Prophecy is a game that should be reserved for either fools or saints. It offers few benefits to the writer beyond the opportunity to make semi-serious claims without any accountability. “Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought of the things itself” is not counsel likely to generate keen and penetrating insights about the future: but then, as the invisible openess of the path ahead of us is the most opaque of all dimensions to our discernment anyway, perhaps it is a word that we need most.
Still, prognosticating about the shape of the world has been an inescapable feature of our culture war politics for the past thirty years. It is not to our society’s credit that painting wild visions of the future has frequently replaced substantive argument, and has demonstrated the narrow scope of our interests and horizons. And this by both sides, if I may say so. Progressives have banged on about how those opposed to gay marriage are on the “wrong side of history,” an empty phrase that narrows the scope of who is making ‘progress’ to those in the developed world and falsely indicates that history itself has moral salience. Conservatives, at the same time, have warned of the demise of Western society and made much of the fact that religious communities that approve of gay marriage are shrinking quickly while conservative churches, and the churches in the global south and in Africa that have opposed gay rights, are growing. For both sides, polls are a presented as a reason to believe—which somehow overlooks both that the crowds demanded the crucifixion of our Lord, and that if we were consistent about our method we all have good reasons to become Muslim. The weaponization of polls and of history is one of the marks of a diseased culture war—and avoiding perpetuating such a practice may be one of the paths we must take out of it.
Besides, generations are fickle things. While there is little doubt these days about a ‘generation gap’ on matters pertaining to human sexuality, a backlash against the slow-moving effects of the sexual revolution may be at store for us at some point in the future. Such a reversal is perhaps not likely; but then, I suspect few people at the start of this millennia would have ever imagined a liberal huckster like Donald Trump might become a serious candidate for the Republican nomination, either. The world and its development is a far weirder, less linear place than the grand narratives of decline or progress convey. Besides, it is the joy and crown of youth to rebel against expectations. Today my own generation (‘millennials’) has turned aside conservative sexual mores; but if one thinks a (broadly) traditional account of sexual ethics is in fact true, then why should they not expect a similar repudiation at some point in the future of the liberal progressive reduction of sexual ethics to ‘consent’? As G.K. Chesterton once wrote with his typical puckish verve:
“The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children's games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called "Keep tomorrow dark," and which is also named…"Cheat the Prophet." The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.”
The future is not for predicting, then. The purpose of such visions is to evaluate our lives today, to determine how we should act now in order to bring about the ends that we deem valuable and good. The future is a conditioned: it is predicated upon ‘ifs’ that themselves demand careful scrutiny and evaluation. As it is unknown, it can generate only questions for us, not answers or reasons. Reflecting about the future forces us to attend to what are we today, and what we do now to become the people and society we want to be.
I turn then, with some fear and trembling, to explore some of the questions that the purported ‘generation gap’ on matters LGBT places before us. Specifically, I wish to explore precisely what it might mean that controversies “relating to faith and LGBT issues” might “fade away.” Second, and more presumptively, I wish to take up the question of mercy within the culture wars as an important aspect of diminishing hostilities. And finally, I turn specifically to the churches to identify the limits and possibilities of unity that this generation might represent.
The Reasonable Recalcitrance of Belief
Will a ‘generation gap’ on LGBT issues lead to the end of controversies about such matters in the future? How we answer depends, it seems to me, upon what the ‘gap’ is about. It is likely, for instance, that the aging donor base of the Religious Right will not be replaced by ‘millennials’, and that their nihilistic politics will come to an end. In the best case, conservative evangelicals will jettison the resentment that has motivated them and order themselves toward a substantive, thoroughgoing account of the common good that minimizes the role of legislation for the sake of social and cultural persuasion. On this account, the most important and interesting generational gap is not over the substance of sexual ethics, but about political theology. Most of the rigorously conservative millennials I know have little interest in carrying on the Religious Right’s political dispositions and rhetoric. Many of the most vibrant and populated reform movements within the evangelical world—one thinks of The Gospel Coalition, with their 10,000 person conferences—have been uncompromising in their traditionalism, even if they (thankfully) have not mobilized politically as past evangelical movements have done.
