One Friday after work, Bill and John went out for steak. They had a great time, and the next week John ran into Bill at the water cooler.
John: “Hey, steak again tomorrow?”
Bill: “You disgusting, carnivorous animal killer. I wouldn’t let a piece of dead animal get within 10 feet of my mouth.”
Bill: “I became a vegetarian yesterday. And you need to change, too. I can’t believe how medieval your view on this is. It’s horrible. If you don’t change your regressive ways right now, my friends and I can’t associate with you. Goodbye.”
John was confused.
This is pretty much how the change on gay marriage feels to most Christians. Here’s a public statement from Aug. 17, 2008:
“I believe marriage is the union between a man and a woman.
For me as a Christian it’s also a sacred union.”
The speaker was Barack Obama. In this same period, 32 states overwhelmingly passed constitutional ammendments; as late as 2011 the President expressed continued opposition to gay marriage. Only in May, 2012 did he make his new view public and just three years later the subject typically finds its place in sentences next to racism, discrimination, and bigotry. Speak strongly against it and you’re vulnerable to all of those epithets and more.
People are certainly entitled to reconsider their views, but three years is just too short. How on earth did this happen so fast? I would point to three major factors:
- Secularism: Of course, there has been a broad secularizing trend in the US that goes back multiple decades. Without underlying faith in religion, there’s no reason not to rethink all aspects of sexual ethics, and Americans have done just that.
- The Failure of Marriage: There is also a trajectory stretching back to the sexual revolution of the 70s and the skyrocketing divorce rates of the Baby Boomers. The concept of radically free sexual self-expression combined with the societal failure of marriage could only continue this way. But neither of these factors explains why now or why so fast.
- Gay—The New Cool: There is probably a sociological effect at work (think Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point). Once everyone from musicians to athletes starts coming out, others feel emboldened. As The Economist observes, when no one knew a homosexual personally, they were opposed. But when that began to change, a vote against gay marriage seemed like a personal vote against a friend or family member. The power of events like the first gay NBA player, Bruce Jenner, or Tim Cook’s coming out should not be underestimated. At some point, this dynamic becomes self-confirming. When enough coworkers become vegetarians (especially popular ones) nobody wants to bring up steak as a Friday night meal option.
Another Tipping Point
But this wasn’t the only tipping point—another one happened to believers. For years it’s been possible to think of the USA as a Christian nation. With Roe v. Wade and the secularizing of public schools, we could tell ourselves that the nation was still Christian at its core; it just somehow got co-opted by a few well-placed liberal elites. To some extent, it was a bit of self-deception, but it was worth a try.
The votes are in now. Things have changed. This is our nation, and it simply isn’t Christian. It’s not as simple as blaming Obama or calling it a run of political bad luck. This, unfortunately, is the will of the people.
And that leaves Christians with the task of processing anew how we think and relate to our country. In future posts we’ll explore the ongoing implications for churches and Christian institutions, evangelizing the LGBT community, and raising children in a sexually confused society. But there are two basic biblical responses to a secular culture:
- Don’t despair. Change is never fun. Broad, societal changes that portend adverse conditions for believers are especially so. But God is still in charge. The prospect of God’s church doesn’t rise and fall with Supreme Court decisions. Let the changes drive you to your knees. And then let the changes drive you yourself to change.
- Be different. No one said that living in a Post-Christian society would be easy. When nearly all the kids in the playground agree, the few that are left out will spend a lot of time feeling dumb. And yet the change opens an opportunity. The fraying of marriages and deviant sexual ethics led to this crisis; the idea of families that truly love each other is only getting more rare. And yet couples who are biblically, exclusively commited to each other will only stand out more and raise questions.
So live that. Be different. Don’t just coexist; don’t just be a family because that’s where you found yourself after 40 years of life. Be so different that people want to ask—have to ask—what makes your family so loving and so happy. And then be ready to point them to your Savior.
In a day of many changes, the truth has not changed. It falls to you and me, the people of God, to share it with a confused world.
Dr. Joel Arnold serves at the Bob Jones Memorial College, Manila, Philippines.