Several years ago, I wrote a piece for First Things where I opined that a lot of the fear and anger that the religious right feels about LGBTQ rights and the sexual revolution is basically derived from grief. The world that people knew is gone. The values they grew up with are no longer valued by society at large. Moral precepts that were taken for granted as the bedrock of society have been dismantled. Unborn children are being slaughtered daily, and this is supposed to be a good thing.
To those who grew up with traditional family values, I’m sure it feels like they’re living in a Yeats poem. Things are falling apart. The centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is being loosed upon the world. And somewhere, out in the desert wasteland of modernity, the Spiritus Mundi stalks with its pitiless gaze and it’s slow, relentless thighs.
So, shortly after writing that article, I did a thought experiment: what would be the equivalent for me? What values that I hold to be absolutely fundamental could potentially decline in the same way that family values did for the generation born before me? What moral precepts, learned from infancy, do I consider to be core non-negotiables?
The answer was immediately obvious: if the equality of sex and race, freedom of religion, and universal human rights came under attack I would feel exactly the same kind of panicked outrage that older pro-family and pro-life people seem to feel about the sexual revolution.
If suddenly my children had to grow up in a world where sexual harassment was laughed off as a joke, where Muslims were put on a registry and their freedom of movement was restricted, where open racism was tolerated and North American political leaders would feel comfortable making blatant appeals to nationalism, I would wring my hands, take to the streets, and maybe even conclude that there was some kind of conspiracy to destroy Western civilization as we know it.
For me, the beliefs that you have to love all human beings equally, that nationalism is a deadly and dangerous ideology, that concern for the marginalized is an absolute moral imperative, and that a just and peaceful society has to be built on a foundation of mutual toleration are just bedrock. Moral systems that don’t prioritize these principles seem fatally and categorically flawed – a recipe for selfishness, insularity, callousness, hostility and xenophobia.
I wondered what I would do if suddenly I was surrounded by people who had embraced a completely different, even opposite, view of morality. What if there arose a bunch of folks who insisted that protecting me and mine was more important than hospitality towards the suffering other? What if men felt empowered to tell me what I should wear, and how I should act, and they didn’t feel any social constraint preventing them from imposing their idea of the feminine on me and my daughters? What if appeals to my most deeply held principles no longer held sway in the public sphere, and those who rejected them could do so brashly and arrogantly? What if calling out racism and sexism by name became politically incorrect? What if the new moral order saw my beliefs as ridiculous, or worse as the vestiges of a dangerous and oppressive ideal?
Now, it seems that this is beginning. Beliefs that would have been promptly put aside as hateful ten years ago are now discussed in the mainstream and treated as if they possessed the same credibility and right to a hearing as any other idea. Increasingly the “progressive” values that I grew up with are being associated with violence, elitism and PC oppression. Once again, the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, only this time it’s my generation flipping out.
There is a temptation here, for both sides. For the older generation, there is the temptation to sit back and cackle triumphantly at the idea that finally we are going to get what’s coming to us. On our side, the temptation is to become shrill and embittered towards both our elders and the younger generation that will grow up in this brave new world.
There is, however, another better possibility. We could use social change as an opportunity to reach outside of our own camps, to engage in self-reflection, to grow in solidarity, to practice compassion for those who seem to be our enemies. Instead of closing ranks and ramping up the partisan hostilities, we could try to find a way to proclaim the good in all of its forms: pro-family and pro-social justice, pro-unborn and also pro-refugee, pro-chastity and also pro-woman.
This is the course that Christianity calls us to: to defy whatever is evil in the spirit of the age, to hold fast to whatever is good.
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