An Evangelical Philosopher on LGBT Rights

Calm discussions of “hot button” issues are rare, but I am having this opportunity now. Matt Flannagan is a distinguished evangelical philosopher who has written a number notable works, including Did God Really Command Genocide?, with Paul Copan. I have enjoyed a number of very interesting discussions with him on a wide variety of topics, and have always found his comments to be logical, informed, and civil (Getting even one of these three in an Internet discussion is, alas, rarer than it should be.). I recently asked him some questions about his views of LGBT rights and he responded at length. These issues are too important to be buried in a comments box, so I am posting our conversation here. I asked him five questions, which I will give with his replies. His replies are in bold. Below these I will give my replies immediately after each of his responses.


Just to be clear, please tell me which of the following propositions you accept and which you reject. A brief explanation of why would also be appreciated. Thanks.

1) It is a legitimate expression of religious freedom to exclude LGBT people from employment, housing, adoption rights, medical service, employee partner benefits, and service by government officials on the basis of “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Keith, thanks for your questions, I’ll do my best to answer them honestly, some of my answers are tentative.

 Re 1), there are a lot of different situations falling under the umbrella descriptions you have articulated, and I think some of them would probably be legitimate and some would not. Let me give some examples:

Consider employment, in many cases, it wouldn’t be legitimate to discriminate regarding employment. I can’t see any valid religious reason, for example ,why a person would refuse to hire a plumber because he was Gay.

 In other cases things are different, for example, a Catholic church might not want to hire a person in an active same-sex relationship for the priesthood, and a religious school might want to hire people whose lives involve practising the disciplines they teach and so forth.

 Similarly, regarding housing, I think if a person refused to provide shelter in a snow storm to a Gay person because he would be Gay that would be abominable. However, I can imagine cases for example where a deeply religious person refuses potential patrons to bed and breakfast because they are on the first night of their honeymoon and want to consummate their same-sex marriage in the room. I think compelling them to do this would essentially demand them to be complicit in an action their religion forbids.

 In health care, there can be cases where a person refuses to offer health care services as a legitimate expression of freedom of religion, such as a Catholic doctor refusing to perform and abortion or be involved in assisted suicide, which I see no reason wouldn’t extend to say offering sex change surgery. On other occasions, refusing for example to treat a Gay person who is bleeding to death with immediate life-saving treatment would be illegitimate. So again it depends on the case.

 Reply: Yes, there are situations where employers can legitimately “discriminate.” The Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, for instance, can legitimately refuse to hire males. Making such distinctions in employment seems to come down to the question of whether the distinction is relevant to the performance of the job. For instance, the Pope would need to be Catholic. I take it, then, that you would not be averse to laws that would prohibit discrimination in cases where sexual orientation or transgender status is irrelevant. If so, however, you are setting yourself against other evangelicals, who most definitely think that, e.g., the Christian owner of a plumbing company could legitimately appeal to “sincere religious convictions” to refuse to hire a gay plumber.

The case of the bed and breakfast is less clear. I am old enough to remember when many devout Christians thought that interracial marriage was a sin, and southern states even criminalized it as “miscegenation.” Indeed, a woman who bore a mixed-race child was subject to criminal penalties. What is the difference between refusing to let a room to a honeymooning mixed-race couple and a honeymooning same-sex couple? It cannot be that the latter but not the former is based on sincere religious conviction because, at one time, at least, interracial marriage was considered plainly against God’s law. It still is in some quarters. So, renting to same-sex honeymooners might indeed offend the sincere religious convictions of the B & B owner, just as renting to an interracial couple might have fifty years ago.

Tough. Sincere religious convictions do not always deserve respect. When they condemn something that is not objectively harmful, like interracial or same-sex marriage, such convictions should be scorned. Whether they should be dealt with by criminal or civil penalties, or by public shaming would be decided on a case-by-case basis.

2) Restaurants and other business establishments open to the public should be allowed to withhold service from African-Americans on the basis of race.

Re 2) I think the situation you describe is morally abhorrent and I would be opposed to a person doing this. I’ll say a couple of things, however. First, it can’t be wrong simply because it involves racial discrimination. Because I can think of cases where racial discrimination, by itself, isn’t wrong. For example, an Irish pub which wants to make an authentic environment might hire only Irish people, and that seems to me benign. I suspect what makes it wrong is the reasons people have historically discriminated against African Americans.

 Second, the fact some form of discrimination is morally wrong or arbitrary by itself doesn’t mean it should be illegal. I noted above that we already tolerate all sorts of arbitrary and irrational discrimination in this context.

 People who open bars to the public, for example, can refuse to serve people for all sorts of silly reasons such as that they don’t have a tie or a collar, or they don’t like the look of them.

