Matt Lewis and Ross Douthat have written timely and important pieces about Christianity and the culture wars.
In my opinion they have much to say about church in America, politics—and boundaries between the two.
But, as I suspect Matt and Ross would both agree, there’s as much unsaid and equally important that we need to talk about in the days and months ahead.
I actually procrastinated reading the Douthat piece, put off and demoralized by its headline (The Terms of Our Surrender). When I finally read it, the opening paragraphs completely demoralized me and stopped right there:
IT now seems certain that before too many years elapse, the Supreme Court will be forced to acknowledge the logic of its own jurisprudence on same-sex marriage and redefine marriage to include gay couples in all 50 states.
Once this happens, the national debate essentially will be finished, but the country will remain divided, with a substantial minority of Americans, most of them religious, still committed to the older view of marriage.
So what then? One possibility is that this division will recede into the cultural background, with marriage joining the long list of topics on which Americans disagree without making a political issue out of it.
What depressed me was knowing he was right. I decided to take it like a man and go on:
In this scenario, religious conservatives would essentially be left to promote their view of wedlock within their own institutions, as a kind of dissenting subculture emphasizing gender differences and procreation, while the wider culture declares that love and commitment are enough to make a marriage. And where conflicts arise — in a case where, say, a Mormon caterer or a Catholic photographer objected to working at a same-sex wedding — gay rights supporters would heed the advice of gay marriage’s intellectual progenitor, Andrew Sullivan, and let the dissenters opt out “in the name of their freedom — and ours.”
But there’s another possibility, in which the oft-invoked analogy between opposition to gay marriage and support for segregation in the 1960s South is pushed to its logical public-policy conclusion. In this scenario, the unwilling photographer or caterer would be treated like the proprietor of a segregated lunch counter, and face fines or lose his business — which is the intent of recent legal actions against a wedding photographer in New Mexico, a florist in Washington State, and a baker in Colorado.
Probably should’ve stopped reading sooner, before he went on to list the pressure that has already been brought to bear against cultural non-conformists:
- Religious-affiliated adoption agencies
- Cities fighting Chick-fil-A
- Religious schools and colleges “losing access to public funds and seeing their tax-exempt status revoked“
- And what happened in Arizona:
Meanwhile, pressure would be brought to bear wherever the religious subculture brushed up against state power. Religious-affiliated adoption agencies would be closed if they declined to place children with same-sex couples. (This has happened in Massachusetts and Illinois.) Organizations and businesses that promoted the older definition of marriage would face constant procedural harassment, along the lines suggested by the mayors who battled with Chick-fil-A. And, eventually, religious schools and colleges would receive the same treatment as racist holdouts like Bob Jones University, losing access to public funds and seeing their tax-exempt status revoked.
In the past, this constant-pressure scenario has seemed the less-likely one, since Americans are better at agreeing to disagree than the culture war would suggest. But it feels a little bit more likely after last week’s “debate” in Arizona, over a bill that was designed to clarify whether existing religious freedom protections can be invoked by defendants like the florist or the photographer.
If you don’t recognize my description of the bill, then you probably followed the press coverage, which was mendacious and hysterical — evincing no familiarity with the legal issues, and endlessly parroting the line that the bill would institute “Jim Crow” for gays. (Never mind that in Arizona it’s currently legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation — and mass discrimination isn’t exactly breaking out.) Allegedly sensible centrists compared the bill’s supporters to segregationist politicians, liberals invoked the Bob Jones precedent to dismiss religious-liberty concerns, and Republican politicians behaved as though the law had been written by David Duke.
What makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.
Which has a certain bracing logic. If your only goal is ensuring that support for traditional marriage diminishes as rapidly as possible, applying constant pressure to religious individuals and institutions will probably do the job. Already, my fellow Christians are divided over these issues, and we’ll be more divided the more pressure we face. The conjugal, male-female view of marriage is too theologically rooted to disappear, but its remaining adherents can be marginalized, set against one other, and encouraged to conform.
Douthat, to me, leaves no hope in the end:
But it’s still important for the winning side to recognize its power. We are not really having an argument about same-sex marriage anymore, and on the evidence of Arizona, we’re not having a negotiation. Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.
Leave it to Matt Lewis to locate a silver lining (For Christians, a silver lining to losing the culture war?):
As I wrote last year, the culture war is over, and conservatives lost. For Christians, though, there might just be a silver lining.
Now, of course, it’s understandable why many of my fellow cultural conservatives mourn the decline of Christian values in the public arena, inasmuch as they had a powerful influence on the rise of western civilization. Historians like Rodney Stark and sociologists like Mary Eberstadt (and many others) have chronicled this phenomenon. It’s not simply about “losing power and market share,” but mourning the very real downstream effects of secular liberal policies on issues such as defending the unborn.
But there are reasons for Christian conservatives to be optimistic about these societal changes, too.
As he develops the piece, Matt pretty much debunks the whole Old Days Were Better (Give Me That Old Time Religion) myth:
For one thing, the good times weren’t always so good. The peak of “Christian America” was probably the 1950s, and while this era had a veneer of spirituality and perhaps the post-war evangelical movement was at its apogee (think Billy Graham), America was plagued by the ugly reality of racism, which goes against the gospel. In many ways, the 1950s was a gilded age. While a lot of Americans presented themselves as Ward Cleaver, they drank and philandered like Don Draper.
Which, as far as I can tell, is true.
Reading this, I was reminded of the phrase in 2 Timothy 3:5, “holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power.”
As somebody vitally concerned with the validity and necessity of evangelism and church growth, it’s fascinating to me—and deeply sad—to see parts of the church (healthfully in my opinion) sloughing off traditional American Christianity (“Churchianity”) and then facing condemnation from folks whose forms and traditions were shaped, not in first Century Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, but in the late 19th and early 20th Century American South.
After painting a word picture of hopeful signs and possibilities, Matt finishes his piece with this:
Christ promised that genuine Christianity would be met with opposition. And the entire book of 1 Peter was written for this purpose: How do we live as a faithful minority? I don’t think anyone should be rooting for persecution, of course, but I do think there may be some very positive developments to come from a nation that no longer pretends to be Christian. It’s hard to be a rebel when you’re The Man.
Which leaves me begging to ask the question:
If we surrender as Social Warriors, what about our responsibilities as Citizen-Warriors?
How do we respond—or do we—as we see this or that individual or organization attacked, marginalized, shamed?
Or, worse, ordered by a court, to ignore their faith and conform to the wishes of a tyrannical majority (which in actuality is probably still a tiny minority—but which has taken command of this government’s levers of power)?
Do we meet pitchfork with pitchfork, torch with torch, lawsuit with lawsuit, snark with snark?
What is our calling now?
Meekness, I understand—although I’m not sure many people who encourage the word understand its biblical meaning.
But silence in the face of Western culture and American law being torn limb from limb?
Is it necessary, in order to be exemplary followers of Christ, that we go AWOL as citizens?
In light of the Indiana controversy, Douthat has written additional insights:
Ross Douthat, New York Times: Questions For Indiana’s Critics