Updated: Jan 3
In my last article, Thanksgiving and the Power of Simple Narratives, we discussed how there are two Thanksgiving narratives. The first is the simple narrative that most children are taught in school: Pilgrims, seeking religious freedom, travel to North America on the Mayflower. The native population helps the pilgrims grow food and celebrate their newfound friendship with a feast that we refer today as Thanksgiving.
The second is the more complex narrative that provides the full context of the history of Thanksgiving: Even though the natives saved the colonists from certain death, the Christian colonists believed they were superior to the native peoples. Within the details of this story is the basis of what is more commonly known as American exceptionalism, which opens the door to a much larger conversation about how the colonists came into possession of the territory we call now call the United States.
The point of the article was to highlight how, within the culture of the United States, our history is often boiled down into simple narratives that prevent us from coming to terms with the negative features of our country’s history. For instance, by focusing on simple Thanksgiving narrative, we are missing some key details that open the door to a much larger conversation about how the colonists came into possession of the territory we call now call the United States. In essence, the simple narrative of Thanksgiving enables selective amnesia around the history of our country, allowing us to forget that we stole the American continent from native peoples who had lived here for thousands of years.
In this article, we are going to build on this idea and discuss how the cultural tendency to adhere to simple narratives is one of the largest contributors to the decline of Christianity in the United States. The simple narrative of Thanksgiving is a parable as to why Christianity is facing an uphill battle within our culture. The younger generations are being taught to question the simple narratives. They are learning that history is complicated and nuanced. Indeed, they are aware that there are often multiple, competing narratives and that extracting truth requires hearing a story from numerous perspectives.
In the early 1990s, James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, argued that a handful of issues—abortion, gun politics, separation of church and state, privacy, recreational drug use, homosexuality, censorship—were creating a wedge that defined two competing elements of American society. The dividing line was simple enough so that even the most uneducated members of our society could identify which team represented their values. Although I am sure you are already familiar with the various stances of each side, I will provide a brief overview of the conservative and liberal perspective on these issues from the early 1990s (Note: these are summaries and some of these perspectives have shifted in the intervening 30 years).
Conservative: Abortion is viewed as murder and, therefore, demands that it be illegal (Conservatives may have varying opinions as to whether or not abortion is warranted in cases of rape, incest or if the pregnancy poses a significant threat to the mother’s health, but the general consensus is that aside from these three exceptions, abortion is never warranted).
Liberal: Viewing abortion as a means of birth control for women, abortion is couched in terms of women having the right to control what happens to their bodies (Liberals may have varying opinions as to the cutoff point where an abortion is no longer ethical such as the first, second or third trimester).
Conservative: A person should be able to own as many guns as they want without restrictions.
Liberal: Gun ownership should be highly regulated and numerous types of weapons, such as automatic firearms, should be illegal.
Separation of Church and State
Conservative: The government should have no role in regulating the individual practice of religion, and yet, at the same time, the church should play a significant role in defining the laws of the State (i.e. the legality of abortion).
Liberal: Believes that the government should regulate houses of worship to monitor for fraud or political speech and the church should have no influence over the legislative process.
Conservative: A person should be able to live without government interference, this includes economic interference as well as personal interference.
Liberal: The government should regulate business and industry and should provide economic assistance to the most vulnerable members of our society.
Recreational Drug Use
Conservative: Any and all drugs that are not prescribed by a doctor should be deemed illegal and anyone found utilizing them should face harsh criminal penalties.
Liberal: Certain drugs, such as marijuana, should be decriminalized and drug users should not be prosecuted.
Conservative: Per the laws defined in Leviticus 18:22, engaging in same-sex relationships is considered sinful and against the natural order of the way God intended humans to procreate.
Liberal: There is nothing inherently wrong with same-sex relationships and they should be afforded the same rights as heterosexual couples.
Conservative: Certain media (books, magazines, movies, music) should be restricted to certain ages or completely removed from public consumption.
Liberal: All media (books, magazines, movies, music) should be open to the public, but regulated by age.
Following the publication of Hunter's book, the term Culture Wars was brought into public consciousness by Pat Buchanan during the 1992 Republican National Convention. However, the major differences delineating these specific issues had been developed more than a decade earlier when Jerry Falwell and other evangelical leaders created political alignments in an effort to overturn Roe v. Wade. Conservative politicians spent much of the 1980s coordinating with evangelical leaders, introducing these wedge issues into the American discourse. Their success was evident as sociologists like Dr. Hunter documented a dramatic realignment and polarization that was transforming American politics and culture.
