Updated: Jan 3, 2022
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 more detached attitude towards children than we do today. Indeed, many ancient cultures saw children as disposable. But early Christians took a different approach.
For instance, if a baby was unwanted for whatever reason, it was not uncommon for the newborn to be left outside to die from exposure to the elements. Christians would often save these babies from death by picking them up and adopting them as their own. We have to keep in mind, their motivation for saving these babies was not only that every child reflected the image of God, it was also the high mortality rate of children in the ancient world. When 50% of your population is dying before the age of 12, every chance at life matters.
Today, medical technology and vaccines can save almost every child that is born. Among industrialized nations, the infant mortality rate is often less than half of 1%. The urgency to save every child is not nearly as pressing as it was in the ancient world. Indeed, today we are so good at saving children that the world population has exploded from 1.6 billion people in 1900 to almost 7.8 billion people in 2021. The question we are asking today is not, “Can we bear enough children to survive?” but rather, “Are there too many people on the planet?”
When you’re living in a world where survival rates are low, the Christian ethics surrounding childbirth make a lot of sense: Sex leads to life and there are lot of barriers that prevent life from thriving. Therefore, humans need to have as much sex as possible to produce as much life as possible so that we can tilt the odds for survival in our favor. This is why Christians came to the conclusion it was morally wrong to abort or abandon human life. The authors of the Bible never imagined a world where almost every child born would make it into adulthood.
Abortion as Contraception
Understanding this background on abortion helps place this issue in a larger context and also explains why the Christian focus on the preservation of a baby’s life can feel so out of place in our modern world. When almost every pregnancy is going to result in a healthy birth, it changes the moral equation significantly and allows you to pose moral questions that the Bible simply ignores.
For instance, if a woman is pregnant, does she have the necessary resources to provide for her child? Can she feed the child? Cloth the child? Give the child a good chance at leading a successful life? Speaking of resources, given that there are a finite number of resources on the planet, is it ethical to have a child when it’s becoming increasingly harder for the earth to produce enough calories to sustain human life? Which leads to the question, should a woman be able to choose when she gets pregnant?
This question opens the door to the main point of friction when it comes to the use of abortion in our modern world: Abortion is utilized as a form of contraception. Abortion is a means of stopping a pregnancy. This way of talking about abortion would have made no sense to the authors of the Bible. Given the high child mortality rates, why would you ever want to use contraception? They would be dumbfounded by the idea that you would want to prevent pregnancy under any circumstances.
Contrast this with our modern world where every successful birth means you’ve just inherited an 18-year responsibility. Under these circumstances, the choice to prevent pregnancy becomes critically important. This choice means that we now have to consider the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy. In other words, how did the woman become pregnant? Was she having sex with the intention of becoming pregnant? Was she having sex while utilizing birth control, believing that she would avoid pregnancy? Was the sex consensual or was she being raped? When we associate pregnancy with choice rather than being solely focused on the birth of the child, then all of these questions begin to matter.
What has happened in the Christian faith is that certain communities have become so narrowly focused on the moment of birth that they have repressed consideration of any negative elements that might impact the child’s life before and after that moment. Particularly in evangelical circles, church leaders have made it taboo to discuss the social outcomes of unwanted pregnancies, which incentivizes the rest of the community to ignore those questions as well.
The truth is there’s a good reason why they don’t talk about social outcomes. It’s hard to control the social outcomes of a child. When parents lack emotional maturity or lack the resources to properly provide for their child, there’s no quick fix. You’re talking about years of investment with no guarantee of improvement. Whereas if we’re talking about the moment of birth, that can be controlled. It can be legislated and by equating abortion with murder, you can erase much of the gray area that can easily occlude the discussion.
Simple Narratives and the Christianity Death Spiral
Abortion is just one example of how a simple narrative can dominate a very complex topic. Equating abortion with murder is not only a drastic oversimplification of the issue at hand, but such an equivalency is not found in the Bible. However, thanks to the Culture Wars polarizing our thinking, you are forced into one of two positions—you must choose whether you are pro-life or pro-choice. There is no gray area. There is no larger discussion, even though such a choice makes little sense given the complexity of the matter at hand.
Indeed, the positioning of this choice has created other false equivalences. For instance, there is an assumption in our culture that being pro-life means one is a Christian, while being pro-choice means one is non-Christian. Creating these types of connections is one of the most pressing reasons why the church is in a death spiral. As I stated at the beginning of this article, the younger generations are being taught to question the simple narratives. They are aware that there are often multiple, competing narratives and that extracting truth requires hearing a story from numerous perspectives.
Therefore, if you tell a young person that abortion is murder, although they may not understand the nuance of the argument that I have detailed above, they will innately question whether such a narrative makes sense. A good example of this is when it comes to the issue of gender. For older generations, gender is a binary construct—you’re either a man or a woman. For the younger generations, gender is fluid. No person is locked in as one or the other. The plasticity of their thinking means they are used to the idea that there is always gray area and room for discussion, which is the exact opposite of what the Culture Wars was trying to produce through creating a simple binary choice.
Unfortunately, because the evangelical church benefited from the Culture Wars, they too have adopted binary ways of thinking. For example, you either believe in Jesus or you go to hell; you accept the Bible is literally true and reject any evidence, like science, that contradicts the biblical narrative; heterosexual relationships are natural while homosexual relationships are unnatural and sinful. Although these dichotomies worked 40 years ago, today the younger generations are immediately suspicious of binary choices.
Perhaps the most salient reason for this suspicion is that the younger generations have been raised with access to the internet. Not only do they have more access to information than any other generation in the history of humanity, but within their social networks, they communicate with people all over the world. These interactions have taught them that there is extreme variety in the ways that people approach life. This inculcates within them a pluralistic attitude that eschews the notion that people can be easily slotted into one of two categories. They innately understand that humans are complex creatures and are likely to reject any organization or movement that forces them to see the world as black and white versus an array of color.
This trend is affirmed by the most recent Pew studies indicating that Christianity in the United States is undergoing a rapid decline. In my opinion, one of the largest contributing factors to the decline of Christianity is how the simple narratives touted by the church are breaking down. For example, don’t tell me that my Muslim friend and my atheist friend are going to hell for not believing in Jesus. Particularly, when they act more Christian than the people actually attending church, this simple narrative doesn’t add up. Given a choice between rejecting my friends and rejecting the church, most people are going to reject the church.
Therefore, if the church is going to have any kind of future with the younger generations, we have to extricate the simple narratives. I’m not saying we shouldn’t keep the message accessible, but relying on binary choices to define who is and is not a part of the club is only going to lead to more hemorrhaging. In order to stem the bleeding, we need to acknowledge that there is a wide stream of thought in the church. You can personally believe that abortion is murder, but you also have to understand that there are valid historical and theological reasons why another Christian might not feel that way. Likewise, you might believe that Jesus is the only way for a person to go to heaven, but I might feel that Jesus is one of many ways to approach God.
The point being, we have to increase the size of the tent so that we can include more people, while at the same time learning how to tolerate, respect and love everyone who chooses to be inside the tent. This only happens when we let go of the simple narratives that define the Christian religion. I don’t know if this is realistic given the world we occupy today. We are the most polarized we have been as a country since the outbreak of the Civil War.
My hope rests in the younger generations who are largely ignoring these long standing battles being waged by the older generations. In my experience, the younger generations appreciate nuance. They question traditional narratives and are willing to forge their own path. Let's hope they don't abandon the church entirely, but are willing to help reshape and reform it into something new and vibrant. Here's to a better and brighter future. Happy New Year!