One surprising effect of the rise of same-sex marriage in the United States may be a convergence between evangelicals and the Catholic Church.
The best evidence for this is a recent book by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and one of the nation’s most prominent Evangelical thinkers. In We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking truth to a culture redefining sex, marriage, & the very meaning of right & wrong, he tackles the challenge of same-sex marriage. From a scriptural point of view, the idea seems obviously wrong, even abhorrent, but many Christians are swimming with the tide.
In a significant theological shift, Dr Mohler makes two surprising proposals for his evangelical readers. First, that evangelicals need to use arguments based on natural law. And second, that Catholics got it right on contraception and that the evangelicals got it wrong.
Interest in Catholic thinking comes as a surprise, for Dr Mohler is a staunch upholder of Luther’s key to interpreting Christian revelation. His watchword is sola Scriptura, that all Christian thinking must be grounded in Biblical teaching. Furthermore, he has distanced himself from Catholics. In an appearance on Larry King Live in 2000, he said forthrightly, “As an evangelical, I believe the Roman church is a false church and it teaches a false gospel.” And as recently as 2013, he asserted that “Evangelical Christians simply cannot accept the legitimacy of the papacy and must resist and reject claims of papal authority.”
However, without diluting any of his theology, Dr Mohler acknowledges that the rapid spread of same-sex marriage is clear evidence that many Americans, even if they are Christian, are not moved by Scriptural arguments. Nowadays, he says, “ to articulate any moral judgment consistent with the Bible’s declaration concerning homosexual behavior is to risk being ostracized—even in the heart of the Bible Belt.”
This means that Christians need to use arguments which do have traction with the public – which, by and large, are not Scriptural.
“If proponents of traditional marriage cannot gain cultural traction by citing Scripture, and if any claim of divine revelation is out of bounds in the public arena,” writes Dr Mohler, ”then the best strategy would be to avoid arguments that make claims of special revelation and biblical authority.”
In other words, the natural law, an approach to morality which argues from evidence, common sense and philosophy. It was repudiated by modern Protestant theologians like Karl Barth and Jacques Ellul, but has been used for hundreds of years by Catholic thinkers. Dr Mohler observes:
“While traditionally used by Roman Catholic philosophers, theologians, and ethicists, natural law theory has also recently attracted the attention of some evangelicals. Of course, all Christians should affirm the reality of the natural law because Scripture itself affirms both the natural law and the reality of natural revelation. Also called general revelation, natural revelation refers to the fact that God embedded the knowledge of himself and of his law in the universe. In other words, the Creator displayed his own moral character and the appropriate moral structure of the universe in creation.”
What seems to have persuaded him of necessity of natural law thinking in the public square are the cogent arguments marshalled by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George in their book, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. Their approach was persuasive and secular and was located squarely within the natural law tradition. “A brilliant argument—indeed a tour de force,” Dr Mohler comments.
His admiration comes with some caveats, of course. “Reading the work of the natural law theorists can bring a new appreciation for how the glory of God is demonstrated in the institution of marriage. They remind us that human beings are created as male and female, and that God has given his image-bearers the entire pattern of human civilization and flourishing.” However, “the ultimate authority for knowing and affirming these truths is not the natural law, but the Holy Scriptures. This is precisely the point where evangelical Christians, who base their understanding of religious authority entirely upon the principle of Sola Scriptura, must affirm that Scripture alone is the final authority.”
Dr Mohler’s second unexpected proposal is that the tinder for the sexual revolution was widespread acceptance of contraception by evangelicals and Protestants. They were blindsided by the moral challenge:
“The energies of evangelical Christians had been devoted to so many other moral issues that birth control largely escaped focused attention. This set the stage for conservative Christians to be essentially co-opted by the contraceptive revolution when it took place, driven by the development and availability of ‘the Pill’ in the early 1960s. It is shocking now to look back and see how little conversation took place among evangelicals at that time.”
However, Pope Paul VI did hold the line, drawing on Christian tradition and natural law reasoning. He set down in his controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae that every act of intercourse must be open to life. He warned that the separation of sex and procreation would unleash a moral disaster.
Other Christians were sceptical and thanked God that they had no Pope to dictate sexual morality to them. But Dr Mohler says that Paul VI was the authentic representative of mainstream Christian thinking:
“So long as sex was predictably related to the potential of pregnancy, a huge biological check on sex outside of marriage functioned as a barrier to sexual immorality. Once that barrier was removed, sex and children became effectively separated and sex became redefined as an activity that did not have any necessary relation to the gift of children. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the separation of sex and babies from the moral equation.”
This does not mean that Dr Mohler is totally persuaded by the Catholic position on contraception. “I do not believe that every act of sexual intercourse between a married couple must be equally open to the gift of children. I do believe, however, that Scripture teaches that every marriage must be open to the gift of children and that the default position for Christians must be the welcoming of children as a divine gift rather than resisted as a biological imposition.”
Of course, the central purpose of We Cannot Be Silent is not to recalibrate evangelical theology, but to reaffirm it. In a wise and moving conclusion to his cultural and theological analysis Dr Mohler acknowledges that Christians have failed to understand homosexuals and have often been too moralistic rather than forgiving. But the answer is not capitulation to the new culture, but the grace of God. Like Pope Francis, he prays for both mercy and justice. “We must remind ourselves again and again of the compassion of truth and the truth of compassion.”
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.