What, exactly, happened on November 6, 2012?
We witnessed the results of a cultural tipping point.
The idea of a “tipping point” owes its popular consciousness to Malcolm Gladwell’s seminal book, The Tipping Point. The idea is that “ideas, behavior, messages and products … often spread like outbreaks of infectious disease … these are social epidemics, and the moment when they take off, when they reach their critical mass, is the Tipping Point.”
There can be little doubt that this election was seismic in terms of social issues. Voters endorsed same-sex marriage in four states and the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in two. Even more significant was that Maryland and Maine became the first states to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote, marking the end of a 14-year, 32-state losing streak when the issue was put to voters instead of being decided by courts or legislatures.
Consider recent history:
In 2004, 11 states voted to define marriage as “between a man and a woman.”
In 2006, seven states adopted similar language.
In 2008, three.
In 2010, none.
Then in 2012, Maine, Maryland and Washington voted in favor of same-sex marriage, and Minnesota rejected a constitutional ban earlier states had been uniformly approving.
“This represents a big change in American society,” says Jennie Bowser, a ballot issues expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But what has happened is far more than Colorado becoming the new Amsterdam.
Here are the points that “tipped”:
1. America as a nation is now, without doubt, decisively post-Christian. This does not mean is it non-Christian, or anti-Christian, simply post-Christian. To be post-Christian means that the very memory of the gospel is fading. This declaration has nothing to do with who won the election. It’s not even about the overall statement the nation made through the election on social issues. It’s about reminding those who may be in shock over the various votes and decisions that this was simply a reflection of who we have become. Religious “nones” now make up one of every five in our nation. To use a biblical metaphor, we have gone from an Acts 2 culture to an Acts 17 culture; we no longer live among the God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem, but reside firmly among the populace of Mars Hill.
2. The culture war, in whatever form it may have continued to have been fought, has been lost. The “Christian Right” got out the vote, spent the money, made their position clear, and was rejected. This does not mean Christians should pull out of political involvement or abdicate our role as “salt” in a decaying culture. It simply means the nature of the war many fought, and the way they fought it, failed. Many Christians will consider this a good thing. Regardless, whatever hope we have for gaining Kingdom ground through political means must be rethought in terms of both strategy and goal.
3. The power of the media is now firmly entrenched as the supreme epicenter shaping our world, eclipsing both education and the judicial system. For example, consider the meteoric rise in the acceptance of same-sex marriage as evidenced in the recent election. How did that happen? It’s no secret: homosexual characters and homoeroticism itself was portrayed on film and television as not only acceptable, but normal. “To judge by the Bravo network, you’d think that gay marriage was not just legal, but mandatory,” observed Ann Marie Cox. “Think of this as the Will and Gracification of America” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
4. Finally, I believe a tipping point has been reached in terms of what it means to be a follower of Christ. There has been a long slide toward remaking Jesus – and thus following Him – into our own image, an image reflective of our culture. Today, you can be a Christian and believe almost anything and live almost any way. In many ways, this is the real “culture war” that has been lost. Rather than standing prophetically over culture, we mirror it. John Stott titled his towering exposition of the Sermon on the Mount “Christian Counter Culture.” But that is precisely what is now vanishing before our eyes.
There is much that could be prescriptively offered in light of these tipping points, such as: an approach toward outreach that is deeply missional and culturally translated for our new context; a renewed effort on legislation guaranteeing religious freedom in light of growing animosity toward religious distinctive; insulating our young against the pervasive matrix of media while simultaneously taking up residence in its world as transformative agents; recasting discipleship from Jesus as a life-additive to Jesus as a life-converter.
But for now, in light of the “tipping points,” a single phrase comes to mind: “the new normal.”
Welcome to it.
James Emery White
Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point.
“Gay marriage, pot make progress,” Elizabeth Weise, Dennis Cauchon and William M. Welch, USA Today, Thursday, November 8, 2012, p. 14A.
“Voters Endorse Social-Issue Firsts,” USA Today, Thursday, November 8, 2012, p. 1A.
“How gay equality became the new normal of US politics in 2012,” Ann Marie Cox, The Guardian, Wednesday, November 7, 2012, read online.
“Christian Right Failed to Sway Voters on Issues,” Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, Saturday, November 10, 2012, p. 1A and 14A, read online.
Additional articles of related interest:
“A nation moving further apart,” USA Today, read online.
“Liberals score social victories, may signal major shift,” USA Today, read online.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.