“Today,” said Ted Cruz when the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision came down, “is some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history.” Which is quite a claim, as that history includes the Battle of Antietam. Some evangelical leaders pronounced it “the downfall of America” (Tony Perkins) and a “nose dive off of the moral diving board into the cesspool of humanity” (Franklin Graham) — a mental image I wish I could unthink.
Suffice it to say that conservative Christians have been lately pondering their relationship to American culture. And not just those who are hysterical for a living. When the court rejected traditional sexual ethics as a permissible basis for laws defining marriage, many conservative believers felt a cultural milestone had been reached.
It had once been plausible — though not necessarily accurate — for conservative Christians to regard themselves as part of a “moral majority” in which traditional Judeo-Christian views were broadly shared. That is no longer minimally credible on issues of the family and sexual ethics. And the change in self-perception among some believers has been jarring.
In an essay in Christianity Today, “The Power of Our Weakness,” my co-author, Peter Wehner, and I explore this altered landscape. The manner in which conservative Christians navigate their journey away from outdated notions of a “Christian America” will have much to say about the quality of our public life in the actual America.
The cultural, legal and theological arguments of the essay might be summarized as: Snap out of it. There is, as legal scholar John Inazu told us, “an insecurity caused by a rapidly lost social position,” leading some to a “growing bitterness and despair.” But this reaction is not particularly constructive or religiously serious.
There are valid concerns about what the Supreme Court ruling portends for institutions — particularly Catholic and evangelical institutions that serve the poor and educate the young — that touch upon the public order but do not share its values. Religious liberty means little if it does not extend to institutions as well as individuals.
But this set of legal challenges does not translate into social apocalypse. By many (though not nearly all) indicators, American culture is getting better. Divorce rates and abortion rates have declined in recent decades. Rates of violent crime and homicide are down dramatically from historical highs. Many religious conservatives mistake alarming legal trends for across-the-board cultural decay.
This new circumstance does, however, require a dose of realism. While we do not assume that every religious conservative holds to the traditional view of marriage, most (by the polling) do. But reversing the Supreme Court decision on marriage — which is rooted in long-term cultural changes that emerged in the context of heterosexual relationships — is not a realistic political goal. This means that religious conservatives must learn to operate in a same-sex marriage world.
At a practical level, traditionally minded people will need to take up social projects alongside people who support gay marriage (a group, by the way, that includes more than 40 percent of white evangelical millennials). In some cases, they will need to work cooperatively alongside people in gay marriages. This is not moral compromise; it is the normal practice of democracy. Beyond issues of sexuality, there is a broad agenda for which the building of coalitions is essential: the global fight against HIV/AIDS and sexual trafficking, the reform of foster care and the criminal justice system, the building of safe, healthy, child-friendly communities.
Pulling back from the practical, religious conservatives will need to recover some perspective. For most of the past 2,000 years, Christians have lived in societies that did not reflect their sexual ethics. And sexual ethics is not the sum total of Christian ethics, which, at its best, affirms the priority of the person and the defense of human rights, well-being and dignity.
For religious conservatives, this might even be an opportunity to recall the true nature of power. Periods of vulnerability and political weakness have often been times of expanding Christian influence. The early centuries of the Christian church, which included periodic persecution, were also a period of explosive growth, due (in part) to the communal compassion that distinguished believers: their care for widows and orphans; their welcoming of strangers and concern for the outcast. This spirit was alive among Christians in Charleston, S.C., following a racist rampage — believers who modeled the offer of grace.
Politics, in its own way, is important. But there is a type of influence not counted in votes, which no court can overturn.