A Clear and Present Danger: Religious Liberty, Marriage and the Family in the Late Modern Age

A basic principle of Christian theology was once written into the moral immune system of Western civilization — what God commands and institutes is what leads to genuine human flourishing. Our civilization now lives in open revolt against that affirmation.
President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Updated Oct 30, 2013
A Clear and Present Danger: Religious Liberty, Marriage and the Family in the Late Modern Age

An address delivered at Brigham Young University by Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on Monday, October 21, 2013.

I deeply appreciate your invitation to speak at Brigham Young University and to address the faculty at this greatly respected center of learning. I am so glad to be on this campus, filled with so many gracious people, such admirable students, and so many committed scholars on the faculty.  To many people, shaped in their worldview by the modern age and its constant mandate to accommodate, it will seem very odd that a Baptist theologian and seminary president would be invited to speak at the central institution of intellectual life among the Latter-Day Saints.

But here I am, and I am thankful for the invitation. The wonderfully prophetic Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor rightly warned that we must “push back against the age as hard as it is pressing you.” I have come to Brigham Young University because I intend with you to push back against the modernist notion that only the accommodated can converse. There are those who sincerely believe that meaningful and respectful conversation can take place only among those who believe the least—that only those who believe the least and thus may disagree the least can engage one another in the kind of conversation that matters. I reject that notion, and I reject it forcefully. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, that is the kind of idea that must not be cast aside lightly, but thrown with full force.

I come as a Christian theologian to speak explicitly and respectfully as a Christian — a Christian who defines Christianity only within the historic creeds and confessions of the Christian church and who comes as one committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the ancient and eternal Trinitarian faith of the Christian church. I have not come as less, and you know whom you have invited. I come knowing who you are — to an institution that stands as the most powerful intellectual center of the Latter-Day Saints, the most visible academic institution of Mormonism. You know who I am and what I believe. I know who you are and what you believe. It has been my great privilege to know friendship and share conversation with leaders of the LDS church, such as Elder Tom Perry, Elder Quentin Cook, and Elder Todd Christofferson. I am thankful for the collegiality extended by President Cecil Samuelson at this great university. We do not enjoy such friendship and constructive conversation in spite of our theological differences, but in light of them. This does not eliminate the possibility of conversation. To the contrary, this kind of convictional difference at the deepest level makes for the most important kind of conversation. This is why I am so thankful for your gracious invitation.

Our conversation comes in the context of a particularly interesting historical moment. We are living in times rightly, if awkwardly, described as the Late Modern Age. Just a decade or so ago, we spoke of the Postmodern Age, as if modernity had given way to something new. Like every new and self-declared epoch, the Postmodern Age was declared to be a form of liberation. Whereas the Modern Age announced itself as a secular liberation from a Christian authority that operated on claims of revelation, the Postmodern Age was proposed as a liberation from the great secular authorities of reason and rationality. The Postmodern Age, it was claimed, would liberate humanity by operating with an official incredulity toward all metanarratives. And yet, postmodern thought eventuated, as all intellectual movements must, in its own metanarrative. And then it passed away. We still speak of postmodern thinking, even as we speak rightly of postmodern architecture and postmodern art, but we are speaking, for the most part, of a movement that has given way and given up. In retrospect, the Postmodern Age was not a new age at all, only the alarm that announced the Late Modern Age. Modernity has not disappeared. It has only grown stronger, if also more complex.

The claim that humanity can only come into its own and overcome various invidious forms of discrimination by secular liberation is not new, but it is now mainstream. It is now so common to the cultures of Western societies that it need not be announced, and often is not noticed. Those born into the cultures of late modernity simply breathe these assumptions as they breathe the atmosphere, and their worldviews are radically realigned, even if their language retains elements of the old worldview.

