American attitudes toward same-sex marriage are shifting. This presents a challenge for those who see marriage differently. Some try to reverse this trend by rebutting the arguments for same-sex marriage. It’s better to make better marriages. But this requires heeding an ancient warning as well as embracing a better faith.
The subject of marriage has become the milieu of today’s media. It wasn’t too long ago however that Americans’ views on marriage were “nearly universal and divorce was rare across all races,” writes Charles Murray in Coming Apart. In the 1963 Current Population Survey, a divorced person headed just 3.5 percent of American households, with another 2.6 percent headed by a separated person.1 In that same era, most Americans viewed homosexuality as offensive.
Things have obviously changed. In the past few weeks several national leaders have come out in support of same-sex marriage. This draws outrage from many in the faith community, but it might be wise to remember Origen of Alexandria’s warning: Christians are free to plunder the Egyptians but not idolize them. This is timely counsel, as the same-sex issue is somewhat the result of two idols long established in much of modern evangelicalism – individualism and the Enlightenment.
Individualism is an idol not readily apparent to many Americans. It harkens from the early 1830s, when Tocqueville observed how the typical American is an “individualist.” Modern evangelicalism, birthed at this time, aped individualism. The debacle of an individualist faith is that personal preferences began to trump conforming to ancient traditions, with the result that much of evangelicalism became a designer faith.
Simultaneous to the advent of individualism was the full bloom of the Enlightenment. Based on Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”), it reduced the essence of humanity to mind. Beliefs became disembodied “principles.” Thomas Jefferson was an Enlightenment man. He believed, in principle, that slavery was wrong, yet owned slaves. In principle he believed that debt was ruinous, yet died deeply in debt. Much of modern evangelicalism aped Enlightenment thinking. The disastrous outcome was a disembodied gospel.
In his 1983 book “Idols for Destruction,” Herbert Schlossberg warned how idolatries always prove to be a Faustian Bargain. Citing Hosea 8:4 – “With their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction” – he noted how modern faith communities do not merely plunder the Egyptians; they idolize them. The result, writes Os Guinness, is not that Christians have disappeared, but that Christian faith has become so deformed.
Deformed belief yields deformed behavior. Evidence of evangelical deformity became apparent with the 2007 publication of Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers by Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Regnerus and his colleagues conducted surveys of some 3,400 thirteen-to-seventeen-year-olds, as well as drew data from a comprehensive government study of adolescent health known as Add Health. Regnerus argued that religion is a good indicator of attitudes toward sex, but a poor one of sexual behavior. This gap is especially wide among youth who identify themselves as evangelical. For instance, the vast majority of white evangelical adolescents – 74 per cent – say that they believe in abstaining from sex before marriage, but their behavior doesn’t follow suit.
One example is True Love Waits, a program sponsored by many evangelical denominations. Over 3,000,000 young people have signed a pledge to wait until marriage to engage in sexual intercourse. But when researchers from Columbia and Yale University studied (for seven years) 12,000 teenagers who took the pledge, they found 88 percent reported having intercourse before marriage.2 It’s hard to make a compelling case for Christianity when abstinence failure rates are identical to that of all Americans. Yes, 88 percent of all Americans report having intercourse before marriage.
But this problem goes well beyond abstinence. The Barna Group reports that divorce rates for evangelicals are higher than the general population.3 To some degree, these rates are the result of pornography addiction, where, Steve Gallagher writes, “the percentage of Christian men involved [in pornography] is not much different than that of the unsaved.”4 It’s hard to make a case for a particular view of marriage when evangelical divorce and pornography rates are no better than the general population.
In scripture, renewal requires repudiation and repentance. Modern evangelicalism would be wise to repudiate a designer faith. Renewal will require adopting a catechismal, congregational approach to faith. Modern evangelicalism would also be wise to repent of a disembodied gospel. Renewal will require a full-body gospel that can make sense of our sexuality, establishing some sort of baseline for making better marriages.
Beginning in the late 1970s, Pope John Paul II taught this gospel. Over the course of 129 Wednesday audience addresses that spanned five years, he explained how it is in our body, in all its beauty as male and female, that we see a sign of the ultimate vocation of every human being. It wasn’t a reaction to the sexual revolution, writes Christopher West. “It is a response to the Enlightenment. It’s a response to modern rationalism, Cartesian dualism, and all the disembodied anthropologies infecting the modern world.”5
At the end of the day, the best way to make a compelling case for marriage is to make compelling marriages. That requires a gospel with the marriage of the lamb as one of the main metaphors. It requires a gospel where our earthly marriages “mirror” this mind-blowing eternal reality. It requires an embodied gospel that affects even our genitals. But until Americans see more of this, their view of marriage will likely keep shifting.
1 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012), p. 4.
2 Lawrence K. Altman, “Study Finds That Teenage Virginity Pledges Are Rarely Kept,” the New York Times, March 10, 2004, A20.
3 George Barna, “Family,” 2000. Available from Barna Research Online. See also George Barna and Mark Hatch, Boiling Point: It Only Takes One Degree (Regal, 2001), p. 42.
4 Steve Gallagher, “Devastated by Internet Porn,” Pure Life Ministries, December 15, 2000.
5 Christopher West, At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization (New York: Image Book, 2012), p. 68.