MINNEAPOLIS — Have we already forgotten Kim Davis? “It shows how quickly the news cycles spin things out and leave them in a dust heap in the rearview mirror,” said theologian Don Carson. “A bare six months ago the nation was full of talk about ‘the woman from Kentucky.’”
Davis, 50, that “woman from Kentucky,” as some may remember, is county clerk for Rowan County. Her story, said Carson, is worth pulling from the heap and revisiting as an opportunity for believers to think through complex issues of Christian faithfulness in a declining culture.
Here’s a brief dust-off.
In its historic ruling on Obergefell this summer, in a hotly contested 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court pronounced the right to legal “marriage” is guaranteed to same-sex couples by the U.S. Constitution. Out of conscience, Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, even to her gay friends. “I can’t put my name on a license that doesn’t represent what God ordained marriage to be,” she said at the time. Such so-called “marriage” is not marriage.
Davis, a Pentecostal, eventually decided not to grant any marriage licenses under her name, then was ordered by a judge to resume. When she defied, she spent five days in prison. In the process, commentators zeroed in on Davis and hit her from every side, demanding she resign, or comply, or keep resisting, or learn somehow to accommodate to the pressure. She eventually allowed assistants to grant licenses and later a form was issued that removed Davis’s name altogether.
To some, Davis became an icon of personal sacrifice in the protection of civil rights. To others, Davis became an iconic villain who was trampling the civil rights of the gay community. To ACLU attorneys, Davis’s activities were “a stamp of animus against gay people.” Yet to some conservatives, Davis’s actions were equated with Rosa Parks.
To some Christians, she quickly became an icon for religious liberty, meeting with prominent politicians in public and even Pope Francis in private.
Overnight, Davis became so iconic in America that she is now simply “the Woman from Kentucky,” the title of Carson’s message this week at the Bethlehem 2016 Conference for Pastors and Church Leaders. Carson stepped back into the froth of the controversy, and into an inescapably tangled mess of civil complexities and biblical paradigms, in order to draw out essential lessons for Christians in America. He focused on three lessons in particular: the loss of moral consensus, the expression of a “new tolerance,” and the rise of a “new authenticity.”
1. The Loss of Moral Consensus
One major lesson Carson takes from the Davis controversy is that America is clearly a nation that has “progressively moved away from whatever Judeo-Christian-Deist roots that it once had.” We are increasingly “a nation of millions who vote at once without any distinctive Christian contributions or commitments, voting for things that we will find abominable. We are not there yet, but that is the direction in which things are going.”
Democracy is no failsafe from this moral decline. “We must stop thinking about democracy as a guarantor of godliness. We must stop thinking about democracy as an intrinsic good. Democracy is in some ways the best way of changing governments without bloodshed.”
But it’s not perfect. “We are sinners. And if you have a lot of sinners voting, then you have a lot of sinners voting. That is what you have.” Sinners voting without a certain moral consensus.
“It is not for nothing,” Carson stressed, “that the founders of the nation were convinced that if you lost a broad sweeping moral consensus, then you would inevitably have more and more laws. You can be a nation of fewer laws, as long as there is moral consensus. But once you lose the moral consensus, you must have more laws to keep people from tearing out each other’s throats.”
This loss of moral consensus, this rise in new laws, brings along another important cultural turn.
2. The Rise of “New Tolerance”
Along with a loss of moral consensus, our culture is challenged to wrestle with complex moral dilemmas in a reasonable and clearheaded way. Instead, “we increasingly argue by shibboleth and anger, and if you try to argue a certain case regarding, let’s say, homosexual marriage, then you are easily and quickly dismissed as a bigot.”
Carson cited one Seattle Times headline: “Religious liberty looks a lot like intolerance from here.” Then cited one editorial that insisted: “In a homophobic political stunt, poorly veiled as religious beliefs, Davis denied marriage licenses to LGBT couples.” The statement was made without engaging her governing principle, and offered nothing about her First Amendment rights. “The whole thing was dismissed as a hate-filled political stunt — ‘a homophobic political stunt.’ It is so difficult to engage.”
This line, attributed to Voltaire, can be used to measure tolerance: “I may hate what you believe, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Though Carson doubts the origin of the statement, he stands on its value.
The “old tolerance” agreed with Voltaire. “It was helpful to allow people to dissent from the accepted norms of society, partly because the free discussion meant that there was more likelihood of coming to consensus and truth rather than by way of squelching alternative points of view. Therefore, let the disagreement roll on.”
Here is where the loss of moral consensus comes into play. The old tolerance worked, because the old tolerance was “parasitic.” In other words, “It fed on a broader ethical, moral schema. That is to say: Whether you are talking about tolerance in the Roman government or in the Hittite Empire or in the High Middle Ages, there is already a schema that is largely accepted in society for what is right and wrong.”