Recent research demonstrates this clearly. The Pew Research Center has released a torrent of research underlining these trends. We are now told that one in five Americans is essentially secular — thoroughly secularized, with no religious affiliation at all. Even more revealing is the fact that one in three younger Americans under age 30 is so identified. If anything, anecdotal evidence and any sophisticated analysis of their worldviews indicate that these figures may be an underestimation. More recently, the researchers at Pew have revealed that American Judaism is being radically secularized, traced by evidence of skyrocketing intermarriage rates and very low estimates of religious belief. No belief system is immune or impervious to modernity.

There is plenty of evidence that the same phenomenon is at work among Roman Catholic young people. Among evangelical Christians, a frightening percentage of youth and “emerging adults” hold to what sociologist Christian Smith and his associates have called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a religion that bears no substantive resemblance to biblical Christianity.

The background to this great intellectual shift is the secularization of Western societies. Modernity has brought many cultural goods, but it has also, as predicted, brought a radical change in the way citizens of Western societies think, feel, relate, and reason. The Enlightenment’s liberation of reason at the expense of revelation was followed by a radical anti-supernaturalism that can scarcely be exaggerated. Looking at Europe and Great Britain, it is clear that the Modern Age has alienated an entire civilization from its Christian roots, along with Christian moral and intellectual commitments. This did not happen all at once, of course, though in nations such as France and Germany the change came very quickly. Scandinavian nations now register almost imperceptible levels of Christian belief. Increasingly, the same is true of both the Netherlands and Great Britain. Sociologists now speak openly of the death of Christian Britain — and the evidence of Christian decline is abundant.

Peter Berger, one of the founding fathers of the modern theory of secularization, has suggested that secularization should be better understood as pluralization: the presence of plural worldviews in proximity offering an array of intellectual and theological options. But the result is nearly the same. The world might be, as he says, “furiously religious,” but the modern world is not controlled by any coherent supernatural worldview.

Actually, Berger argues that secularization, in exactly the shape and form predicted by the prophets of secularization theory, did operate exactly according to plan in two social locations, western Europe and the American college and university campus.

In his important Massey Lectures delivered in 1991, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor spoke of The Malaise of Modernity. The Modern Age, he argued, is marked by two great intellectual moves. The first intellectual move is a pervasive individualism. The second is the reduction of all public discourse to the authority of instrumental reason. The rise of modern individualism came at the cost of rejecting all other moral authorities. “Modern freedom was won by our breaking loose from older moral horizons,” Taylor explains. This required the toppling of all hierarchical authorities and their established moral orders. “People used to see themselves as part of a larger order,” he observed. “Modern freedom came about through the discrediting of such orders.”

The primacy of instrumental reason means the elimination of the old order and its specifically theological and teleological moral order. As Taylor explains:

No doubt sweeping away the old orders has immensely widened the scope of instrumental reason. Once society no longer has a sacred structure, once social arrangements and modes of action are no longer grounded in the order of things or the will of God, they are in a sense up for grabs. They can be redesigned with their consequences for the happiness or well-being of individuals as our goal.

More recently, Taylor has written the greatest work yet completed on the secular reality of our times. In A Secular Age, he describes three successive sets of intellectual conditions. In the first, associated with the Premodern Age of antiquity and the medieval synthesis, it was impossible not to believe. There was simply no intellectual alternative to theism in the West. There was no alternative set of explanations for the world and its operations, or for moral order. All that changed with the arrival of modernity. In the Modern Age it became possible not to believe. A secular alternative to Christian theism emerged as a real choice. As a matter of fact, choice now ruled the intellectual field. As Peter Berger famously observed decades ago, this is the “heretical imperative,” the imperative to choose. The third set of intellectual conditions is identified with late modernity and our own intellectual epoch. For most people living in the context of self-conscious late modernity, it is now impossible to believe.