No longer were people divided along the traditional lines of religion, ethnicity and social class. Rather, these issues created a sense that if the other side won the battle, then their values, beliefs and practices would become the dominate expression of life in the United States. In other words, these wedge issues created an existential crisis on both sides where the opposing party didn’t simply possess a differing perspective, but was pitted as an enemy that threatened the very foundations of our society.
This political strategy was not just effective in creating a stark difference between the two political parties, but preyed on a much deeper fear that has festered over the last four decades into a toxic cynicism that has impacted the future of the Christian religion. To understand the correlation between the Culture Wars and the decline of the church, we must examine the impact of the simple narratives that have defined much of our social discourse over the last four decades. Let’s examine this correlation through the issue of abortion.
Abortion and the Bible
I clearly remember the first time I was privy to a conversation about abortion. It was 1991 and I was 11 years old. I was sleeping over at a friend’s house and somehow the issue of abortion came up. My friend’s family was very Catholic and he attended a Catholic school where he was taught by nuns. At the time, I don’t think I even fully understood what an abortion was, but I remember him contributing to the conversation, “The nuns tell us that abortion is murder.” Knowing nothing about Christianity or the Bible, I simply listened. I didn’t offer any opinion on the matter.
Abortion is murder. This is a simple narrative that everyone living in America has heard at some point or another. The underlying rationale for this simple narrative is that by aborting a fetus, one is, in effect, murdering a child before they have the opportunity to be born. The connection between abortion and murder is one that comes solely from the Christian religion. Perhaps the most consistent voice on this matter has been the Catholic Church, which through a long history of the writing of church fathers, multiple encyclicals and direct proclamations from various popes, have made it clear that abortion is the equivalent of murder and is classified as a grave sin.
When I started studying religion in college, I wanted to understand the biblical roots behind the abortion argument. What I quickly discovered is that there is no direct prohibition against abortion in the Bible. In fact, there is only one reference to an aborted pregnancy and it is found in the book of Exodus:
When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Ex. 21:22-25)
A miscarriage is technically an aborted pregnancy. What you will notice is that if a miscarriage is caused by two people fighting, then the punishment is not death to the people who caused the miscarriage. In this particular situation, the people fighting are fined a monetary sum by a judge as compensation for the loss of the child. What this verse indicates is that the loss of the child is not the equivalent of murder. If it were, then the laws of the Old Testament would indicate life-for-life as it does in other places: Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. (Ex. 21:12)
In fact, the loss of the child is seen as secondary to the life of the mother, which is what the remainder of the law is attempting to address. Whereas the first part of the law deals with the unborn child, the second part of the law indicates that if any further harm comes to the mother, then that harm is to be punished in a commiserate manner. If the mother loses an eye, then the two people fighting lose an eye. If the mother loses a hand, then the two people fighting lose a hand. If the mother loses her life, then the two people fighting lose their lives. Hence, the Old Testament law sees the life of the mother as being of higher value than the life of the unborn child.
If this is the case, then why does the church claim that abortion is murder? The connection between abortion and murder comes from a series of theological ideas that are stitched together with practical considerations. The starting point of this theology begins at Genesis 1:26, which states that humans are created in the image and likeness of God. Many Christians interpret this to mean that humans possess a spirit or a soul. Since humans are the only creatures endowed with this characteristic, many Christians assume this means that all human life is sanctified by God. Therefore, since all human life is sacred because we bear God’s image, if a sexual encounter produces a pregnancy, then that human life must be protected at all costs. Indeed, for the authors of the Bible, the connection between sex and life is something that can never be decoupled because the entire purpose of sex, from their perspective, is procreation.
Interestingly, because of the connection between sex and procreation, for the authors of the Old Testament, a man spilling his semen is as much an abortion as a woman losing her pregnancy to miscarriage (Gn. 38:8-10). Today, many people would argue that those are not equivalent. However, the authors' perspective makes sense when you understand that viable pregnancies were hard to come by in the ancient world. Today, women miscarry at a rate of around 10-15%. In the ancient world, because of malnutrition, disease and other environmental factors, miscarriages could be as high as 50%.
Beyond miscarriages, we also have to recognize that even when you had a viable pregnancy in the ancient world, there was no guarantee that your child would live into adulthood. If your newborn made it out of childbirth alive, 35% of infants would die from disease prior to reaching 1 year of life. But those who passed the 1-year mark were still not completely out of the woods. In total, 50% of all children born in the ancient would die before puberty. Because the death rates among children were so high, it was not uncommon for ancient people to develop a much m