Changing Culture: A Study in Cultural Engagement - Part 3

Michael Craven | Center for Christ & Culture | Monday, November 1, 2010

Changing Culture: A Study in Cultural Engagement - Part 3

Editor's Note: This is Part Three of a 4-part series. Find Part 1 and Part 2 here.

The second example in our study of cultural engagement is the legalization of abortion. The legalization of abortion did not emerge out of a vacuum nor did it appear as a sudden and unexpected contrast to established values. Roe v. Wade was the inevitable consequence of incremental cultural changes that began with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The Enlightenment would, among other things, give birth to the "autonomous self." Modern man would seek to exalt himself above God, leading to sexual anarchy and removing all impediments to unfettered sexual expression.

Pitirim Sorokin, the founder of the sociology department at Harvard University, wrote this in 1956:

Among the many changes of the last few decades, a peculiar revolution has been taking place in the lives of millions of American men and women… it goes almost unnoticed. … Unmarked by dramatic events on a large scale, it is free from civil war, class struggle, and bloodshed. …It does not try to overthrow governments… Without plan or organization, it is carried on by millions of individuals, each acting on his own….Its name is the sexual revolution.

Sorokin is describing a change in our cultural condition, a condition that—on the surface—appears free from any visible or overt influence. However, that is not to say that forces instrumental to this change weren't present. As to the cause of this revolution, Sorokin observed that, "Any considerable change in marriage behavior, and increase in sexual promiscuity, and illicit relations, is pregnant with momentous consequences" (The American Sex Revolution, [Porter Sargent: Boston, MA, 1956] p. 7).

It is here that we can begin to identify the emergence of cultural change. In 1870 there was one divorce for every 33.7 marriages. By 1956 that number had already changed to 1 divorce for every 3 marriages (Revolution, p. 8). This is not a significant difference from where we are today, with roughly 1 divorce for every 2 marriages. Thus the breakdown in marriage began somewhere between the latter half of the nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth century. This shift in attitude toward marriage and monogamy corresponds with the establishment of Enlightenment ideas within our culture-forming institutions such as education, media and the arts, science and philosophy, government, and so on. This transfer of power within the commanding heights of culture was only made possible by the church's retreat from these same institutions.

The Enlightenment sought to free man from subordination to the divine. Human reason became divine and man—unrestrained by anything outside himself—would, in essence, worship himself. Modern man would (and still does) embrace the myth of the autonomous self and this assertion of autonomy would eventually find it fullest expression in sexuality.

In the late nineteenth century, Sigmund Freud would argue that "sexual love [is] the prototype of all happiness." Among other things, this definition implied that love is based ultimately on the pursuit of pleasure—a quest to satisfy the self rather than others. Thus the self-sacrificial love of agape, rooted in the Christian worldview, would begin to be supplanted by the self-centered desire of eros or erotic love, rooted in the autonomous self.

On the heels of Freud came Margaret Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League in 1921, which would go on to become Planned Parenthood. Sanger, like Freud, argued that the repression of sexual desires was harmful, adding that such repression would result in negative health consequences and even the inhibition of intellectual capacity—not an uncommon theory in her era. From our vantage point, we easily see Sanger as a moral monster. However, Sanger's argument for abortion as a tool for population control and poverty alleviation gained traction precisely because there was growing agreement with Darwinism and eugenics among elites, which was buoyed by a racism among the populace that was prevalent at the time.

Following Sanger, a two-part cultural phenomenon took place in 1948 and 1953 with the publication of Dr. Alfred Kinsey's monumental works on male and female sexuality. Kinsey [a zoologist] determined to demonstrate that Americans were far more sexually deviant than was actually the case, thereby disproving the traditional belief that private immorality has public consequences. For Kinsey, any moral restraint on sexual conduct was against nature. Kinsey would succeed by fabricating new science using dubious data to reform America's laws governing sexual conduct and subsequently changing social attitudes toward sexual mores.

Then, in December of 1953, Hugh Hefner, building on Kinsey's inspiration, launched Playboy magazine. In his first issue, he acknowledged his commitment to Kinsey's findings. He wrote, "We believe we are fulfilling a publishing need only slightly less important than one just taken care of by the Kinsey Report." According to Hefner, "Playboy freed a generation from guilt about sex, changed some laws and helped launch a revolution or two." Playboy is the magazine that changed America by waging war on marriage and its implicit monogamy—a major impediment to sexual autonomy.

While Hugh Hefner was popularizing the Kinsey philosophy through the Playboy culture, another notable figure was introducing the Kinsey philosophy to America's school children beginning in 1964. Dr. Mary Calderone, a former Kinsey associate, was chosen to lead the newly formed Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). Established by the Kinsey Institute, SIECUS became and remains one of the most influential resources for sex-education in America's public schools. The initial grant to establish SIECUS was given by Hugh Hefner through the Playboy Foundation. Calderone wrote:

A new stage of evolution is breaking across the horizon and the task of educators is to prepare children to step into that new world. To do this, they must pry children away from old views and values, especially from biblical and other traditional forms of sexual morality—for religious laws or rules about sex were made on the basis of ignorance (Mary Calderone and Eric Johnson, The Family Book About Sexuality (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), 171.

Finally, in 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States would remove the final barrier to complete and absolute sexual autonomy: the risk of procreation. Americans would now have the right to kill their unborn children and preserve their autonomy. And what was the basis of the court's decision? Privacy. In other words, the autonomy of the individual woman was elevated over and above both the interests of society and the child she carries.

It was the quest for autonomy, born in the ideology of the enlightenment and expressed in the secular humanistic worldview that now shaped the culture-forming institutions in America. Rather than a grass-roots movement, the abortion culture was the product of a distinct worldview held by a relatively small network of people—cultural elites who possessed the credentials to shape our key culture-forming institutions. Christians, generally speaking, no longer lead the institutions of culture‚ where the culture is actually formed. It is why we are losing the culture war: we're not fighting on the right battlefield or with the right weapons.

(Adapted from a lecture given at the Troutt Lecture Series on behalf of the Council for Life in Dallas, Texas on October 7, 2010.)

© 2010 by S. Michael Craven Permission granted for non-commercial use.

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S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture and the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit:

Changing Culture: A Study in Cultural Engagement - Part 3