But one might also expect the generation gap to include substantive doctrinal changes, so that the number of people and institutions in America that continue to hold that marriage is between a man and a woman will decline to the point that they are irrelevant. Yet here there is a danger for progressives in believing too strongly in their own rhetoric about history. Doubtlessly many millennial evangelicals have shifted on these questions, fueling the widely received narrative of a ‘generation gap.’ But the pertinent question is where the floor of support for traditional marriage is. If half of millennial evangelicals—if—currently think homosexuality should be “accepted by society,” whatever that means, will that number someday reach 60%? 70% 80% The numbers make a difference: 40% of a religious group as large as ‘evangelicals’ is not an insignificant number for American political life, especially when that segment is not distributed evenly geographically but is concentrated in few enough places to elect representatives.
Indeed, it seems to me there are good reasons to think that more conservative millennials will continue to hold to traditional views than people might think. The gender-binary at the heart of marriage is an ‘architectural doctrine’ of the Christian faith: it permeates the whole of Scripture, stands beneath the traditional naming of God as Father, is necessary for explaining Christ’s relationship to the Church, and generates an indispensable role for Mary in salvation history. Excising the doctrine would be nearer to a theological heart transplant than cosmetic surgery.
Conservative Christians have also watched carefully as progressive mainline churches have attempted, and failed, to hold together the affirmation of gay unions with the traditional core of the faith. Churches deliberating about these questions now would need some reason why they should expect their experience to be different; gay marriage cannot have the character of an ‘experiment’ within the conservative churches, as it did have 50 years ago.
And socially, many millennial evangelicals who have not changed their minds already are vastly more acquainted with the arguments for and against gay marriage than they were five years ago, and have been quickly growing accustomed to the pressures that come from being in a minority. Why should we expect those who have survived the bombardment of the past five years with their beliefs intact to change their mind in the future? All this provides some reason to question the narrative that the ‘generation gap’ will be wide enough to avoid serious divisions and disputes within the conservative Christian world. After all, people have been trying to excise the belief in creation from conservative Christians for over 100 years, with far less success than might be imagined by some.
At the heart of whether or not we expect controversies to ‘fade away’ is a question about our commitment to reasonable discourse, persuasion, and a political order that is built on something more stable than the will of the majority. The sort of social upheaval on LGBT questions we have undergone the past thirty years has doubtlessly narrowed the ranks of conservative Christians; but we should want the kinds of controversies that we have experienced the past twenty years to be resolved, not simply to ‘fade away’ because those who held to certain views are simply dying off. Such an approach both overlooks the possibility that far more millennials will remain conservative on these questions than we might now expect, and risks fostering (more) resentment and alienation among those conservatives who remain, inasmuch as it replaces the exchange of reasons and the aim of persuasion with the promise that ‘history’ will simply sort things out.
Mercy and the Marriage Debates
Can there be mercy in the gay marriage debates? It is a question that has haunted me for several years, even if it is not one for traditionalists to answer. It may not even be the kind of question that I can fittingly ask, as doing so might subtly hint at some lingering privilege, as though mercy is the kind of thing that conservative Christians deserve. Yet ask it I shall, as if our cultural disputes about such issues are to diminish, it is an important question for LGBT advocates to consider.
Shortly after the Supreme Court announced their ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, it became clear that disputes about gay rights were going to continue to rage on, partly because conservatives were clearly not going to go quietly into their dark night of defeat, and partly because legalizing marriage for the LGBT community is only a partial victory. Those sympathetic with the LGBT movement quickly began looking for ways to further roll back what many of them clearly think is a discriminatory regime. Most prominently, conversations sprung up about whether or not tax exempt status should be extended to religious colleges who refuse to hire or admit practicing gay faculty and students. The push has taken concrete political form in the “Equality Act,” an anti-discrimination bill introduced in July that, if enacted, will probably engender more conflicts between religious individuals and organizations and gay rights.
The social effects of such political efforts depends in large part upon the line of reasoning that is used to support them. If opposition to gay marriage and gay rights continues to be treated as no different from racism, then the conflict between gay rights and religious commitments will continue to be a zero-sum game. Such an approach by the LGBT community is understandable: after all, they have a deep and pervasive narrative about the unjust persecution and stigmatization they have received from the hands of conservative Christians. But the question before them is whether they wish to exact an eye for an eye, and narrow the range for public expression of traditional sexual ethics as much as possible, or if they will take a more lenient and capacious approach than they themselves once received. If ending discrimination in America requires—as one LGBT group sounds its mission—stamping out “religion-based bigotry”, conservative Christians will be required to either take their lumps in silence or carry on the kinds of political controversies that we have seen. But in neither case will the good of ending unjust discrimination against LGBT individuals be common for American society: it will come only at the cost of the freedom of conservative Christians to have the form of community life that they deem fitting.
