I have been told that skydiving is an awesome, exhilarating sport. After one takes care to obtain the proper equipment, and then ensures that the proper equipment actually works, one boards an airplane that takes off and climbs to some dizzying height. The door opens and one leaps into the freedom of freefall. The vast vistas, the rush of wind. One exults in the rush, the speed, the drama. From way up, though one is plunging faster and faster, the lack of perspective gives the appearance of floating. Just about everyone who makes the leap enjoys this sensation of freefall. But at a certain point, reality intrudes, and a decision is made to avoid the consequences of allowing gravity to pull one unimpeded towards an unpleasant meeting with the uprushing earth. One pulls the cord. A parachute deploys. Descent slows from a plummet to a float. With legs bent to absorb the shock, we touch down and hope our ride isn’t too far away.
Full disclosure. I’ve never jumped from a plane. Or a balloon. I have, in a moment of sheer insanity, jumped off a gazillion feet high diving platform at an outdoor pool near my cousins’ house in Louisville, KY. At some point during that fateful morning, I concluded that such a jump was a good idea. However when I started climbing the stairs and then the very long ladder to the top, and kept getting higher and higher, I began to have second thoughts. Peer pressure and teenaged stupidity took me to the top of the platform. The view was awesome. The pool looked like a tiny rectangle of blue with tiny figures looking up, waving their arms and shouting things I could not hear. The urge to freak out was overwhelming. I don’t know how long I stood on top of that platform looking down at that swimming pool – time screeched to a crawl. Eventually the embarrassment of taking too long overruled whatever shred of common sense I had left. I walked to the edge. Closed my eyes. Stepped off.
It took a surprisingly long time to fall what seemed to me at least 100 feet. I remember thinking that the whistling noise one heard when Wile E Coyote invariably fell from the top of an impossibly high canyon when one of his pursuits of the road runner went inevitably awry – that’s the sound I heard, the wind shrieking in my ears. But in less time than it takes to read this sentence, I smacked the water hard, as one is wont to do from this sort of height. I can only thank God that I had the presence of mind to keep my legs together. It’s sort of surprising that they allowed young people like me to leap off of diving towers like that. It sort of surprises me that anyone thought it would be a good idea to build such a diving tower anywhere, much less at a swimming pool open to the public. But as has been said about baseball fields in corn patches, if you build it, they – idiots like me – will come.
With a mixture of trepidation and astonishment, I have watched, in my lifetime, the arbiters of this American culture that I call home, board the moral equivalent of an airplane, ascend to the awesome, dizzying heights of moral ‘freedom’, all the while explaining with increasing vehemence just how hateful those people are for presuming to tell us how to live our lives. Our culture is airborne now, circling higher and higher. Many on board are intoxicated by the freedom of living without restraints, in this case, without seatbelts and, more significantly, parachutes. The side door is flung open, and one by one all of the passengers hurl themselves into the absolute freedom of moral freefall.
During my lifetime, here has been a real revolution in American morality in general, and in sexual morality in particular. Sex between young people during high school or college has become expected. Living together before making a long term commitment to one another has become the norm. Masturbation seems all but universal. Access to pornography, once restricted to a risky visit to the bad side of town, is now one click away on one’s computer or phone or tablet 24/7 at a location of one’s choosing. Adultery elicits a yawn from the wider culture (unless the perpetrator is a minister or a politician, thus making the real offense to be hypocrisy). Homosexuality has gone from being a criminalized offense to being celebrated by the media, affirmed by the wider culture. The more liberal Christian denominations, always about 15 years behind the cultural curve, are lining up to demonstrate their bona fides by saying ‘yes’ to ‘gay’ clergy, ‘yes’ to homosexual marriage, and no to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The philosophical justification behind this increasing climate change in morality has been relativism. Relativism, of course, had been a stream of philosophical discussion since the 19th century. It was being discussed in the humanities classes I took in college. Indeed, relativism was already being used as a justification for the avant-garde morality of some of my peers and instructors, who viewed themselves as the heirs of the cultural breakthroughs of the 1960s. The majority in the wider culture, however, dismissed this tiny intellectual elite as moral reprobates, while continuing to send their children to be educated in their institutions of higher learning. But what the majority culture failed to comprehend was just how corrosive an acid relativism would prove to the strands that held 20th century American morality together.