This is  a stunning intellectual and moral revolution. It defies exaggeration. We must recognize that it is far more pervasive than we might want to believe, for this intellectual revolution has changed the worldviews of even those who believe themselves to be opposed to it. If nothing else, many religious believers in modern societies now operate as theological and ideological consumers, constantly shopping for new intellectual clothing, even as they believe themselves to be traditional believers. Everything is now reduced to choice, and choice is, as Taylor reminds us, central to the moral project of late modernity, the project of individual authenticity.

As he explains this project: “There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s. But this gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life, I miss what being human is for me.”

The pressing question is this: can any sustainable moral order survive this scale of intellectual revolution? We hear in the today’s intellectual and ideological chorus the refrains of Karl Marx’s threat and promise as stated in The Communist Manifesto: ”All that is solid melts into air.” The melting is everywhere around us.

The clearest demonstration of this monumental shift in morality and worldview is the revolution now underway with regard to marriage, the family, and human sexuality. Long ago, historians Will and Ariel Durant noted that sex is “a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints.” The primary restraint has always been the institution of marriage itself, an institution that is inescapably heterosexual and based in the monogamous union of a man and a woman as husband and wife. In our times, the fires of sex and sexuality are increasingly unbanked and uncooled.

Similarly, Pitirim Sorokin, the founder of sociology at Harvard University, pointed to the regulation of sexuality as the essential first mark of civilization. According to Sorokin, civilization is possible only when marriage is normative and sexual conduct is censured outside of the marital relationship. Furthermore, Sorokin traced the rise and fall of civilizations and concluded that the weakening of marriage was a first sign of civilizational collapse.

We should note carefully that Sorokin made these arguments long before anything like homosexual marriage had been openly discussed, much less legislated. Sorokin’s insight was the realization that civilization requires men to take responsibility for their offspring. This was possible, he was convinced, only when marriage was held to be the unconditional expectation for sexual activity and procreation. Once individuals — especially males — are freed for sexual behavior outside of marriage, civilizational collapse becomes an inevitability. The weakening of marriage — even on heterosexual terms — has already brought a harvest of disaster to mothers and children abandoned in the name of sexual liberation.

We must note with honesty and candor that this moral revolution and the disestablishment of marriage did not begin with the demand of same-sex couples to marry. The subversion of marriage began within the context of the great intellectual shift of modernity. Marriage was redefined in terms of personal fulfillment rather than covenant obligation. Duty disappeared in the fog of demands for authenticity and the romanticized ideal of personal fulfillment. Marriage became merely a choice and then a personal expression. Companionate marriage was secularized and redefined solely in terms of erotic and romantic appeal — for so long as these might last.

In an important new book, Has Marriage for Love Failed?, French intellectual Pascal Bruckner ponders the secularly imponderable: has the romantic revolution of secular modernity led to human happiness? He thinks not.

He does clearly understand what modernity hath wrought: “Since the Enlightenment, marriage reforms have focused on three points: giving priority to feelings over obligation, doing away with the requirement of virginity, and making it easy for badly matched spouses to separate.”

Bruckner is right — devastatingly right. Note carefully that all three of these points require the secularization of the moral order and the marital contract. Feelings now rule, defined and projected at will. Virginity is, as Bruckner notes, an embarrassment for most moderns. Cohabitation is now the order of the day for young moderns, and for an astonishingly large percentage of their parents and grandparents. The young are indoctrinated into the morality of expressive sexuality and erotic fulfillment, with children hardly able to read force-fed the curriculum of “safe sex” and erotic experimentation. And, sadly, the divorce revolution has not only made marriage a tentative, if not temporary, condition, it has redefined marriage as nothing more than a public celebration of an essentially and non-negotiably individual act of self-expression.

As Barbara Defoe Whitehead has observed, expressive marriage was followed almost instantly by expressive divorce. Divorce, like marriage, now becomes an expected act of self-expression for moderns, complete with greeting cards, celebrations, and public announcements of new erotic and romantic availability.

