A Hard Future For Traditional Christianity
Exit polling shows that Ireland has voted in a landslide — 68 percent to 32 percent — to change the constitution to legalize abortion. Among 18 to 24 year olds, the pro-abortion vote was 87 percent. Even rural Ireland, which was expected to be a bastion of anti-repeal sentiment, came in at 60 percent for repealing the abortion ban.
So much for Catholic Ireland. The Rubicon has been crossed. The young Dublin protester in the photo above, whose sign says that the desires of whores (“hoes”) are more important than the right to life of the unborn, has prevailed. Thus, from the Catholic commenter Sohrab Ahmari:
Exit polls suggest a strong pro-abortion vote in Ireland. As I said last night, we need to think of the West as the repaganized periphery.
Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.
— Sohrab Ahmari (@SohrabAhmari) May 25, 2018
Today, The Benedict Option seems radical and alarmist to a lot of Christians. By 2020, it’s going to seem like plain common sense.
Don’t misread me here. There will still be Catholics in Ireland after abortion is legal. The point is that the shift in public consciousness that made it possible for the Irish to accept legal abortion is part of a massive de-Christianization (or re-paganization) of the West.
The main focus of my work in the last few years has been to shake traditional Christians out of our collective torpor in the face of this challenge. Part of that torpor involves believing that politics are sufficient to deal with the problem. This is going to sound strange to non-Christians, or to those who identify as Christians, but who are not involved in church, but it’s true: there are more than a few conservative Christians who still believe that most Americans are pretty much on their side. To them, it can’t be true that America is post-Christian, therefore it isn’t true.
So they don’t see the tsunamis coming.
For example, a reader tips me off to a new set of numbers from Pew: a study comparing and contrasting the way urban, suburban, and rural people think about a variety of issues. Here’s one result that struck the reader (and me):
Notice that even a comfortable majority (58 percent) of rural residents think same-sex marriage is good for society. These numbers shouldn’t surprise anybody who has been paying attention. I bring them up, though, in another of my routine attempts to convince my fellow conservative Christians that we are going to face a much more difficult future on the religious liberty front than our leaders are telling us, and that many of us want to hear.
“Religious liberty” is not just freedom to believe and freedom to worship. Nobody who understands the issues believes that there will be a serious threat to freedom to worship, or freedom to affirm one’s religious beliefs. The threat to religious liberty comes in the exercise of religious beliefs outside of one’s house of worship. I wrote here recently about how the City of Philadelphia is attempting to prevent Catholic Social Services from placing foster children because, in accordance with Catholic teaching, the agency refuses to place foster kids with same-sex couples. Even if you think CSS is in the wrong here, you have to recognize that the state is exacting a cost to Christians for adhering to their religious beliefs regarding homosexuality.
This is going to be increasingly common. Everybody knows that. The clash between gay rights and traditional Christianity (as well as Orthodox Judaism and Islam) is going to grow fiercer. It is the main event in religious liberty challenges now and into the foreseeable future. In an extremely prescient 2006 article on gay marriage and religious liberty, Maggie Gallagher interviewed Anthony Picarello, at the time the president and general counsel of the Becket Fund, a public interest legal organization advocating for clients in religious liberty cases. He said:
Just how serious are the coming conflicts over religious liberty stemming from gay marriage?
“The impact will be severe and pervasive,” Picarello says flatly. “This is going to affect every aspect of church-state relations.” Recent years, he predicts, will be looked back on as a time of relative peace between church and state, one where people had the luxury of litigating cases about things like the Ten Commandments in courthouses. In times of relative peace, says Picarello, people don’t even notice that “the church is surrounded on all sides by the state; that church and state butt up against each other. The boundaries are usually peaceful, so it’s easy sometimes to forget they are there. But because marriage affects just about every area of the law, gay marriage is going to create a point of conflict at every point around the perimeter.”
We’ve been living through that. It’s going to get harsher.
Traditional Christians had better understand that the vise is going to be squeezing us much tighter. Look at the numbers in the Pew study above. The Silent Generation will be gone in the next two decades. Assuming that nobody changes his mind, that will leave rural Boomers and Xers as the only generational and geographical demographic groups who believe that same-sex marriage is not good for society.
The numbers sympathetic to trads will be even smaller if Boomers and Xers who are negative on gay marriage today change their mind, as has been the trend over the past decade. How many people do you think are going from having been pro-SSM to anti-SSM? If any, the number has not been meaningful. The trend towards accepting gay marriage is overwhelming and irreversible for the foreseeable future.
One might have thought that having won the right to marry, and the culture war in general, that gay rights supporters would be magnanimous in victory, and leave religious people alone to live out our sad, limited beliefs, until we all just fade away. That was never a possibility. Activist groups depend on keeping fervor against enemies stoked. As long as there is any resistance anywhere, gay activists and liberal fellow travelers will be attacking in court and in other forums. This is obvious.
Here’s the thing: they will have the public on their side. They already do — see the Pew numbers above, especially the overwhelming numbers in the youngest generational cohort. Among the Millennials, an average of 68 percent think same-sex marriage is a good thing for society. Those numbers are not going to shrink. If they move at all, it will be to expand. And there is no reason at all to believe the numbers for the generation following the Millennials will be anything but bigger.
