I have heard the phrase “love the sinner, but hate the sin” many times in my life, but what does it mean to ‘love the sinner’ and to ‘hate the sin’. I have always understood that it means we love the people who do bad things while at the same time hating the bad things that they do. That seems simple and intuitive enough. I can love someone despite their vices. For example, my close friend may say something problematic or deeply offensive to me, but that does not mean I need to disapprove of her as a person. I can still love her while not approving of what she said. This may seem like a rather practical rule-of-thumb in most contexts, but there are times where it runs into problems.
For example, when talking about LGBTQ+ folks, folks of a certain persuasion will often assert that they can love LGBTQ+ folks while simultaneously disliking or disapproving their ‘choices’. “We are not our actions.” They often say. “It’s okay to be queer, but that does not mean you have to act on it.” At first glance, it may seem that one can, for example, disapprove of or detest ‘homosexual acts’ while loving homosexual individuals. However, this is not the case. One cannot ‘love the sinner, but hate the sin’ when it comes to LGBTQ+ individuals.
Identity and the Self
So why is it that one cannot love the sinner while hating the sin? It all boils down to identity and the self. Beginning with identity, it helps to use simple, workable definitions:
Identity – traits, characteristics, social relations, roles, and social group memberships that define who one is or gives someone a sense-of-self, or self-concept.
Self – the sense that something is “about me”, that there is a subject “I” that can think about an object “me” while the subject is aware of this sense.
Self-concept – a cognitive structure that can include content, attitudes, or evaluative judgements and are used to make sense of the world, focus attention on one’s goals, and protect one’s sense of basic worth.
People can take on any number of identities–religious identities, occupational identities, group identities, etc.–and these identities are what make up one’s self-concept. Notice that not only does one’s identity influence one’s actions, but one’s actions also influence one’s identities and self-concept. For example, let’s take religious identity. Jane considers herself a devout Catholic. She prays every day, regularly attends mass, and takes communion. Suppose one day a law was passed prohibiting her religious observance on the basis that “though being a Catholic is okay, acting Catholic is not okay”. She is thus legally, and apparently morally (according to some), prohibited from praying, attending mass, taking communion, etc. In other words, though she may consider herself a Catholic, she is pressured to not observe her religion.
So what would it mean to be a Catholic in this situation without observing Catholicism? I would bet that Jane would experience a lot of distress at this dilemma. Either observe her faith and risk the consequences, or repress her religiosity. Would it make sense for someone in this situation to tell Jane, “I love you and it’s okay that you are Catholic, but I would hate it if you attended mass because it is wrong”? Of course not. One would rightly say that this is nonsense and religious bigotry.
Now that we have explored these ideas of identity and the self, I would like to turn our attention to two different types of identities: sexual identity and gender identity.
Sexual identity – consists of one’s sexual orientation and how they define their sexuality.
Gender identity – one’s innermost sense of being male, female, both, or something else; how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves.
To be homosexual is to be attracted to others of the same sex. To be transgender is to have a gender identity that differs from the one that is assigned at birth. So far, all we really have talked about is ‘being’ gay or trans. But what does it actually mean to be gay or trans? As a homosexual trans woman, my sexuality influences who I engage in sexual relations with, i.e., women. However, it is possible for me to be attracted to women without having sexual or romantic relationships with them, but let’s go back to Jane. If Jane’s inability to practice her religion causes distress and that not permitting her to observe Catholicism comes from a place of religious bigotry and intolerance, what does that say about those who would assert that being gay is okay, but ‘acting gay’ is not?
Jane’s ability to self-actualize, i.e., become her truest and best self, is hindered by prohibitions to her observance of Catholicism. Of course, this could all go away if she decided she was no longer Catholic, but to Jane, Catholicism is fundamental to who she is as a person and who she feels she needs to become in order to live a good life. Not being Catholic is not an option for her. Likewise, being a lesbian and being trans are fundamental to who I am. I cannot simply choose not to be homosexual or not trans. It’s not an option for me. Therefore, living authentically is critical for my self-actualization as a person. In other words, I need to be able to express my love for my wife (who is a woman as I am), and I need to be able to live as a woman. I also need to transition. All of these things require action in order to achieve happiness and self-fulfillment. The opposite has not done me well at all. Believe me, I have tried.
I have done what I can in a reasonably short amount of space to make a strong case for the assertion that “love the sinner, but hate the sin” is logically and empirically untenable. Those who use such rhetoric need to consider what they are actually saying. It is simply not loving to deny someone the ability or right to self-actualize by living authentically. In fact, it is just downright cruel.