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.
Evangelicals, in other words, will need to find ways to strengthen a marriage culture in a same-sex-marriage world. This will involve participating in coalitions on a variety of issues—including building safe, healthy, child-friendly communities—with supporters of gay marriage. This is not moral compromise; it is the normal practice of democracy.
A Christian pro-family agenda that makes its central mission the reversal of gay marriage will be spectacularly unsuccessful. The appropriate legal recourse, a constitutional amendment, is inherently difficult. Passing one is well-nigh impossible in a nation where a majority support gay marriage; where 70 percent of millennials (and more than 40 percent of evangelical millennials) support gay marriage; and where the right and practice has become socially embedded. The issue itself is unlikely to provoke a deep and durable response like we have seen in the pro-life movement. The matter at stake is not the taking of an innocent life; it is the advance of a progressive conception of individual rights. And making this issue a defining cause is strategically foolish, because this one fight would overshadow every other priority.
It is simply wrong to assume that we no longer can strengthen the institution of marriage now that a small percentage of the population that is gay can legally marry. We can still try to reduce divorce rates, encourage teenagers to delay or abstain from sexual activity, and reform our child protection bureaucracies.
But if common ground is possible in some areas, disagreement is probably inevitable in others. This is especially true on issues of religious liberty. Some progressives see religious liberty as a camouflage for religious institutions to oppress individuals—such as a Catholic order that doesn’t provide contraceptives or a Christian college that holds traditional sexual standards. Yet most Americans don’t hold this view, and it cannot become our government’s view.
Religious liberty is vital—not only as a core human right, but also as a way for Christians to model their beliefs without having to bend to the will of the state. Christians have every right to create subcultures in which they live out their faith and transmit their values to their children. And a genuine pluralism—guaranteeing institutional religious liberty—is good for other faiths and the broader society. Healthy religious institutions are sources of conscience, shaping people’s conception of justice, as in the abolitionist and civil rights movement. They are also irreplaceable sources of compassion, providing services and comfort to suffering people at home (e.g., Catholic Charities) and abroad (e.g., World Vision). Scrubbing their influence from public life would dramatically increase the sum of human misery.
But if evangelicals are known primarily for defending their institutions, they will look like one aggrieved minority among many. The face of Christianity can’t be the face of fear and resistance. Evangelicals will fail if they are defined by defending their own prerogatives. This is a trap. It would mean constantly fighting defensive battles on terrain chosen by others.
The main focus of Christian social engagement is not pluralism; it is personalism. We should be known for, and distinguished by, a belief in the priority of humans—for defending their rights, well-being, and dignity. This principle is much at stake in an increasingly utilitarian society—a society that targets children with Down syndrome for destruction before birth; that uses developing life for medical research; and that increasingly signals to the elderly that they are a burden and therefore have a duty to die. This commitment to personalism also involves widening the range of Christian social involvement, including honoring life from beginning to end; fighting preventable disease and extreme poverty; and encouraging economic opportunity and mobility.
The Wilberforce Option
This might be called the Wilberforce Option—the relentless defense of human dignity in the course of human events. William Wilberforce, the greatest political enemy of the 19th-century slave trade, believed Christians should be the first to respond to social injustices. Along with other prominent Christians of his era, Wilberforce made Christian commitment synonymous with defending human rights against powerful social interests.
Our time does not lack for threats to human dignity. The sexual revolution also counts victims, including women who are left to shoulder impossible burdens alone, and children who are physically and emotionally abandoned. This period has also seen a growth industry in sexual slavery, with many young men and women recruited from a broken foster care system. Much about the perception of evangelical Christians in our time will be determined by how they treat the victims of the sexual revolution. Will they be known for offering judgment or healing? The Wilberforce Option can respond to that challenge; the Benedict Option, less so.
We readily admit that matters of social engagement are not always so simple a choice. In some matters we can help to build democratic majorities; in others, we are called to join a faithful minority. Life is complex and unpredictable; we have to adjust to circumstances. The apostle Paul wrote that he “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil. 4:12). God can use people with political power and people without it. Our task in both cases is to be faithful and discerning in finding pathways for grace and healing.
