As has been observed by many, last week was nothing less than a cultural earthquake. For the first time in history, a sitting U.S. president endorsed same-sex marriage.
But the larger issue may have been the aftershock. Namely, the debate among Christians as to whether the issue even justifies engagement. Many discuss the 40/40 divide (my terminology) on the matter; those under 40 tend to support same-sex marriage, and not only believe it is pointless to engage, but harmful to Christian outreach. Those over 40 believe it is a decisive issue and that failure to speak out and resist comes at great cultural peril.
Let’s dig deeper into the under-40 crowd. What is driving the divide from their elders?
I would argue that it is two-fold: first, they were the generation raised on “Will & Grace,” followed by “Ellen.” For them, homosexuality was normalized by the mainstream media. Further, the cultural acceptance of such matters has increased the number of friends and family they know, or know of, that are openly gay. This is a powerful combination.
But second, they encountered the fall-out of the Moral Majority, and tend to automatically associate any and all cultural stances of a moral nature with its spirit.
Let’s camp out on the second.
The idea that captivated many Christians in the 80s was the idea that ours was once a Christian nation, and we should actively work to return our governing bodies and laws back to their original intent. Even among those who did not espouse a sense of “returning,” there was often a deep sense of fulfilling a Christian destiny.
To be fair, the idea of “chosenness” and “special blessing” from God has been a constant theme throughout the history of the United States, beginning with the Puritans and their desire that, in the words of John Winthrop in 1630, they should be “as a Citty [sic] upon a Hill.” As historian Conrad Cherry writes: “Throughout their history Americans have been possessed by an acute sense of divine election. They have fancied themselves a New Israel, a people chosen for the awesome responsibility of serving as a light to the nations. ... It has long been ... the essence of America’s motivating mythology.”
That vision of a Christian America was again popularized in the late 1970s by evangelical authors Peter Marshall and David Manuel in The Light and the Glory. Marshall and Manuel held that America was founded as a Christian nation and flourished under the benevolent hand of divine providence, arguing further that America's blessings will remain only as long as America is faithful to God as a nation. In 1989, a team of evangelical historians (Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden) attempted to lay this somewhat dubious thesis to rest, but it continues as a popular framework for viewing American history among American evangelicals.
The Moral Majority of the 1980s found its genesis in such sentiments, and accordingly formed a “top-down” strategy for cultural change. If we could only have Christians in the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court -- or populating other leadership elites -- then morality would be enacted and faith would once again find the fertile soil needed to establish its footing in individual lives.
The moral majority “won” through the election of Ronald Reagan as president, and his subsequent Supreme Court appointments throughout the 1980s brought great anticipation for substantive change.
Yet there was little real change to mark as a result.
Even the prime target – the striking down of the Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion – remains the law of the land to this day. Further, the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s is now widely viewed as one of the more distasteful episodes in recent memory, and many younger evangelicals want nothing to do with what was often its caustic, abrasive and unloving approach toward those apart from Christ.
So the effort to recapture the nation failed as a strategy, and alienated a younger generation.
As one who was a college student in the early 80s, I stand with that alienation. I am deeply sympathetic to those who give a resounding “no” to Christians joining any kind of “culture war” again. The idea is that it is ineffectual, and offensive to those we are trying to reach.
But I also believe that in so doing, we may be throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water.
I have read Christian blogger after Christian blogger (yes, most under 40) jump on the anti-culture war bandwagon over North Carolina passing its amendment against same-sex marriage, as well as outspokenly decry anyone who would, well, outspokenly decry President Obama’s support of same-sex marriage. Yes, it’s all in the spirit of denouncing the failure of the Moral Majority of the 80s and the ongoing alienation of the homosexual community.
But may I offer four rejoinders?
1. It is the responsibility of Christ followers to be salt and light in a fallen world, and this includes politics. We should use our freedom to vote in any way possible to bring the Kingdom of God to greater reality. And yes, the Kingdom of God includes the biblical understandings of marriage and family.
This is not about attempting to impose things through power, but influence. There is a difference. In Jesus' day, salt was one of the most useful and important elements you could possess, but not for the purpose of adding flavor to food. The main use of salt was as a preservative to keep food from rotting. Without refrigerators or freezers, canned goods or packaging, salt was used to keep food from spoiling. If you had a piece of meat that you couldn’t eat right away, you would take some salt and rub it into the meat, which would prevent the meat from going bad. As John Stott wrote,
The notion is not that the world is tasteless and that Christians can make it less insipid ... but that it is putrefying. It cannot stop itself from going bad. Only salt introduced from outside can do this. The church ... is set in the world...as salt to arrest – or at least to hinder – the process of social decay. ... God intends the most powerful of all restraints within sinful society to be his own redeemed, regenerate and righteous people.
