I write a few days before the New Year, and the fiscal cliff is all the rage. President Obama has cut short his Hawaiian vacation to come back for some lively talks with John Boehner (!) about a compromise between the parties to avoid plunging the American economy into the abyss of financial chaos. We are told that if we go over this metaphorical cliff, the apocalypse will be upon us! More than 2 million jobless will receive their last unemployment check, taxes will rise immediately, the government will have difficulty making payroll for its employees, global warming will increase dramatically, and Donald Trump will go bald. Hopefully, by the time you read this paragraph, a compromise will have been found, and we will begin 2013 on terra firma—or at least the illusion of such. I can’t help but think that, regardless of what happens in Washington in the next days, weeks, and months, we as a people are rapidly rushing over a cliff of another kind, and few seem to be aware.
The cliff I’m concerned about is not so much financial as it is spiritual, moral, and religious. At this particular moment in US history we seem increasingly convinced that we can do quite well without God, and thus the Divine Majesty has been excused from the dinner table.
It is fairly well known that the fastest growing religion in our society is that of the Nones, that is, those who claim no religious affiliation when polled about their beliefs. Between 1972 and 1989, about 7 percent of Americans claimed to have no religion. That demographic, though, has skyrocketed, and today nearly 20 percent of us claim to be religionless. If you narrow the search to those under the age of 30, the number jumps to over 30 percent identifying themselves as Nones. Again, we seem to believe we can do quite well without God or creed. Yet our society is showing signs of this religious vacuum. When we de-God ourselves and our society, then everything is up for grabs. Moral structures which once gave stability to the social order come crumbling down. A few examples:
Marriage and family: It is no secret that Americans aren’t getting married as they once did. The so-called iron triangleof sex, marriage, and childbearing is has become very rusty. Between 1910 and 1970, the “ever married rate” (people who married at some point in their lives) was between 92.8 percent and 98.3 percent. Today over half of our adult population is unmarried. The causes of this shift in the way we commit to marriage—or, to be more accurate, the way we don’t commit—are many and are said to include no-fault divorce, the rise of higher education, urbanization, effective birth control, sexual opportunity outside marriage, the expense of raising children, etc. According, though, to Joel Kotkin, who wrote a report entitled The Rise of Post-Familiaism, the demise of religion plays the most significant role in the neglect of the institution of marriage. Kotkin points out that each of the world’s major religions understands and exalts marriage as fundamental to living the life God designed us to live. And why is the decline of marriage a problem? Kotkin puts one reason very succinctly: A society that is increasingly single and childless is likely to be more concerned with serving current needs than addressing the future-oriented requirements of children.
Same-sex marriage: It is no small irony that at the same moment heterosexual marriage is devalued, same-sex marriage is increasingly gaining traction. Last February the White House announced that our Department of Justice would cease all efforts to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in the courts. DOMA, ratified in 1996 and signed into law by President Clinton, held that no state was required to recognize a same-sex marriage performed by another state. Furthermore DOMA prohibited the federal government from extending marital benefits to same-sex couples. By May 2012, during his presidential campaign, President Obama came out in favor of same-sex marriage. As Bob Dylan crooned, The times they are a-changing… In November same-sex marriage was on the ballots in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington, and voters in each of those states voted for or toward its approval. This is something of a moral earthquake. In recent years, 33 states have passed some sort of referenda against same-sex marriage, but the November 2012 election went four for four in favor of such.
We could cite many more examples of the crumbling of our nation’s moral foundations. We could speak of the casual acceptance of abortion-as-birth-control, violence in our films and on our television sets, the availability and widespread use of pornography, and the wanton materialism that characterizes our lives. We have indeed tiptoed toward the edge of a moral cliff, and the prospects are frightening. Hear how C. S. Lewis put it more than a half-century ago:
Such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. … In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
Like the pot-heads who think they can graduate to meth without losing their teeth, we believe we can abandon God and live without losing our bearings. We are like the Israelites who offered up sacrifices to a golden calf and then ate, drank, and rose up to play (Exodus 32:6), never noticing the fire that burned and the thunder that clapped from Mt. Sinai. We are convinced that severing the tether will liberate, not realizing the height of the cliff we wish to scale on our own. We have summarily dismissed God from the public square, and yet we are surprised to find we have a certain moral and social vertigo? Really?
Is our society rushing over a spiritual cliff? That is probably the wrong image. When one falls off a cliff, the fall is swift and sudden, and, depending on the height of the cliff, the person who falls will suffer either a skinned knee or sudden death. Our society is not falling off a spiritual cliff; rather we are following a comfortable glidepath toward Gomorrah. As if we’d been traveling on a transcontinental flight from London into LAX, we’ve heard the jet-propelled engines that held us at 35,000 feet die down to what seems like an idle. But we are not coasting into Los Angeles for a safe landing and the warm welcome of friends. Our religionless, godless glidepath has ominous implications. If there is no God, then everything—and anything—is permitted. As William Butler Yeats wrote, Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…
Despite the edge of the spiritual cliff, however, our society seems determined to march over, despite the glidepath we have placed ourselves on, we who put our faith in Jesus have no room for despair. After all, we know how the story of history will turn out, and the end is really, really good. We worship the God whose kingdom has come in Jesus, the God who will have the last word. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, so we have every reason to be confident about the future. In the meantime, let us, his followers, live in a way that will woo the hearts of the hardened toward the greatness of God. Let us continue to seek the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:7) while we live as strangers and aliens in a world hostile to the faithful. Let us evangelize the lost and pray for our governors. And let us wait expectantly for our blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ!