Carl R. Trueman
On lawns in my neighborhood, quite a number of those “Hate has no home here” signs have appeared over the last twelve months. My immediate reaction is to see them as somewhat superfluous: I live in a Philadelphia suburb which, while hardly affluent, is nonetheless comfortable and safe, with a community that is peaceful, friendly, and well-integrated. As far as I can tell, hate has not been much of a problem during the sixteen years I have lived here.
And yet these signs do capture something of the national mood—at least the mood of a certain section of the population—and are emblematic of political divisions which now seem deeper and more intractable than at any time since the late 1960s.
Critics might decry the signs as nothing more than “virtue signaling,” but even such a dismissive response raises the fascinating questions of what virtues are being signaled and why. All such actions rest upon values formed over time. They have a history, a genealogy. And understanding those can help us think more clearly about how we should respond.
The immediate context is obvious: the Trump presidency. These signs are a response to the unexpected victory of the populist Republican, entrepreneur, and reality TV star in the 2016 presidential election. But just as Trump is not the cause of Trump but the result of other factors—a reaction to eight years of Obama, a symptom of a nation which has had sixteen years of controversial and increasingly partisan politics—so these signs are symptomatic of deeper, more significant shifts in how many people think.
The most obvious factor is the psychologizing of the self. Put simply, we live in a world where identity is increasingly determined by who and what we think we are. Transgenderism is the most obvious example of this. If you have a male body but think you are a woman, then you are a woman, and no amount of pointing to the obvious physiological and chromosomal evidence will change your mind. Indeed, to cite such evidence will actually be regarded as oppressive, an act of hate.
Transgenderism may seem to some to be a very radical cultural development but it isn’t really so. A moment’s reflection indicates that for at least the last four hundred years (and arguably much longer) the tendency to prioritize personal thoughts and feelings as the basis for identity has been gaining in strength. Descartes’s principle, “I think therefore I am” stands on a continuum with “I think I am a woman, therefore I am.”
What has changed in recent years is not the basic psychological trajectory of how we think of personal identity but how it has meshed with the political culture in which we now find ourselves.
The notion of oppression was once understood in terms which were at root economic. In Britain, the trade union movement grew out of a desire to see more economic parity between classes. In America, nineteenth-century abolitionism and the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth-century were driven by the desire to see African Americans enjoy the same opportunities for flourishing as others, a flourishing for which political freedom and equality before the law were basic foundations.
Now, however, we live in an era where the worst oppression is considered to be psychological, that which hinders people from being who they really are—or at least who they think they really are.
The fusing of psychological identity and politics is long and interesting. In part, it has roots in the eighteenth-century emphasis upon sentiment as the basis for ethics, something found in thinkers as diverse as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith. The role of Freud in sexualizing psychology is significant and helps explain why we now routinely talk in terms of sexual identity in a way which would have been incomprehensible in earlier times. And the refocusing of the political left on oppression as a psychological rather than an economic category, and of the political right on a libertarian view of human flourishing served to put expressive individualism and its most potent contemporary form, sexual identity, at the center of political discourse.
Of course, it is a little more complicated than that. All psychological identities are not equal. Having a deep, inner conviction that one is Napoleon Bonaparte or even a Donald Trump supporter is unlikely to garner the same social sympathy and status as a conviction that one is gay, transgender, or bisexual. Ever since Freud, sex has been touted as that which is fundamental to who we are, and with mass media promoting this idea through everything from soap operas to internet pornography, it now has the status of self-evident truth. Sex is no longer an activity. It is not something you do. It is something you are. And to question this notion today renders one both an oppressor and an idiot, a lethal combination which allows one to be dismissed out of hand as an ignorant bigot.
The idea that we are fundamentally sexual was always bound to be a winner. Sex, after all, is fun and fun sells. With the full weight of Hollywood behind it, not to mention the advent of cheap and easy divorce, sex has long since ceased to be the seal of a lifelong monogamous relationship between one man and one woman and has become the recreational activity that defines who we are and what it means to be free.
And this brings us back to those “Hate has no home here” signs. One of the odd things is how middle class their location tends to be. They do not seem quite so prevalent in blue collar areas and those neighborhoods where the economically poor and disadvantaged live. That is because “hate” as defined by the sexual identity crowd is really of little consequence to those who still have the old-style oppression—poverty—to worry about.
This is where the question of “hate” becomes interesting. Indeed, we might say that the people living in the poorest parts of our cities are the victims of exactly the kind of “love” which the affluent are promoting: promiscuous sex, untethered from the social responsibility which the family embodies and which Christian teaching promotes. Rates of single parenthood in poor areas are catastrophic. The sexual revolution has wreaked havoc on the underclass while those who have promoted it—the Hollywood set, the suburbanites whose avatars populate John Updike’s novels—have the resources to realize their sexual philosophy in practice. It is those who emulate them from less privileged sectors of society who end up paying a very heavy price.
So how should Christians respond to the “Hate has no home here” phenomenon?
Well, we should first of all affirm that we too hate hate. But we need to understand the underpinnings of this sloganeering. It is predicated on a notion of hate and oppression which is deeply psychological, subjective, and tied to the sexual revolution. With such, Christians can have nothing to do. Christians need to think about the overall cultural framework of which these signs are symptomatic.
Second, we need a robust Christian understanding of what it means to be a human being. It is not simply a matter of feelings. Nor is it something which is ultimately rooted in what the contemporary culture finds to be plausible or tasteful. It is that we are made in the image of God. And it is on that foundation that we build our views of every human activity and relationship—marriage, singleness, sex, children, etc. Struggles over sexuality in this present age are at root struggles over what it means to be a human being.
Finally, while Christians always need to avoid drawing attention to their own deeds of righteousness (particularly deeds which carry no more personal cost or sacrifice than the paltry price of a lawn sign), we do need to demonstrate what true love is in practice. That means being good neighbors in our communities. Tit-for-tat signage will not do the job. Only real care for real people in really practical ways will do that.
The author is pastor of Cornerstone OPC in Ambler, Pennsylvania, and a visiting professor at Princeton University. New Horizons, March 2018.