If you haven’t seen Dreher’s story from the recent issue of The American Conservative, “Sex after Christianity,” you can now read the whole thing online.
Same-sex marriage strikes the decisive blow against the old order. The Nation’s triumphalist rhetoric from two decades ago is not overripe; the radicals appreciated what was at stake far better than did many—especially bourgeois apologists for same-sex marriage as a conservative phenomenon. Gay marriage will indeed change America forever, in ways that are only now becoming visible. For better or for worse, it will make ours a far less Christian culture. It already is doing exactly that.
In a dinner conversation not long after the publication of American Grace, Putnam told me that Christian churches would have to liberalize on sexual teaching if they hoped to retain the loyalty of younger generations. This seems at first like a reasonable conclusion, but the experience of America’s liberal denominations belies that prescription. Mainline Protestant churches, which have been far more accepting of homosexuality and sexual liberation in general, have continued their stark membership decline.
It seems that when people decide that historically normative Christianity is wrong about sex, they typically don’t find a church that endorses their liberal views. They quit going to church altogether.
This raises a critically important question: is 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?
You really should read the whole thing.
Two brief thoughts in response:
a) I think Dreher does very well to describe Christian sexual ethics as a linchpin for Christian culture, which is a huge part of why I think the contemporary apathy many younger evangelicals have toward same-sex marriage is so dangerous. What many people fail to recognize (due to a combination of widely-available birth control, disintegrating social conventions, and the ubiquity of seemingly strings-free sex) with this issue is that we’re not dealing with an issue strictly concerned with civil rights. That question fits in there somewhere, I think, but that’s not the preeminent question. The first question we’re dealing with is what we will make of the smallest, most basic unit of human community as a society. That’s ultimately what we’re dealing with in talking about sexual ethics. For a variety of reasons it’s easy for us to lose sight of that fact (not least of which is the unhelpful way some Christians obsess over sex), but as a foundational stone of a cultural and social order, it’s really impossible to overstate the importance of sexual behavior and sex ethics. So Dreher does very well to make that point.
b) That said, I do wonder if this isn’t a bit pessimistic in outlook. I recall the response Benedict XVI gave when asked by a reporter about the health of the church. “The church is strong,” Benedict said. “But it is smaller than most people realize.” Rather than seeing a modern sexual ethic as being a prerequisite for Christianity’s continued viability, I think we would do well to see this point as a place where the Christian church can obviously present itself as a genuine counter-culture. True, that will be a hard pill to swallow for many, but provided that this isn’t the only place we take a stand, I think we can have some measure of success if we embrace the calling to articulate with our language and our lives a genuine Christian counter-culture that stands against the tide of modernity, industrialization, and technocracy. (I’d suggest that the often-warm reaction the press has had to Pope Francis makes this point quite well. The man said some positively inflammatory–and necessary–things as a bishop in Argentina, and they got a lot of attention in the first two days of his papacy. But then when he started talking about not forgetting the poor, resisting a spirit of warfare, and washing the feet of Muslim women… well, the press kinda forgot about those controversial comments.)
The important thing to recognize, I think, is that what we’re really entering into now is a time where we can have the right conversations. If I’m speaking about Christianity with a non-Christian friend who is saying things like “I could never be a Christian because I could never be a Republican,” that means I have to have a bunch of conversations with him about setting aside unnecessary objections before I can get to the meat of the Gospel. And those are important conversations, but in a sense they’re frustrating as well because the subject isn’t getting us any closer to actually addressing the real offenses created by the Gospel. But when I hear someone say, “I could never be a Christian because I can’t expect the church’s teaching on sexuality,” then we can have a more substantive conversation that gets more to the heart of the Christian gospel.