On Tuesday, the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in NIFLA v. Becerra that a California law requiring pro-life pregnancy centers to post information about state-sponsored abortion services was unconstitutional. In his concurring opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the law was an “example of the serious threat presented when government seeks to impose its own message in the place of individual speech, thought, and expression.”
And that got me thinking about the common charge that Christians are always trying to “impose their morality” on other people.
This claim used to be made in the context of efforts to outlaw abortion or same-sex marriage—efforts, by the way, that dealt with moral principles that can be known from reason, like the humanity of the unborn or the conjugal nature of marriage.
But as NIFLA showed, Christians are now in the position where the law is routinely used to impose moral assumptions not on unbelievers but on them. Even the refusal to act can now be considered an unjust “imposition” that requires legal punishment—like the sincere, conscientious refusal to bake a cake, take a picture, or even call someone by a certain name or pronoun.
If you ever find yourself facing this kind of accusation, you should remind your inquisitors that tolerance and the desire not to “impose morality” should extend to everyone. A good test case for this approach is the recent “gender pronoun” controversy in the US and Canada, which involves socially and even legally pressuring people to use pronouns that match a person’s self-chosen gender identity instead of his or her biological sex.
How should believers respond to these situations?
First, before we make an argument for our position, we should offer some concessions in order to facilitate dialogue. When I talk about abortion, for example, I typically use the term pro-choice instead of pro-abortion, because that’s what those who disagree with me prefer to be called. Even though that term is vague and can be misleading, it doesn’t unnecessarily distract from the main point I want to convey, which is that the unborn are human beings who should be protected under the law.
So, when it comes to gender names and pronouns, I don’t think it’s a big deal to call people by the new names they’ve chosen for themselves. After all, some women have more masculine-sounding names and some men have more feminine-sounding names. Names have no sexual value in themselves. So in this context, a person’s new name is like the label pro-choice: it can be somewhat misleading about his identity but it doesn’t unnecessarily distract from the main point about the objective nature of sexual identity.
That said, I don’t think we should use incorrect pronouns like “he” for biological women or “she” for biological men. This would be on par with my using the term “mere clump of cells” in my conversations about the unborn. In these cases, the terms directly contradict the point we are trying to make in our conversations. The unborn are not mere clumps of cells; “he’s” are not women, and “she’s” are not men, and we should not directly promote the spread of these falsehoods.
We should also distinguish respect and regulation. Merely asking someone to use a certain name or pronoun and feeling disrespected if he does not accede to that request is not an example of “forcing one’s morality” on another person. It’s just an honest disagreement, even if it can lead to hurt feelings. Some people claim that Christians should always use a person’s preferred pronoun out of respect for that person, but sometimes the respectful choice—the choice that is best for them—is to not do that. But using the power of the state to fine or possibly imprison someone who does not use this language is a clear example of forcing “transgender morality” onto people who do not accept it.
In 2017, California passed SB 219 with the stated goal of protecting the rights of patients in long-term care facilities. It certainly doesn’t protect the First Amendment rights of employees in those facilities because it makes it illegal for someone to “willfully and repeatedly [fail] to use a resident’s preferred name or pronouns after being clearly informed of the preferred name or pronouns.”
The website Politifact, which is sympathetic to the law and claims that critics use misleading arguments against it, quotes law professor Courtney Joslin, who says, “Willful and repeated violations alone wouldn’t lead to criminal prosecution.” That sounds reassuring—until Joslin goes on to say, “They would likely be punished with a fine.” Criminal charges would only follow, she said, “if the violation reached a level that was shown to cause the risk of death or serious physical harm.”
But what about those who claim that refusal to use someone’s preferred pronoun puts him (or her, or zir) at risk for depression or even suicide? The prominent transgender advocate Laverne Cox has said “misgendering” or using pronouns that correspond to people’s biological sex instead of their sense of gender is an act of violence. The Ontario Human Rights Commission in Canada has even said that gender harassment includes “refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun.”
So what should you do if you are accused of the “crime” of misgendering?
First, point out that there is no evidence that merely not using someone’s preferred pronoun creates a major risk factor for depression or suicide. Even in societies that are very affirming of various gender identities and sexual behaviors, like Scandinavia or the Netherlands, people who identify as “LGBT” still have higher rates of psychiatric disorders than people who do not identify this way. So the critic must at least consider the possibility that these sexual behaviors and identities themselves are what negatively affect people’s well-being.
Second, affirm that you want to respect all people, but that lying about someone is not respectful to him as a person. This takes the focus off you and puts it on the question of what is true about the human person. Here’s a fictional example of how this might play out, taken from my forthcoming book on moral issues with Leila Miller:
Tom: Why do you keep saying [man who claims he’s a woman] is a he? That’s so hurtful!
Mary: I’m not trying to hurt anyone, but please see where I’m coming from. It’s wrong to lie about people, and if I say [man who claims he’s a woman] is a woman, that would make me a liar.
Tom: But it’s not a lie! If she says she is a woman, then she is a woman.
Mary: Wait, are you saying that merely saying or believing you’re a woman makes you a woman? Why should I believe that? Can a person change his race or his species in the same way?
Tom: Well, it’s her own sense of self that matters!
Mary: But that still doesn’t make it true. There’s no evidence, in science or in anything we can measure, that “gender” exists except in the imagination. Morally, I am not allowed to lie for anyone. I hope you can respect that my faith requires me to uphold the truth about our humanity.
Finally, remind the person that tolerance is a two-way street. Just as you would not pressure him to genuflect before a tabernacle or to profess a Catholic dogma that he doesn’t hold, he should not pressure you to accept one of his personal beliefs that contradict your understanding of reality. Instead, we should all be willing to “reason together” (Isa. 1:18) and work toward understanding our beliefs without using social or legal force to coerce others to accept those beliefs.