It seems that our culture has been at war with itself for decades now, fighting and re-fighting the battles of the 1960s. What began as the “Summer of Love” somehow morphed into decades of division, and at the center of it all was sex. Changing sexual mores became the battleground of the so-called “culture wars.” Over the years there’s been a good bit of research demonstrating that the culture war thesis is greatly exaggerated and that we Americans are not nearly so divided. Still, the culture war narrative seems to haunt our thinking like a bad hangover. Barack Obama’s campaign, for instance, was based largely on the premise that we were ready to transcend the culture wars and recover our sense of oneness. That premise has seemed to fail in the face of the harsh realities of the Great Recession, bitter ideological divisions over health care, and overheated rhetoric.
The politics of love may change this, however. Several recent polls suggest that a new consensus is emerging. A recent Gallup poll joins three others in reporting that for the first time a majority of Americans now supports gay marriage. The poll confirms what many of us have long suspected—that gays and lesbians are becoming part of mainstream American society. According to Gallop, 53% of Americans “believe same-sex marriage should be recognized by the law as valid.”
Seen through the prism of the culture wars, this appears to be a victory for secular liberalism over religion and traditional values. Surely there is something to such a view. Conservative Protestants consistently rank as one of the groups most resistant to accepting gays and lesbians. However, the culture war narrative fails to comprehend the significance of the changes our society is undergoing, changes that amount to a new and different kind of sexual revolution.
Consider the recent vote of the Presbyterian Church (USA) allowing gays and lesbians to be openly considered for ordination. I would argue that the vote doesn’t fit into a culture war narrative; instead, it shows the limits of the culture wars thesis. After all, these are religious folks, both straight and gay, who have engaged in a 30-year struggle for the right of gays and lesbians not to be free from the church, but to serve in the church.
Still, some might argue that these are religious liberals who have abandoned traditional beliefs and replaced them with politically correct values such as tolerance and inclusivity. The rhetoric of supporters of ordination offers some warrant for such an interpretation, at least when they adopt libertarian rhetoric, such as getting the church out of the bedroom. This is the kind of argument that the media tends to highlight in its narration of an all too familiar story.
This is also the argument that conservative Presbyterians tend to focus on as evidence of the hollowness of the progressive position. Acceptance of gays and lesbians, conservatives argue, is nothing other than endorsing sexual license.
In my experience, however, the conservative reading is a red herring: supporters of ordination tend to argue based on their convictions about God. Perhaps the most prevalent argument for ordination is that the church is in a creative moment, similar to Pentecost, in which God is transforming our vision of what is pure and impure (similar to the story in Acts 10, where Peter is made to understand that God is calling him, a Jew, to visit Cornelius, a Gentile). Supporters claim that through God’s grace, the church has discovered that difference in sexual orientation does not preclude one from living a good and faithful life. Accordingly, they argue, we should make room for congregations to welcome, equip, and call persons of all sexual orientations.
Such a change is something of a revolution, but notice the logic of welcome, equip, and call. It’s about formation and growth. Supporters of ordination are not encouraging sexual license; they strive to act on the conviction that God is sovereign over all of life, even the bedroom. They want to live a good life, a faithful life, what the tradition calls a sanctified life. In doing so, they–like Presbyterians before them–return to the notion of covenant. Traditionally, Protestants haven’t claimed that marriage is a sacrament, or that it is primarily for the purpose of procreation. They have instead claimed that marriage is fundamentally a covenantal relationship between the closest of companions. Does this sound like a group whose only dogma is “live and let live”?
The move on the part of this and other traditional denominations suggests several lessons. The first is that secular liberals may find allies among the religious. This is an old point now, but one still worth making because the culture war narrative has such a hold on our conversations and imaginations.
The more interesting point, however, is to notice that the return to covenant amounts to a sexual revolution that is at once liberal and conservative. It features persons of different sexual orientations affirming the sanctity of marriage and family. This is a more inclusive and flexible traditionalism, but it is a kind of traditionalism, one that appreciates what has come before but understands the past as part of an unfolding story.
The other interesting point is that this more open traditionalism promises to shake up conservative Protestants. Opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage share the belief that not all relationships are moral or faithful, and that part of the church’s mission is to encourage and bless faithful expressions of covenantal union. We don’t know yet know whether the debate over gay covenants will make for a rethinking on the part of conservative Protestants or mark the beginning of their self-imposed withdrawal from the larger culture.
Either way, we stand in the midst of a new sexual revolution. Who could have predicted, 30 years ago, that it would be LGBT persons who got the church excited about marriage again? It is time to rethink the narrative of culture wars, and replace it with something capable of comprehending a living tradition, one that people of good will fight over with other people of good will. Perhaps it is simply a tradition, the American tradition, capable after all these years of ushering in a sexual revolution as unlikely as this one.