Has this made moderns happier? This is where Pascal Bruckner is particularly helpful and insightful. Modern romantic love, he argues, simply cannot sustain marriage. He describes this reality as a “terrible absurdity.” Marriage has “become more difficult to endure since of all its roles it has retained only that of being a model of fulfillment. Because it wants to succeed at any cost, it is consumed with anxiety, fears the law of entropy, the aridity of slack periods.”

Add to this the realization that no one can now grow old and mellow. Ardor must continue and erotic fulfillment must rule, even into later decades of life and marriage. A revealing article appeared in the health pages of USA Today, announcing that Viagra is now a prominent factor in divorce among the middle-aged and older. As reporter Karen S. Peterson explained: “Nobody claims Viagra causes affairs or divorce. But increasingly, it is a factor in both, says Dominic Barbara, who heads a Manhattan law firm with 15 attorneys. In about one of every 15 or 20 new divorce cases, somebody mentions Viagra, he says.”

Heterosexuals did a very good job of undermining marriage before same-sex couples arrived with their demands. The marriage crisis is a moral crisis and it did not start with same-sex marriage, nor will it end there. The logic of same-sex marriage will not end with same-sex marriage. Once marriage can mean anything other than a heterosexual union, it can and must mean everything. It is just a matter of time.

Of course, one of the issues we must confront is the fact that marriage is a pre-political institution, recognized and solemnized throughout history by virtually every human culture and civilization. But we are living in an age in which everything is political and nothing is honored as pre-political. In the recent words of Justice Antonin Scalia, we are all now waiting for the other shoe (or shoes) to drop.

This has all been made possible by a breakdown in the immune system of human society — and this breakdown was no accident. Immunologists will explain that one of the wonders of human life is the fact that each of us receives from our mother an amazing array of defenses within our immune system. Throughout time, we develop further immunities to disease, or we grow sick and vulnerable. A severely compromised immune system leads to chronic disease, constant vulnerability, and potential death. If this is true for an individual, it is also true of a society or civilization.

We have forfeited our immunity against the breakdown of marriage, the family, and integrity of human sexuality. We can point to others who have been the prophets and agents of this self-injury to society, but we must recognize that we have all contributed to it, in so far as we have embraced essentially modern understandings of love, romance, liberty, personal autonomy, obligation, and authority. Furthermore, the separation of the conjugal union and openness to the gift of children has further undermined both our conscience and our credibility in the defense of marriage. We separated sex from marriage and marriage from reproduction. We sowed the seeds of the current confusion. At the very least, we did not address this confusion with sufficient moral clarity and credibility.

Marriage is the most basic unit of civilization. In fact, it is the basic molecular structure of human society. The redefinition of marriage will bring great human unhappiness. As Pascal Bruckner reminds us, this is true of heterosexual divorce. It promised happiness but has produced misery and brokenness. It declared itself to be liberation, but it imprisons all moderns in its penitentiary of idealized and unattainable romance and sexual fulfillment.

The family, as properly pre-political as marriage, is now the great laboratory for human social experimentation. Children are routinely sacrificed to the romantic whims and sexual demands of their parents, who may or may not be married, may or may not stay married, and may or may not include both a father and a mother at any point.

The epidemic of fatherlessness is well documented and no longer even denied, but there is no social consensus to address a phenomenon that has wrought incalculable human costs, both individually and socially.

A basic principle of Christian theology was once written into the moral immune system of Western civilization — what God commands and institutes is what leads to genuine human flourishing. Our civilization now lives in open revolt against that affirmation.

The moral revolution we are now witnessing on the issue of homosexuality is without precedent in human history in terms of its scale and velocity. We are not looking at a span of centuries, or even the length of one century. This revolution is taking place within a single human generation.

I would argue that no moral revolution on this scale has ever been experienced by a society that remained intact, even as no moral revolution of this velocity has yet been experienced. We can now see more clearly where this revolution began. It is virtually impossible to see where it ends.

