One of the hallmarks of the new religion that is the focus of this series is how it redefines words. It has created a new dictionary. John Stonestreet of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview puts it this way: “We use the same words, but different dictionaries.”
Some of the most important words in the English language have been redefined over the past 50 years. Words like marriage, freedom, love, compassion and justice have taken on a new, culturally accepted meaning. According to Os Guinness, “there has been a subtle shift in the meaning of many Western ideas, so that once-strong Jewish and Christian [words] are now used in different ways that decisively change their meaning.” (p. 40)
Why is this important? Because words matter. Words have the power to convey truth, and help us rightly understand reality. Words and language are the basic building blocks of culture, and healthy, flourishing cultures are built on the truth. Vacating words of their meaning turns out to be incredibly destructive.
We can look, for example, at the word “violence” that was briefly discussed in the previous post. According to the older dictionary, violence involves physical attack or abuse. The new dictionary defines violence as speech or language that is taken by a member of a self-described victim group to be hurtful or offensive. Paradoxically, this new definition has become a justification for acting out violently, as defined by the old dictionary.
In February, right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was invited by a group of college Republican students to speak at Berkeley University. The announcement of the invitation prompted a riot. According to a Wall Street Journal article describing the event, “masked agitators threw Molotov cocktails, smashed windows, hurled rocks at police, and ultimately caused $100,000 worth of damage.” The rioters physically threatened Yiannopoulus merely for speaking. He was forced to flee under armed guard before his talk could be delivered. The student newspaper ran an op-ed justifying the riot under the headline “Violence helped ensure safety of students.”
So violence is justified when it “ensures safety.” Safety from what? From the “violence” of being exposed to offensive speech and language.
Calling the speech and language of your opponents, not merely offensive, but “violent” is a way of appealing to emotions in order to prevail. Most people intuitively know that violence against innocent people is profoundly wrong, unjust, and even criminal. The proponents of the new religion cleverly leverage this sentiment, and then twist it. Claiming that your opponent’s speech is “violent” becomes an effective way of silencing them. The problem is that the word “violence” is perverted in the process. People slowly lose a sense of its true meaning. Where does this perversion of language lead? What happens to a society when its people cavalierly redefine words in an effort to accrue power and silence opponents?
If offensive speech is now described as “violent,” and violent acts have historically been illegal and criminal, it begs the question: Will certain speech now become illegal and speakers criminalized as well? The story of Sweetcakes by Melissa sheds a very sobering light on this question.
In February 2013, a lesbian couple filed a complaint with the State of Oregon against Aaron and Melissa Klein, bakery owners who respectfully declined to bake a cake for their same-sex wedding citing their deeply held Christian beliefs about marriage—another word that has been completely redefined to the point that the new definition is now enshrined in law thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.
The old definition of marriage (or you might say the “historic” definition—as in, held by people from nearly all cultures and religious backgrounds for millennia) is nicely summarized by Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation. Marriage is an institution designed by God “to bring a man and a woman together as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children their union produces. Marriage is based on the anthropological truth that men and women are complementary, the biological fact that reproduction depends on a man and a woman, and the social reality that children need a mother and a father.”
In the new dictionary, “marriage” is now a legally recognized union of any two people, regardless of gender, based on a high level of emotional intensity and a desire to live together in a relationship of sexual intimacy and mutual support. The new definition has nothing to do with children or future generations. Its concern is limited to the interests of the adult couple.
The Klein’s deeply held beliefs about marriage, rooted in the Scriptures, caused them to respectfully decline to bake a wedding cake for the lesbian couple. Participating in a celebration of a “marriage” they profoundly disagreed with would violate their conscience.
The lesbian couple could have taken a “live and let live” approach out of respect for Aaron and Melissa’s religious convictions. They could have simply gone to another baker with their business. Instead, they chose to punish the Kleins for their “transgression.” In their appeal to the State of Oregon, they cited a long list of alleged physical, emotional and mental damages that the Klein’s refusal caused them, including “acute loss of confidence,” “doubt,” “excessive sleep,” “felt mentally raped, dirty and shameful,” “high blood pressure,” “impaired digestion,” “loss of appetite,” “migraine headaches,” “pale and sick at home after work,” “resumption of smoking habit,” “shock,” “stunned,” “uncertainty,” “weight gain” and “worry.” The state agreed, and levied a $135,000 fine against the Kleins. Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian even went so far as to place a gag order on the Kleins, ordering them to “cease and desist” from speaking publicly about not wanting to bake cakes for same-sex weddings based on their Christian beliefs.
The Kleins were eventually forced out of business by the government for their refusal to participate in a celebration based on the new definition of marriage. Their respectful refusal was taken as an act of violence against the lesbian couple—based on the new definition of violence.
Here’s a five-minute response from Bishop N.T. Wright to this very issue: the implications of redefining so fundamental a word as “marriage.” (Click here to see the video online.)
Alarmingly, the government is increasingly using its coercive power to enforce people to comply with the new definition of marriage, and in the process, is eviscerating the constitution’s freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of religion protections. For the first time in my life, the government is taking the side of one religion over another—it is taking the side of the new religious orthodoxy over historic Christianity. If the government continues to punish people like the Kleins who fail to support this new religious orthodoxy, where will that lead? Religious liberty is the bedrock of our constitutional order. It has been a central feature of American identity from the very beginning. Will it survive and be passed on to the next generation, or will we lose this most precious inheritance in our lifetime?
May it never be!
- Scott Allen
… to be continued