This requires Christians to adopt not just new policies but also new ways of thinking. And that requires historical context. For most of the past 2,000 years, Christians have lived in societies that haven’t generally reflected their values, particularly their sexual values. It was assumed, certainly by Jesus and his disciples, that “resident alien” is a natural position for a Christian.
This is why Paul’s epistles were directed not to the Roman Empire but to Christian communities, not to Caesar but to the churches in Galatia and Ephesus. Here, Christians can learn from Jews, who have not expected the broader society to share their way of life (e.g., observing the Sabbath and not eating pork), but have expected the freedom to maintain their identity.
We will also need to rebalance our approach to sexual ethics. For most evangelicals, the biblical standards on sexuality are clear. But somewhere along the way, the focus on homosexuality became disproportionate. Richard B. Hays, the New Testament scholar, has written, “The Bible hardly ever discusses homosexual behavior. There are perhaps half a dozen brief references to it in all of Scripture….What the Bible does say should be heeded carefully, but any ethic that intends to be biblical will seek to get the accents in the right place….”
Over the years, some Christian leaders have put the accents in the wrong place; they have succeeded in associating Christianity primarily with sexual morality. C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, offers a corrective:
[T]hough I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and backbiting; the pleasure of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.
If evangelicals need to adjust their emphasis on sexual ethics, they also need to rethink the nature of power. Just because Christianity has lost cultural power does not mean it has lost influence. In many books, sociologist of religion Rodney Stark has described how a tiny and obscure Messianic movement in the 2nd and 3rd centuries became the dominant faith of Western civilization. He points to early Christians’ “communal compassion” and social networks; their care for the sick, widows, and orphans; their welcoming of strangers and care for outsiders; their respect for women (who were considered second-class citizens); and their connection to non-Christians.
Christianity’s greatest period of vulnerability and political weakness was the time of its most explosive growth. It became a magnet to others as well as a model of compassion. Likewise, rather than lecturing the world, we need to show a different and better way to live in the world, which includes seeking, as the prophet Jeremiah described it, “the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (Jer. 29:7). This view of power places average Christians on the mainstage of cultural influence. The loss of political sway in some areas empowers the everyday example of believers.
To be clear: We are not counseling followers of Jesus to eagerly and always relinquish power. Political power, used wisely, can be an effective means to advance justice. But when Christians find themselves on the losing side of Supreme Court decisions, it isn’t cause for despair. Nor does it preclude God from doing extraordinary things.
This summer, nine African Americans were gunned down during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The gunman, Dylann Roof, was motivated by racism.
Less than 48 hours after the killings, the victims’ families were allowed to speak directly to Roof at his first court appearance. The family members spoke in honest, unaffected ways about their grief and heartache. Yet theybestowed forgiveness upon the man who had killed their loved ones. It was an extraordinary moment.
These Christians vividly demonstrated how forgiveness can result in not just healing but also political change. Within days of their courtroom statements, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley endorsed removing the Confederate flag from state grounds. Within weeks, the state legislature voted to take it down.
People who would not have reversed course under the threat of boycotts and political attacks changed their minds after amazing acts of grace. Division gave way to unity because a group of wounded Christians elevated the sights and spirit of everyone around them. The greatest and most powerful Christian distinctive is not the exercise of power; it is the offer of grace.
Those who believe in a sovereign God should be the least angry, the least anxious, and the least fearful. One of the most frequently repeated commands in the Bible is, “Fear not.” God is the author and finisher of our stories, both individually and collectively. He invites us to a calm trust.
“Apocalyptic and hysterical rhetoric is inappropriate for people who are children of the King,” James Forsyth, senior pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church, told us. “Christians should not be characterized by white knuckles of fear and terror.” God’s kingdom has a set of values that should shape us and instill a sense of mission; but God’s purposes ultimately don’t hinge on us. We can rest in the knowledge that God is in control and that things will unfold according to his will and ways.
If we understand this moment of cultural weakness in the right way—if we show joy and grace, serenity and hope, even while traveling on roads marked by difficulty—this moment can turn out to be not a calamity but a greater and grander stage for the true, enduring, and life-giving message of the gospel.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post. Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. They are co-authors of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).