A recent article recounts Tish Harrison Warren’s interactions with Vanderbilt University officials as they systematically revoked the ability of campus groups with defined mission statements to exist on campus. The college refuses to recognize or allow on campus any organizations that require members or leaders to agree with specified ideas. So, for example, the Democrat students organization must allow Republicans run for its offices, and environmental groups had to open posts to climate-change critics.
Vanderbilt leaders’ big complaint was that certain groups—especially religious groups—required their leaders to eschew homosexual conduct. This was unacceptable, according to university officials, because the counter-creed of “anti-discrimination” prevents organizations from making leadership policies dependent on sexual identity. Warren writes:
In effect, the new policy privileged certain belief groups and forbade all others. Religious organizations were welcome as long as they were malleable: as long as their leaders didn’t need to profess anything in particular; as long as they could be governed by sheer democracy and adjust to popular mores or trends; as long as they didn’t prioritize theological stability. Creedal statements were allowed, but as an accessory, a historic document, or a suggested guideline.
She goes on to write a singularly clarifying and sobering statement: “The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus.”
That says it all. Today’s cultural tumult is marked by creedal beliefs versus sexual expression.
It’s Not Just Vanderbilt
The idea that 2,000 years of Christian morality can be reduced to such adjectives as “dangerous” may seem overwrought, but many share Warren’s concerns. Working with LifeWay Research, earlier this summer the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) conducted a survey of 1,097 Southern Baptist pastors throughout the United States. We wanted to know what they thought about various issues in American life.
A dominant theme from the results: many pastors express growing anxiety about religious liberty. Given that reality, it’s worth noting what, exactly, sparked their concerns. The results were attributable to two factors: the growing acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
In the survey, pastors in many parts of the country expressed concerns regarding conflicts between religious freedom and the move toward same-sex marriage. Eighty-five percent of respondents expressed a heightened concern that Southern Baptists who run businesses may be forced to materially support same-sex ceremonies. These concerns are not unfounded, because some businesses have been brought to heel by the government for refusing to use their creative talents for same-sex ceremonies. Likewise, 78 percent of the pastors said they are concerned the government may try to force Southern Baptist churches to use their facilities for same-sex marriage ceremonies.
The growing concern reflects the reality that America has shifted its values about what constitutes healthy sexuality.
Eroding Free Speech
The future is uncertain on how the legal system will single out Christians for their beliefs or force them into situations that violate their conscience, but recent precedent doesn’t provide much encouragement. And it’s not just the legal climate that ought to concern Christians. Cultural forces are at work to remove even reasonable and orthodox voices from the public square when discussing marriage and sexuality.
Changing attitudes about sexuality will force citizens to determine whether biblical views on sexuality are worthy of respect. Matt Franck, a scholar with the Witherspoon Institute is pessimistic (as am I). Franck says religious liberty and same-sex marriage are “fundamentally at odds” with one another:
[I]f redefining marriage to include same-sex couples accords with justice and moral truth, there is no good reason for the new legal order to make room for ‘conscientious’ religious dissenters, for clearly their consciences are malformed and unworthy of respect. Thus the fate of religious freedom, for scores of millions of Americans, stands or falls with the fate of conjugal marriage itself.
The changing beliefs about sexual morality will necessarily permeate every institution within American life. Those of us who engage in these types of conversations have all come away with our own stories to tell, the battle wounds, so to speak, of the sexual revolution’s commitment to vaporizing any belief outside its own orthodoxy. In a recent article, a Think Progress blogger explained:
[T]here’s a moment that we’ve reached where we’re trying to decide how acceptable it is to oppose LGBT equality. [Brendan] Eich represents the idea that some people think it’s okay to still oppose LGBT equality. And my position is, no, it’s not. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, whether it’s in marriage or employment or anything else, is inexcusable. It’s pure discrimination and there’s no reason to leave room for it for religious purposes or otherwise.
The message is very clear here: “If you don’t agree with our evolving understandings of sexuality and justice, you’re not welcome. You can have your ‘beliefs,’ but forget the idea of living out your ‘beliefs’ within the purview of civilized society.”
An Accelerating Collision
So what’s the point? The point is that the collision course between religious liberty and the expressive individualism of the sexual revolution continues at breakneck pace. Pastors sense this, obviously. Our survey bears this out. Everyday Christians are more hushed in talking about these issues. And there’s now a very real sense that when “marriage” is brought up in conversation, it’s very likely an uncomfortable conversation could follow, since people can’t assume everyone shares the same understanding of marriage.
Sooner or later, Christians of all stripes will be made to care about this issue. The situation now is one of figuring out how best to equip local churches and individual Christians to live in a very different America. These trends are why ERLC is hosting a conference in October on the gospel, homosexuality, and the future of marriage.
Many evangelicals are (rightly) timid about engaging these cultural flashpoints, but there is coming a time (or perhaps it’s already here) where you will not have a choice. The culture war is not somewhere out there anymore. It’s knocking on your door and next will be barging into your house. Recognizing their understanding of truth is at odds with the cultural mainstream, many Christians will be tempted to capitulate to the spirit of the age or simply shy away and disengage. Neither of these options can work.