Megapastor Mark Driscoll has a new book coming out, A Call to Resurgence. The inspiration is that the conservative evangelicalism that became popular again with some segment of the population in the 70’s has peaked and begun to decline in the last few years.
The culture war began in earnest in the 60’s. People who didn’t like this, and felt lost in the increasing suburban materialism of the time, turned in large numbers to a sort of revivalist, missionary Baptist Christianity that took on a more modern appearance. The culture war was mostly a rout. No traditional church, Catholic or Protestant, maintained much control over its members, to the extent they retained their members at all. My devoutly Catholic grandmother had four children, of whom two- my father and an aunt- practiced Catholicism as adults. Neither of my aunt’s children practices as an adult, and while my brother and sister practice, they have no children so the religion will be passed along to no one.
The traditional churches could tolerate fornication, which they had for a long time, and to some extent cohabitation. The normalization of homosexuality was more than they could deal with though. Fornication and cohabitation can be seen as unauthorized but tolerable parts of the courtship process leading to traditional marriage. Homosexuality cannot. But the normalization of homosexuality has been a non-negotiable and relentlessly pursued part of the culture war. “Tolerating” homosexuality, in terms of understanding it is something a few men in the big city do, was not acceptable. Maybe this started with AIDS. AIDS started in San Francisco and New York, but gay visitors from the hinterland brought it home, and while a gay in a conservative small town might have his discreet behavior discreetly ignored- as had been the social custom for centuries- if he got AIDS that changed.
So far this seems to be a conflict between liberal sexual mores and Christianity. But the force pushing liberal sexual mores is a form of Christianity itself, roughly progressive Christianity, more specifically Victorian Methodism.
Progressive Victorian Christians made a name for themselves taking up the cause of people they regarded as socially marginalized- black slaves in British colonies first, then women. Being businessmen this sympathy did not apply to laborers, and the practice of enslaving young white boys as chimney sweeps continued until 1875.
In general, however, the Victorian “non-conformists” disliked any characteristic associated with the old, aristocratic order, such as social hierarchy or manliness. Any weak or oppressed group- other than the white working class, of course- such as women, girls, effeminate men, people of Third World countries- had to be treated with gentleness and consideration. They promoted a form of belief that mainly consisted of love and charity for the poor and weak of the type they considered sympathetic- women, girls, and non-whites- and discipline for the poor and weak they didn’t care for, the white working class, largely expressed in the form of temperance crusades. Masculinity was associated with on one hand, the landed upper class descended from aristocratic warriors, and on the other hand with farmers, laborers and craftsmen- all people of an agricultural society. In the new industrial society, men were expected to either be office managers and clerks or factory workers, jobs which required submissive and obedient behavior, not rough-spoken independence.
On top of this homosexuality of a sort was part of the English upper-class and upper middle-class experience. Boys went at young ages to boarding schools where they spent most of their time well into adolescence. Older boys used younger boys to do various chores and provide services, a practice known as “fagging“. The services included in many cases sodomy. In other cases homosexual relationships formed between boys of equal age and status. Usually the boys put this behind them after they left school, but sometimes they didn’t. In any case the upper middle-class of England wasn’t inclined to regard homosexuality as something particularly wrong or shameful.
So what Christianity has meant for the English-speaking moral authorities has for a long time meant primarily kind charitable treatment towards certain classes they considered of a more moral nature- that these people should not be judged, punished, ostracized, or looked down on, but instead celebrated for their admirable qualities. Whether these groups actually display these qualities- whether the poor are actually humble and meek rather than arrogant, aggressive and lazy, and whether homosexuals are actually gentle, mild-mannered fellows who are respectful of women and children rather than alcohol- and drug-abusing sex addicts who find age of consent laws an annoying inconvenience- is beside the point.
The confrontation that Driscoll talks about is mostly won without any real discussion by the progressives. It’s well-noted by conservative Christian men that in “churchianity” feminism and bad behavior by women is accepted in most supposedly traditional churches. The moral superiority of women is a part of Victorian Christianity accepted by most Americans from the beginning.
But unless you are willing to accept the exegetical acrobatics that make homosexuality acceptable, you can’t take the full progressive position. And the full progressive position is the only one acceptable in large parts of American society. Imagine if one of the members of Driscoll’s church was to go into his workplace in Seattle and say, “I believe homosexuality is immoral.” He would be lucky to get reeducation; termination would be the most likely result.
People like Richard Dawkins think they are atheists, but in reality they are Victorian Methodists without the supernatural. Christianity is alive and well, and winning, at least in the progressive form.