Stott continued by noting the obvious – namely, that this influence is conditional. Meaning that for salt to be effective, it must retain its saltness. “For effectiveness the Christian must retain his Christlikeness, as salt must retain its saltness,” Stott observes. “The influence of Christians in and on society depends on their being distinct, not identical.” Even further, this difference must be applied to what is, in fact, decaying. Unless the salt penetrates the culture, the decay cannot be arrested.
2. It is one thing to denounce “culture wars” in the name of the failure of the Moral Majority of thirty years ago; it is another to abdicate our responsibility to be salt and light on today’s contemporary moral issues. Yes, social justice matters, but so does moral order. Lovelessness toward anyone, including homosexuals, must be repented from (as I have written about – see below), but that does not mean we should not continue to speak out on sexual ethics. As Martin Luther is reported to have proclaimed,
“If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”
We can have an honest debate about whether amendments such as the one North Carolina approved are beneficial or unnecessary, but the discussion itself is pivotal.
3. Same-sex marriage is not exactly a fringe issue that propels Christians into the backwaters of culture. Lest we forget, North Carolina was the 30th state to pass such an amendment. That is not just Christians speaking, but by necessity involves the majority of Americans (e.g., one of the major groups supporting Amendment One in North Carolina were African-American Democrats). Could it be that we live under such pressure to be politically correct that polls show a majority in favor of same-sex marriage, but when faced with the opportunity to vote their conscience in private, a different perspective emerges? Whether that is the impetus or not, whenever such an amendment has been presented, it has passed without fail. Thirty for 30.
4. Refraining to speak out on a particular issue because you fear alienating a particular community or sub-group for Christ is specious at best, heretical at worst. The gospel is offensive. Jesus offended the Pharisees (Mt. 15:12), He offended those in His hometown (Mt. 13:55-57), He offended His family members (Mk. 3:21, 31-35). He offended His closest followers (John 6:60-61, 66) and closest friends (John 11:6). As Peter wrote, Jesus as the living Stone is precious to those who believe, but to those who do not believe, He is the “stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall” (I Peter 2:8, NIV). Or as it says in the NKJV, “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.”
You can’t escape that word: offense.
I sometimes fear that Christians are so eager to be accepted and honored like, for example, a Bono that they capitulate on key issues (not that Bono does – just let the example play out).
Jesus ended up on a cross to jeers, not a stage to cheers. It is one thing for young adults to leave the church for an unloving attitude toward the gay community (I’ll follow you out the door); it is another for them to leave the church for a moral stance against homoeroticism that is simply culturally unpopular.
I live in North Carolina, and saw the debate first-hand between supporters and opponents of Amendment One. There were no “God Hates Fags” signs that I saw. Indeed, there was no incivility by Christians toward the homosexual community at all. When one prominent African-American pastor made a sermonic joke in poor taste (he put his arm around a male choir member and said that if this was his mate, they wouldn’t want him as their pastor), his own church confronted him on the matter, and he immediately apologized to the wider community.
A seemingly small matter, but it shows the degree of sensitivity Christians attempted when speaking to the issue; a sensitivity to speak to the issue, but not engage in ridicule of any kind.
Yes, Billy Graham took a public stand on the issue, but so did Bill Clinton (can you say “robo-calls?”). As did many other prominent non-North Carolina clergy. All to say, it was a refreshingly respectful process that brought no shame on Christians in regard to spirit or rhetoric.
Our goal is not offense for offense’s sake, much less to do so with impunity. But we are not trying to make the gospel socially acceptable or palatable to the masses. If my stance on homosexuality offends a practicing homosexual – despite the fact that my stance was forged on biblical conviction and expressed with compassion – then I cannot help that offense.
Indeed, I cannot escape it, nor should I try.
Our goal is to remove every barrier that exists between such persons and their acceptance of the scandal of the cross … except the scandal of the cross!
Which, of course, calls for repentance.
And that is one cultural war we cannot avoid.
James Emery White
James Emery White, Christ Among the Dragons (InterVarsity Press).
John Winthrop, A Modell of Christian Charity (1630), in Conrad Cherry, God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971).
Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, George M. Marsden, The Search for Christian America, Expanded Edition (Colorado Springs: Helmers and Howard, 1989).
John R.W. Stott, Christian Counter Culture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press).
Source of Luther-inspired quote: Elizabeth Rundle Charles,The Chronicles of the Schoenberg Cotta Family (Thomas Nelson, 1864). It is often attributed to Luther, usually due to Francis Schaeffer’s misattribution of it to Luther in The Great Evangelical Disaster (Schaeffer attributes it to Luther, but gives no source). It is, instead, inspired by Luther’s writings, such as page 81 and following of the third volume of Briefwechsel (correspondence) from D. Martin Luthers Werke, the German (Weimar) edition of Luther’s Works -- but actually written by Charles in her 19th-century novel.
In 2011, Dr. White wrote a six-part blog on homosexuality and gay marriage. Click here to begin reading Part 1.
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 A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity 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.