"Changing Morals and the Fate of Evangelicalism" by Robert M. Price

By Robert M. Price:

It used to be the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists would never darken the door of movie theatres, even if Corrie ten Boom's The Hiding Place was showing (I kid you not!). Now that's moot, especially in the wake of home theatre technology. They wouldn't dance, because it was supposedly arousing, essentially mating behavior-which it obviously is! But now they've skipped the preliminaries (keep reading).

More significantly, they were very much against divorce and had a low incidence of it. But that, too, has changed. Evangelical churchmen and seminary professors found they just could not thunder against divorce any more once their own grown children were getting divorced. Same with women working outside the home. Economic realities dictated theology just as sure as the Feds' threats to the Mormon Church miraculously prompted new LDS revelations to abandon, first, polygamy, then racial discrimination in the Melchizedek Priesthood.

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. And it was secular feminism challenging the church that led, more than anything else, to the great inerrancy crisis among Evangelicals in the 1970s. Prayer changes things? Things change prayer.

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. Nor am I complaining. I doubt many of us are really that vexed by the particular beliefs any fundamentalist happens to hold. No, what we find is the pugnacious obnoxious attitudes that so often accompany their beliefs. But what if they drop that attitude? Why would they?

It was for the sake of feeling uniquely indwelt and transformed by the Holy Ghost that they have erected attitudinal walls against non-co-religionists. It was a mind game to protect their cherished in-group and their firmly-cemented membership in it. But the more you become like the mainstream, the less separates you from everybody else, well, the more difficult it becomes to feel special, uniquely connected to God and sanctified by Jesus. It's not like they ever wanted to relegate everybody else to the Lake of Fire. It just seemed necessary in order for them to rejoice in not being relegated there themselves. And now feeling so different is no longer the priority. Attitudes affect doctrines which affect attitudes.

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. Having been so long Apollonian, they are itching to yield to Dionysus. But the gospel teaching of Jesus happens to be far more Apollonian than Dionysian. (Give 'em time, though, to discover the Q Source Jesus of Leif Vaage, Jesus as a "first-century party animal," and they'll be boasting of their biblical fidelity again.)

From the standpoint of sect-maintenance, this shift is fatal for two reasons. First, and most obviously, 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 admit, there are a few more that would be similarly fatal, such as a casual permissiveness re drugs and alcohol.

Again, I admit that there are matters of graver moral content. A Christian ought to be able to say, e.g., "Jesus saved me from lying, from being insensitive, from being self-centered, cowardly, evasive, materialistic," etc., and those things might be more important. I'd say they are. But you see, everybody accepts and admires those values. They don't give Evangelicals special bragging rights like the sexual and other behavioral codes used to do.

Second, relaxing the sexual code is symbolically significant. Any group's mores concerning food and sex are symbolic of their social boundaries and the shape of their self-identity. A group does not necessarily have both indices. One will do, though usually there are both. Old Testament Israelites were separated from rival cults/cultures by upholding inflexible restrictions on permissible food and on possible intermarriage partners. Sexual fidelity had a lot to do with guaranteeing that one's true heirs inherited one's land and name. Jewish Christians were alarmed at Paul being willing to abolish Jewish dietary and other ceremonial scruples to make it easier for Gentiles to join Christianity. They could see instantly that such a move would result in Jews being squeezed to the margins of the new religion-and it did. Jewish identity within Christianity was lost. Similarly, among American Jews today it is not bigotry when Orthodox rabbis discourage mixed marriages with non-Jews. Allow that, and you can say the big goodbye to Judaism in America. It will be only a matter of time before intermarriage with well-meaning and good-hearted non-Jews will completely erode American Judaism. The hybrid "Chrismika" is only a stop along the one-way track. Maybe there will be an Orthodox farm next to the Amish farm.

Well, when the sex barrier falls, the same fate is in store for Evangelical Christianity. (There never was a consistent Evangelical food boundary; even the Reformed drank alcohol.) And when the new generations are none too sure that non-believers are headed for hell, it becomes inevitable that American Evangelicalism will ease into the acid bath of American Pluralism. And it may happen sooner than you think. And then all those mega-churches will be up for sale. Unless of course they find a new product to sell. TV preacher Joel Osteen has done just that. His Evangelical belief is merely vestigial; he has converted to New Thought. It is no coincidence that he fills that stadium. Others may not be so lucky.
This was published by Robert Price in his monthly opinion email, Zarathustra Speaks. See his home page to subscribe. The newsletter notes: Copyright © 2007 Robert M. Price. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce, copy or distribute this newsletter if accompanied with this copyright notice.


Anonymous said...

"Maybe there will be an Orthodox farm next to the Amish farm."

Bob, you're good! Maybe so....

Caleb said...

I found this directly on the mark. I have on occasion attempted to point out the basic principle of this concept to my Christian friends, and it's absolutely incredible to see what an immediate difference it can make in their perspectives - most of the time, that is. The shocking part is just how old the realization of this concept truly is.

While I do not necessarily consider myself a proponent of Hegel, I believe it's difficult to argue against his ideas of the social dialectic. We see this throughout history, particularly in regards to the dogma of the church.

First, we have a moral or social practice strongly defended by Christianity on the basis of the Bible, which Hegel referred to as the "thesis." Next, we have an emerging social movement rejecting said moral or social practice - the "antithesis," if you will. The ensuing conflict between the church's morality and society's morality will inevitably result in the formation of a "synthesis," in which the church will either be forced to subtly "re-evaluate" its position (poorly re-interpreting numerous biblical passages in the process) or to face a schism (i.e., the Protestant Reformation, or more recently the Emerging Church movement).

