Last week, Luke Muehlhauser reposted an essay by Robert M. Price under the title “Changing Morals and the Fate of Evangelicalism” (I don’t know if this was the original title). Price’s thesis is straightforward and compelling: Evangelicals are about to cave in to mainstream pressures to drop teachings that all non-Christians are damned, as well as teachings against homosexuality and premarital sex. Once they do that, though, there will be nothing left to make them distinctivelty Evangelical:
Homosexuality is next on the list. More and more educated Evangelicals seem to feel they must find a compromise between the inherited party line and their liberal social conscience. This is especially true with seminarians and young ministers. And such theological accommodations are not hard to find. It doesn’t take as much text-twisting as slave-abolition or feminism, that’s for sure.
Recent surveys indicate that more and more Evangelicals are questioning or rejecting the doctrine of an eternal hell as well as the idea that non-Christians will not be saved in the afterlife. You can see where this is headed: they are making their way toward being one more tolerant, live-and-let-live mainstream denomination.
But the thing that will sooner or later bring the Evangelical Wailing Wall down is sex. More and more, Middle School, High School, and College Evangelicals admit to having sex in the same casual way as their “unsaved” contemporaries. That is, pre-marital, recreational sex…
From the standpoint of sect-maintenance, this shift is fatal… if this fundamental plank of the Evangelical platform rots and snaps, you can find little of similar magnitude to point to as the signal difference between the saved and the unsaved.
I think Price is basically right about hell and the salvation of non-Christians. At Notre Dame, at least, universalism (the doctrine that everyone will be saved) is endorsed by at least a couple Evangelical-identified grad students in the philosophy department. It’s a matter of series discussion (rather than dismissal as an obvious heresy) at the Center for Philosophy of Religion pub nights. And there are people at Notre Dame who try to make room for the salvation of non-believers, without going as far as universalism.
I can’t say I’ve seen so strong a shift on sexual matters, however. What Price is missing about casual sex is that admitting to having it doesn’t entail any attitude change. In high school, I knew a number of Evangelical girls who were having their share of casual sex, but they were sure to feel guilty about it afterward. Then there are the tales of Campus Crusade members wearing shirts saying “I’m not doing it” when they were. The Evangelical community has worked out a not-obviously-unstable approach to sex that’s one part outright hypocrisy and one part resignation to human sinfulness.
This approach may not “work,” but to its practitioners that’s not the point. Michelle Goldberg’s book Kingdom Coming had a great quote on this from “abstinence educator” Pam Stenzel:
AIDS is not the enemy. HPV and a hysterectomy at twenty is not the enemy. An unplanned pregnancy is not the enemy. My child believing that they can shake their fists in the face of a holy God and sin without consequence, and my child spending eternity separated from God, is the enemy. I will not teach my child that they can sin in safety.
Few would put it in such extreme terms, but many Evangelicals have decided that they can accept teen pregnancy, STDs, and high divorce rates, as long as people don’t go around saying that premarital sex is okay. (See also: Bristol Palin’s career as an abstinence spokeswoman.)
With homosexuality, the situation is more complicated. I’ve never met anyone of my generation who was enthusiastic about being anti-gay (except the kids from the Bible college who used to come to Madison once a week to hand out tracts). Still, among the young Evangelicals I’ve met, the text twisting Price alludes to hasn’t caught on. And I don’t buy Price’s claim that this issue is easier than feminism: the Bible may say that women aren’t to speak in Church, but there is obviously no Biblical prooftext requiring them to be nurses rather than doctors, grade school teachers rather than professors, or secretaries rather than MBAs.
The best most Evangelicals can come up with on homosexuality is to say it’s one sin among many. If they’re well-informed and think things through enough, they’ll shun conversion therapy and propose that God wants gays to be celibate. The trouble with this solution is that while most Evangelical talk about sin amounts to “repent and try to sin a bit less in the future,” here Evangelicals are asking certain people to give up on expressing a core part of who they are. It’s no easy sell. No matter how much Evangelicals try to love the sinner, I predict gays will soon become severely under-represented in Evangelical churches–or at the very least, this will happen once everyone figures out being a closet case is bad. Nevertheless, many Evangelicals seem comfortable with the “one sin among many” approach for the time being.
So what’s Evangelicalism’s long-term forecast? In the short term, it looks like it can adapt to the abolition of a clear distinction between the saved and the damned. The fate of Evangelicalism will likely be all about sex. I think it can resist giving in to temptation to open up to straight fornication. But the question of whether to loosen up to gay sex may be the problem it can’t solve. And perhaps once Evangelicals don’t think more secular folks are going to hell, they won’t mind imitating their sexual habits.
On the other hand, perhaps in two hundred years even the biggest cities in the bluest states will have been overrun by the highly-fertile spawn of Evangelical shotgun weddings.