Is Evangelical Morality Still Acceptable in America?

People who disagree with same-sex marriage and birth-control use have been met with accusations of bigotry. Are some Christians being unfairly shamed out of the public sphere?

Jon Nazca/Reuters

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.

But morality has this nasty habit of not staying put; it sneaks out of our personal conscience and affects those around us. Some morals affect communities more than others, but no moral is entirely contained. My choice to live my life the way I want to will impact my community, no matter how careful I am to defer and tolerate and be sensitive to others. And this is a basic tenet of evangelical Christianity, too: Faith must be lived out in the public square; a privatized faith is no faith worth the name. Because of this, the real debate isn’t about whether morality should be public or private; it’s about about figuring out what kind of moral impositions are tolerable and fair in a pluralistic society.

But this can be difficult to resolve. For example, last week, Europe’s Court of Human Rights upheld the French and Belgian bans on wearing full-face religious veils in public, which particularly affects the small minority of Muslim women in those countries who wear burqas. The governments tried to argue that the veils were a public safety hazard, since people wouldn't be able to identify the women in public, and that the practice is oppressive.

But these arguments were rejected. Instead, the European courts upheld the ban on the grounds of liberty—just not in the way you might think:

The court was able to accept that the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face was perceived by the respondent state as breaching the right of others to live in a space of socialization which made living together easier.

The personal, religious beliefs of these women were restrained because public exhibitions of their faith were seen as an imposition on their community. This is an inversion of the typical posture toward religious liberty in the United States, but it highlights the ambiguity of these issues: It’s not always clear what should count as an “imposition” and who should make that decision. More significantly, the veil ban shows that the bar for what counts as a religious imposition can be as low as a visible display of someone’s faith.

Often, Christian claims to religious liberty are framed as homophobia and misogyny, rather than disagreement grounded in morality.

In the case of the so-called “contraceptive mandate” in the Affordable Care Act and instances in which small businesses are forced to provide services in same-sex wedding ceremonies, many evangelicals feel that an objectionable morality is actually being imposed upon them. This explains why evangelicals have been so passionate about these cases: If you truly believe the law is forcing you to violate your moral code, then it's understandable that you will resist.

In light of these issues, there's a kind of existential fear motivating some evangelicals, and not without reason. Can traditional evangelicalism continue to exist as social mores increasingly conflict with that tradition? Given the history of the Church, which has spanned many hostile periods and cultures, these fears seem exaggerated. But it's hard to ignore the implication that the only truly tolerable form of religion in the U.S. is a private one that comfortably aligns with the country's changing mores, which is why Rauch warns churches to change their values before it is too late.

Often, the Christian defense of what they believe is their religious liberty is framed as fundamental hatefulness, homophobia, and misogyny, rather than disagreement grounded in morality. Much to the shame of the faith, a few who claim to be Christian really are motivated by hate. Those who disagree with them see little point in engaging with them on these issues, which is understandable, but it’s unfair and counterproductive to extend that attitude to all evangelical Christians. If the evangelical worldview is deemed invalid in the public sphere, then the public sphere loses the value of being public. American discourse will be marked by paranoid conformity, rather than principled and earnest disagreement. And our ability to prophetically speak to one another and to our nation’s troubles will be restrained.

The right framework here is one of pluralism: the ability of many different kinds of people to live out their faith in public with and among those who deeply disagree with them. This is no easy challenge; it's painful and ugly and hard. But the alternative to is a thin, univocal culture, one in which the only disagreements we have are trivial. And that would be a shame.