Democracy, The Individual, and Moral Revolutions (Part 1)

Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Moral Evolution or Revolution?

Al Mohler, the President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY wrote an op ed piece (“Evangelicals and the Gay Moral Revolution”) in the Wall Street Journal on July 1, 2011 It was unusual on several fronts. An essay which is openly evangelical in its perspective about homosexuality appearing on the pages of one of the elite media newspapers is very unusual. That Mohler also manifested a considerable degree of humility in tackling the issue makes this doubly unusual. However, what I found most intriguing was Mohler’s claim that public opinion has changed so dramatically and so quickly on homosexuality as to defy almost all prognisticators. He wrote,

“In less than a single generation, homosexuality has gone from something almost universally understood to be sinful, to something now declared to be the moral equivalent of heterosexuality—and deserving of both legal protection and public encouragement. Theo Hobson, a British theologian, has argued that this is not just the waning of a taboo. Instead, it is a moral inversion that has left those holding the old morality now accused of nothing less than “moral deficiency.”

You could press the point even further. The issue of gay marriage gained national attention only as recently as 2004 with the first-in-the-nation ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalizing it. To many astute observers, it now appears that within a decade most states will have similar laws on their books. This has not been an evolutionary change, but an absolutely revolutionary one. How to explain the speed with which the nation’s moral intuitions have changed so significantly? There are three explanations in my mind. There is a moral revolution lying behind the changes in our public discourse about sex and gender dating back to the 1960s. Secondly, and partly in tension with the first reason, is that the issue of gay marriage has been disentangled from the other major moral controversy of our time, abortion, in such a fashion that it ceased to be a “moral issue” and has instead become an issue of fairness and equality. Thirdly, one could make a case the gay marriage has been so quickly accepted because the culture wars are now largely economic in nature and not moral. It is the second of those reasons which I explore at greater length in Part 2 of this series.