Is evangelical Christian morality still viable in American public life? This is the question lurking in recent debates over religious-liberty issues, from the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision to the Christian bakers who object to baking cakes for gay weddings. In discussions of these cases, objections to same-sex marriage and contraception are described as a retreat from “secular society.” And in some cases, evangelicals actually have retreated: Since the Boy Scouts of America decided to allow openly gay Scouts to participate, a “Christian” alternative has been created, giving Christian parents a "safe" space where they can send their kids. But these incidences of retreat have actually been rare. Ultimately, the idea that evangelical Christian morality is incompatible with modern life isn’t sustainable.
In The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch argued that if the evangelical church is to last long into the twenty-first century, certain parts of its moral codes have to change—American society is progressing, and if the church won't progress with her, then it will be abandoned.
This is based on a popular conception about evangelicals: that they’re toxic. The refusal to serve gay weddings is called bigotry. Laws written to protect businesses that refuse to provide such services are compared to Jim Crow laws. Hobby Lobby's unwillingness to pay for certain contraceptives is derided as misogynistic.
Behind all of these charges is the suspicion that evangelicals are simply refusing to accept contemporary American mores; they are privileging their faith over the moral spirit of the age. But for many evangelicals, these beliefs are not actually a sign of retreat from public life. Instead, there is a fear that in an increasingly secularized society, there will be less tolerance for people who wish to act upon their deeply held religious beliefs, except in narrowly defined, privatized spaces. This is a fundamentally American concern: Will I have the right to serve God as I believe I am obligated to?
This fear isn’t just personal. As laws on issues like same-sex marriage and contraception have changed, there’s a growing fear that public policy will become more and more in conflict with evangelical morality. This, according to many conservative Christians, is what these tensions are about: being legally required to perform acts that you sincerely and deeply believe are immoral. Although in the past the religious right has openly advocated legislating morality in the public sphere, for most evangelicals, the recent cases do not seem to be about policing other people's morality—the concern is about preserving the ability to be faithful to one's own morality. By paying to cover contraceptives that interfere with “conception,” as evangelicals define it, by baking a cake or taking photographs to celebrate a same-sex wedding, some Christians believe they are facilitating a profoundly immoral act—which makes them morally culpable, as well.
To a large extent, this tension has been caused by a shift in what we think of as the domain of morality. The vocabulary we use to describe same-sex marriage and contraceptives has changed from the language of morality to the language of rights. In many spheres, including some parts of the media, people no longer conceive of same-sex marriage or contraceptives as things which can be immoral. They may not be right or good for some people, but they can't be immoral, let alone sinful. And it's hard to extend freedom to a morality that is incomprehensible.
This also represents a shift in the dominant moral vocabulary of the United States toward the autonomous individual. Often, ethical choices are framed as purely personal, insulated from external judgment. This is particularly true when it comes to sexuality: According to this way of thinking, the choices people make about their bodies are always personal.
Faith must be lived out in the public square; a privatized faith is no faith worth the name.
But if the moral issues in question were entirely personal, they wouldn't be so controversial. On the margins, certain Christian responses to these issues are relatively uncontested: Even if non-evangelicals can't understand why gay marriage could be immoral, they can accept that some Christians who identify as gay chose to live celibately. And if Christian women don't want to use certain birth control, the rest of the country probably couldn’t care less. But as Hobby Lobby, the Christian bakers, and many other cases have shown, these are the exceptions, not the rule—personal morality inevitably becomes part of public life. This is what inspires outrage: Worship your God and follow His archaic commands all you want, they say; just don't impose your religion on me.