Soon after taking office in 1977, President Jimmy Carter issued a public request to members of his administration who might be shacking up: He advised them to get married and make it legal. I can’t recall if he mentioned “living in sin,” as we used to call “cohabiting without benefit of clergy.” Even in the Sexy ‘70s the practice was still considered scandalous by respectable society.
A professional acquaintance of mine broke up with his live-in girlfriend because his employer told him that he couldn’t be promoted if he stayed in his “irregular” living arrangement. He had lived with the girlfriend for five years. He wanted to get married, but she – wounded by a previous failed marriage – declined. She was a beautiful gal, and I think he loved her. It was a real pity. I was sorry for both of them.
For his efforts to make honest women (and men) of his White House staffers, Jimmy (and his toothy smile) got the horse laugh from the media’s blow-dry set. (Imagine! The nerve of the guy…) There is no record of how many shacked-up Carter-administration couples actually tied the knot, as The Boss had “suggested.” My guess is that it was very few. Led by our media high priests of morality, America was moving on, and POTUS was seriously out of touch.
Mr. Carter was an evangelical Christian from the Deep South. He ran on a highly moral platform built around his declaration of being “born again.” Numerous friends in my circle said they would vote for Mr. Carter because of his faith. I agreed that he did seem to be a fine man, but I warned that his administration would be packed with old-time Democrats whose commitment to Christian principles was – to be as charitable as possible – questionable, at best. Abortion was becoming a defining political issue, and Democrats were already strongly aligned with it.
Later events proved me right about the Dems, but I obviously didn’t carry the argument. Mr. Carter defeated Gerald Ford, who had assumed the vice-presidency from Spiro Agnew, and ultimately the presidency from Richard Nixon. Mr. Ford had ruined his future prospects by pre-emptively pardoning the much-despised Nixon. The media never forgave him for robbing them of their chance to see Tricky Dick hung by his heels in the public square.
After Richard Nixon, morality made a modest political comeback. Mr. Carter was the last president to openly profess a serious evangelical Christian faith. Judging from the history since that time, I believe Democrats elected him in spite of that declaration, not because of it. Voters’ revulsion over Mr. Nixon’s dishonesty caused Democrats to overlook Mr. Carter’s religiosity in order to put their man in office. But it was always an uneasy marriage.
Once he was in the Oval Office, Mr. Carter’s party – and perhaps his own liberal instincts –pushed him farther and farther left. When he ran against the “godless” Hollywood candidate, Ronald Reagan, in 1980, he didn’t repeat his “born again” shtick. Indeed, Mr. Reagan seemed more Christian than Mr. Carter. Which was the real Jimmy Carter? I don’t pretend to know. But few others have come out against “sin” as he did.
What is America’s “problem” with sin? Our problem is that we don’t believe in it anymore – or, more accurately, that we are no longer unified on exactly what “sin” is. Once we were. We understood what was sinful and what was right. Hurting others was sinful; also, damaging or stealing another’s property; and dishonesty. There was a common understanding of right and wrong sexual behavior. Of course, these values were not practiced perfectly within the culture, but we all knew right from wrong. This morality was enshrined in our laws and recognized in our courts. (In other articles I have called this the era of the “Normal Culture.”)
Right and wrong have now been redefined, and their codification has devolved to the individual level. This means that an individual’s or a group’s idea of “sin” may not be accepted by others. Entire communities now operate under moral codes not shared by other communities. An ethical consensus no longer exists. My notion of sin might not match yours. Behaviors once considered wrong by most Americans now occupy a kind of gray area. Intolerance is now the Great Sin in American society, with racism running a close second. “Hate speech” is considered exempt from First Amendment protection.
In the past, if an individual was “living in sin,” society had no difficulty naming and denouncing it. Laws in some locales penalized it. But law or not, such a person had no grounds to complain that criticizing his style of living was “hateful.” Even he knew his behavior was wrong.
Today, this moral clarity is turned upside-down. It’s now unacceptable to criticize another’s behavior, even if it violates long-accepted moral codes. Increasingly, cultural arbiters demand complete acceptance of perverse moralities. Recently the Indiana legislature passed a law protecting individuals from penalty if they declined to participate in ceremonies celebrating behaviors their faith calls deviant or sinful. Liberal media raised such a fuss that the governor felt compelled to request modification of the law to prohibit any discrimination against homosexuals.
Senator Marco Rubio decried Americans’ new wont for branding anything that opposes their personal morality as “hate speech.” If my adherence to Christian morality offends another person or community, those moral teachings might be denounced and labeled “hateful” by offended persons. How long will it be, asked Senator Rubio, before Biblical morality is denounced for being hateful toward practitioners of what we once called “sexual deviancy”? (Not too long, one imagines, at the rate we’re going.)
This moral confusion has infected even the Church. Some Mainline Protestant denominations have already gone over to the “gay side” – accepting homosexual practice among their membership and even among their clergy. The Episcopal Church USA – a branch of the Worldwide Anglican Communion – legitimized deviant sexuality in 2003 by installing V. Gene Robinson, a practicing homosexual, as bishop of the New Hampshire diocese.
This radical act – a virtual declaration of war on Biblical morality – coupled with Bishop Robinson’s calling the Bible “an outdated book,” provoked a schism which caused some 1000 American congregations to secede from the Episcopal Church and join a separate Anglican communion that still follows scriptural teaching. This cost some congregations – like The Falls Church Anglican, where I am a member – their properties because Episcopal bylaws assign ownership of all church properties to the denomination, not to local congregations. A civil war is going on inside the denomination.
Reports show that the Episcopal Church lost 200,000 members between 2006 and 2010, and half of its members since the 1960s, bringing its membership to the lowest level since the 1930s. Statisticians note that if losses continue at the present rate, the Episcopal Church will disappear entirely in 25 years. We are seeing the slow suicide of a great Protestant denomination.
Lately, Evangelical colleges have come under fire for admission and hiring policies which reject practitioners of deviant or non-marital sex. Under threat of losing academic accreditation because of “discriminatory” applicant-screening, some Bible-based institutions are wavering on the gay issue. Indeed, some alumni are urging their alma maters to make an “accommodation,” since the public now seems to accept homosexual practice.
Various reasons are given for relaxing Christian teachings on sex, including the argument that since the Bible contains prohibitions that modern Christians no longer observe – e.g., bans on women cutting their hair or speaking aloud in church – some “outdated” attitudes toward sex can also be disregarded. The central point – i.e., that some trivial first-century rules on hair-cutting and preaching are in no way comparable to the Bible’s core teachings on human sexuality – is glossed over by theological revisionists.
Beneath the fog of argument and accusation, the old issue of “sin” still lurks in the darkness like an evil succubus – confusing and perverting human sexuality and the life of faith. Some modern Christians are conflicted over homosexuality, unmarried cohabitation, and the absurd construct of same-sex marriage because they no longer believe these practices are sinful. They have been persuaded that rejection of “anything goes” sexuality is unreasonable, unloving and probably un-Christian. Secular Americans see no problem with all this, of course, but Christians should. At the end of the day, you either believe the Bible or you don’t. You can’t just take the parts you fancy – like favorites from a box of chocolates – and ignore the rest.
“Woe unto them who call evil good and good evil,” wrote the prophet Isaiah two millennia ago. That passage isn’t much quoted, today, but it’s far from obsolete. As a nation we need to rediscover it before we’re so far gone that we can’t find our way back. Choosing leaders who know right from wrong is a start. It might not be enough, but we need all the help we can get.
“When people cease to believe in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.” (G. K. Chesterton, 1923)