A friend—a faithful Christian and a professor who specializes in political history—recently shared that after listening to Joe Rogan discuss gay marriage with Matt Walsh, he walked away discouraged. While Walsh articulated the biblical view of marriage as well as can be expected given the circumstances, Rogan “won” because his arguments, as silly as they were, resonate deeply with the cultural moment.
When our collective moral framework is built around two principles—personal freedom and not causing harm—it’s nearly impossible to convince people that the definition of marriage shouldn’t be expanded to include same-sex couples. To oppose including those couples is now indistinguishable from bigotry.
This partly explains why, in December, the Respect for Marriage Act passed both houses of the U.S. Congress with bipartisan support. Thirty-nine Republicans in the House and 12 in the Senate joined every Democrat to codify it into federal law. Support for gay marriage is so widespread that it’s easy to forget how recent it is. In 1996, President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned same-sex marriage and limited the definition of marriage to the union of a man and a woman, after it had passed Congress with overwhelming majorities. A lot can change in 26 years.
According to Ryan Burge, as recently as 2010 most Americans didn’t support same-sex marriage. Today, the majority do—including 52 percent of self-identified evangelicals.
Support for gay marriage is so widespread that it’s easy to forget how recent it is.
Considering the swift, large-scale shift in opinion, my friend asked a question many faithful Christians are asking: Is it time to give up on gay marriage? This isn’t asking whether we should give up on our biblical conviction that marriage is between one man and one woman. That isn’t up for grabs. The question is whether we should keep trying to make a persuasive public argument for the biblical definition of marriage.
With the moral revolution moving so fast, why spend limited resources on a losing battle?
Before giving up, consider that another revolution—the sexual revolution—had every bit as much momentum as the current one, and yet it has run aground on the rocks of reality.
Lessons from the Past
In the 1960s, the sexual revolution promised liberation from the supposedly repressive moral codes imposed by tradition and religion. With the widespread availability of the birth control pill, research suggesting sexual restraint was unhealthy, and books like Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Woman selling 2 million copies in three weeks in 1962, the culture was primed for rapid change. It didn’t disappoint.
Between 1960 and 1975, Playboy sales went from 1.1 million to 5.6 million per issue. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice—a film about wife swapping—received four Academy Award nominations in 1969. The divorce rate more than doubled between 1960 and 1980, going from 9.2 to 22.6 divorces per 1,000 married women.
It wasn’t that sexual mores changed immediately but that the culture’s growing celebration of sexual freedom (especially the decoupling of sex from procreation, which widespread birth control and legalized abortion made possible) gradually made it more difficult to make credible arguments for the Bible’s teaching that sex is only appropriate inside marriage.
By the mid-1970s, consent was the only legitimate moral boundary for sex between adults. Most faithful Christians assumed our culture would never again return to anything resembling the historic Christian sexual ethic.
But now in the 2020s, there are signs this may indeed happen. The sexual revolution’s logic is breaking down. It’s not that the culture has returned to the Christian sexual ethic, but it’s no longer crazy to suggest the sexual revolution did a lot of damage, especially to those it was supposed to liberate.
Reality-Fueled Revolt Against the Sexual Revolution
Two books published in 2022, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by Louise Perry (read TGC’s review) and Rethinking Sex by Christine Emba (read TGC’s review), argue the sexual revolution largely failed to deliver on its promises—especially to women. In addition to exposing the widespread carnage left in the sexual revolution’s wake, Perry and Emba call for a return to something that resembles the Christian sexual ethic.
What makes the arguments in these books so surprising is that neither author identifies as an evangelical. Emba, a columnist for the Washington Post, and Perry, who writes for both the New Statesman and the Daily Mail, are critiquing modern, secular sexual morality from the inside.
The sexual revolution’s logic is breaking down.
The Christian in 1975 would’ve thought this impossible. How did the sexual revolution come to have critics among those whom it was purported to free from bondage? The short answer: reality.
Since we all live in the world God designed and since God’s commands provide for human flourishing, violating his commands results in pain, disappointment, and tragedy. In their books, Emba and Perry detail the painful consequences incurred as a result of the sexual revolution’s rejection of natural law and the biblical sexual ethic (listen to Perry make her case).
Don’t Retreat. Persuade.
Perhaps Christians shouldn’t be completely surprised by this turn of events. Perhaps there’s even room for hope that some supporters of marriage equality will eventually come to see its consequences too. Just as “women’s liberation” was promised by the sexual revolution but is now being questioned by feminist writers, perhaps, in time, the promises of “marriage equality” will also be reconsidered.
So maybe this isn’t the time to retreat from making a publicly persuasive case that the orthodox Christian view of marriage is best for everyone—whether gay or straight, Christians or not. In the short term, our pleas may land on deaf ears, but in the long term they may very well turn the tide.
We should make the case that any moral system that absolutizes personal autonomy harms the less privileged and results in further decay. We should persuade others that while the idea of legal marriage is relatively new, there’s a reason every society in history has protected and honored male and female unions that produce children and develop them into productive citizens. We should keep lovingly making the case that children who are raised in homes with their mom and dad have better outcomes. We should compellingly invoke natural law and the latest research to supplement our defense of the biblical sexual ethic. Finally, let’s never give up on creatively articulating God’s beautiful vision for sex.
Christians should stop trying to guess what will change in the future and simply speak as faithful witnesses to what hasn’t and won’t change: God’s vision of the common good.