Christians are a minority in the United States when it comes to sexual ethics in (at least) five critical areas. Traditional Christians view divorce as bad, something God hates, even if allowed in some circumstances in a fallen world. A majority of Americans have a more casual attitude toward this evil. Christians viewed the life of celibacy and chastity as a great good, but most Americans view it as a curse. Christians think sex before marriage is wrong, but most Americans disagree. A majority of Americans thinks gay sex is good, but Christians know it is a vice. Most Americans have made a strong distinction between marriage and having children, but Christianity links the two strongly. Traditional Christians have disagreed about the strength of the connection, but none have advocated planned barren-hood in married couples.
This is historically unprecedented. Though there has never been a time when any human has lived up to their high aspirations, certainly never in America, this is an age when the Governor of New York can live openly with his mistress without political harm. We are so decadent that our sinners need no longer concern themselves with hypocrisy.
What is the way forward?
First, we must recall while a minority in some sexual issues, we are in agreement with the majority on most. The nation has improved in some areas. We are still a nation that gets a vast majority of its ethical ideas, directly or indirectly, from Christianity. We should not exaggerate our differences with mainstream American culture. An atheist who is very secular has more daily differences than the traditional Christian.
Second, our disagreement with American society does not end in sexual ethics. We hate any legal vice or any reward from government for injustice. For example, we should unite in condemning any use of torture by our government.
Christians must combat the foolish notion that “science” can give Americans ethics. America will never get “ought” from “is” and the secular ethic is no more scientific than the religious one. At the same time, we must not deny the consensus of scientists when it exists. If homosexual temptation is shown to have a genetic component (as it appears it has), then we need not fight this apparent fact.
Christians should accept minority status, but plan for a return to the majority in a century. Christian ideas work in general over time, even in a broken world. We already see great harm being done to the poor by a failure to marry and by fornication. My students deal with the “burn out” caused by porn in their daily lives and relationships. We will get credibility by serving. If we go to the inner city or Appalachia and redeem those the more secular ignore, then we will unleash a revival and interest in our Faith that is marvelous.
We must listen to our critics and remain cheerful members of the loyal opposition as much as possible. There is much we can learn from our critics. We can examine our abuses of power when we were the majority and vow to not repeat the mistakes when power returns. We must be patient: this problem did not begin in a day and now it is too late for it to go away in a day. Epic revolutions are too disruptive for us to root for them!
Pope Francis points the way here.
As we grow smaller, toxic “guru” driven groups are a real danger. We must avoid and shun personality driven churches, movements, or schools. We never experiment with our own communities in radical “counter-cultures” that open the way to “revolutionary personalities” who will be just as abusive in Christian circles as they are in secular. Global connections, openness, and accountability systems will help, but so will a rejection of the “ultra” temptation.
The “ultra” is the person who takes a good idea to extremes or makes it laughable. He ends up hating the actual Church to defend some pure idea of Church. He turns chastity into mere modesty and modesty into oppression. He makes rules and proclaims those on par with moral ideals. He pretends his shining vision of the Good justifies many harms on the way to his utopia. Ideologues blossom in minority communities promise quick fixes.
We may prevail in these areas, but it will be work of decades now. The rot is too deep. Avoid the shyster who promises your very own private Idaho!
We should assume our own house will need to be put in order and deal openly and honestly with our problems. Christians are not immune to sin at any time and we live in the same toxic culture as everyone else. Often we will be not much better in fact, while aspiring to more. The Christian divorce rate is much better than that of the non-religious, but still too high. We should have no closets and no false shame that hides particular sins or temptations as if they did not exist.
Every Christian must be open: a goal is not the same as an achievement. I have sinned in thought and deed, must admit that, and carry on towards the higher calling. It is only hypocrisy if I pretend otherwise or if I show no moral progress over time. Be tempted, but don’t sin. If we do sin, we confess, are accountable (sometimes in public), and then do what is right.
Christians must live their beliefs in all aspects of their lives. Pope Francis is right: we must not allow our witness to be reduced to the areas (like some sex ethics) where we are a minority. We also should not privatize our faith, but live in the workplace and the voting booth. Daniel had to work for the King’s eunuch in a pagan court, we can do the same. Orthodox Christians in the Middle East have endured persecution or second class citizenship that we will not see in my lifetime. We need perspective.
I should never whine about my petty disabilities and carry on being a Christian. If that means I cannot open a corporation, have an accredited school, or win an election, then I will stay Christian and live the best I can. If the Amish can survive their much larger cultural disagreement, then so can I.
Christians will have to separate from those who think orthodoxy means unethical practice is acceptable. My friend may believe in the virgin birth, but if he condones immorality, then he cannot fellowship with me. Saint Paul was as hard on bad behavior as on bad theology! Both matter and this age our theological views are not under attack as much as our right practice.
This does not mean I cannot be friends with evil doers: those who do not claim to be Christians are living consistently with their worldview. It does mean that I must not confuse my witness by calling “Christian” those who no longer live the Faith once proclaimed by the Apostles. Having done this, the Church should move on and let the spiritually dead bury their dead.
We all know these groups are numerically dying. Let them go.
American Christians should reach out even more to the global Church that mostly shares our views. If you are in a parochial church, leave it.
This is a good time to stop confusing America with Christianity, if you make that mistake. Take the flag out of your sanctuary. Be a patriot, but keep that lesser love in order. I am the King’s man first and then a citizen of the Republic. As a result, having never put my trust in princes, I can be calm in a time of change. In the worst case, my children or grandchildren may have to immigrate to practice their faith, but we are far from that possibility. This is still, on the whole, one of the easiest and best places on Earth to practice most facets of the Christian faith.