Unthinkable: When the Overton Window Slams on Your Fingers

13 March 2020

6.2 MINS

By Andrew Moody, TGCA.

Ever heard of the Overton Window? It’s a term that relates to the public perception about certain concepts, policies or ideas. At any given moment of history there are some things that seem unthinkable, some things that seem undeniable; some things that seem radical and some things that seem normal and inevitable. The normal and inevitable things are those which fall within the Overton Window.

These days, things are continually moving in and out of the Overton Window. Eighty years ago, western governments thought eugenics was such a sensible idea that they went ahead and started forcibly sterilising people from (what they saw as) bad backgrounds. It took Nazism and the Second World War to push that notion out of the Overton Window.

Just twelve years ago Hilary Clinton was making the argument that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” while Barack Obama, in the same campaign season, was assuring Americans that marriage meant a union of one man and one woman.

Today both of those statements have become anathema. Abortion has been normalised and any suggestion that it should be “rare” has been deemed shaming and harmful by #shoutyourabortion feminism. Obama’s statement is one of the statements that the ANZ has just told us needs to be changed from “hurtful speech” into “Love Speech” (see Murray Campbell’s recent post)

Out With the Old!

For those on the secular left, of course, these changes are all good—they reinforce progressivism: the idea that history is getting better and better; that new is good and old means outdated; that where we are right now is better than where we’ve been, and where we are going will be better still. Progressives often talk as if change itself is intrinsically good. They want to hurry it along. They want to close the window on the old norms—they want to make them unthinkable.

That was what that uproar over the Coopers Beer advertisement was all about during the marriage debate. Even the idea that the topic was a legitimate topic for discussion had be ruled out. The old needed to be seen as beyond the pale—it needed to be stomped on and stamped out.

As the Overton Window has moved, progressivism has increasingly been able to bring, not just the fury of the mob, but the weight of the law to press its case. The anti-discrimination complaints against Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous, from a few years back was a harbinger. Other less publicised cases have come and gone under the radar.

Professional Standards

Meanwhile progressives consolidate their gains by encouraging public displays of conformity by corporations (see the ANZ example) and by pushing for new professional codes of practice. For example, last November the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) updated its social media guidelines to warn health care workers against expressing “personal views” on social media that might “impact on someone’s sense of cultural safety or could lead to a patient/client feeling judged, intimidated or embarrassed.” The first example they offer goes like this:

A health practitioner, who works in a small town makes their religious views about sex before marriage and homosexuality public by tweeting: ‘Abstinence is the best way to avoid HIV. Not sure why we are investing public dollars into developing vaccines. Just do what the Bible tells us to do’. A patient sees this and now feels concerned they cannot reveal their sexuality to the practitioner, thereby compromising their health and safety. They make a notification about discrimination.

Now there are all kinds of questions that we might ask of this edict:

  • Is it reasonable to ban public professionals from expressing “personal views”—and to threaten them with anti-discrimination measures? Aren’t these most educated and respected members of our community entitled a little liberty of expression? Aren’t the rest of us entitled to hear from them?
  • Does it really make our society less discriminatory to create blanket bans that will catch, not just Christians, but conservative Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus too?
  • Wouldn’t the same principle silence all health professionals on all kinds of important issues. Should they refrain from denouncing traditional cultural practices such as polygamy too? How about female genital mutilation? Must they avoid calling transableism a mental problem? Is there no unsafe sexual practice they can criticise? Because all such criticisms might lead to people “feeling judged, intimidated or embarrassed.”
  • Is it wise to be continually reinforcing the idea that merely hearing a contrary opinion can devastate a person? Isn’t it a little patronising? Isn’t that, as Jonathan Haidt keeps arguing, likely to undermine people’s resilience and sabotage our social discourse?

But here’s the doozy. Look again at the example listed. Notice that the health practitioner hasn’t actually tweeted anything at all about homosexuality. They’ve endorsed abstinence and some aspects of biblical morality. The condemnation of homosexuality has simply been inferred because the professional in question has endorsed biblical norms.

So what is really being excluded here is any public statement that might reveal a person as a conservative Christian. Merely identifying yourself as an unreconstructed Bible-believer will be enough to potentially make someone feel judged or embarrassed.

When the Window Closes

This is what it looks like when the Overton window closes on you. First your opinion is denounced; then it is excluded from professional contexts; then it is altogether barred from public utterance; then any taint of association with it—explicit or implicit—becomes grounds for sanction.

In the weeks and years to come, revival or second-coming notwithstanding (Come, Lord Jesus!), Christians are likely to face more and more of this kind of thing. Activists and professional bodies and government agencies will seek to press their gains by hounding and prosecuting Christians who dare to speak out on selected hot-button issues. The range of permitted speech will be become smaller and smaller. Christians will feel pressured to remain silent or compelled to explicitly endorse progressive norms to retain their social and professional privileges.

Easy Targets First

They will come for the easy targets first—for Christians who have aberrant theology or who express themselves in an impolite or offensive manner. These will be the logical quarry for test-cases, because milder and more orthodox believers will say “not that guy”—“I don’t want to stand on the hill and die with him.”

But all the time, the Overton Window will be closing. Our failure to speak up for the freedoms of awkward individuals will hasten the process. Every successful prosecution of that guy will have a chilling effect on freedom for everyone. Remember what Martin Niemöller said: “first they came for the socialists …”[1] We have some tough times ahead. More so if we fail to speak and act now.

A Final Note

Yet let’s remember finally that progressivism is actually an illusion. There is no guarantee that every change to social convention will always be in one direction—indeed the reason why we are hearing so much more about the Overton Window these days is because progressives are rattled. Things like the growth of the pro-life movement and the reshaping of the political landscape under Donald Trump prove that the window can be relocated in unexpected ways.

Thus some older radicals who have seen their ideas normalised have been dismayed to see those gains begin to slip away as new radicalism eat into them. The bad blood between lesbians (pejoratively dubbed TERFs) and transgender activists is a quintessential example of this.

And there is always the danger that progressives will try to push too hard and cause a reaction. Some have argued that the resurgence of conservative governments in English speaking countries was a result of just such over-reaching. Returning to the transgender issue, even the Guardian—the stalwart of British progressivism—seems to have begun to suspect that something has gone awry.

This is not to suggest that these new changes will necessarily be better for Christians. Our sails must not be trimmed to such vague and unreliable winds. Nor should we fear any but “him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell,” (Luke 12:5)[2]. But it is good to remember that these things are only for a little while. Our hope is anchored to much more permanent realities:

Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. (Heb 10:35-39)

[1] First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

[2] n.b. quoting Jesus, not Israel Folau


Andrew Moody is the Editorial Director of The Gospel Coalition Australia website and manages the Bible and Theology Channel. He also serves as an adjunct lecturer at several colleges around Australia and enjoys teaching students about the doctrine of the Trinity. He is author of In Light of the Son (Matthias Media), The Will of Him Who Sent Me (Paternoster) and Tales of the Pirate Gospel (BrightMettle). Andrew and his wife Jenny have two children.

[Photo by Noelle Otto from Pexels]

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One Comment

  1. […] to remain silent on issues where the Bible has a different view to wider culture. The proverbial Overton window is narrowing, to the point of slamming on our […]

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