The acid of relativism is the simple idea that there is no such thing as absolute truth, but that right and wrong are relative, depending on the situation, the circumstances and the context. This means that no one is in a position to judge another person as being ‘wrong’. Starting with the universities and the arts and media communities, this acid began eating away at the seemingly impregnable fortresses of cultural morality in America. For most of our nation’s history, and even further back into its colonial past, there had been consensus on what was right and what was wrong when it came to sexual morality. It was assumed by nearly everyone that marriage between a man and a woman constituted the right context for sexual relations and for raising children. There were, of course, plenty of individuals who made decisions to behave outside these boundaries. But the fact that there were hypocrites (people who acknowledged the norms but flaunted them) or counter-cultural deviants did not change the reality of what the wider culture’s considered to be ‘normal’ sexual behavior. Words such as ‘adultery’, ‘fornication’ and ‘sodomy’, among others, described behaviors that fell outside what was considered normal and conducive to healthy relationships and thus healthy society. And just as aberrant sexual behavior did not alter that there was a normative context for sex, just because there were marriages that failed did not alter the fact that there was a normative context in which to raise children and regulate sexual relations. The clincher for American morality was that this wasn’t just society’s norm, it was also the morality prescribed by God himself in the Christian religion of the majority, both Protestant and Catholic. Since the majority of Americans were Christians, adopting God’s morality as their own made perfect sense. The Bible provided a blueprint for relationships in general, and for sexual morality in particular. And if God himself has shown us how we are to live and relate to one another, ignoring his commands would be akin to us deciding we were going to ignore the natural law of gravity. Trouble would result accordingly. This was the world into which I was born and the moral context in which I grew up.
America today is a very different place, morally, than the world in which I became an adult, much less the America of the 19th, 18th and 17th centuries. The rapidity of these fundamental changes in sexual morality has been breathtaking. But what is perhaps most astonishing is the speed in which the Christian morality that defined four hundred years of the American social contract has simply collapsed. The supporters of moral libertarianism have seemingly won a stunning come-from-behind victory. The present rash of court decisions in favor of gay marriage and against discrimination are simply a victory lap for the culture’s purveyors of the new morality. But what they and almost every other person on the current cultural bandwagon are not comprehending is that while relativism is extraordinarily effective at demolishing foundations of culture, it is by definition incapable of sustaining the coherent positive morality necessary to maintain a viable substitute. In other words, we have witnessed the moment when our culture has leaped out of the plane. In the name of freedom and the validity of everyone’s (except the ruling) morality, we have succeeded in throwing off every restraint controlling sexual morality (with the exception of a few, which won’t last long). We are witnessing the giddy feelings that accompany the thrill of freefall. Those driving these changes and celebrating the overthrow of the Christian underpinnings of our culture think that they have set themselves and our culture free to be ourselves. But what they do not fathom is that the culture cannot survive the corrosion of its foundations. As William Butler Yeats observed:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned,
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(‘The Second Coming’, 1919)
Just this past week, multimillionaire gay fashion designers Dolce and Gabbana gave an interview to an Italian fashion magazine that set off a firestorm in the upper echelons of our emerging culture:
‘We oppose gay adoptions,’ they say, ‘The only family is the traditional one. No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: life has a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed.’ He said, ‘You are born to a mother and a father – or at least that’s how it should be. I call children of chemistry, synthetic children. Rent uterus, semen chosen from a catalogue.’ Stefano Gabbana added, ‘The family is not a fad. In it there is a supernatural sense of belonging.’ In an interview in 2006, Gabbana revealed in another Italian magazine that he had approached a woman to be the mother of his baby but said he struggled with the idea. ‘I am opposed to the idea of a child growing up with two gay parents,’ he said. ‘A child needs a mother and a father. I could not imagine my childhood without my mother. I also believe that it is cruel to take a baby away from it’s mother.’ (http://m.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-31907007)
Elton John, the father of two no doubt extremely well-adjusted children he acquired through the services of a laboratory, blew his hairpiece: On Sunday he wrote on Instagram: ‘How dare you refer to my beautiful children as “synthetic”.’ ‘And shame on you for wagging your judgmental little fingers at IVF – a miracle that has allowed legions of loving people, both straight and gay, to fulfill their dream of having children. Your archaic thinking is out of step with the times, just like your fashions.’ Elton says he’s never going to wear Dolce & Gabbana again. Because they are bastard people. And it’s not just Elton John. Courtney Love Cobain tweeted, ‘Just rounded up all my Dolce & Gabanna pieces. I want to burn them. I’m just beyond words and emotions. Boycott! senseless bigotry.’
