In October 2019, a British court ruled against David Mackereth in a case that epitomizes our modern culture wars. In a job interview, Mackereth—a doctor with 30 years of experience—wished to reserve the right not to refer to, in his words, “a 6-foot-tall bearded man as ‘madam.’” When he wasn’t hired, he claimed he was discriminated against because he made known that his beliefs were based on Genesis 1:27.
For Mackereth, the belief that “God created man in his own image . . . male and female” was foundational. When the case went to court, they ruled against Mackereth. In particular, the doctor’s belief in Genesis 1:27 was singled out by the judge as “incompatible with human dignity.” And so the verse that lies at the roots of “human dignity” was condemned in a judgment that very much calls to mind the image of a culture sawing at the branch of the tree on which it’s perched.
So has the tide of Christian influence finally gone out? That kind of imagery has long been reflected in the language of conservative and religious types who lament the retreat of faith in the public square. In Dover Beach, the 19th-century poet Matthew Arnold once spoke of the “long, withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith,” leaving us with “neither joy, nor love, nor light.” If Arnold could write this in 1851 (when half of England was in church on a Sunday), what would he make of today? What should we make of it when church attendance in England is around 6 percent, and the biblical foundations of society are often publicly condemned?
It’s worth remembering that tides go out, but they also come in. There have been many “long, withdrawing roars” in church history and equally many extraordinary surges. Tides don’t go out forever. But there’s another way to develop the “sea of faith” analogy: the power of the water is in evidence no matter its current level. The terrain at low tide has been shaped by the ocean as surely as the beach at high tide. In other words, Christianity is still powerfully at work in all these contemporary trends, and those both inside and outside the church should be aware of the dynamics.
Let’s consider them in the Mackereth case. As a committed Christian, his beliefs ran up against transgender ideology, but both outlooks were dependent, in their own ways, on Christian assumptions. In particular, three values—equality, compassion, and consent—were driving the arguments. It’s just that, in the case of certain transgender advocates, those values have been divorced from the Christian story and then combined in a new way.
Let’s examine both: the divorce and the recombination.
When equality is divorced from the Christian story, it risks becoming a radical individualism. Ancient people considered their identity in collective ways, and individuality got lost in the shuffle. We have the opposite danger. We consider our society as a loose association of individuals who each have equal rights before the law. It can become very atomistic: I begin my thinking with myself and my identity. Where, in other cultures, I would look outward to discover my identity, in our culture I look inward. Where other cultures major on responsibilities, we major on rights. No wonder a sense of community suffers. No wonder all forms of institutional affiliations are tanking across the board (not just church attendance).
In Christianity, the principle is that all sit equally at the same table. The modern goal is for all to climb equally high up their own ladders. Where the Bible says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), 21st-century Westerners now finish that sentence, “for you are all individuals.” Or, worse, “for you are all interchangeable.” At that point, the distance traveled from the scriptural truth is immense.
When compassion is divorced from the Christian story, it risks generating competitive victimhood. This is the name sociologists have given for the way victim status can be quickly claimed to gain an advantage. In Christianity, the Victim, Jesus, suffered redemptively and offers dignity and hope to the oppressed. The danger nowadays is that our chief desire is not to honor and help victims but to become them. Where virtue was once the cultivation of a great heart, now we seek to demonstrate a thin skin. And with so many claiming victimization—a great many of them having genuine grievances—we lack a richer moral vision to arbitrate.
The danger nowadays is that our chief desire is not to honor and help victims but to become them.
The clashes between feminists (or religious minorities) on the one hand, and trans-rights activists on the other, demonstrate the point. Here we see claims made on both sides about the protection of the oppressed. Which should take precedence, when, and on what grounds? To answer those questions we need a far more robust understanding of the meaning of gender, bodies, personhood, and community. And we need more tools at our disposal than an insistence on “my rights,” the retelling of “my suffering,” and some caps-locked tweets reminding people “IT’S THE 21ST CENTURY FOR GOODNESS SAKE.”
When sexual consent is divorced from the Christian story, it risks reducing sex to something far less than the Christian vision. It detaches consent—a vital component of the sexual relationship—from other values, like commitment. It also risks detaching sex from a richer story about its meaning. It can naively assume that sex involves uncomplicated choices regarding a leisure activity. In reality, power differentials, both social and physical, are always present, and sex is woven into the fabric of our bodies, our personal relationships, and our societal structures.
As the individualists we are, we’re formed to view sex as a matter for private individuals making a private transaction. But our identities, our bodies, our lives, and our sexual choices are intimately connected to marriage, children, family, biology, and the wider community. Consent is vital, but it’s not a sufficient foundation for sexual ethics.
When equality is divorced from the Christian story, it risks becoming radical individualism. When compassion is divorced from the Christian story, it risks generating competitive victimhood. When consent is divorced from the Christian story, it risks reducing sex to something far less than the Christian vision.
Now, mix these three abstracted values together in a certain way and you have a heady brew: the power of the individual, the power of the minority, and the power of personal choice, especially in sexual matters. These are foundational beliefs for transgender ideology. For the trans-rights activist it adds up to this: I have an absolute right to self-identify, independent of culture or biology; and, as a minority, my choice must be honored. Obviously this ideology is not Christian, but it emerges from strongly held convictions that would be utterly inconceivable without Christianity.
On the other side, David Mackereth has his own Christian foundations: the rights to religious liberty, to freedom of speech, and to freedom of conscience; science (in particular, biological definitions of sex); and the scriptural authority that grounds our equality in the first place (Gen. 1:27). And so what we have, in this 2019 tribunal, is a clash between traditional and secularized versions of foundationally Christian values.
What was alarming wasn’t so much that the ruling went against Mackereth—in culture wars, some battles are won and some are lost. What was alarming was the reason given. The judge ruled that Genesis 1 was the problem. As Spencer Klavan quipped, calling the image of God “incompatible with human dignity is akin to insisting that seeds are incompatible with flowers, or grain with bread.” It’s to condemn the roots of the tree, even as you depend on the fruits it has yielded. Such a trend toward ever-increasing secularization is not, therefore, a sustainable strategy. It’s a recipe for fracture and not freedom. But one thing it reveals is the inescapable influence of Christianity. Even as Genesis is condemned, it’s condemned for “Christian” reasons.
The tide is out in terms of Christianity’s explicit influence on Western culture. But the terrain has been shaped by a “sea of faith” far deeper and more enduring than our current cultural moment. And as we witness the fear, confusion, and tribalism of our post-Christian age, there are reasons for people within the church—and “beyond” it—to wish for the tide to turn.