about such things other than anecdotal evidence.

For this Protestant, dear reader, the irony is that the nuance is found in catechism of the Catholic church for the next line after the one about homosexuality being “disordered” says:

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.

This is the kind of nuanced response that almost every Christian I know wants to make loud and clear. I can be respectful, compassionate, sensitive and might I add loving and safe without my full throat-ed praise of of something the Bible does not approve of. But that sort of distinction is increasingly drowned out by social tyrants like the gay activist quoted in Jonathan Rausch’s piece “Freedom to Marry and Freedom To Dissent: Why We Need Both”

As one advocate recently put it, “It would be enough for me if those people who are so ignorant or intransigent as to still be anti-gay in 2014 would simply shut up.”

The addition of the word “right” to the resolution supporting the LGBT group wasn’t an attempt to weasel. I often refer to rights in my classes as the “nuclear option” in ethics. If you have a right, then no amount of social disapproval means we can silence you. In fact, once a right is evoked, I can defend you with a clear conscience since I can defend the right without defending the content of your actions.

But how can Christians defend rights to speak or practice without defending the sentiments expressed? I maintain we have to seriously consider what it means to be a prophetic minority. In the past Christians have employed the same tactics now being used against them. Take an example recently from Harvard University. A group of “satanists” wanted to perform a rendition of Anton Lavey’s black mass in Memorial Hall on campus. Ordinarily the black mass consists of perverting the Catholic mass in a mock rite of total self-excommunication.–a sort of “I’ve gone too far to go back” expression of abandonment of Christianity. I say “satanists” because this group doesn’t even believe in the Satan. If you ever read the Satanic Bible what you find is not a worship of Satan but rather an amalgam of Post Nietzschean angst and some really bad history and philosophy poured into a literary construct. Nevertheless I am uneasy about the black mass. Of course, that’s because I think Satan exists and we do not joke around about the prince of this world. I agree with my friend and Crux contributor Ben Dyer:

Its advocates tell us that they value individualism and resistance to authority, and that Satan is a kind of incidental literary figure who embodies these traits. We are to imagine him (and they by extension) as the cool Mephistopheles, the rebel, the loner, the bad boy who gets the best lines. Satan is all these things, but he is something more besides. He is evil.He is a liar, a corrupter, an accuser, and the enemy of both God and humanity. Individualism and resistance to authority might be celebrated in any number of ways that society finds distasteful (and such celebrations are frequently found so).  It may be that most of us think as Jefferson did that if Satanists do not break our leg or pick our pocket, then they can left to their own infernal devices. But if we do, it is not tolerance that inspires our permissiveness, but apathy.

I don’t think our tolerance of these events have to be inspired by apathy, however. Memorial Hall where this act of defiance isn’t a chapel. When pressured the group of satanists agreed to not use a piece of the Eucharist. They even agreed to simply read the ceremony decked in their black robes. However, a group of almost exclusively Catholics on campus pressured the administration to prevent the event. When the satanists humbly moved to a new venue at a club across town, that club was pressured and backed out at the last minute so the group had no venue at all. Now no laws were broken. Nobody’s first amendment rights were violated, but still, its a shame it ended like it did. I think the Christians lost an opportunity to bear witness and minister just outside the event when they resorted to social tyranny rather than social engagement. Someone could have reminded them that trying to get beyond God’s love and grace by turning communion upside down is about as effective trying as to blot out the sun by writing darkness on the wall.

The right model was suggested by our own Don Veinot when a church was figuring out how to respond to a bunch of youth doing live-action role-playing as vampires in a local park. Don illustrates the power of engagement over tyranny:

I suggested to the Senior Pastor that the church put on a cook out or dinner in a neutral setting and invite the whole group to join them. Even to let the Vampires put on a role play of demonstrating how they see  church and then engage in some conversation. The pastor declined. He thought the Christians would be too offended. Somehow using bull horns to blast non-believers is okay but possibly finding out what the non-believers think of Christians might be offensive.

There are so many things the Christians at Harvard could have done rather than simply tolerate or turn a blind eye, and none of them would have been seen as majority religion using its influence to stomp on a gathering. But for many, that is a nuance too far. And that is a shame.


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