But, for the first time in the experience of most Americans, the moral revolution revolving around marriage, the family, and human sexuality is now clearly becoming a religious liberty issue. The rights of parents to raise their children according to their most basic and fundamental theological and moral convictions are now at stake. Courts have ruled in some jurisdictions that parents cannot even “opt out” their children from sex education driven by moral revisionism. Legislatures in California and New Jersey have made it illegal for mental health professionals to tell minors that there is anything wrong with homosexual sexuality, orientation, or relationships. Parents are put on notice. How long will it be before the moral authority of the secular state is employed to allow children to “divorce” their parents? How long before the logic of sexual revolution and sexual self-expression leads to parents being told what they must allow and facilitate with their own children when it comes to sex, gender, and sexual orientation? The logic of moral change by legal coercion is already fully on display in many modern legal debates. How long will a respect for parental rights and religious liberty hold back the flooding river of this moral revolution?

Religious liberty is already severely compromised by modern political regimes that claim to be democratic and respectful of human rights. Given the shape of current arguments for sexual expression and liberty, religious institutions, especially schools, colleges, universities, welfare agencies, and benevolent ministries, are already under fire and under warning. Some have already been forced to make a decision: forfeit your convictions or forfeit your work. Some have chosen one, some the other. One way leads to an honorable extinction, the other to a dishonorable surrender. Both are violations of religious liberty.

The conflict of liberties we are now experiencing is unprecedented and ominous. Forced to choose between erotic liberty and religious liberty, many Americans would clearly sacrifice freedom of religion. How long will it be until many becomes most?

This is what brings me to Brigham Young University today. I am not here because I believe we are going to heaven together. I do not believe that. I believe that salvation comes only to those who believe and trust only in Christ and in his substitutionary atonement for salvation. I believe in justification by faith alone, in Christ alone. I love and respect you as friends, and as friends we would speak only what we believe to be true, especially on matters of eternal significance. We inhabit separate and irreconcilable theological worlds, made clear with respect to the doctrine of the Trinity. And yet here I am, and gladly so. We will speak to one another of what we most sincerely believe to be true, precisely because we love and respect one another.

I do not believe that we are going to heaven together, but I do believe we may go to jail together. I do not mean to exaggerate, but we are living in the shadow of a great moral revolution that we commonly believe will have grave and devastating human consequences. Your faith has held high the importance of marriage and family. Your theology requires such an affirmation, and it is lovingly lived out by millions of Mormon families. That is why I and my evangelical brothers and sisters are so glad to have Mormon neighbors. We stand together for the natural family, for natural marriage, for the integrity of sexuality within marriage alone, and for the hope of human flourishing.

The great Christian theologian Augustine, writing in the final years of the Roman Empire, reminded Christians that we live simultaneously as citizens of two cities: a heavenly city and an earthly city. The one is eternal, the other is passing. But the earthly city is also a city of God’s good pleasure and divine compassion. As a Christian, I am instructed by the Bible to work for the good and flourishing of this earthly city, even as I work to see as many as possible also become citizens of the heavenly city through faith in Christ Jesus.

In this city, I am honored to come among those who, though of a different faith, share common concerns and urgencies. I come as a Christian, and I come as one who is honored by your kind and gracious invitation. I come in the hope of much further conversations, conversations about urgencies both temporal and eternal. I am unashamed to stand with you in the defense of marriage and family and a vision of human sexual integrity. I am urgently ready to speak and act in your defense against threats to your religious liberty, even as you have shown equal readiness to speak and act in defense of mine. We share love for the family, love for marriage, love for the gift of children, love of liberty, and love of human society. We do so out of love and respect for each other.

That is why only those with the deepest beliefs, and even the deepest differences, can help each other against encroaching threats to religious liberty, marriage, and the family. I guess I am back to Flannery O’Connor again. We must push back against this age as hard as it is pressing against us. We had better press hard, for this age is pressing ever harder against us.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me at [email protected]. Follow regular updates on Twitter at www.twitter.com/AlbertMohler.

Publication date: October 21, 2013


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