The Supreme Court’s decision that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage was a landmark moment in US history. The sweeping language of the majority opinion placed gay rights firmly within the moral tradition of the civil rights movement. And like a boulder thrown into a pond, it will have public consequences for decades.
For many evangelicals, the psychological effects were immediate. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said that Obergefell v. Hodges will be “the downfall of America.” Christian friends reported to us they felt incredulous and alienated from America’s legal and cultural order.
Those who felt ambushed by the decision haven’t been paying enough attention. The ruling was the result of cultural trends that emerged in the context of heterosexual, not homosexual, relationships. During the 1960s and 1970s, America saw a concentrated cultural revolution: the triumph of radical individualism, particularly in sexual ethics. Since then, we have seen the outworking of this shift in attitudes, behavior, and laws: on divorce, abortion, cohabitation, out-of-wedlock births, gender roles, and now, decisively, same-sex marriage.
Marriage was not redefined only by the Supreme Court; it was also redefined by decades of social practice. Marriage, over time, has come to be viewed as a contract of individuals based on love rather than an institution recognized by the state to serve social purposes. When gay couples sought to join a contract of individuals based on love, they were pushing on an open door. Arguments for marriage based on tradition or natural law started to sound ancient and unintelligible. And many evangelicals, we must admit, have not been immune to this changed view of marriage.
But the Supreme Court’s rejection of traditional sexual ethics as the basis for laws defining marriage does represent a milestone. It was once plausible—though not necessarily accurate—for Christians to see themselves as part of a “moral majority” in which Judeo-Christian views were broadly shared. That is no longer credible, at least on issues of the family and sexual ethics. This is a profound transition. As one evangelical leader told us, “We’ve gone from being the home team to the away team.”
We (the authors) have seen this transition from a unique vantage point. As part of a project funded by the Hewlett Foundation, we interviewed evangelical authors, academics, college presidents, and nonprofit leaders about this cultural shift. (The Hewlett Foundation did not sponsor this essay.) Several of the quotes in this essay are drawn from those conversations with permission. All the conclusions drawn are our own.
Bitterness and Despair
Without exception, the leaders we consulted believe evangelicals are at a pivot point in their relationship to American culture. They describe reactions among fellow Christians ranging from angry combativeness to disillusioned withdrawal.
John Inazu, author of the forthcoming book Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference, told us he has seen “an insecurity caused by a rapidly lost social position,” leading some to a “growing bitterness and despair.” People who have had power, and have watched it slip away, feel afraid and frustrated. They are concerned that religious institutions may soon have to renounce their beliefs or be made to suffer for them.
Franklin Graham has publicly voiced this view. “I believe the end is coming,” said the president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. “I believe we are in the midnight hour…you see how quickly our country is deteriorating…we have seen that it has taken like a nose dive off of the moral diving board into the cesspool of humanity.”
BY PHD Candidate, Jean Awour and JACKDIENG GATKEK, THE FORMER DEPUTY INSPECTOR FOR COMMUNITY SECURITY AND ARMS CONTROL, MINISTRY OF INTERIOR SOUTH SUDAN