A private Christian school holds what it considers a biblical view of marriage. It welcomes all students, but insists that they adhere to certain beliefs and abstain from conduct that violates those beliefs. Few doubt the sincerity of those beliefs. The school's leaders are seen as strange and offensive to the world, but then again, they know that they will find themselves as aliens and strangers in the world.
This description fits a number of Christian schools confronted today with rapidly changing sexual norms. But the description also would have fit Bob Jones University, a school that barred interracial dating until 2000. And in 1983, that ban cost Bob Jones its tax exemption, in a decision upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Even for a relatively small school of a few thousand students, that meant losing millions of dollars. And the government's removal of tax-exempt status had a purpose: one Supreme Court justice described it as "elementary economics: when something becomes more expensive, less of it will be purchased."
The comparison between Bob Jones in 1983 and Christian schools today will strike some as unwarranted. Indeed, there are historical reasons to reject it. The discriminatory practices in Bob Jones were linked to the slavery of African Americans and the Jim Crow South. The 1983 Court decision came within a generation of Brown v. Board of Education, and its legal principles extended to private secondary schools (including "segregationist academies") that resisted racial integration.
There are also significant theological differences between Bob Jones's race-based arguments and arguments that underlie today's sexual conduct restrictions. Those differences are rooted in contested questions about identity, as well as longstanding Christian boundaries for sexual behavior. Gay and lesbian Christians committed to celibacy show that sexual identity and sexual conduct are not always one in the same. But these points are increasingly obscured outside of the church. We see this in the castigation of any opposition to same-sex liberties as bigoted. That kind of language has moved rapidly into mainstream culture. And it is difficult to envision how it would be undone or dialed back.
How should Christians respond to these circumstances? First, we must understand the history from which they emerge. Second, we must understand the legal, social, and political dimensions of the current landscape. Third, and finally, we must recognize that arguments that seem intuitive from within Christian communities will increasingly not make sense to the growing numbers of Americans who are outside the Christian tradition.
How We Got Here
Many of the questions today simply were not in play that long ago. For one, governmental regulations have a far wider reach than they did even 100 years ago. We work, play, worship, and live in spaces regulated by government. Just look around the next time you step foot in your local church. Some of the building was probably subsidized through state and federal tax exemptions. Any recent construction likely encountered local zoning ordinances. The certificate of occupancy, fire code compliance, and any food service permits all reflect government regulation. Today, the government, its money, and its laws are everywhere.
We can pin many of these changes on the New Deal, but just as influential were the civil rights era and the battle to end segregation. Civil rights laws extended to what had previously been seen as private spaces and transactions. The laws focused on commercially operated public accommodations, such as transportation, lodging, and restaurants. But they also extended to private schools, neighborhoods, and swimming pools. The reach of these laws was unprecedented—and rightly so. The pervasive impediments to equal citizenship for African Americans have not been seen in any other recent episode in U.S. history. Our country has harmed many people (including my grandparents, who were stripped of their possessions and imprisoned for four years during World War II solely because they were Japanese Americans). But the systemic and structural injustices perpetrated against African Americans—and the extraordinary remedies those injustices warranted—remain in a class of their own.