Peter Berger has a fantastic new post on his AI blog on the complexities of secularism in the West. Some recent cases limiting religious expression in public spaces led him to connect Western secularism with Christian teachings on sexuality:
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!
For most of Western history, ever since Constantine linked the church and the state in the ancient Roman Empire, Christians set the cultural and political rules that governed society. When it came to public morality the church and the people agreed more than they disagreed. Whatever people did in their private lives, everyone agreed publicly that the legal and ecclesiastical definitions of marriage should line up. To them, lifelong, heterosexual monogamy wasn’t a specifically Christian idea, or even a religious idea, but merely the commonsensical solution to the problem of sex and babies.
No longer. 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 any civil 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.
But Berger is right that traditional Christian teachings on sex are, rightly or wrongly, driving hostility to Christianity. These teachings—no sexual intercourse outside heterosexual marriage, ever—have never been particularly popular, especially among the young. In our society, where widespread access to birth control and the long interval between the onset of puberty and the security of economic adulthood make traditional chastity look unthinkable to a lot of young people, it’s less popular than ever.