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For Church, Gay Rights Trump Religious Liberty

New survey of religious Americans finds widespread acceptance of gay marriage, and opposition to religious liberty legislation that conflicts with it

Here’s news that ought to shake small-o orthodox Christians out of their complacency regarding the future of the church in America:

The majority of Americans who identify as religious say they favor allowing gays and lesbians to legally marry and oppose policies that would give business owners the right to refuse services to same-sex wedding ceremonies, according to data compiled by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Last Friday, the Washington, D.C.-based polling firm released a new analysis drawn from interviews with 40,509 Americans throughout 2016 for PRRI’s American Values Atlas.

The data, which has an error margin of less than 1 percentage point, finds that the majority of only three religious demographics — white evangelical Protestants, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses — said they oppose “allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally.”

While 58 percent of Americans said they support same-sex marriage, 61 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 55 percent of Mormons and 53 percent of Jehovah’s Witnesses signaled that they oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage, which happened in 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states cannot ban same-sex marriage, making it legal nationwide.

By comparison, only 28 percent of white Mainline Protestants and white Catholics, 25 percent of Hispanic Catholics and 30 percent of Orthodox Christians said they oppose allowing gays and lesbians to legally marry.

In the story, the conservative Methodist Mark Tooley says that the PRRI poll misstates what is actually at issue regarding small business owners. Nobody has sought the right to avoid selling to or otherwise serving gay customers. The disputes have all been specifically about participating in same-sex weddings. It’s an important distinction, but I think had the question been phrased more precisely, the outcome would not have been any different.

Anyway, read the whole thing.  A few things about the data stand out to me:

First, religion has been no bulwark against being assimilated into the world’s views on fundamental principles of Christian cosmology (i.e., how reality is constituted), Christian anthropology (i.e., portrait of what man is) and morality. As I explained earlier, the gay marriage issue is what revealed the weakness of Christianity in our culture: “the gay-rights cause has succeeded precisely because the Christian cosmology has dissipated in the mind of the West.” Excerpt:

[I]s sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force?

Though he might not have put it quite that way, the eminent sociologist Philip Rieff would probably have said yes. Rieff’s landmark 1966 book The Triumph Of the Therapeutic analyzes what he calls the “deconversion” of the West from Christianity. Nearly everyone recognizes that this process has been underway since the Enlightenment, but Rieff showed that it had reached a more advanced stage than most people—least of all Christians—recognized.

Rieff, who died in 2006, was an unbeliever, but he understood that religion is the key to understanding any culture. For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culture requires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework.

You don’t behave this way and not that way because it’s good for you; you do so because this moral vision is encoded in the nature of reality. This is the basis of natural-law theory, which has been at the heart of contemporary secular arguments against same-sex marriage (and which have persuaded no one).

Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the sexual revolution—though he did not use that term—as a leading indicator of Christianity’s death as a culturally determinative force. In classical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism” was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant that renouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture was at the core of Christian culture—a culture that, crucially, did not merely renounce but redirected the erotic instinct. That the West was rapidly re-paganizing around sensuality and sexual liberation was a powerful sign of Christianity’s demise.

Second, the churches that have a deeper cosmology — the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox — are doing far worse in forming the understanding of their people in America than are Evangelicals. Look at the appalling numbers for white Catholics. All those culturally conservative Hispanic Catholics on whose backs some conservative Catholics think a more faithful American Catholicism will be built? The overwhelming majority favor same-sex marriage. Same with Orthodox Christians.

Somebody will eventually say in the comments thread that if the survey had focused on people who actually go to church, the numbers would look more favorable for Christian traditionalists. Probably so, but I don’t think they would be that much more favorable, and even if they were, doesn’t this just go to show that Christianity is dissipating as we move farther into post-Christianity?

Third, the data show that only a slight plurality (44 percent) of American Muslims oppose same-sex marriage. Is that not remarkable? Such is the power of American popular culture.

Fourth, these results show why the GOP Congress and President Trump are not likely to do anything substantive to protect the religious liberty of believers who dissent from LGBT orthodoxy. Though it’s the right thing to do, doing it would not be popular. In fact, it would tar Congressmen and senators with the scarlet letter of bigotry (“bigotry”), and for no political gain. Trump, who favors gay marriage, doesn’t really care about religious liberty, and despite campaign promises to the contrary, certainly won’t endanger the things he does care about for the sake of taking a politically unpopular stand.

He’s promising to throw Evangelical Christians a bone by pushing for a repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which prevents churches from openly endorsing political candidates, or risk losing their non-profit status. As Tom Gjelten explains, it has been rarely enforced, but if it were to be repealed, it would have a massive impact on church fundraising for political candidates — and in turn, for the politicizing of religion.

I think it’s a terrible idea, and will corrupt the churches if it goes through. Besides, this is not remotely the kind of legislation that churches need right now. We need real religious liberty legislation, like the First Amendment Defense Act.  In fact, last fall, Trump said on his campaign’s website that if Congress passes FADA, he would sign it.  I doubt he will do that, but the GOP-led Congress should test him on it.

Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee have promised to re-introduce FADA in the Senate. Rep. Raúl Labrador says he will do the same thing in the House. Watch what happens over the next month or so on this front. If a Republican-led Congress will not pass FADA and send it to the president’s desk, that’s game, set, match, at least on the legislative front (we’ll see what courts do later). Look at the poll numbers on this issue, though, and it’s hard to see any political upside to them doing so. Religious liberty advocates would have to depend on GOP politicians having the courage to stand on principle, even when it might cost them.

Fifth and finally, these data show where the culture is going on the issue. We small-o orthodox Christians have lost on sexuality, which led to our loss on homosexuality, which led to our loss on same-sex marriage, which is leading to our loss on gender and the natural family — and which, if Mary Eberstadt is right, will lead to the loss of religious faith. From my forthcoming book The Benedict Option:

The fate of religion in America is inextricably tied to the fate of the family, and the fate of the family is tied to the fate of the community. In her 2015 book How The West Really Lost God, cultural critic Mary Eberstadt argues that religion is like a language: you can learn it only in community, starting with the community of the family. When both the family and the community become fragmented and fail, the transmission of religion to the next generation becomes far more difficult. All it takes is the failure of a single generation to hand down a tradition for that tradition to disappear from the life of a family and, in turn, of a community. Eberstadt is one of a long line of religious thinkers to recognize that when concrete embodiments of the relationship to God crumble, it becomes very hard to hold on to Him in the abstract.

Eberstadt makes a powerful case that we acquire religion not like information in a classroom, but more like apprentices to a craftsman. That is, we learn it by doing it, in community, most especially the community of the family. You lose the family, she contends, and you eventually lose God in all but the most nominal sense. Perhaps this is why the Bible presents to us as normative and binding what we have come to call “traditional marriage.”

These things do not occur in isolation. Things are connected. You might think you can pick and choose what to believe, based on your personal preferences. And yes, maybe some of these things don’t really matter in the long run. Maybe. But something as fundamental to Biblical religion as sexuality and the family — indeed, something as fundamental to the human experience as those things — cannot easily be changed without tectonic results.

The die is cast for American culture. Christians who are traditionalists on matters related to sexuality and the family are going to be tarred as bigots and pushed to the far margins of society. We are going to have to decide which matters more: social acceptance and material prosperity, or fidelity to the truth. Ultimately, it means having to decide between shoring up the American imperium, or creating new forms of community within which orthodox Christianity can survive.