The sociologist Mark Regnerus recently published a piece for the Witherington Institute’s Public Discourse, suggesting that support for same-sex marriage in some Christian circles correlates to broader shifts in morality surrounding sexuality and relations. Survey respondents were asked to declare their level of agreement with seven statements relating to the issues of pornography, cohabitation, no-strings-attached sex, the duty of staying in a marriage, extramarital sex, polyamorous relationships, and abortion. >The results illustrated pronounced fault lines between those committed to historic Christian stances on sexual morality and supporters of same-sex marriage.
As conservative Christians, we often see such data and reach for one or both of two related narratives: the narrative of the rejection of morality and the narrative of the slippery slope. I’m convinced both approaches typically oversimplify matters and obscure the reality.
Within the narrative of the rejection of morality, those who abandon an orthodox Christian stance on sexual morality cast off all external restraint and moral norms and are subject only to the dictates of their own sinful nature. As the stars of the moral constellations are extinguished in their heavens, they navigate the pitch guided by the unprincipled light of their individual wills, doing only what is right in their own eyes. Should it surprise us that such persons are widely supportive of abortion and cohabitation?
For the slippery slope narrative, there is an inherent instability to error and, given time, the rejection of biblical truth in one area will lead to its rejection in a host of others. This narrative is employed by those who argue that support for same-sex marriage will eventually lead to support for polygamy, incest, paedophilia, and bestiality. Even if biblical morality isn’t abandoned wholesale, it will be gradually eroded. Those advocating a slippery slope narrative often present empirical evidence illustrating the steady abandonment of Christian truth among those who took a precipitous first step.
Elements of Truth
Both of these narratives contain elements of truth. In many of the moral shifts we are witnessing, the individual will holds privileged status, empowered to reject various higher authorities or bend them to its inclination. We also often witness the (d)evolution of moral commitments over time, seeing how pulling one thread can lead to a larger moral fabric unravelling.
Yet there are problems too. The rejection-of-morality narrative doesn’t do justice to the fact that most who abandon orthodox Christian morality don’t do so for a willful moral anarchy. Advocates of the slippery slope narrative often presume rather than demonstrate that the rejection of position A will eventually lead to support for position B. Relatively little evidence is forthcoming to substantiate claims that support for same-sex marriage will lead to support for things such as bestiality or paedophilia. In fact, opposition to certain sinful acts, especially those of coercive abuse, may even be intensified.
The elements of truth in both narratives can be retained and considerably strengthened when we appreciate that the shift we’re witnessing is not the abandonment of all morality but a shift to a new moral system, one with its roots firmly within the philosophical tradition of liberalism. This new moral system is loosely coherent, and its underlying principles will work like yeast through the dough of our moral vision. Rather than advocating mere amorality, it forcefully presses moral claims against Christian sexual and relational ethics: for this moral system, Christian morality isn’t just wrong, it is immoral.
Until we understand this new morality on its own terms, we’ll be unable to offer effective responses to it.
Five Core Principles
The following are some of the core principles of the new sexual and relational morality:
First, sexual acts don’t have intrinsic meanings or purposes. They don’t relate to a deeper natural order, which we must honor and not violate. Their meaning is merely constructed, by society and the persons engaging in them. Sexual relations between a man and a woman need not involve the natural significance of making them “one flesh,” with all that entails. “Meaningless” sex is a genuine possibility.
Second, our sexuality is a subjective sense and intrinsic to our self-identity. Provided no harm is caused to others, we have a duty of care for ourselves to realize and express our desired sexual identities, even when this may involve measures such as sexual reassignment surgery. As members of a society, we also have a duty to ensure the sexual identities of our neighbors are affirmed and supported. Opposition to nonmarital sexual relations, or the expectation a person should remain in a marriage for the rest of their life (even though it may be sexually unfulfilling), are two Christian positions in tension with this principle of sexual morality.
Third, sexual agents are autonomous, rights-bearing individuals. Sexual relations are therefore mutually enhancing arrangements. Appropriate relations presuppose the partners are equal in their agency and there are no significant imbalances of power between them. For those who have developed this principle, traditional forms of marriage can cause discomfort. Such forms of marriage have typically recognized the existence of some degree of inequality of power between husband and wife (e.g., physically, economically, socially), harnessing male powers for loving and responsible service rather than presenting men and women as autonomous individuals facing each other with equal bargaining power. They have also placed limits on individuals’ and couples’ sexual choices, expecting lifelong exclusivity and commitment even against their private desires. Much of this restraint has been for the sake of children, who by the nature of their existence confound liberal concepts of the person and social relations.
Fourth, freely given consent is the watchword for sexual relations. Where a relationship between given parties is consensual, few if any reasonable objections can be raised against it. When advocates of traditional Christian ethics oppose consensual same-sex relations, for instance, they violate this strongly held moral principle and threaten both the rights and identities of other sexual agents.
Fifth, beyond the prevention of harm, sexual relations should be freed from social policing and constraint, from norms and from stigmas. While marriage may grant public recognition and affirmation to a couple, each couple should be freed to practice marriage as they choose, and no couple should be expected to get married. But Christianity has always sanctioned certain sexual relations and condemned others, treating sexual relations as matters of public and communal concern and thereby falling afoul of this principle too.
It’s imperative we appreciate the instinctive appeal of these moral principles to most persons within our society. These principles spring out of the liberal tradition and its definition of personhood, a tradition that has decisively shaped our politics, our economics, and our society’s ethics more broadly. As the assumptions grounding these sexual ethics are so pervasive in our society, and even in much conservative Christianity, we often lack the resources to present a principled challenge to them. The “thou shalt not” of biblical authority is erected as little more than a last-ditch resistance, a dam against the encroachment of principles we have no means of neutralizing, as we have imbibed them so fully. The Scriptures, however, have a far more compelling and substantial alternative vision to offer us, one that could inoculate us against this ersatz morality.
At the outset I questioned the typical narratives offered to explain such shifts—the narrative of the rejection of morality and the narrative of the slippery slope. I suggested that a careful account of the new morality would provide us with a far more illuminating framework. We are now in a position to see how it does so.
In response to the narrative of the rejection of morality, we have seen the replacement of Christian morality by an alternative form. The absolute moral anarchism this narrative envisages doesn’t materialize. However, we do see an elevation of the individual will over against the natural order and divine and social norms, rendering individual self-realization a more central moral end. The narrative of the slippery slope typically lacks a sufficient account of why the rejection of the historic Christian position on same-sex relations will often be accompanied by the rejection of specific further positions, while leaving others intact. When we appreciate that the shift is occurring through the gradual outworking of these principles of a new moral system, the logic will become clearer, as will the positions under threat. For instance, the principles of this moral system will generally produce strong moral opposition to paedophilia, which is seen to involve harm, significant imbalance of power, and the lack of capacity for informed consent. In contrast, the principles offer little resistance to consensual polyamorous relationships.
Armed with a firmer grasp of this new morality, we will be better able both to interpret and also to predict its movements.