So, you tell me: how do you protect the right of traditional Christians to live by a conviction that a strong majority of Americans believe is bad for society?
You don’t. The Supreme Court’s Bob Jones ruling gives the IRS the right to take away a religious institution’s tax-exempt status if the government has a compelling public interest to do so, e.g., fighting racial discrimination. If you don’t think that’s going to happen to Christian educational institutions in the next few years, you’re dreaming.
Will it be applied to churches too? That seems far less likely, but by no means unthinkable as America secularizes. We are moving very quickly into a country where people don’t understand what it means to be traditionally religious. Consider:
The Nones are rising as a percentage of the population. Most of them consider themselves to be spiritual, but not religious — and aren’t looking to affiliate themselves with any particular church or tradition. And Millennials who still identify with particular religious traditions are much more pro-gay (read: anti-traditional) than older Christians. Catholic Millennials overwhelmingly accept homosexuality and favor gay marriage. Among Evangelicals polled last year by Pew, a slight majority said that homosexuality should be accepted by society, and 45 percent favored same-sex marriage.
Why is this important? Because the American public is becoming less religious, and those who adhere to religion are becoming less conservative, especially on the issue — homosexuality — where the religious liberties of traditionalist Christians will be most tested. What conservative Catholics, Evangelicals, and other Christians believe will not only not be shared by most Americans (even most American Christians!), it will also seem to them like nothing more than mindless hatred.
Do you really think that America is going to protect the rights of bigots to practice their hatred, either under law or in custom? Especially when those so-called bigots oppose the holiest things in the religion of secular liberalism: sexual autonomy, diversity, egalitarianism?
Many of you cannot figure out why homosexuality (and sexuality in general) is such a big deal to us traditionalists. There is the fact that it is clearly condemned in Biblical teaching. Plus, that condemnation is not arbitrary at all, but emerges out of the Judeo-Christian conception of what it means to be a human being, and of the right ordering of the cosmos. As I tried to explain in The Benedict Option, we are not now seeing the embrace of sexual autonomy — including abortion rights and gay rights — and their affirmation as good things because of the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP. These things are no aberration, but rather the logical fulfillment of a philosophical and theological turn made centuries ago. A remnant of the Christian faith held these things in check, but not that restraint has almost entirely evaporated.
We have severed the Christian faith from our body politic — in the sense that Western people no longer believe that traditional Christianity should have anything to do with the way we order public life — and nearly severed the Christian faith from the body, period. By that I mean that people who call themselves Christians increasingly disbelieve that their faith obliges them to live by a certain corporal disciplines, sexual and otherwise.
This is something radically new in the history of Christianity, this disincarnationalism. Christians don’t see that, though. They don’t see how difficult it will be to hold on to the liberating teachings of the Bible regarding sexuality, in this repaganized West. And they see no better than anybody else what this repaganization is likely to mean for the body and those who live in them.
What kind of world did Christian sexual ethics challenge? Here’s a passage from a New York Review of Books review essay by Peter Brown, one of the greatest living historians of late antiquity. He talks about how Christianity opposed Roman mores most powerfully in its rejection of the widespread sexual exploitation of slaves and women:
From Saint Paul onward, the great issues of sex and freedom were brought together in Christian circles like the enriched ore of an atomic device. For Paul, porneia—fornication—meant a lot more than premarital fooling around. It was a brooding metonym, “enriched” by an entire spectrum of associations. It stood for mankind’s rebellion against God. And this primal rebellion was shown most clearly in the topsy-turvy sexual freedom ascribed first by Jews and then by Christians to the non-Christian world.
But then, what was true freedom? Freedom also was a mighty metonym, of which the freedom to decide one’s sexual fate was only one, highly “enriched” part. Above all, it meant “freedom” from “the world.” And by “the world” Christians meant, bluntly, the Roman society of their own times, where unfreedom was shown in its darkest light by the trading and sexual abuse of unfree bodies. It no longer mattered, to Christians, with whose bodies, from which social categories, and in what manner sex might happen. From Paul onward, for Christians, there was right sex—sex between spouses for the production of children; wrong sex—sex outside marriage; and abhorrent sex—sex between same-sex partners. Wrong sex of any kind was a sin. And a sin was a sin. It was not a social faux pas, deemed an outrage in one situation and accepted in another.
Seldom has so great a simplification been imposed on a complex society. The unexpected victory of Christian norms in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries was so thorough that any alternative ordering of moral frontiers within a society became unthinkable. The intricacies of a status-based morality still require patient reconstruction by modern historians of Rome, like the bones of some flamboyant creature of the Jurassic age. The Christian victory was one that caused a chasm to open up between ourselves and the ancient world.
Brown’s general point here — and in his own work — is that Christianity radically restructured the way Greco-Roman society thought about sex and the body. Now that we are leaving Christianity, the old ways are returning. You may think that a good thing. But Christians who don’t apostatize on these teachings for the sake of fitting into the world had better, in Sohrab Ahmari’s words, start thinking of the West as pagan territory, and had better get clear in their minds the steep, rocky, narrow road opening out in front of us, our children, and our children’s children.
It is widespread loss of faith encouraged by a powerful secularist culture and abetted by a Church that sometimes seems ashamed of Christ.
— Carlo Lancellotti (@_CLancellotti) May 26, 2018