At the same time, framing the question as one of mercy requires something of conservative Christians, too. It demands the recognition that mercy is what is required, that the behavior of our own community throughout history toward LGBT individuals has been less exemplary than it should have been. Mercy may not be merited if conservative Christians learn nothing at all. If conservative Christians now object to the use of the law to punitively encroach upon their way of life, we should seriously reflect about our own use of similar methods in the past. It may be that quietly accepting our marginalized future is an appropriate form of political contrition, and that any purging of our past may not be complete except through such penance.
But in the meantime, whether or not the controversies abate is in largely up to the victors to decide. Whether or not they wish to extend mercy to conservative Christians, to forgo the claim that religious objections to gay unions are no different than racism and so preserve robust protections for religious individuals and institutions, is largely in their hands. Whether conservative Christians deserve such magnanimous treatment is certainly an important question; but then, it may not be mercy if they did.
The Divisions we Must Sustain?
What should we say about the church? Among the many lessons that conservative Christian churches have incorporated over the past decade is that they have earned an abysmal reputation for responding to LGBT individuals within their midst. The psychologically dubious, hostile rhetoric of early 1980s evangelicalism has been mostly eliminated from the mainstream of evangelical life. In its place is a fragile but promising attempt to announce a message of welcome and grace without compromising the teachings of Scripture.
At the same time, progressive Christians who have witnessed the bitter dividing of the mainline denominations have turned toward maintaining unity. In addition to arguing outright that conservatives should approve of gay unions, they have defended the idea that gay marriage is a ‘disputable matter,’ an issue closer to the ethics of food consumption than the doctrine of God, and hence one upon which good Christians should simply agree to disagree about while getting on with life together.
These changes are already at work within the Christian world. And I see every reason why graciousness and kindness will continue to take root within the conservative world. Such loving welcome will not be promoted for tactical reasons, as it sometimes has. Instead, our increasingly fragile social position will winnow away those who are not substantively committed to the faith, and the deep hope of the gospel will become more deeply embedded in our own hearts. The glad light of good cheer among the faithful remaining will grow brighter in such circumstances, and conservatives will announce the word of grace while holding firm to their convictions about the shape that grace takes.
And yet, it is likely that these changes will not satisfy anyone on either side, but will be suspiciously treated as window-dressing over more fundamental problems. It is possible, for instance, that many LGBT activists will look at efforts by conservatives to be more welcoming and hospitable as a pretense, an attempt to ‘put a smile on hate’—as one phrase sums up the skepticism. Similarly, conservatives may treat ‘agreeing to disagree’ as a halfway house toward full-inclusion and the stigmatization within the church of conservative opinions.
For this reason, I suspect the ‘generation gap’ will not be wide enough to avoid the ongoing balkanization and fragmentation of the Protestant world. Unless conservatives follow the progressive position and minimize the importance of traditional sexual ethics, then they will have every reason to maintain divisions on this particular question. Wolfhart Pannenberg, who was no American fundamentalist Baptist himself, once distilled the conservative position by arguing that any church which approved of gay marriage “would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Besides, such doctrinal elevation has turned sexual ethics into a litmus test within the conservative Christian world: while the many millennial evangelicals have become affirming, advancement within conservative institutions depends upon being a traditionalist. That will ensure institutional continuity for far longer than people might expect, even if the size of those institutions decreases.
The question, then, is whether it is feasible for institutions to somehow leave room for both positions. Whether it would work, pragmatically, is dubious—but would it still be faithful? The question is pertinent to both sides of this dispute. Should those who are progressive rest content worshiping next to those they think are papering over their bigotry and hatred with religious dogmas? Or vice versa? These are the sort of questions that Christians will continue to face; I see little reason to think that we will come to different answers than previous generations.
It is entirely possible that in challenging the relevance and importance of polling for understanding the future of the church conservatives might be falling prey an irrational optimism that is purely wishful thinking. At the same time, recalcitrant belief in the face of majority opinions is sometimes commendable. Socrates was compelled to drink hemlock, and he is remembered as a hero for his dissent. (We are less likely to remember those who were deluded.) The question is whether a traditional account of sexual ethics is true; if it is, those who are conservative have every reason to carry on with their convictions even at the expense of their own cultural relevance and power. And to that question, the polls that tell us right now which way the historical winds are blowing are perfectly irrelevant. If such shifts become a reason for hope or despair for the people of God, we build for ourselves a less sure foundation for our communities than the faith that we have received.