Dreher, with some restraint, comments:
‘So let me get this straight: Courtney Love is shocked beyond the ability to feel or articulate anything because two Italian gay guys say that children need a mother and a father? And she’s prepared to burn – yes, burn – her extremely expensive D&G attire? Gosh, I wonder what she did with her John Galliano Frocks after the alcoholic courturier ranted in public about his mad crush on Hitler? Granted, sympathizing with Nazism is not as bad as supporting the traditional family.’
This is what freefall looks like. After undoing all the restraints, it’s all lovely. But what if one discovers that the person over there wants to do it a different way, a way that you find offensive. How does one stop them? Mr. John and Ms. Love, for all their self-righteous fuming, have no moral ground on which to stand to criticize D&G’s support of the traditional family, or against anyone else’s behavior, for that matter. The same critique they have leveled against the former American cultural majority can now be leveled against them. Relativism reveals this attempt at moral imperialism as hypocrisy. All that’s left is outrage. And outrage is a response that has become all too familiar in this age of social media. But while outrage may impress and motivate the first time or two it’s wielded as a weapon by the twitterati, it wears like a designer dress that’s been seen one time too many. One can only affect nuclear outrage so many times before it begins to seem a wee bit out of proportion.
A life without restraints sounds so appealing. A life without troubling guilt. A life where I can be the person I want to be. A life free from someone else passing judgment on me. A life without the spectre of consequences. The great problem with the cul de sac turned into by our culture is that it works only if I am the only person on the planet. If another person living the same free life makes choices that discomfit me or other people, who is anybody to judge? There is no moral ground on which to make such judgments. The gay couple who sues the Christian baker for denying their request that she bake for their wedding reception even though she feels it violates her sense of morality is making just such a moral non sequitor. Insisting that the members of the wider culture accept one’s own choices without passing judgment while refusing to extend the same acceptance to another minority for the choices she is making is simply hypocrisy, and their subsequent media and legal actions are harassment pure and simple. There is no moral case to be made. It’s intimidation by outrage and lawsuit, which is another way of saying these men are bullies.
The wind is whistling in our ears as we experience our new found freedom from morality. We are reaping our elite’s carefully cultivated garden of relativity. The 360 vistas of moral liberty are as stunning as we were told they would be. But nobody talked about the uprushing earth in our late-night dorm room talks. Nor does anybody seem to have any idea what to do about whatever unpleasant consequences this might portend. Now that they have what they think they want, ‘consequences’ are the last thing anyone in this crowd wants to think about. None of the media talking heads, none of the bloggers, none of the article writers, none of the tweeters wants to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for the new day by forecasting anything but sunny springtime weather. Like modern day Marie Antoinettes, the new lords of our American culture want desperately to have their cake and eat it too.
I wish I were just an observer, watching as our culture leaps out of the plane and experiences the inexorable reality of gravity, falling into the void of our new relativistic presuppositions. But it’s my culture, too, along with everyone else. Having won the culture wars and vanquished the long-time Christian consensus that defined our society for so long, our new masters are taking us all with them. I just don’t think any of them have thought through… the consequences.