Cities across America are getting ready for this week’s July Fourth celebrations. Near my neighborhood, the Dallas suburb of Addison (with nineteen thousand residents) is expecting 500,000 people for its fireworks show. Cities from New York to Los Angeles are preparing for spectacular parades.
None are likely to resemble the parades with which June’s “Pride” month ended. A Washington Post headline calls last Sunday’s pride parade in New York City “one of [the] largest in [the] movement’s history.” Wikipedia lists thirty-six such parades across the country.
Of course, LGBTQ activists do not limit their campaign to one month. A self-described “young transgender woman” writes in CNN that “if in June, cities, institutions and individuals can devote attention and resources to LGBTQ people, maybe one day, they can do so all year round.”
A book that explains why we’re where we are
The biblical prohibition of homosexual activity has been clearly understood by the Judeo-Christian tradition for more than thirty-five centuries. This moral position was the norm in American culture until recent years. (For example, Pew Research Center reports that in 2004, 60 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage; in 2019, 61 percent support it.)
What explains the moral trajectory of our day?
In Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac, law professor Steven D. Smith writes that an ancient form of paganism is becoming orthodox today.
He notes that religion in the Roman Empire was so intertwined with the state that “Rome was, in a sense, a kind of magnificent megachurch.” That’s because, to the Romans, this world is our home. They “typically did not imagine any higher good—anything like union with the gods—that transcended earthly flourishing.” They believed that sexual fulfillment was inherently good, whether heterosexual or homosexual, within marriage or without marriage (at least for men).
In their view, religion serves to enhance our experience on earth without holding us to transcendent values or imposing strict moral standards.
By contrast, early Christians believed “in a heavenly city—and, more generally, in a transcendent reality or truth against which this world might be judged.” This standard was used “to criticize—and, in time, to reform—practices that were taken for granted in the pagan world: infanticide, slavery, inequality, the neglect of the poor and the diseased.”
Smith quotes Christian historian Robert Wilken: “The Christians were seen as religious fanatics, self-righteous outsiders, arrogant innovators, who taught that only their beliefs were true.”
Keeping “troublesome” religion out of the public square
According to Smith, we are witnessing today “a renewal of the fourth-century struggle between Christianity and paganism—a struggle seeking to reverse the ‘revolution’ that Christianity achieved in late antiquity.” Our secular culture looks to “inner-worldly sources of moral authority,” while the Christian worldview looks to external truth grounded in God’s transcendent revelation.
The former seeks to limit religious freedom “to keep the troublesome, transcendent sort of religion out of the public square . . . and thus to maintain a public square whose commitments are confined to the satisfaction of ‘interests’ and to immanently sacred values” (his italics). Smith calls this movement “modern paganism” and says that it is “more a sort of philosophical sanctification of experiences, judgments, and commitments that individuals are free to have or not to have.”
When Christians stand against such paganism and for objective biblical morality, we face the same opposition as our spiritual ancestors in the Roman Empire. Whether we will pay the same price for our faith as these early martyrs remains to be seen.
“In these you too once walked”
God calls his people to embrace what seem to be conflicting cultural priorities. Consider the ethical guidance found in Colossians 3.
On one hand, we are told to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth” (vv. 1–2). We are therefore to “put to death” all “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (v. 5).
On the other hand, we are to remember that “in these you too once walked” (v. 7). As a result, we are to relate to others with “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other” (vv. 12–13).
Then, “above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (v. 14).
Clearly, followers of Jesus are to maintain the highest standards of biblical morality. No matter how many people march in “pride” parades and otherwise celebrate what God forbids, we are to stand for our Lord and with his people.
But we are to do so in a spirit of humility that acknowledges our common humanity and offers others the transforming love we have experienced.
“Grace that is greater than all our sin”
One of my favorite hymns takes its title from the chorus: “Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that will pardon and cleanse within; grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that is greater than all our sin.”
How will you incarnate and share such truthful, transforming grace today?