By many accounts, orthodox Christians have lost the culture wars. How they can live well—not vanish—in a time of retreat.
The Supreme Court’s decision that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage was a landmark moment in US history. The sweeping language of the majority opinion placed gay rights firmly within the moral tradition of the civil rights movement. And like a boulder thrown into a pond, it will have public consequences for decades.
For many evangelicals, the psychological effects were immediate. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said that Obergefell v. Hodges will be “the downfall of America.” Christian friends reported to us they felt incredulous and alienated from America’s legal and cultural order.
Those who felt ambushed by the decision haven’t been paying enough attention. The ruling was the result of cultural trends that emerged in the context of heterosexual, not homosexual, relationships. During the 1960s and 1970s, America saw a concentrated cultural revolution: the triumph of radical individualism, particularly in sexual ethics. Since then, we have seen the outworking of this shift in attitudes, behavior, and laws: on divorce, abortion, cohabitation, out-of-wedlock births, gender roles, and now, decisively, same-sex marriage.
Marriage was not redefined only by the Supreme Court; it was also redefined by decades of social practice. Marriage, over time, has come to be viewed as a contract of individuals based on love rather than an institution recognized by the state to serve social purposes. When gay couples sought to join a contract of individuals based on love, they were pushing on an open door. Arguments for marriage based on tradition or natural law started to sound ancient and unintelligible. And many evangelicals, we must admit, have not been immune to this changed view of marriage.
But the Supreme Court’s rejection of traditional sexual ethics as the basis for laws defining marriage does represent a milestone. It was once plausible—though not necessarily accurate—for Christians to see themselves as part of a “moral majority” in which Judeo-Christian views were broadly shared. That is no longer credible, at least on issues of the family and sexual ethics. This is a profound transition. As one evangelical leader told us, “We’ve gone from being the home team to the away team.”
We (the authors) have seen this transition from a unique vantage point. As part of a project funded by the Hewlett Foundation, we interviewed evangelical authors, academics, college presidents, and nonprofit leaders about this cultural shift. (The Hewlett Foundation did not sponsor this essay.) Several of the quotes in this essay are drawn from those conversations with permission. All the conclusions drawn are our own.
Bitterness and Despair
Without exception, the leaders we consulted believe evangelicals are at a pivot point in their relationship to American culture. They describe reactions among fellow Christians ranging from angry combativeness to disillusioned withdrawal.
John Inazu, author of the forthcoming book Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference, told us he has seen “an insecurity caused by a rapidly lost social position,” leading some to a “growing bitterness and despair.” People who have had power, and have watched it slip away, feel afraid and frustrated. They are concerned that religious institutions may soon have to renounce their beliefs or be made to suffer for them.
Franklin Graham has publicly voiced this view. “I believe the end is coming,” said the president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. “I believe we are in the midnight hour…you see how quickly our country is deteriorating…we have seen that it has taken like a nose dive off of the moral diving board into the cesspool of humanity.”
Other leaders—particularly younger evangelicals—have reacted very differently. They have revolted against the Religious Right’s priorities and retreated into an apolitical Christian subculture. What matters in this view, according to Michael Wear, “is that I’m following Jesus, I’m modeling what family means. By building up healthy lives, this is somehow adding up to sweeping change.” Wear, who served in the White House’s faith-based office during President Obama’s first term, warns that many millennial Christians view political engagement as a “distraction from holiness.”
The most sophisticated argument along these lines comes from social commentator Rod Dreher. He has coined and championed the Benedict Option, named after Benedict of Nursia, who inspired and organized a monastic alternative to the sins of ancient Rome. With the Supreme Court’s decision, “the ground under our feet has shifted tectonically,” writes Dreher. It’s hard to overstate “the seriousness of the challenges [that a secularizing world] presents to orthodox Christians and other social conservatives.” It is, in his view, a new barbarian darkness. And politics has little to offer Christians. The only answer, he writes, is for Christians to “build resilient communities within our condition of internal exile.”
