Religious freedom, like other concepts of freedom, is contested. What it means varies across time and place. In recent years, the US has experienced a massive shift on questions of religions; attendance and membership are down in almost every denomination, the public influence of Christianity has declined as the public face of Christianity has come to be seen as the face of bigotry and intolerance. The result has been a sharp and painful bit of cognitive dissonance for religious conservatives. From HuffPo,
The findings of a poll published Wednesday (Jan. 23), reveal a “double standard” among a significant portion of evangelicals on the question of religious liberty, said David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, a California think tank that studies American religion and culture.
While these Christians are particularly concerned that religious freedoms are being eroded in this country, “they also want Judeo-Christians to dominate the culture,” said Kinnamon.
“They cannot have it both ways,” he said. “This does not mean putting Judeo-Christian values aside, but it will require a renegotiation of those values in the public square as America increasingly becomes a multi-faith nation.”
Christians who believe their faith is under assault have identified the enemy: Gays and lesbians.
And 72 percent of evangelicals also agreed that gays and lesbians were the group “most active in trying to remove Christian values from the country.” That compares to 31 percent of all adults who held this belief.
In other words, these evangelical Christians define Christianity as heterosexuality. Think about that: in this poll, evangelical Christians have decided that public acceptance of sexual minorities is tantamount to an attack on Christianity. When gays and lesbians ask for equal rights, evangelical Christians believe that means they’re faith is under attack.
A post by Peter Berger gives some insight – though not the insight I suspect Berger intended:
Let me venture a sociological hypothesis here: The new American secularism is in defense of the sexual revolution. Since the 1960s there has indeed been a sexual revolution in America. It has been very successful in changing the mores and the law. It should not be surprising that many people, especially younger ones, enjoy the new libidinous benefits of this revolution. Whether one approves or deplores the new sexual culture, it seems unlikely to be reversed. Yet Christian churches (notably the Catholic and Evangelical ones) are in the forefront of those who do want to reverse the libertine victory. Its beneficiaries are haunted by the nightmare of being forced into chastity belts by an all too holy alliance of clerics and conservative politicians. No wonder they are hostile!
Berger is making the same mistake here that evangelical Christians are making in excluding gay people from Christianity – the sexual revolution was not a libertine victory and its benefits are not primarily libidinous. Berger is flat out wrong in seeing the sexual revolution as primarily a change in sexual mores. It was really about our understanding gender, gender identity and gender roles.
The sexual revolution expressed itself in changes in sexual behavior and mores, but those were not the primary or more important changes. Although scholars, such as Stephanie Coontz, have documented that families weren’t how we thought they were and the traditional families values were more PR than reality, the real sexual revolution was and continues to be a revolution in our ways of understanding gender, gender identity, gender roles and family structure.
One of my favorite bits of history comes from the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Throughout much of its history, the anti-war movement was embarrassingly sexist. Although many of the young men and women sat next to each other in college classes, the men, raised in a sexist culture, couldn’t accept that the women were capable, intelligent and every bit as skilled as they were. So the women were often relegated to bed and making copies and coffee. By contrast, lots of women showed up to be leaders, to fight for positive change; they very quickly realized they were the equals of their male peers and very quickly resented being relegated to bed, making copies and coffee. To their credit, any of those women spoke out strongly and launched the women’s movement. To their credit, lots of anti-war men realized the error of their ways and started treating their female peers as equals. That change, women demanding to be treated as men’s equals and men responding by doing so, was one of the most important parts of the sexual revolution. The impact of that change in how we think about gender is far-reaching and continues to unfold.
For that reason, when Berger argues about the sexual revolution that “Its beneficiaries are haunted by the nightmare of being forced into chastity belts by an all too holy alliance of clerics and conservative politicians” he is arguing about the wrong thing. It’s not chastity belts (although that’s certainly a problem), it’s rolling back equality that people resist.
The sexual revolution brought with it feminism and gay rights and suddenly all the ideas about gender that people held without much examination come under pressure. We started seeing that our notions about gender and gender roles are largely cultural constructs. The consensus suddenly falls apart. It shouldn’t escape notice that even culturally conservative organizations are staffed by women. Utah’s much and rightly maligned Eagle Forum is influential precisely because it’s female membership and leadership have demonstrated astonishing organizational skills. They can shake their call tree and generate vast numbers of calls and emails to state legislators at a moment’s notice. They’re living proof the sexual revolutionaries were right.
What had once been an almost unquestioned consensus about men, women, relationships, sexuality, family, marriage and gender roles fell apart with amazing speed. This article, a response to Berger points out:
Today churches themselves don’t agree about what defines marriage. Many condone divorce; others don’t. Some churches celebrate gay weddings; others hold that all homosexual acts are sinful. Some churches frown on premarital sex; others say live and let live. And even greater diversity exists in society at large. In a democratic society, laws about marriage reflect the majority’s views. A century ago, this wasn’t a problem because the majority of individuals, as well as churches, agreed about what marriage was. Today, no such consensus exists.
Where we disagree with Berger, then, is that the conflict over public morality isn’t a cage match between a unified Christian body and a unified secular movement. Society is becoming so diverse that anycivil law on marriage will coincide with fewer people’s beliefs about what the law should be. This breakdown of cultural consensus is going to haunt American jurisprudence and political discourse for the foreseeable future.
The changes wrought by the sexual revolution have been so vast and so fast that evangelical Christians are punch drunk at this point. At every step along the way, they’ve lost – first against divorce, then against working moms, now against gays in the military and DOMA looks like a loser . . . and frankly it’s seems to be all over but the shouting. Our culturally and religiously conservative friends will resist for a while; they’ll raise their concerns and persuade fewer and fewer people that they’re right. And at the end of the day, they’ll realize the things they were fighting weren’t nearly as bad as they thought.