Thus, the old tolerance was merely a matter of how much you can allow deviation, of “how much politically or judicially or even socially you can allow deviation from that accepted norm.” The old tolerance was possible because the norms were in place. “That is why tolerance of the old sort was a parasitic virtue. It was parasitic on the givenness of whatever the norms were in that particular culture.”
The “new tolerance” finds Voltaire’s statement intolerant. The new tolerance eliminates all possibility of declaring something as wrong or sinful. To hate what someone believes is now manifest bigotry. “The only thing that you are allowed to hate is intolerance as they define it, which shows that the whole system is, in some way or other, logically self-defeating.” On top of that, Carson stresses, “it becomes intellectually bankrupting, because it becomes impossible to talk about ideas. They are automatically black-listed under the rubric intolerant.”
The result is that, instead of encouraging differing opinions and discussion and engagement, the new tolerance, “flattens out and squashes and hammers away anything that is outside the ‘plausibility structure’ (Berger) of what is currently going on in society. Then worse, that form of tolerance gets elevated to the supreme virtue. Instead of being parasitic on a whole lot of other givens, it becomes the supreme virtue in itself. And then the whole thing falls apart for want of consistency. It becomes really quite ridiculous.”
3. The Rise of “New Authenticity”
With the loss of moral consensus, which anchors the discussion of tolerance, the new tolerance opens up to a “new” authenticity. Carson points to Charles Taylor’s monumental study A Secular Age, and particularly his insights into the new “age of authenticity,” as he calls it.
In sum, Carson explained, the new authenticity means “you are authentic in this age of authenticity if you are consistent with the choices that you yourself make. If you live out your life consistently, in line with the choices that you yourself make, then you are an authentic person. If instead you succumb to the morality that you inherit from your parents or to religious authority or to government structures — even though it is not really yours, nor what you prefer — then you are not living an authentic life.”
To be authentic means “to make your own choices and stick with them even if they are stupid choices in the eyes of some people.”
Thus, “the good that I achieve in life is bound up not with how much I serve others, or how much I have obeyed God, or how much I have maintained the family tradition, or how much I have served my aged grandmother, or whatever. It is bound up with how authentically I live. And that authenticity is bound up with the freedom of my choice to do what I jolly-well please and to live my life in that fashion. That is widely viewed and praised in our media, our plays, our films, so many things in this secular age.”
Responding and Moving Forward
First, we should labor to “expose the built-in inadequacies of the new tolerance.” Carson was clear: “The new tolerance is wicked and stupid. It is morally bankrupt. And in the kindest possible ways, we need to keep showing that that emperor has no clothes.”
Carson is doing this very thing in his addresses on secular college campuses where he addresses the “new tolerance,” and he finds that hundreds show up to listen, including academics, not just the undergraduates. “And then in the discussion afterwards, that many had never considered that the stances that they were taking were themselves intrinsically intolerant to those who disagreed with their particular views of tolerance.”
Second, we must self-consciously return to the older tolerance. We must “preserve the right to say that something is right or wrong without becoming mean and nasty.” We must not become arrogant of our Christian morals or triumphalistic in our online writing and engagement in social media.
“It is a strange, strange world in which, on the one hand, Donald Trump can get a lot of traction precisely because he is so outrageous. And other parts of society hate all the outrageousness of it, too. They long for a civil politics that bespeaks a little more courtesy and respect. We are going to have to recapture the high ground of bold declaration of truth mingled with courtesy.”
Third, we must preach and teach the biblical worldview. “Although the digital world wants us to answer only in one-liners, we cannot build a whole worldview on one-liners. You can reflect a worldview in a one-liner, but it is very hard to teach a worldview in one-liners.”
The church must recapture a high view of biblical exegesis that moves naturally into worldview discussions and then addresses issues like homosexual marriage. Later, when asked to explain, Carson said when it comes to addressing the issues of our day, like homosexual marriage, we will not make headway without an overarching worldview. Thus, he challenges leaders by saying, “In my view, one of the big gaps in modern evangelicalism, including the popular Reformed branch, is the low ability to move from biblical text and exposition to worldview structures and formation and theology. To my mind, that is one of the biggest needs of the time.”
Carson: “Although the digital world wants us to answer only in one-liners; we cannot build a whole worldview on one-liners.”
Fourth, do not be surprised by conflict. Christians should see in Scripture many texts that presuppose our persecution, including a promise from Jesus himself (John 15:20). Opposition from the world is normative for the church. “Indeed, according to Philippians 1:29, God has graciously granted us both faith and opposition — both faith and opposition are granted by God to us as a privilege.”
