I grew up in the South and was surrounded by cultural Christianity, but a lot of that was almost like playing Santa Claus. It was strictly a Sunday thing (if a thing at all) and it was subordinate to southern tradition. That’s one reason why Christianity didn’t power a stronger fight against racial discrimination in the region. Too much of it was status, tradition, networking, and passing time. The secondary headline in the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision is that cultural Christianity is clearly terminal. It died in the big cities many years ago. Obergefell will help finish it off in the South. Most southerners will be just a hair slower on buying into gay marriage, but they’re modern people just the same.
When I went to college at Florida State in the late 1980s, I met a whole new class of Christians. These people weren’t Christian as part of some larger cultural package. They followed Christ first, last, and always. They talked about him, sang about him, and thought about him all the time. They considered themselves to be in a relationship with him. In a way I hadn’t seen before, they lived their faith. I had never met such devout and serious people. They were also the kindest people I’d ever met. Part of the public-relations problem for Christians today is that these kinds of persons never warrant much attention. The media’s interest hovers above Westboro Baptist Church (which I am convinced is actually a performance art group from Bennington) and whatever utterance Pat Robertson has seen fit to deliver.
Their lives intrigued me. I listened, talked, hung out, and even pretended to be one of them. I wasn’t, but I wanted to be. Over the course of months and maybe even years, their faith became mine. I stopped pretending to be one of them because no more tributary charade was needed.
From Death to a Living Faith
There is an old story about a Christian academic who put his faith into a drawer for a while. When he came back and opened it again, there was nothing there. I had the opposite experience. My drawer was empty to start. When I opened it again, it was like trying to contain a bright and blinding force. The drawer could no longer be closed. There was no more division of religion and life. There was just life to be lived for Christ.
My entire reality has since been suffused with his presence. I know Christ through the Bible, through the church, through other Christians who demonstrate spiritual maturity, and through the echoing influence of his life, death, and resurrection in our history. More deeply, I believe that he speaks into my life. I believe that he has affected the course of my days. There are times when I look back and see my life as a Christian as the product of decisions that I made. But if I shift the kaleidoscope just a little, then it begins to appear that I walked through an elaborately choreographed sequence.
My life began to change in the way I have described back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When I started to identify as an active and serious Christian at Florida State, I felt like an alien. My dormitory was suffused with a hedonism based on sex and alcohol. (In fact, it was after a couple of lost weekends of my own that I decided to attend a Christian meeting on campus for the first time.) There was no sense in which I might have felt as though Christian sexual morality was predominant. That was only the case in small groups like our InterVarsity chapter (yes, the ones no longer welcome on many campuses) where almost everyone was seeking earnestly to adhere to a New Testament sexual ethic.
Our Culture Hasn’t Been Christian for Decades
Christians today who are shocked or dismayed by the Obergefell decision can’t claim to experience such reactions because of the American culture’s adherence to biblical sexual morality. Anyone under 50 has lived in a culture in which premarital sex, cohabitation, divorce, and even adultery have been reasonably common.
Was it once common for Americans to delay sex until marriage? Yes. Did they once avoid divorce if humanly possible? Did the law once lend its authority to chastity and the preservation of marriages? Yes. Unquestionably. But once the birth-control pill, legalized abortion, and the removal of legal sanction changed the calculus of consequence, Americans moved in a different direction en masse. It wasn’t a desire to be faithful to God and his design that sustained more traditional sexual behaviors. It was a flatly utilitarian calculation. Once that changed, America changed. I don’t think it was ever going to be possible to maintain the old consensus on marriage, including gay marriage, in a time in which sex is much more about pleasure than it is about conceiving children.
The change is almost like the plot of a sci-fi novel in which a sentient planet begins to exert an impact on human beings. Gay marriage seems almost like an ecological strategy of some green mega-mind. “A significant percentage of unions henceforth must not be fruitful. Thus, the male-male and the female-female relationship must come to represent a larger portion of potential couplings. This strategy will join the pharmocological and surgical methods.”
So, why the distress now? Why does Obergefell fall so heavily? It’s a little bit like being a child whose parents’ marriage is slowly disintegrating. But for years they held on. The kid knows a divorce is probably going to happen. The things that tied the family together have slowly been broken or dissolved in a long and painful process. But right up until the moment when it really happens, the child has hope. The parents criticized each other, refused to give credit, were eager to assign blame. And now it feels like it’s over. It’s not just over. Some people are throwing parties to celebrate. They’ve been hoping for this divorce for years and are thrilled to see it happen.
Celebrating America’s Divorce
No amount of David Barton-style arguing about the genetic traditions of the United States is going to put the marriage back together. There is probably no special romance, no weekend in the mountains that will restore it.
Many are aglow in the wake of Obergefell. They didn’t like that old marriage between Christianity and the U.S.A. In fact, they thought America needed a new mate altogether. Call it scientific humanism or therapeutic deism, whatever. To them, this looks like the most hopeful moment yet.
It’s hard to be the person at the party who isn’t celebrating. But I have no choice other than to be hopeful lest I discount my own conversion and spiritual quest. I believe Jesus is real and that he is the son of God. I know that men and women still seek him. Many will come as I did. He will change their lives forever as he changed mine. I know that the church and many Christians in times and places across history and around the globe have faced far greater challenges. No social change, no worldly court, no legislation will re-orient me.
I remember what it was like, looking out at my fellow students at Florida State when I was part of some tiny minority of Jesus freaks. It was one of the best times of my life. No running with the herd. No osmosis of values. I trust him for the future.