No doubt America is seeing a more assertive and moralistic (in its own way) progressive movement. Progressive advocates are all the more zealous for regarding the social and legal establishment of secularism as a form of “neutrality,” in which every institution that touches the public order must reflect the prevailing ethic. Religious leaders fear that their institutions will be targeted and harassed, as has happened in other Western countries. That fear is exaggerated in some quarters, but not baseless. Catholic and evangelical institutions that serve the poor, educate the young, and are dedicated to social justice are anguished by the charge of bigotry. And they are right to defend themselves and to point out their social contributions.
At the same time, the Religious Right’s top-down model of transformation—urging Christians to simply elect the right political leaders to office—has largely failed. In certain areas of our common life where evangelicals have lost influence, as in the legal definition of marriage, the Benedict Option might be the only option.
Yet both of these approaches—either calling a crusade or taking a sabbatical—are radically incomplete models of Christian social engagement. And they both hold a flawed view of American society. When they argue that the United States is either a moral cesspool or the Babylon of Christian exile, their analysis is simplistic and overwrought.
Many public arguments on sexual ethics may be lost, and some legal challenges ahead may be disturbing. But this does not translate into social apocalypse or mark the end of Christian social responsibilities. When it comes to cultural analysis, many evangelicals have sex too much on their minds.
Some perspective on American society is in order.
Things Are Getting Better
By many indicators, our society has gotten better. The divorce rate has been declining since the early 1980s. Since 1990, the rate of abortions has fallen by more than a third, and the number of abortions each year has fallen by more than half. This year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the percentage of teens having sex has declined significantly over the past 25 years. Crime, violent crime, and rates of homicide are down by more than 50 percent from the early 1990s.
Of course, areas of concern remain. Today more than 40 percent of children are born to unmarried mothers. Marriage is increasingly a class-based institution, destructively weakening among working-class Americans. But our broader culture has shown, in some areas, a remarkable ability to mend itself. Many evangelicals mistake alarming legal trends for across-the-board cultural decay.
Further, Christian public engagement has hardly been ineffective. Evangelicals were part of a coalition to dramatically increase funding for the global fight against HIV/AIDS, helping more than nine million Africans to gain access to life-saving treatment. In their best abolitionist tradition, evangelicals have helped to place sexual trafficking on the global agenda. They have advocated for persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East. At home, they have provided foster families and adoptive homes, visited prisoners, advocated for criminal justice reform, opened crisis pregnancy centers, and championed the rights of unborn children.
To be sure, a changed definition of marriage presents social and legal challenges. Even so, millions of lives can be touched and changed through proper Christian public engagement. We reject the idea that, because public sexual values have changed, Christians no longer exert public influence. America is not slouching toward Gomorrah. And the duties inherent in democracy remain. Cultural retreat would betray our faith, because it would betray the call and responsibility to seek the common good.
Evangelical Christians clearly require a new model of social engagement, not pious cover for disengagement. We must adjust our angle of vision in significant ways and discern how best to leverage this moment rather than just lament it. Instead of raging at the loss of influence or making grudging concessions to modernity, we might take this moment to display the essential character of Christianity—one that appeals and persuades outside the faith.
A Dose of Realism
We start with a dose of realism. We do not assume that every evangelical holds to the traditional view of marriage, but an overwhelming majority do. And they will need to adjust to living in a same-sex-marriage world. This does not mean they have to endorse gay marriage. But they will need to operate in a world where gay marriage is legal. However important the legal definition of the family, returning to the traditional concept would require reversing decades of social change, of which same-sex marriage is the latest (and not the last) outworking. This is a massive cultural project, not an immediately attainable goal.
Very practically, traditionally minded Christians will need to take up social projects alongside people who support gay marriage. In some cases, they will need to work cooperatively alongside people in gay marriages. Since parents of gay children often find their perspective changed, divisions on this issue lie not only between political and social groups but also within families and churches. Important social goals, including strengthening marriage and families, will need to reach across these barriers.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today – Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner