The sexual revolution that began in the 1960’s reached a watershed moment in the summer of 2015 when the Supreme Court issued a narrow 5-4 decision imposing a redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples on all fifty states. Since that time, the revolution has turned its attention to the transgender movement, where main front of the culture war is now being fought. With every step in this revolution, left-leaning Christians have shown themselves willing to jump on board with the cultural momentum even while they have gone in search of new, creative ways to read and apply Scripture in order to justify it. Where will this revolution go from here, and how far will leftist Christians go with it?
It’s not difficult to see that we are on a trajectory, and it’s one that leads to widespread cultural acceptance of sexual practices that we may not have imagined ever sanctioning to this point. But the logic of the sexual revolution will continue to work its way out, step-by-step. It may not happen in this order, but I do think we will see these issues come to the forefront of the culture war over time:
1. Incest: As Robert Gagnon has argued, incest is a sexual practice that closely parallels homosexuality. It has long been taboo in Western society due to the influence of Christianity. Scripture (both in the Old and New Testaments) assumes that it is wrong because it involves sexual contact between people who are too much alike. And yet, it is capable of being conducted in the context of adult, consensual, long-term monogamous relationships. It has no “victim” (unless one wants to count the offspring of close relatives as a victim, but that would not apply to same-sex incestuous relationships or heterosexual incestuous relationships that use effective contraception). To this point, the incestuous have had no one to champion their cause, but it is probably just a matter of time before someone with major influence does. And when the cultural elites decide it is time to take this on, I know there will be professing followers of Jesus who will gladly aid them. They will tell stories of incestuous Christians who desire to be faithful to Jesus, but who have been marginalized by the bigotry of the church. Perhaps books will be published with titles such as God and the Incestuous Christian. Anecdotes will be told far and wide of Christian parents who were initially shocked by the incestuous behavior of their children, and yet over time came to accept it. New interpretations of Scripture will be proposed on the so-called “clobber passages” that seem so clearly to forbid incest. Of course, we will discover, they don’t actually condemn faithful, monogamous incest. They only condemn abusive incest, or exploitative incest, or perhaps incest that is due to an excess of lust. But the biblical writers simply had no idea, you see, that an incestuous orientation is actually a scientifically verifiable phenomenon. Theological essays will be written exploring the sexualization of family relationship and how it may actually be a healthy way to channel one’s expression of love. And on and on the circus will go.
2. Plural marriage. This will take the form of both polygamy (one man married to several different women, but the women are not married to each other) and polyamory (groups of three or more who are all married to each other). Same-sex marriage has removed marriage completely from the coupling that ties it to natural childbearing, which has likewise removed any reason to limit marriage to two people. Try this exercise sometime: go back and read Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges and see if you can find any reason within his argument to restrict marriage to two people. You won’t find it, because it isn’t there. At some point, our culture will wake up to the fact that A entails B, and since we have already accepted A, only blind bigotry can keep us from accepting B as well. Polygamists and the polyamorous will become a new class of victims who want to take their turn on the civil rights merry-go-round, and once again, leftist Christians will be there to champion their cause.
3. Contract marriage. The traditional understanding of marriage is that it is an exclusive, heterosexual, permanent commitment. This is the view of marriage that is clearly taught in the Bible and that was affirmed by Jesus. We have now eliminated the “heterosexual” from the equation, and I have argued that the “exclusive” part of the commitment is on its way out. In a sense, we have already eliminated the “permanent” criterion as well through no-fault divorce, but I predict that we will at some point see that taken to a new level through contract marriages. Couples (or groups) will decide to commit to one another, not until death, but for a specified period of time, after which the contract can be renegotiated for another specified period of time.
4. Bestiality. The reaction to the recent tragedy at the Cincinnati Zoo illustrates the fact that we live in a society that, in many ways, regards animal life on the same level as human life (if not above it). The parity between humanity and animals has a certain logic to it, one that, taken to its conclusion, would affirm that human beings who so desire should be able to pursue a “consensual” sexual relationship with whatever species they want without fear of society’s disapproval. The only thing lacking at this point for the bestiality lobby is a champion for the cause among the cultural elite.
5. Pedophilia? I put a question mark next to this one because I could see a possible trajectory toward societal acceptance, but I don’t think (mercifully!) that we are necessarily on an irreversible trajectory toward it yet. Pedophilia is, at the present moment, a crime that summons the strongest moral reaction from our society. In spite of our deep moral confusion, we have remained to this point firmly committed to the protection and innocence of children. As long as we regard children as unable to give consent to sex, and thus victims in the act of pedophilia, we will maintain our stance against it. However, at the same time, some cultural forces are pushing for the rights of children to be recognized apart from the authority of adults. In a sense, one could even say the transgender movement is pushing this idea by telling parents that if little Johnny decides he is actually little Jessica, his/her parents (and other authority figures) have no right to question or object, and unless they begin doing everything in their power to aid in the outward transition from Johnny to Jessica, they are violating a child’s right to self-determination. This kind of reasoning is at work in other areas, as the left has been trying for decades to remove children from the authority of parents. It is only a small step to the affirmation that children are, in fact, capable of giving consent to sex. And adults who are sexually attracted to children can build on the widespread assumption that all people have an immutable sexual orientation that cannot be questioned but must be affirmed in order to win support for their cause.
Pedophilia was a widespread practice in ancient Greece. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley envisioned a society of sexualized children. Once a society has lost its moral compass (as ours has), it doesn’t become too far-fetched to imagine how we might move from where we are now to blessing the most abhorrent things in the future.
Do you doubt this is possible? If you heard in 1996 that by 2016 same-sex marriage would be the law of the land and the President of the United States would be demanding that biological males be allowed to use women’s public restrooms, you probably would have had your doubts about that as well. Our instinct to doubt these possibilities is based on the “yuck factor,” a residue of moral intuition that tells us certain things should elicit our disgust, even if we can’t really explain why. The problem is that a “yuck factor” alone, absent a larger moral framework, simply cannot last. Ideas have consequences, and once you have thrown out all commitments to a traditional understanding of male, female, and permanent, exclusive, heterosexual marriage as the only context within which to bless sexual activity, you have no brake mechanism to stop the runaway train toward all of the above.
And so-called “Christians” who have a weak understanding of the authority of Scripture have gone every step along the way with the sexual revolution. I see no reason to doubt that they will accompany it to all of these new frontiers. The lack of a conviction of the infallible authority of Scripture leaves one open to blow along with the winds of culture no matter where they blow.
But those of us who remain committed to the biblical teaching on human sexuality have the opportunity in this context, as did Christians living in the Roman Empire, to present a countercultural way of life. And in doing so, may the church provide refuge and healing to those broken by the sexual revolution.