In other words, since opposition from the world is normative, “we have lived, really, as an aberration from much of that kind of thing in much of the western world — and now that persecution is closing in on us again. And it has the salutary effect of removing quite a lot of nominal Christianity. But these things should not surprise us. They should increasingly be worn as badges of honor.”
Fifth, we must not flinch at proclaiming the absolutes of Scripture. No matter the cultural pressures we feel, or the labels of intolerance or bigotry that get applied to us, we cannot blush at the hard texts and hard themes of Scripture, like the eternal conscious judgment of hell. “We are going to have to learn to teach and preach the absolutes of Scripture, even when they are unpalatable. We must teach and preach them as attractively as we can, but without any flinching or apologizing.”
Sixth, civil issues in the media are incredibly complex, so allow room for Christian disagreement. Whether or not “the woman from Kentucky” handled herself properly in every detail is up for question, but one lesson for us all is that believers in these situations must be convinced of certain actions in their own minds.
Carson warns that we all live within “a hierarchializing of moral values and of truth claims in Scripture.” And because of this, “I suspect that in the Christian environment we must acknowledge that some such decisions belong in the — let each person be rightly persuaded and is fully persuaded in his or her own mind category (Romans 14:1, 5).”
Especially in our confessional circles, we are tempted to hold all our convictions with equal resolve. And yet Paul presupposes there is going to be division in the church on some moral issues of the day. In the end, “there is a hierarchializing of beliefs in Scripture, and sometimes Christians are going to come out on slightly different angles with respect to gun laws or how to handle a county clerk’s job in Kentucky.” We must learn to practice the “old tolerance” with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Seventh, we must not lose our gospel priorities. These priorities trump all the rhetoric of politics and all the debates in the news. “You can’t win Muslims to Christ unless you love them. And you can’t win gay people to Christ unless you love them. You can’t win people of the opposite political party unless you love them. And we are all morally obligated to make the gospel clear as a first priority.”
We must guard ourselves and we must “so avoid investing our energy, our heat, our passion, into preserving our understanding of what the republic should be that we give the impression that the well-being of the republic is more important than the glory of Christ and the furthering of the gospel.” It is not. And if we fail here, we will “contribute to the image of Christians as cranky, bad tempered traditionalists who are simply trying to preserve their own power.”
The closing takeaway is a very personal calling for us all: “I want to press people to know Christians whose very lives and witness and social relationships and speech and so on, even when they say true things that have a bearing in the political arena, are even more concerned for people’s eternal well-being under the shadow of the cross.”
Does New Tolerance Have a Future in America?
No, Carson says, not ultimately.
“Eventually it will collapse on itself,” he says. “Whether it is long term or short term, there could be a pendulum swing reaction against it. This is just too silly by half. Or it might be that we will suffer a disastrous war which makes people suddenly start thinking in absolutes — not always in wiser, godly ways — but it does force people to think in absolutes pretty quickly, once they get involved in something like that.”
The collapse of the so-called “new tolerance” may not be far off. “Already you are seeing some secular commentators beginning to laugh at the stupidities of correct speech on campuses. Sooner or later it is going to collapse.”
Can America Become Great Again?
Finally, this discussion about a woman in Kentucky really presses the big cultural question facing the nation: Can we make America great again? And such a question is mistakenly naïve, because it presupposes the “old America” is worth preserving.
“The Take America Back Again theme presupposes there was a lot more there than what was, in fact, there,” he cautions. “Who wants to rejoice if marriage standards are declining? If there is less thought given to babies in the womb? If homosexual practice becomes normative? None of that is good. There is something ‘back there’ that would be nice to hang on to, but to hang on to it by sheer dint of [political] force, without moral transformation, does not make the country more Christian. In fact, we haven’t had really distinctively Christian views on such matters in this country for a long, long time.”
So what is to come of America?
Carson is slow to make predictions, though he admits “sometimes God lets people run their own way in rebellion, and sacrifices the rich heritage they have been given.” But Carson is quick to return to the unfolding biblical storyline, and particularly to the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24–30). As Jesus instructs, God lets the wheat (his children) and the tares (his enemies) to grow together until Christ returns to separate and sort it all out in the end.
“Although I don’t want to predict what the course of the future will be in any sort of detail, I will say, if both wheat and tares will grow until the end, I think we will have times and periods of reformation and revival and people coming to know Christ in small and large numbers and whole societies transformed. We will also see, if the Lord tarries long enough, a third world war, more barbarity, more pogroms, more terrible slaughter and rape and pillage and so on. Both will grow to the end. We have just come through the bloodiest century in history. And I can’t think of a single reason why we might not have an even bloodier one this century.
“Thus, we must not pin our hopes on just getting the politics right. At the end of the day, Christ says: ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Matthew 16:18), and that is true whether in suffering or glorious triumph.”