Is evangelical Christian morality still viable in American public life? This is the question lurking in recent debates over religious-liberty issues, from the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision to the Christian bakers who object to baking cakes for gay weddings. In discussions of these cases, objections to same-sex marriage and contraception are described as a retreat from “secular society.” And in some cases, evangelicals actually have retreated: Since the Boy Scouts of America decided to allow openly gay Scouts to participate, a “Christian” alternative has been created, giving Christian parents a “safe” space where they can send their kids. But these incidences of retreat have actually been rare. Ultimately, the idea that evangelical Christian morality is incompatible with modern life isn’t sustainable.
In The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch argued that if the evangelical church is to last long into the twenty-first century, certain parts of its moral codes have to change—American society is progressing, and if the church won’t progress with her, then it will be abandoned.
This is based on a popular conception about evangelicals: that they’re toxic. The refusal to serve gay weddings is called bigotry. Laws written to protect businesses that refuse to provide such services are compared to Jim Crow laws. Hobby Lobby’s unwillingness to pay for certain contraceptives is derided as misogynistic.
Behind all of these charges is the suspicion that evangelicals are simply refusing to accept contemporary American mores; they are privileging their faith over the moral spirit of the age. But for many evangelicals, these beliefs are not actually a sign of retreat from public life. Instead, there is a fear that in an increasingly secularized society, there will be less tolerance for people who wish to act upon their deeply held religious beliefs, except in narrowly defined, privatized spaces. This is a fundamentally American concern: Will I have the right to serve God as I believe I am obligated to?
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