Posted in

Why Christians Feel Marginalized in Contemporary America Part I

The Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision on June 6, 2015, which ruled that states may not prohibit same-sex marriages, has understandably caused grave concern among Christians who believe in the biblical view of marriage as a relationship only between members of the opposite sex.  Many wonder how this could have happened in what they have long considered to be a Christian country, and they are shocked to be branded as bigots for holding to a view of marriage that has held sway from time immemorial.

The mistake many Christians make is to focus exclusively on the issue of homosexuality. In reality, the recent Supreme Court decision and the current attitudes toward marriage are the result of a long-term historical process.  It is my intent in this and the next two posts to look at the history of the role of religion in America so that  my fellow Christians will better understand the rapid cultural changes that are occurring and how to deal with them.

The debate over the religious views of the Founding Fathers is all too often muddled both by Christian apologists who present the Founding Fathers as Bible-toting evangelists and by secularists who claim that they were agnostics and deists who eagerly desired to keep religion out of the public square.  Neither view is true.

Essential to understanding the place of religion in the founding of the American Republic is the concept of classical republicanism.  Classical republicanism advocated self-government, which by definition meant that the citizens would actively participate in government.  Government would thus be a servant of the people and consequently not an oppressive regime serving the interests of the rulers.

Nevertheless, the Founders also recognized that the inherent selfishness of human nature and its passions would lead to strife and oppression.  James Madison, one of the strongest opponents of a state established religion, famously wrote in Federalist #51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Madison may be justly criticized for overestimating the long-term effectiveness of internal constitutional checks and balances to combat the tendency of governments to seize power for their own ends rather than the needs of the people.  Nevertheless, he clearly saw that the fundamental flaw in human nature necessitated checks on corrupting human desires. For this reason, he and other leaders were convinced that no republic could succeed without a virtuous citizenry.  In their view a virtuous person was one who rose above self-interest and lived with integrity and concern for the common good.  When George Washington asserted in his Farewell Address (1796) to the American people that “virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” he was merely reiterating a republican commonplace.

The necessity of virtue led the Founding Fathers to maintain the civic importance of religion. In the same address Washington made the connection between virtue or morality and religion explicit.

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports … A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity… And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Whether Federalist or Anti-Federalist, whether orthodox Christian like John Witherspoon or the unorthodox Benjamin Franklin, whether favoring state-supported religion or seeking to end it, the Founding Fathers agreed with Washington.  While strongly differing on many specific issues, they firmly believed that the only sure foundation for morality was the religious belief in God and that any nation, and especially a republic, could thus not succeed without religion.

Furthermore, liberty included not just freedom from external compulsion but also the capacity to control the innately selfish passions of human nature, which were destructive both to the community and to the individual.  Since religion was seen as a major means, or often the major means, of fostering civic virtue and controlling human selfishness, the vast majority of Americans at the founding of the Republic were convinced that religion promoted both individual and national freedom.

In other words, the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were persuaded that religion had a crucial civic function that the United States needed and was a major support of human freedom, both in its communal and individual forms.  This fundamental conviction of the Founders has not only been lost, it is often frankly denied by the shapers of modern American culture and politics.  In the next post I will explain some of the philosophical roots of this change, why it leaves Christians feeling like strangers in their homeland, and, most tragically, how these philosophical developments have infected the church resulting in a truncated and impoverished Christian faith and practice.

8 thoughts on “Why Christians Feel Marginalized in Contemporary America Part I

  1. Hi Bill, thanks very much, I was looking forward to reading this.

    Your thoughts on this: To me Bill, evangelicals have caused exponentially more damage to the family, to child-raising, to civic morality:

    First, by the high incidence of divorce among evangelicals with minor children (

    Second, evangelicals using porn (

    Third evangelicals committing domestic violence (

    Fourth, evangelicals promoting pro-life rhetoric but opposing measures that lower abortion.

    Gay marriage, though bad for the nation, and a worse precedent, does relatively little damage to the American family, despite it’s high profile this year.

    This is not to excuse X by pointing to A, B, C, and D, but to me it helps to think in terms of proportions.

    Your thoughts?

    1. Thanks, Gary. First, let me say that I read the articles that you sent and am sad to say that I’m not surprised. I may be misunderstanding, you but I don’t think the essays demonstrate that “evangelicals have caused exponentially more damage to the family, to child-raising, to civic morality.” Rather they show that we have done a poor job in discipleship. For example, the article on divorce pointed out that religious practice was more important than religious self-identification. We pay too much attention to polls about the number of evangelicals and too little to serious instruction. The article on domestic violence points to a lack of preparation of pastors and teaching from the pulpit. One point that would especially be worth exploring theologically is the comment in this article that conservative Protestants who attend church regularly are the least likely to commit domestic violence; whereas, those who don’t attend regularly are most likely. Could this point to hypocritical or at least lukewarm religion as being more damaging to the soul and others than honest unbelief?

