Horning in on Damon Linker’s turf, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry offers another defense of the “this time is different” argument regarding Christianity and mainstream american social and political norms. He first presents the erroneous view, based on a “misreading of history”:
The false premise goes something like this: Christianity, as a historical social phenomenon, basically adjusts its moral doctrines depending on the prevailing social conditions. Christianity, after all, gets its doctrines from “the Bible,” a self-contradictory grab bag of miscellany. When some readings from the Bible fall into social disfavor, Christianity adjusts them accordingly. There are verses in the Bible that condemn homosexuality, but there are also verses that condemn wearing clothes made of two threads, and verses that allow slavery. Christians today find ways to lawyer their way out of those. Therefore, the implicit argument seems to go, if you just bully Christianity enough, it will find a way to change its view of homosexuality, and all will be well. After all, except for a few shut-ins in the Vatican, most Christians today are fine with sexual revolution innovations such as contraception and easy divorce.
If this is mistaken, how should we understand Christianity?
Christian opposition to homosexual acts is of a piece with a much broader vision of what it means to be a human being that Christianity will never part with. The story Christians have been telling for 2,000 years goes something like this: The God who made the Universe is also, by his very nature, Love, and he made human beings with a very lofty vocation. Humans are meant to reflect His glory in the world; to be like God, that is to say, to be lovers and creators. Everything in the Universe has been put here to be used by God’s children to reflect his loving glory — and to teach them about God’s love. This is particularly true, or so the story goes, of the unique sexual complementarity between men and women. The sexual act is meant to reflect God’s love by fostering a union at once bodily and spiritual — and creates new life.
The best we could do for Gobry is to grant that both narratives presented here are just so stories imposed on a far messier and more complicated reality. (His focus on the formal teachings of Christianity regarding men’s and women’s sexuality glosses over the different actual treatments they received at the hands of Christianity as practiced, which poured its energy into social control of one gender’s sexual activity to a far greater degree than the other’s). But even if we grant his historical story, past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Setting aside concerns about the empirical claims Gobry makes for the moment, let’s grant that American Christianity’s “homosexual is sinful” view is properly understood as unchanging for 2000 years, while the previously widely held “the bible justifies American slavery” view was only a few generations old, a theology of convenience ginned up to justify and bolster that particular institution. From an anthropological perspective, I’m not at all sure why the age of the dogma is all that relevant to the hold it is likely to have on the individual believer. That historical difference is unlikely to be felt deeply be the believer, who’s been taught to believe it’s old as dirt by his parents and grandparents, the community he lives in, and the institutional church of which he is a part. He is not a historian of religion. The newer vintage of that particular commitment may, in some way, make it more vulnerable to social change. But merely gesturing toward an age difference doesn’t come anywhere near doing the work necessary to explain why.
One question worth asking, if we’re trying to choose between the two narratives presented above: which narrative better explains the changes of the last 20 years? What’s happening, of course, is that Christians–as individuals and, with a lag, as institutions, are changing their views to match mainstream American views on same sex marriage. I would put it even more strongly: Christianity isn’t just catching up, it is driving the change in the content of mainstream views. Even with 100% support from non-religious people and religious minorities, same sex marriage would have gone exactly nowhere without substantial Christian support.
The only way people taking Gobry’s position can dodge this completely obvious fact is to play a bit of no true Scotsman: we’re talking about evangelicals, or traditionalists, or some other label that carves out a slice of American Christendom as fundamentally different from the rest of it. But this doesn’t work, either, as the narrative he rejects can explain this just as easily. Like America itself, some Christians are liberal and some conservative. It’s extremely normal for liberals to accept social change with greater rapidity and ease than conservatives, and same sex marriage fits this general pattern very well. liberal Christianity changed first, now it’s conservative Christianity’s turn. And, low and behold, nearly half of self-identified evangelicals under 30 support same sex marriage.
I grew up attending church, and one of the very first ideas presented there that struck me as strange and implausible was the notion that Christianity is in some sense counter-cultural and oppositional to mainstream values and lifestyle of ‘the world’. By even by the age of 10 or so, I could see this notion was utterly farcical. Everyone I knew seemed to identify as Christian, and have no problem integrating that identity into an utterly normal mainstream American lifestyle. The position Gobry tries to stake out here requires treating that attitude as uncontested dogma, rather than a contingent empirical claim.
As a concluding note, let me just note how insulting the argument here is to conservative Christians themselves, when coming from people who do, in fact, view gay and lesbian people as full and complete human beings, deserving of the rights that come with that status. It’s essentially a demand for a kind of moral affirmative action, suggesting we should treat anti-gay Christians as permanently morally disabled by their religion, and make exemptions to anti-discrimination laws and norms we would never contemplate for religious racists. But a cursory glance at the social change surrounding this issue makes it perfectly obvious Christians as a group suffer no such disability. It’s extremely condescending to pretend that they do.
….Richard Hershberger with a comment the content of which should have been in the original post, in support of the “age of doctrine/practice not predictive of successful resistance to change” argument:
The argument that the antiquity of the doctrine makes it stronger does not stand up to examination. The prohibition of divorce is just as old, and with a really bitchin’ proof text, for those who think proof texting is the pinnacle of theological debate. Yet supposedly conservative American Evangelical churches have largely thrown in the towel on this one, few making more than token gestures against divorce.
Another one is Sabbatarianism, which has an even more bitchin’ proof text. For some four centuries following the Reformation, this was a bulwark of Protestant respectability. Boys playing baseball on Sunday was considered in all seriousness a police matter, accompanied by denunciations of these sinful days. The churches threw in the towel on this one about a century ago. There is a joke that Yankee Stadium wasn’t the House that Ruth Built: it was the House that Sunday Baseball built. Nowadays Sunday football is practically a sacred rite among Evangelicals, whose churches might quietly wish their members were in church that day rather than in front of the TV, but who are not so foolish as to push the matter, knowing they would lose. The shift is so thorough that it is hard to convince people that this ever really was a big deal.