Moral revolutions require legal revolutions. This is certainly the case with the sexual revolution and its various causes of sexual liberation. A revolution is only complete when the legal structure aligns itself with a new moral understanding. This alignment is exactly what is taking place in American public life on the issue of gay liberation.
Every society has a structure of systems that either influence or coerce behavior. Eventually, societies move to legislate and regulate behavior in order to align the society with what is commonly, or at least largely, considered morally right and wrong. Civilization could not survive without a system of moral controls and influences.
Throughout almost all of Western history, for the most part, this process has played out in a non-threatening way for the Christian church and Christians in the larger society. So long as the moral judgment of the culture matched the convictions and teachings of the church, the church and culture were not at odds in the courts. Furthermore, under these conditions, to be found on the wrong side of a moral assessment was rarely a likelihood for Christians.
All that began to change in the modern age as the culture became more secularized and as Western societies moved more progressively distant from the Christian morality they had embraced in the past. Christians in this generation recognize that we do not represent the same moral framework now pervasively presented in modern academia, the context of creative culture, and the arena of law. The secularization of public life and the separation of society from its Christian roots has left many Americans seemingly unaware of the fact that the very beliefs and teachings for which Christians are now criticized were once considered not only mainstream beliefs, but essential to the entire project of society. As the sexual revolution completely pervades the society, and as the issues raised by the efforts of gay liberation and the legalization of same-sex marriage come to the fore, Christians now face an array of religious liberty challenges that were inconceivable in previous generations.
In one of the most important of these recent cases, a judge found that a wedding photographer broke the law by refusing to serve as a photographer for a same-sex wedding. In an incredibly revealing decision, the court stated, quite straightforwardly, that the religious liberties of the photographer would indeed be violated by coerced participation in a same-sex wedding. Nevertheless, the court found that the new morality trumped concern for religious liberty.
Similarly, we have seen religious institutions, especially colleges and schools, confronted by the demands that amount to a surrender to the sexual revolution with regards to nondiscrimination on the basis of sex, sexual behavior, and sexual orientation pertaining to admissions, the hiring of faculty, and student housing. In some jurisdictions, lawmakers are contemplating hate crime legislation that would marginalize and criminalize speech that is in conflict with the new moral consensus.
We now face an inevitable conflict of liberties. In this context of acute and radical moral change, the conflict of liberties is excruciating, immense, and eminent. In this case, the conflict of liberties means that the new moral regime, with the backing of the courts and the regulatory state, will prioritize erotic liberty over religious liberty. Over the course of the last several decades, we have seen this revolution coming. Erotic liberty has been elevated as a right more fundamental than religious liberty. Erotic liberty now marginalizes, subverts, and neutralizes religious liberty—a liberty highly prized by the builders of this nation and its constitutional order. We must remember that the framers of the Constitution did not believe they were creating rights within the Constitution, but rather acknowledging rights given to all humanity by “nature and nature’s God.”
The challenges we will face with regards to religious liberty are immense and increasing by the season. The government has at its disposal mechanisms for moral coercion that reach far beyond prisons, jails, and fines. For example, at least some business people who refused to participate in same-sex weddings, such as photographers, bakers, or florists, were required to undergo “sensitivity training.” In order to understand how the new moral regime uses sensitivity training, it is helpful to think back to iconic works of the twentieth century such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. These sensitivity training programs represent efforts to bring intellectual cleansing. And now, in some jurisdictions they can be inflicted upon religious believers who dare oppose the morality of the new regime.
The religious liberty challenge we now face consigns every believer, every religious institution, and every congregation in the arena of conflict where erotic liberty and religious liberty now clash. This poses no danger to theological liberals and their churches and denominations because those churches have accommodated themselves to the new morality and find themselves quite comfortable within the context of the new moral regime. Furthermore, some of these liberal denominations and churches style themselves as defenders of the new morality and actually advocate legal modifications that restrict the religious liberty rights of more conservative churches and denominations.
Interestingly, Jonathan Rauch, one of the early advocates of gay marriage warned his fellow moral revolutionaries that they must be careful lest they trample upon the conscience rights and religious liberty of their adversaries. In his book, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Rauch voiced his concern:
Today, I fear that many people on my side of the gay-equality question are forgetting our debt to the system that freed us. Some gay people—not all, not even most, but quite a few—want to expunge discriminatory views. “Discrimination is discrimination and bigotry is bigotry,” they say, “and they are intolerable whether or not they happen to be someone’s religion or moral creed.”
Rauch also stated, “I hope that when gay people—and non-gay people—encounter hateful or discriminatory opinions, we respond not by trying to silence or punish them but by trying to correct them.” Very few signs, however, are signaling that Rauch’s admonition is being heard. A review of the religious liberty challenges already confronting the conscience, conduct, and belief rights of convictional Christians shows us how daunting all this really is. We can be sure this is not the end of our struggle. It is only the beginning.
This blog post was edited from chapter 8 of We Cannot Be Silent.
R. Albert Mohler Jr.