In every age the Church in confronted with cultural and ethical challenges which test both the conviction and the compassion of the Body of Christ. Since World War II, American Christians have struggled with issues of racism, war, abortion, and sexuality in successive and overlapping waves of moral confrontation. In the end, the issues of abortion and homosexuality are likely to prove the two most divisive issues Americans have faced since the Civil War.
The issue of homosexuality is currently the most heating front on the so-called culture-war. Homosexual activists groups are pressing for identification of homosexual men and lesbians as a class offered special protections under civil rights legislation and homosexual-orientated literature is now a commonplace in public libraries--and even in some public schools. The larger secular academy has largely capitulated to the Homosexual Movement, and "Gay-studies" programs are now a growth industry in the academic culture.
The mainstream media now portray homosexuality in a positive light. Openly homosexual characters on prime-time television re joined by overt homoerotic-erotic images in broad-based advertising. More distressing, most of the historic denominations of the older Protestant "mainline" are currently debating homosexuality, with the issue currently focused on the ordination of practicing homosexuals to the ministry.
How did this happen? The origins of the Homosexual Movement as a major cultural force must be traced to the 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan. Known within the homosexual community as the "Stonewall Rebellion," the riot took place as New York City policy raided a homosexual bar. The patrons fought back in what would become the inaugural symbol of the "gay liberation" movement. As the Village Voice reported on July 3, 1960: "Gay power erected its brazen head and spat out a fairy tale the likes of which the area has never seen….Watch out. The liberation is underway."
What has followed has been a measured and strategic effort to win the legitimization of homosexuality, to promote homosexual themes in the media, to receive special entitlements as a legally protected class. Furthermore, the Movement has pushed for specific policy goals, such as the removal of all anti-sodomy laws, the recognition of homosexual partnerships on par with heterosexual marriage, anti-discrimination laws, and the removal of all barriers to homosexuals in the military, the academy, business, and the churches.
In order to pursue these goals, the Homosexual Movement has organized itself as a liberation movement based on an ideology of liberation from oppression drawn upon Marxist foundations. Thus, the intention has been to identify with other liberation movements, including the civil rights movement and the feminist agenda. But the goal is not mere legitimization of homosexual activity or even the recognition of homosexual relationships. Rather, it is the creation of a public homosexual culture within the American mainstream.
This movement is a stark challenge to all sectors of American society. It has become the driving engine of a social revolution, which will influence or transform every institution of American life, from the family to mediating institutions and the state.
Beyond this, an evangelical perspective must recognize that such a revolution is an attack upon the foundations of gender, family, sexuality, and morality which are central issues of the Christian worldview based on the Word of God revealed in Holy Scripture. Thus, this is a challenge evangelicals cannot fail to meet with both grace and honesty.
The Homosexual Movement did not spring from a vacuum. Indeed the challenge has emerged from within the context of the seismic culture-shift which has transformed western societies during the twentieth century. The concept of a culture-shift draws attention to the patter of fundamental changes which have shaped every level of social and cultural life. The culture-shift is nothing less than a fundamental re-ordering of society in terms of structures, ideologies, worldviews, morality, and patterns of knowledge.
The culture-shift from modernity to postmodernity has affected all communities of meaning, to use the category favored by sociologists. From the Christian perspective, the more important category is truth, and the culture-shift has radically re-ordered how Americans view the issue of truth.
The last half of the twentieth century has proven that the left wing of the Enlightenment has finally won the day. Whereas most pre-Enlightenment persons understood truth to be an objective reality to which they must submit when it is made known, modern Americans view truth as a private commodity to be shaped, accepted, or rejected as accords personal preference or taste. Americans are now a nation of over 250-million moral relativists. Indeed, a majority of American adults now reject the very notion of absolute truth.
All matters of faith and morality are now considered by a majority of Americans to be issues of mere private preference. All truth is interior and privatized. This embrace of undiluted individualism underlies our current cultural confusion. The successive and progressive shift in the locus of truth and authority from the Christian worldview to the state to the isolated individual leaves the American public unarmed for authentic moral discourse. All that remains is utter subjectivity and the inevitable power struggles which will occur when ideologies and political agendas clash in the public square.
Clearly, many who consider themselves believing Christians have succumbed to the lure of relativistic worldviews. Yet, Christians must face squarely the truth that the faith once for all delivered to the saints is fundamentally incompatible with a rejection of absolute truth. The Gospel itself is a direct claim to universal and absolute truth, and the Bible (which is incomprehensible apart from its claim to absolute truth as revealed by God Himself) makes a claim to truth which applies to all persons everywhere and in all times. If there is no absolute truth, there is no Christian faith, and there is no salvation through Jesus Christ, who makes an absolute and universal claim when He declared himself, "the Way, the Truth, and the Life."
Hence we see the culture war which now marks the common life of the American republic. The issues of sexuality and abortion--and the entire controversy of "political correctness"--are but fronts and battle-lines within the culture war. Christians must be re-armed for this conflict, and this will be possible only by means of a recovery of biblical faith and convictional courage.
One of the most formative shifts in the nation's public consciousness is the reduction of moral argumentation to what Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon terms "rights talks." All moral debates, whether about divorce, sex, abortion, or smoking tobacco are now reduced to debates over individual rights, couched now in the language of a "right to choose," a "right to sexual preference," or a "right to integrity or personhood," however determined. Our collective moral imagination is now transformed from matters of right and wrong to mere contests for your rights, my rights, and their rights.
Here we see the corrosive effects of the acids of modernity. One of the most important aspects of this corrosion is the process of secularization which has pervasively denuded the public square of all Christian truth-claims, including and especially those related to moral truths. Beyond the public square, however, we must admit the impact of secularization within the Church as well. Secularization is not something that has merely "happened" to the Church. In very real ways, the Church has aided and abetted that process of denying Biblical truth and its claims to all dimensions of life.
The rise and tactical success of the Homosexual Movement could only be made possible by the radical decline of the Christian worldview within western culture. The Christian gospel makes a comprehensive claim to all areas of life and thought. Biblical truth is to be applied to all areas of life and all issues of individual and communal meaning. Moral relativism and rights talk have filled the vacuum left by the evacuation of the Christian worldview.
Tomorrow: The Challenge to Biblical Authority
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. For more articles and resources by Dr. Mohler, and for information on The Albert Mohler Program, a daily national radio program broadcast on the Salem Radio Network, go to www.albertmohler.com. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to www.sbts.edu. Send feedback to [email protected].
See also the most recent entries on Dr. Mohler's Blog.