 It’s a truism to me that we don’t legally prohibit every moral or irrational action people might engage in. Whether we do or not depends on whether the evils prevented by suppressing the practise are greater than the evils involved in suppression. Whether this is true can differ in differing social/political contexts. I am inclined to think that in the kind of pre-civil rights era where racial segregation was culturally institutionalised, allowing people to discriminate in this way probably brought greater harm than prohibiting it did. Whether that’s true in every other social context, such as one where racist attitudes of this sort are held only be a tiny minority, and African Americans have plenty of options to go elsewhere, and the laws would prohibit and target lots of more benign cases is an open question to me and depends on the facts of the case.

 Reply: Ethnicity might be a relevant factor to work as a server in O’Doul’s Old Irish Pub. The question here is whether a pub, restaurant, or other such establishment should be free to refuse service to African Americans on the basis of race. Ethnicity may be relevant to who is hired to serve a beer, but how is it relevant to who can drink one? Sorry, but “No shoes, no shirt, no service” is not at all the same as refusing service on the basis of race. You abridge no one’s rights by requiring him to wear a shirt in your place of business. However, when you tell him that he is excluded from patronizing your business, one that is otherwise open to the public, for no reason other than his race, you are practicing an inherently invidious and socially deleterious form of discrimination. Someone excluded from service on that basis can rightly claim to have been publicly humiliated, degraded, and stigmatized. Shouldn’t such persons be allowed to file a lawsuit over such treatment?

3) Restaurants and other business establishments open to the public should be allowed to withhold service from LGBT people on the basis of their sexual orientation or transgender status.

Re 3) Pretty much the same answer as (2)

 Reply: Again, though, there is no clear difference between exclusion on the basis of race and exclusion on the basis of LGBT status. If the one is offensive to the point of being lawsuit-worthy, then so is the other. Yet proposed “religious freedom” laws would protect from lawsuits those who discriminate against LGBT people on the ground of “sincere religious convictions.” But religious convictions, however sincere, provide no blanket justification for inherently offensive and harmful actions. Suppose that someone, as a matter of sincere religious conviction, believes that all atheists are devoid of moral character. He then proceeds to traduce, say, Richard Dawkins, calling him a pedophile and a criminal. When Dawkins threatens a lawsuit for defamation of character, could the calumny be justified as the product of a sincere religious conviction? I think not. On what basis, then, can one who discriminates against LGBT people claim immunity from civil litigation on grounds of religious freedom?

4) Transgender people should be required to use public restrooms that correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificates. (Proposed Texas Law)

Re 4) here I think one would have to ask first why it is we don’t let men in general enter women’s bathrooms and vice versa, and then ask whether the fact a person is transgender suddenly changes the situation so that these reasons are no longer applicable. I must admit to not seeing how a person being transgendered does change the situation in this way. This is because I don’t think the reasons behind the rule have anything to do with whether the person identifies as a male or not. But I could be persuaded otherwise.

 Reply: Here is how it changes the situation: Under the proposed Texas law, a transgender woman, who looks female and wears makeup and women’s clothing, would be required to use the men’s room since the sex on her birth certificate is male. This would subject her to harassment and violence, which transgender people already suffer disproportionately. The idea that allowing a transgender person to use the restroom matching his or her identity will open the floodgates to sexual predators is absurd on its face. A man entering a women’s restroom for predatory purposes has always been illegal, and will continue to be so. Transgender people just want a place to pee—without fear of harassment or intimidation.

5) The Bible teaches that non-heterosexual relations are sinful, and so every Bible-believing Christian should adhere to this.

Thanks for the clarification.

RE 5) This seems to me to be simply an issue of rationality. If I affirm a premise, then I am required rationally to affirm what follows from the premise. So in the case you mention, if a person is a “bible believer” that is they take the bible as authoritative, then it seems to follow pretty straightforwardly that if the bible teaches that certain actions are wrong they, in virtue of being a bible believer are committed rationally to accepting this as authoritative teaching. That seems to me to be simply an expression of modus ponens.

 Reply: While I admire your commit to logical consistency, I can only wish that you were logically bound to follow a loftier and more rational ethic. I know that some liberal Christians attempt to interpret the biblical prohibitions against same-sex relations as not really meaning what they plainly mean. I have little patience with this sort of contorted exegesis, and I appreciate your willingness to bite the bullet. However, these biblical condemnations clearly no rational basis whatsoever. There is no reason at all why same-sex relations cannot be as committed, enriching, fulfilling, and loving as heterosexual unions. If the Bible says otherwise, then the Bible is wrong, and the right thing to do is to utterly reject its teaching on these points.

About Keith Parsons