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Patrick Henry College professor Stephen Baskerville is the author of Not Peace But a Sword: The Political Theology of the English Revolution. His most recent book, The New Politics of Sex: The Sexual Revolution, Civil Liberties, and the Growth of Governmental Power, brings a sword to some current debates. Here are edited excerpts of our interview.
Should we mourn the abandonment of that old-fashioned word, fornication? Many churches are deserting their posts, and language is an indication. Even from the pulpit today, let alone in public policy, we don’t hear words like fornication, adultery, cohabitation, even sin. We hear words like misogyny, sexism, sexual harassment. We’ve substituted legal jargon for Christian morality and have allowed political ideology to replace Christian sexual morality. Instead of emphasizing families, pastors, churches, and local communities—moral pressure—we’re bringing in police, judges, and lawyers, the instruments of the coercive state to enforce a new kind of sexual morality dictated by the government.
As Christians and non-Christians approach the elephant, does one group fixate on the long trunk and the other on its massive legs? Christians deal with homosexuality and transgenderism. Non-Christians emphasize issues like campus rape, Harvey Weinstein, allegations. Christians tend to stay away from those. They often don’t talk to each other and don’t see the bigger picture of what’s going on.
In The New Politics of Sex you connect the dots. Our multifaceted sexual revolution has had a huge impact on our society, but scholars, journalists, Christians, and our clergy have not shown the interconnections. Cohabitation didn’t come purely from the culture. It also came from public policy changes like the creation of the welfare state that offered a very clear financial incentive to have children out of wedlock.
‘Virtually all the poverty in democratic countries is the result of family structure. Many churches now emphasize relieving the poor but not building strong family structure.’
It’s almost 50 years since no-fault divorce began in California with a bill signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan. How did that eventually lead to changing ideas about same-sex marriage? It abolished marriage as a legally enforceable contract. The state was saying it can dissolve your marriage over your objections without you having done anything wrong. From then on marriage retained its moral power but was no longer legally enforceable.
That also had an effect on the homosexuality debate? Same-sex marriage activists said, “If you want to go back to the monogamous, legally enforceable marriage of the 1950s, go ahead, and we’ll stay out of it.” Only when marriage became serial monogamy, something you could get out of easily, did it fit the promiscuous lifestyle of many homosexuals.
Were churches sleeping when no-fault divorce emerged? Some churches did raise their voices, but much of their attention was diverted at the time by Vietnam and civil rights. There was very little debate, very little discussion. No-fault divorce, the welfare state, and the cohabitation explosion were all usurpations of the church’s role by the state. Governmental power was inserted into a realm of private life that had been the realm of the churches.
The churches withdrew from private life? And the state moved in. What had been the role of pastors and priests became the role of lawyers, judges, and social workers. The church has never tried to reclaim its turf, and has been a major contributor of secularization, of people feeling the church is not part of their life when it’s not enforcing the marriage contract.
What can be done now? The church has got to step in. Much of the history of the Christian church has been brave churchmen speaking out when the state overreaches its authority. This whole area of sexual morality is, frankly, our turf and God’s turf. The state has a role but is overstepping.
Pastors sometimes do counseling. It’s common when there’s a divorce case that the man often loses access to his children. He goes to the pastor and says, “Look, you married us. Don’t you have something to say about this?” And the pastor says, “I’ll certainly pray for you, and I can help you find a lawyer.” That’s about it.
Why do many Christians talk more about the effects of homosexuality than the effects of single-parent homes? The most destructive trend in our society is raising children without fathers, yet it’s being promoted as a good thing. … The consequences of single-parent homes and unwed childbearing are much more severe than the problems caused by homosexuality. Most of our domestic budget goes to solving problems created by the fatherless.
How many people promote single-parenting as a good thing? Look at an organization called Single Mothers by Choice, or the spate of books with titles like Raising Boys Without Men. Promoting single parenthood as an empowering move is destructive, and the next logical step is raising children by homosexual couples. These different aspects of the sexual revolution feed upon and exacerbate one another.
What ideology are churches up against? The first claim is for unlimited freedom, but there’s also a corollary to that—and we’re starting to see now the authoritarian side to it. Civil liberty violations in the name of sexual freedom, both feminist and homosexualist, are growing. This is much more than just a problem for Christians. It’s a problem, a crisis, for our society as a whole.
Churches and pastors feel enormous pressure. There’s a feeling that the churches have only two choices, either to present a dogmatic Biblical view or to surrender. Churches should combine compassion with Biblical principles and find ways to show homosexuals that God loves them and the church loves them, but at the same time they’re embarked on a very destructive lifestyle and our society is also making destructive choices. We need to be assertive on both of those courts.
Can we apply some lessons from history and sociology? The Puritans emphasized family, and that led to periods of enormous prosperity, political freedom, and social stability. Truncated relationships open the child to hypermasculinity and gangs. We have an epidemic of fatherlessness in our society: How many of those children are developing same-sex attractions because they don’t have a healthy male to identify with?
You also point out the poverty-fighting aspect of this. Churches have always preached relief for the poor. It’s an absolute Christian imperative. Virtually all the poverty in democratic countries is the result of family structure. We don’t have starving children walking around with distended bellies: The people we call the poor in America are poor mostly because of family structure—single-parent homes, for the most part. Christian missionaries fed the poor, but they also taught them morality, including sexual morality: Have children when you’re married, and stay married. Many churches now emphasize relieving the poor but not building strong family structure.
The Puritans emphasized both. The purity in Puritanism was not just sexual purity but purity in things like alcohol, drugs, lust, evil thoughts. Purity is the beginning of what makes us free. In the English-speaking world, it’s what makes us citizens, with purity the rite of passage to be an active citizen: When you’re wallowing in sin and license, you’re literally enslaved, in hock to the devil. You’re only truly free when you have control of yourself.
We need to recapture that understanding? Our rivals in the Islamic world understand this keenly. I obviously don’t agree with their answer to the problem, but they understand that dialectic between purity and freedom, and they’re playing on it. In contending with radical Islamists we need to recapture that element of our political history and our political culture.