In a very fine article in the American Conservative, “Sex After Christianity,” Rod Dreher explains how the growing support for gay marriage reflect deep and profound changes in our moral imaginations.
He writes, correctly I think, that “gay-marriage proponents succeeded so quickly because they showed the public that what they were fighting for was consonant with what most post-1960s Americans already believed about the meaning of sex and marriage.”
What do Americans believe? Dreher says it’s a post-Christian individualism that reigns. For traditional Christianity (and for all traditional religions) moral rights and wrongs reflect cosmic truths. We thus accept moral discipline, because in so doing we participate in the dignity and truth of reality itself. (This is the spiritual pay-off of natural law arguments, which are meant to help us live in accord with our true natures. They’re not about policing behavior.)
The secular moral imagination thinks otherwise. At the end of the day there are no cosmic truths, and so we default to the immediacy of desire, unless practical or utilitarian concerns limit us. For such a view life is most “noble” when most “free,” which means unimpeded by moral constraints that are increasingly seen as meaningless.
Dreher is surely right that religious faith is at odds with this view of freedom. For freedom Christ has made us free. St. Paul meant by that a freedom from bondage to sin that allows us to enter into a more perfect obedience to God’s law. He’s also surely right that the success of gay marriage suggests that increasing numbers of Americans find this religious view of human freedom unintelligible, and thus aren’t likely to be all that enthusiastic about Christianity. In that sense, support for gay marriage is a tell-tale. As it rises, the churches fall.
Societies are complicated, and our moral imaginations aren’t always consistent. As Dreher knows, there’s no simple formula at work here. But he’s right about what gay marriage means for our society, our moral imaginations, and our attitudes toward religious authority.