Culture, Laws and Morals
The Barna Group recently released a study of a number of questions surrounding marijuana. The most important comment was not about a specific question. Rather, it established the environment of an era. The comment said, “Research points to the continuing ascendancy of personal and individual rights over legislating a shared sense of morality.”
This comment is an important expression of a cultural trend. Facts reveal that US culture has changed dramatically since the era from which Norman Rockwell pulled his images. US culture during colonial and revolutionary times, through civil war and two world wars, has been dominated by the shared morals of Christian teaching. The culture hotly debated what those values were, but the culture in general behaved and spoke with a common intent to do “the right thing,” the thing God would approve. There was little argument about the existence of God, and there was little argument that his way was the right way. Even people who never paid any attention to God behaved as if his opinion mattered.
The whole idea of law as an outgrowth of common morality is an element of civilization. In fact, in most ancient civilizations, common morality grew out of common religion, which often automatically considered the religious law governing behavior to be the law of the community. There was no necessity for a conversation about whether to have a law that agreed with religion. It was understood that the religious law was the law. The Revolutionary War which separated the colonies from Britain also separated them from Britain’s state church. This war introduced to the world a state with no state religion. The law could be anything. Yet the Founders and Framers generally agreed that the nation needed to have moral values embodied in law. Because Christians constituted the majority of the population, Christian moral teaching dominated US law.
In the twentieth century, coinciding in time with the beginning of the civil rights movement, citizens who claimed either that no god existed or that they themselves were not subject to any god began to express a sense of the rightness of a set of behaviors that were in direct conflict with Christian teaching. It certainly was true that some of these behaviors had become popular earlier, some were even timeless, but community agreement considered many of them as things that could be tolerated as long as they did not attract attention to themselves. The turmoil of the civil rights era stirred up other turmoils that had simply been awaiting the opportunity. Drugs and sex were at the center of a whirlwind of change. During and immediately after World War II, it was normal for an adult to consider marriage with someone of the opposite gender. Words like family and parents had quite specific meanings, but all those meanings have been tinkered with in the intervening years. Today it is considered well within normality to ask what those words actually mean. In 1964, the idea of legalizing marijuana would have been unthinkable, but in 2014 two states have already done it.
Individual rights trump common morality, even though community values are believed to trump individual freedom of religion
Today, the most fractious discussion of public morality surrounds the issue of same-sex marriage, an issue that would be a non-issue if not for public perception that homosexuality is normal, rather than an aberration, and a public perception that religion is out of touch with reality rather than the most powerful and important source of guidance for human behavior. If everyone actually agreed that individual rights trump common morality, then individual religious values would trump the culture shift that considers homomsexuality to be normal. There would be no question of the right of a Christian businessperson to reject participation in same-sex marriage.
However, the culture increasingly considers religion to be a power that intrudes rather than a power that sustains. As a consequence, when an individual chooses to submit his behavior to a religious standard, that choice is not respected. If the religious standard conflicts with the community standard, the community attitude is that the individual has looked to the wrong authority. The community can respect a person for looking within himself or for looking to the community for standards, but the community resents a person who looks to God for authority. The community does not so much try to hijack a God-given right to exercise religious faith as the community rejects the very possibility that a God exists who can grant that right. Hence, a choice that is constitutionally viewed as a personal right is seen as the unjustified expression of religious authority on non-believers. That individual has dragged into the community an unwanted authority, and the community rejects it. This is the basis for the allegation that there is no room in a civilized community for people who do not consider homosexuality to be normal.
The Barna Group says that increasingly, Americans are comfortable with both recreational and medicinal use of marijuana. The culture wants laws surrounding the use of marijuana to be relaxed. Likewise, the whole concept of human sexuality has been redefined, and the culture is pressing for changes in the law, changes with no reference whatsoever to religious values and religious authority.
The discussion is not over, but the terms of the conversation have changed dramatically. How does a Christian live faithfully in a culture that operates on these new terms?