This applies to virtually any moral issue propounded by believers. We've seen it time and time again, as you pointed out, in everything from Jewish dietary laws to circumcision to slavery to women's rights. Your post is spot-on regarding homosexuality as the current "antithesis" faced by the church.
Merely fifty years ago, the ravings of Fred Phelps could have been heard in virtually any traditional church service. Now, at the dawn of the 21st century, he is considered an appalling sociopath by virtually all mainstream Christians.

It will not be long before we will see homosexual ministers in virtually every major Christian denomination in the United States - in fact, I would give it another fifty years at most, given the great strides society has made in the past ten years alone. As you said, sexuality itself appears to be the primary breaking point of biblical Christian values, and I look forward with intense curiosity to see just how much longer the church can continue to stand on its broken legs.

Bill said...

If the truth be told, many Christians are embarrassed by the Bible and by the doctrines their church professes. Of course, they would never own up to this. That's why those big, thick, heavy volumes keep coming off the press every year, so that Christians can defend the faith AND feel a little bit better about all those barbaric stories and funny contradictions.

Why do Christians play along if they secretly don't buy all of it themselves? I surmise it is because (1) the church fulfills important social needs (belonging, acceptance, nurturing), (2) worship fulfills an emotional need (purging the soul of guilt, doubt), (3) prayer fulfills the need for security (compensating for the lack of control over one's self, circumstance, and relationships), and (4) the doctrine of heaven feeds the need for survival. Evangelicals will desperately cling to orthodoxy, even if it seems a bit nutty, to preserve these four things.

Robert is right, many believers would be perfectly alright with having the doctrine of hell rescinded. A growing number might even be happy to give "normal" status to gays. But fundamentalist evangelicals realize that if they liberalize those passages, they must be consistent with their hermeneutic and liberalize the passages about heaven, too. That's a price that they're just not willing to pay...at least not yet.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Has anyone -- in the US -- seen the commercials (technically PSAs) the Department of Health and Social Services has been running promoting sexual abstinence? I don't know which response is stronger, hilarity at the commercials themselves, sadness at the people who think they are likely to reach anyone, or fury at the idea that a department whose budget has been so limited should use part of it on a farce like this.

As for the idea of pre-marital abstinence, I wonder why more people don't make the strong case against it, not just that it doesn't work, but that it is an inherently bad idea.

Shygetz said...

Has anyone -- in the US -- seen the commercials (technically PSAs) the Department of Health and Social Services has been running promoting sexual abstinence?

Oh my goodness, yes! My wife and I saw them, and we both just stared at each other in disbelief (she is not an atheist, by the way). Awful, just awful.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

For those of you who aren't in the US, don't watch tv, or otherwise missed them, they are at


both video and a PDF transcript.

metaphyzxx said...

So in short, you're saying that since Jesus' followers are poor adherants, then HE must be false?

I've got a porn problem. It's not God's 'fault' but my own. I'm the one that navigates to the websites, I'm the one that buys material. I'm the one that's in control over those scenarios. Case in point, I work at a computer... how come I'm not looking at work? Or when my family is around? Simple, my motivation for control in those situations.

The word says be transformed in the renewing of your mind. If you're into premarital sex, chances are you were BEFORE finding God as well. So God hasn't changed, he's no less fallible than before. It's just society has decided that He's no fun, and went their own route. How's that route working with the aids epidemic? Teen pregnancy? General STDs? Abstinance would end up relieving our society of those ills in short order, if for no other reason than containment to the point of extinction... How many cases of leprosy do you run into... know why, they're all contained in one spot (nice little hawaiian island).

So yeah, by and large, a lot of the non-christians problems are prevalent inside the church as well, but that's got little to nothing to Do with God, but the perception of his followers that they know better. Or as the Word puts it "Is there knowledge in the Most High?"

Shygetz said...

Oh I disagree, metaphyzxx. One of the most powerful arguments Christians use against non-theists is the tranforming power of God, and another is that God is the only constant source for morality (and moral relativism has unfortunately been misrepresented as "anything goes"). People who believe in God join this unbroken chain of holy morality, and it completely transforms their lives. However, we can clearly see that even the most fundamentalist denominations are changing their morality, often in direct contrast to Biblical teaching (often in excellent ways; thank you Quakers).

So where is the transforming power of God in all this, metaphyzxx? If God's transforming power is real, shouldn't his church remain constant in His morality while society changes? If you want to run to the "no true Scotsman" defense that the real Christians maintain God's moral compass (even if they occasionally violate it) through his power, then you can no longer claim that real Christianity is flourishing, but must admit that it is rapidly dwindling and in dire risk of immediate extinction.

O'Brien said...

"Mainline" churches loosened their sexual mores in the past and they have been sliding into obscurity ever since, so you might want to hold off on proclaiming Bob Price the next Nostradamus.

In any event, even if this country drops the ball, other countries will pick up the slack.

Shygetz said...

"Mainline" churches loosened their sexual mores in the past and they have been sliding into obscurity ever since, so you might want to hold off on proclaiming Bob Price the next Nostradamus.

Really? People who actually, you know, look at data would disagree...

" "There does not seem to be revival taking place in America. Whether that is measured by church attendance, born again status, or theological purity, the statistics simply do not reflect a surge of any noticeable proportions."(2001)
"...evangelicals remain just 7% of the adult population. That number has not changed since the Barna Group began measuring the size of the evangelical public in 1994....less than one out of five born again adults (18%) meet the evangelical criteria."(2005)--George Barna

Perhaps you are engaging in wishful thinking?

In any event, even if this country drops the ball, other countries will pick up the slack.

Europe is already post-Christian, and Russia doesn't seem to be having a huge Christian resurgence. If religious dominionism is relegated to third-world countries, it will be progress but still a threat (e.g. Taliban-led Afghanistan).