One of the greatest theological dialogues of the last 500 years is found between St. Thomas More and William Tyndale, the former a giant of the Catholic Church and the latter one of the more significant figures of the early Protestant Reformation. Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English, and his work The Obedience of a Christian Man, was controversial and problematic enough that More, one of the fiercest critics of the Reformation, was compelled to respond. Tyndale responded with an “Answer” to More’s “Dialogue,” to which More responded with a “Confutation” of Tyndale’s “Answer” (the titles alone are worth reading). The tracts are rich with conviction, both utterly sure of their interpretation of the Word of God as it is revealed to humanity, both certain the other is not merely factually incorrect but sinning, going against the will of God to the detriment of the other’s eternal soul.
There’s not much of that going around these days. If you speak to the average 20-something or Millennial about the concept of sin, you may be treated to a kind of quasi-Unitarian dismissal of the concept, a sort of uncomfortable rejection of the notion of ecclesiastical proscription in any sense: “I’m very spiritual,” you’ll hear a lot, “but not religious.” What this looks like in practice is generally a dismissal of accountability towards any higher power, or at least towards any rules He might impose upon His people: It is, after all, 2014.
Yet the Millennials, having sloughed off the religious notions of their parents and grandparents—at least one-third of Generation Yers are more or less without religion—have taken it upon themselves to adopt a new set of mandates and dictates to guide their lives. Call them the “new sins,” a number of commandments by which one might stay on the narrow way. The old interdictions now cast aside, a new series of injunctions must be obeyed: and like most religions and denominations, adherence to these commandments is held sacrosanct, any deviation from them fairly blasphemous. Religion may be out for a large number of Millennials, but its vacuum has been more or less filled.
Climate Change Dogma
One of the most fervent dogmas to which the Millennial cohort now cleaves is that of climate change. Indeed, if there is a modern-day corollary to the Apostolic Age, say, and the apocalyptic predictions to which it was in thrall, it is in the Church of Global Warming, which is as certain as was Paul that the end times are at hand. More than two-thirds of Millennials agree that the earth is “getting warmer,” and 75 percent of those agree that man’s activities have something to do with it. Since Millennials are a firmly liberal voting block, this is rather unsurprising.
A sin against God would have once demanded penance: prayers for forgiveness, a rosary, some good works, perhaps. A sin against the environment demands equal absolution: two-thirds of Millennials are “willing to pay more for products from sustainability-focused companies” (echoes of trading alms for indulgences). Eighty percent of polled Millennials also believe that utility companies should “generate at least 1/3 of their power from renewable sources” by 2030—not merely that this is a good idea, mind you, but that it should be required. The alleged threat of climate change grows every day, even if the dangers never actually materialize; and so we must absolve ourselves of the sins of burning fossil fuels. Thus has the God of Abraham been replaced by the God of Atmosphere; salvation by Christ is increasingly being supplanted with salvation by carbon tax.
Why not? It is, after all, Science.
The Church Of Gay Sex
I don’t mean to imply, of course, that all Millennials have rejected religion in favor of a kind of angry, portentous neo-paganism, only that a great many members of this age demographic have more or less done away with religious belief, and in the absence of religion they have ascribed a quasi-religious morality to a great many other issues and societal affairs, some of them quite passionately.
Yet another third of Millennials claim, for instance, that they have left their “childhood religion” due to “negative religious teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people;” nearly three-quarters agree that religions “are alienating young people” by judging gays and lesbians too harshly. Regardless of how one feels about “gay and lesbian issues,” it’s obvious that Generation Y feels very positively about them, and its members are repelled by notions and convictions about which many of their parents (aside from the gay ones, maybe) were untroubled. Indeed, shadows of religious conviction are to be seen within the LGBTQI movement’s rhetoric (the seemingly-biannual addition of a new letter to that acronym itself is a faintly religious custom; it is reminiscent of the struggle and the debate over Apocrypha, indicative as it is of a competing set of opinions regarding the One True Canon). Witness, for example, an excellent example of the average young adult’s position on transgenderism, the devout and pious thundering of Tyler Coates, responding to Kevin Williamson’s recent charge that Laverne Cox “is not a woman:”
As far as I’m concerned, the fact that Laverne Cox identifies as a woman is quite enough evidence to say, ‘Yes, Laverne Cox is a woman.’ Because that’s how gender identity works. It’s pretty much the end of the discussion.
Ah, yes: Laverne Cox am who she am. It is “the end of the discussion,” a person’s gender identity being That Which Is, an article of faith so devout that Williamson’s unremarkable claim landed him on the syndication circuit’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Millennials are not the only demographic to have started worshiping at the altar of 21st-century America’s bizarre sexual politics, but they are increasingly the most vocal and aggressive in advancing it: they’re like the Moral Majority, except genderqueer.
That is not to say that the Crusaders of Malleable Gender have bad intentions, only that they pursue those intentions with an astonishing passion and ardency once largely if not solely the province of religious belief. As activist Jen Richards claimed:
Transgender people aren’t lies in the face of facts; we’re facts that widen the truth. Williamson’s audacity to determine what Cox’s body means is a worse sin, and the consequences of an attitude so thoroughly rooted in self-serving prejudice are far darker.
Williamson evidently committed a sin, no less, and Jen Richards’s modern-day Dialogue Concerning Heresies predicts a serious set of “consequences” if he continues down his fallen path. Sound familiar? “Ye shall know the truth,” Jesus claimed, “and the truth will make you free.” These days the mantra runs along the lines of, “Ye shall know gender fluidity, and it shall widen the truth.”
The Priestly Class Of Washington DC
Of course, every religious or sectarian organization needs a priest, and for young adults of today, that is more often than not the government, specifically Washington. A Pew research poll showed Millennials are as likely to favor an “economically activist government” as their forebears are likely to favor a limited one. More than two-thirds stated that “government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep,” a well-worn political position but one a large majority of young voters share. There is a pointed similarity between Church rituals and government rituals—the pomp, the yearly solemn observances, the repeated mantras meant to reaffirm one’s faith and bring one back into the fold. If glorifying God has been discarded, for whatever reason, is it unsurprising that people may turn to another, highly visible and potent symbol of authority and raw power?
The diminution of religion for so many younger Americans was not inevitable, although its resurgence is equally unguaranteed. In any event, the ebb of influence of a couple thousand years’ worth of religious precepts has not occurred without a reactive succession of values: much of the old religious rules have been replaced by secular ones, and the old religious fever has been replaced by an aggressive adherence to secular dogma. The future voting power of Millennials—and the liberal future it portends—means these nonreligious sentiments are likely to become even more widespread as the young century moves forward. What that will mean in practice is up in the air, although, for better or worse, it’s doubtful it will look anything like More’s and Tyndale’s impressive theological dialogue.