On February 25, the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, a bill that is touted as a step forward for civil rights in the United States. If enacted, the bill would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the federally protected classes that cannot be discriminated against and would expand where such protections are applied. While expanding such protections is not necessarily widely opposed (Mormon Republican Chris Stewart has introduced the Fairness for All Act as an alternative bill), the act explicitly says that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 cannot be invoked, and this has generated tremendous concern that both private businesses and religious institutions will be forced to toe the current cultural line regarding sexual and gender ideology, or else face discrimination suits and be sued into oblivion.
Organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and Christianity Today have argued against the bill on the basis of its effects on religious institutions, private schools, the legal rights of parents, and women’s athletics. While a discussion of such effects is important, the conversation has largely been missing the broader context of where this legislation and the numerous other proposals like it emerge from.
In his important essay “The Balance of Power in Society” sociologist Frank Tannenbaum argues that “society is possessed by a series of irreducible institutions, perennial through time, that in effect both describe man and define the basic role he plays.” These perennial institutions are the state, the church, the family, and the market. These institutions have eternally striven against each other to gain dominance and become what sociologist Robert Nisbet would call the primary reference group for its members, meaning the primary way in which they understand themselves and shape their beliefs and actions. At various times we can see one group coming to dominate the others, such as when the “trustee” form of family dominated social life in clan-based societies, or when the Roman Catholic Church exhibited tremendous power over the political affairs of Europe. Currently, we live in an epoch where the state has come to dominate social life to an extent never previously seen in human history.
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