Reprinted, with permission, from LifeDate (Lutherans for Life, Fall 2015).
When the French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s, he was struck by something he couldn’t quite express—and so he coined a new word to describe the American spirit: “individualism.” Each man thought he could do whatever he pleased. Tocqueville, however, was astonished that despite rampant individualism, Americans formed cohesive, stable communities. He attributed this stability to the moral force of religion. America’s founding fathers agreed: nothing but religious virtue could ensure an ordered liberty that would sustain the republic.
Since the 1960s, however, a new kind of individualism has become dominant in American culture—one that pushes away rather than embraces religion. This new individualism opposes Christianity while celebrating self-made “spirituality.” When sociologist Robert Bellah attempted to apply Tocqueville’s analysis to late-twentieth-century America, he discovered it no longer fit; Americans had become too fragmented by their own personal ambitions to work together within a shared moral tradition.
Some observers refer to our current age as “postmodern.” Postmodernism characteristically rejects all external standards for truth and morality and celebrates people’s private whims. Postmodernism comes in two common varieties: relativism and subjectivism. A relativist thinks that society gets to invent the truth; a subjectivist thinks that each individual may do so. Neither one believes that there can be any truth except what we, whether collectively or individually, invent.
Often, relativism and subjectivism work in harmony as they jointly challenge the objective moral order of God’s creation. For example, in Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992), the Supreme Court placed its stamp of approval on subjectivism by claiming that every woman has a right to an abortion since everyone is free “to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” In the same ruling, the Court also championed relativism, noting that during the decades since Roe v. Wade (1973), society had become so accustomed to abortion-on-demand that the Court felt obligated to accept this as the new normal.
In Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the Court quoted the subjective “mystery of human life” clause from Casey to affirm that every person has a right to practice sodomy if he or she so chooses. Once again, this subjectivism walked hand-in-hand with relativism, as the Court extended the Lawrence ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) to validate an emerging social consensus in favor of same-sex marriage. Nearly 400 major corporations signed off on a “friend of the court” brief urging that marriage be redefined to include same-sex couples. Whether a teenager succumbs to peer pressure or the nation’s highest court is swayed by the sheer number of wealthy sponsors to a case, the philosophical foundation is the same: relativism, or whatever the social consensus decides is right, must be right.
Some church bodies have followed—and even trail-blazed—the path to relativism, such as when a convention of a liberal denomination votes to solemnize same-sex unions or to declare abortion morally acceptable. This strategy is nothing new. About 3,500 years ago the Israelites rallied around a golden calf of their own making as Aaron fulfilled their wishes by declaring, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4, ESV). Of course, relativism does not actually create the truth; relativism is merely the mistaken notion that people are capable of creating truth by their own consensus.
God’s Law shouts an emergency wake-up call for those who have persuaded themselves that they can re-invent morality as they choose: such people are destroying themselves and others and they need to be rescued. For the most part, they realize this already. Their guilt eats away at them every day. That is why they continue to lie to themselves that there are no objective standards, and that they are free to invent their own morality as they go along. That is why they have pleaded for the government to take their side, to publicly proclaim that their lifestyle is good and acceptable and worthy of constitutional protection. The new public policy placates their guilt.
God’s Law will not suffice to remedy the problem. It is the Gospel that provides the rescue: Jesus forgives and loves and welcomes to heaven the subjectivist women who have said, “My body, my choice.” Jesus forgives and loves and welcomes to heaven the relativist judges who have said, although polishing their statements in fancy legalese, “If enough same-sex couples want to live like that, why not call it a good thing and have the government publicly approve them?”
Unfortunately, the prisoners of subjectivism and relativism do not desire the love God offers; they claim they do not need to be forgiven, for they deny that they have done anything wrong. They push away not only God’s Law, but far worse, the Gospel.
In addition to His Word, God has given the gift of natural law. Written in the hearts of all people is God’s design for human nature. Deep within the human conscience, reality talks back, reducing to silence the postmodern claim that morality is whatever anybody wants it to be. After all, if abortion really was okay, then why do women (and the men in their lives) suffer so much trauma from the guilt of it? And if homosexual relationships really were so wholesome, then why, again, is homosexual behavior correlated so strongly with debilitating diseases and significantly shortened lifespans? Why, indeed, have GLBTQ activists worked so relentlessly to compel the entire nation to affirm them, forcing florists and photographers to cater to same-sex celebrations in affirmation of the new “morality”?
Clearly, all sinners’ consciences bother them and will continue to do so until one of two things happens: they silence their conscience by coercing an entire civilization to affirm their self-made “morality”; or, they collapse at the foot of the cross to receive forgiveness from the One who truly did invent morality and, just as truly, fulfilled all righteousness for their sakes as much as for yours and mine. In the end, the debate is not really about abortion or homosexuality or even postmodernism. The literal “crux” of the matter is the Cross: do we attempt to justify ourselves by redefining morality to fit our lifestyles, or do we regard ourselves as sinners in need of Christ’s forgiveness and ask Him to send His Holy Spirit so that we may empowered to live a new kind of life?
Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of The Hausvater Project. He lives with his wife Marie and their homeschool children in Casper, Wyoming, where he serves as Academic Dean and Professor of History and Philosophy at Luther Classical College. He previously taught American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College, 2003–2023. For more information, visit www.ryancmacpherson.com.