      I also don’t think that you are right that the issue of same-sex marriage will not damage the family much. The essay on divorce stated that divorce was contagious. The influence of social pressure on norms is quite powerful. I remember as a young boy in a home that was not a practicing religious one being surprised to hear that there was anything like divorce. Looking back on that early 1960’s experience, I think that many couples stayed together simply because it wasn’t socially acceptable to divorce or they had been raised to believe that it would be bad for the children. Broader than the issue of same-sex marriage is the enormous pressure not just to tolerate, let alone forgive, homosexual sins, but to approve homosexual intercourse as just one of several forms of valid sexual relations. I teach American teenagers; so I know them pretty well. These kids are mostly from Christian homes and attend Christian churches. They are certainly instructed in the faith at the school and at the high school level are given ample opportunity to study and discuss important issues they are facing. However, I know that all of that is probably less input them most of them get through other teens, the internet, and the entertainment industries. For the most part they are being pushed quite strongly to approve of homosexual intercourse, and I see its effect. It can lead also to a questioning of biblical authority. I shudder to imagine what it’s like for other teens. It is going to affect families tremendously when you consider that many of these kids will experiment with heterosexual intercourse outside of marriage (Vigen Guroian, theology professor at Loyola College in Maryland describes the horrific sexual license of the college campus). Some will now feel more free to experiment with same-sex relationships. Other children are being encouraged to explore whether they are male or female or both. All of these currents in American society are going to damage young people deeply and this will affect marriages and families.

      In the next post, I’m going to go into what I see as some of the more philosophical factors that have contributed to these changes and their adverse impact on the church too.

      1. Hi Bill, let me address just the first part, briefly.

        I read the follow-ups contained in those articles, and also comments made by evangelicals to these types of findings. To me their logic seemed too much like, “Yes, evangelical Christians commit a lot of, say, domestic violence, but the ones who do are not real, authentic evangelical Christians.” A tautology there, no?

        And if we say that “Evangelicals who regularly practice their faith are less likely to not practice their faith by committing violence, getting divorced, and so forth.” Another tautology?

        There should be better training, better discipleship, and so forth, of course. But there isn’t. And that results in the sort of statistics cited in the articles. That, and the fact that wholesome teaching, by itself, is not sufficient to change the human heart.

        Can we not say that, the evangelical movement, by failing to deal directly with third-rail issues of violence, porn, divorce, are causing much greater damage to the American Family than a very tiny minority (1%, roughly) of proclaimed homosexuals?

        You and I are aware of the state of the family in Costa Rica, and also the (culturally still isolated) state of homosexuals here. A rough guess on my part? Infidelity, violence, incest, divorce, absentee fathers are predominantly heterosexual-on-heterosexual crimes and are responsible for the great majority of family dysfunction.

        This doesn’t invalidate your other points, but I hear a heck of a lot of preaching about SSM, both here and from the US, and almost nothing with regard to cancerous behaviors that respectable Christians get away with. I had to wait many years to hear my first sermon against domestic violence, one given by our fine Costa Rican pastor, in a region where it is endemic.


        1. Thanks, Gary. I will admit that many Evangelical responses to the statistics that you mentioned look like special pleading. I would not want to underestimate wholesome teaching, hoever, since God’s word is effective and powerful to transform us. What I do think is that our Evangelical theology and hence preaching and practice (and please remember that I’m not talking just about Evangelicals these posts) has some blind spots. I haven’t developed this yet, but I recently heard a talk on understanding the image of God as relational and focusing on love. The speaker then said that we are by nature meant to be lovers. What I’ve been thinking is that much of our Evangelical theology seems to make the forgiveness of sins as the end of salvation. What if we were to see love and holiness as the end of salvation with the forgiveness of sins as a necessary component of that but not its final end? With regard to the percentage of homosexuals and their impact on the family, I would argue that the danger we have is that “alternative” sexual relations and gender understanding will be presented to children and youth in our schools as legitimate options for them to explore and the results will be devastating to the family and individuals.

  2. Well said, Bill. Thank you for your thoughts.

    It drips with irony that the next item in my Facebook news feed was an article about a polygamous man in Montana who, because of the Obergefell vs Hodges decision, believes he should be granted a license to officially marry his two partners. This has been one of the arguments against same sex marriage from the beginning – that it would open Pandora’s Box to have any sort of what one wants to call marriage legitimized.

    I have to wonder if it would have come to this, at least so soon, if the government had stayed out of the “marriage business” altogether. By that I mean certain tax breaks for married couples, requiring marriage licenses, etc. May have hastened the current outcome, too. Hard to say.

    But it is abundantly obvious that the founding fathers were correct when they said that the governing document they had produced would only be workable with a moral people. As you have already eloquently stated, morality apart from religion is impossible.

    1. Thanks, Ken. It’s hard for me to find any basis in contemporary judicial and philosophical ideas to reject polygamy. I’ve read that people find it (and other things) to be unacceptable, but that was true of homosexual intercourse too and that has changed.

      1. I don’t think polygamy will be long banned either, but I don’t agree with those who are saying that incestuous marriage or sex with minors is soon to come.

        1. I agree about the ban on polygamy going away soon. There is no basis for it in the current secular political view of marriage. Really the only real limitation on “the right to marry” is that there must be mutual consent. I don’t think that this would necessarily eliminate incestuous marriage, because (and I find it distasteful even to discuss this) an adult daughter could consent to marrying her father. That still leaves the prohibition against sex with minors, which is obviously related to the issue of consent. However, there are and have been for a while movements to lower the age of consent and in some instances even to eliminate it. We’re in very dangerous waters, I’d say.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *