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Is there a backstop to the moral revolution?

Events from Iowa to Virginia suggest hard choices ahead for the rising generation of Christians

The Iowa Capitol building in Des Moines, Iowa Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Neibergall

Is there a backstop to the moral revolution?
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Recent events have provided a fascinating, if somewhat depressing, insight into the state of the American moral imagination. The Satanic Temple of Iowa erected a statue of the pagan god Baphomet outside of the state capitol. A school board member in Fairfax County, Va., was sworn in with his hand placed on a pile of LGBTQ+ themed books. And in the nation’s capitol, a staffer allegedly made a gay pornographic video in a Senate hearing room. Meanwhile, a storm has erupted surrounding a rather flamboyant video of tap dancing in the White House to celebrate Christmas.

Do these things share anything in common? Some have been tempted to see them as signs of the moral nihilism of the left. Perhaps, although the White House video seems no more tacky than many other elements of the commercial Christmas season. As for the D.C. pornographic video, sleazy people do sleazy things all the time. It is hard to extrapolate from the immorality of a staffer to an entire culture. More concerning are the events in Iowa and Virginia.

It is not clear from reports whether the statue of Baphomet is a serious attempt to bring such explicit paganism into the realm of cultural respectability or whether it is more of a statement concerning religion and the ownership of public space. Either way, it does point to an emerging problem within the United States: the collapse of a shared moral consensus that saw as a source of public good the broad moral contours of a Christian ethic, even if detached from the religious claims of Christianity.

This is going to have grave repercussions. We can already see this in the expansion of the term “Christian nationalism” to include positions that have nothing to do with nationalism and everything to do with basic Christian teaching on such things as abortion and sexual ethics. That well-known ally of the church, Rob Reiner, has a movie coming out that will no doubt reinforce this impression, aided as always by the now-familiar evangelical commentariat. And as this inflation of the term occurs, as public space is cleansed of any ethical position seen to represent a religious presence, so Christians in the rising generation will likely find themselves faced with a hard choice that people like me never had to address: Do they want to be good citizens of the earthly or of the heavenly city? It is unlikely that they will be able to do both.

Sexuality is now considered to have an authority once granted to religion.

As to the Virginia event, the use of LGBTQ+ books, in place of something sacred, seems an obvious mockery of traditional religious authority. Again, in a country such as the United States, such is not illegal. But why would someone wish to do this? The most obvious interpretation is that sexuality is now considered to have an authority once granted to religion.

That makes sense. Sex as that which makes us who we are and brings fulfillment and authenticity is a myth deeply rooted in our post-Freudian culture of sexual consumerism. In such a culture, defiance of traditional sexual mores is key to building a new society. This is one reason why much of the media and the cultural officer class present discussions about age-appropriate literature in schools as attempts to ban books. By the same logic, laws about the legal age to consume alcohol or drive on public roads should also be cast as attempts to reintroduce the 18th Amendment and ban automobiles. That the logic is only selectively applied points to the privileged status granted to some cultural topics and the peculiar political significance attached to the sexual education of children.

In all of this, the other thing that is so striking is the childishness of it all. The officer class of the culture does not seem to wish to replace the old with a new that has a serious depth to it. A goat god? The Bible substituted for illustrated children’s sex books? These people may be serious in their intent to overthrow the culture, and we should not underestimate them. But they offer nothing serious as a replacement.

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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