As we witness sharp changes in public opinion on social issues, it’s worth asking questions about some possible upstream influences that led to the changes.
It’s tempting to focus on the pressing realities of downstream consequences. Shifts in political opinions are (for example) downstream realities. When we dislike what’s happening in politics, we need to ask questions about the upstream influences that made the political changes possible.
So let’s travel upstream to find some of the possible sources behind the current changes.
Note: Since many read this blog from different parts of the world, please understand that my analysis is mainly focused on upstream changes in the United States.
Four potential sources
1. The emphasis on tolerance and equality
I don’t recall hearing the word “tolerance” when I was in school. But things were far different for my children. Tolerance has been one the most emphasized social standards over the last several decades. One of the primary purposes for promoting tolerance has been to avoid offending others by treating all people with equality. Is it possible that this emphasis has shaped public discourse on controversial issues? Fear of offending has become a far more significant guideline for moral opinions. I realize that a distorted and politically correct version of the older more noble virtue of tolerance has been promoted but it has had a profound influence in the way young people respond to morality and religion. (see: Tolerance)
2. The availability of information
We have access to far more information than ever before in human history. If I doubt what you tell me, I can “google it.” This puts a new kind of pressure on public speaking and private conversation to get the facts right. Information also enlarges perspective and creates suspicion about the possibility error. People tend to filter ideas, opinions and theories through more of a worldwide grid. This can make one more reticent about anything that seems too dogmatic or exclusive.
3. The reaction to ill-informed dogma
This might be a bit speculative or colloquial but I think that in the 1980′s and 90′s, there was a resurgence of dogma in a kind of reaction to the Woodstock culture. The rock-n-role sexual revolution of the 60′s and 70′s led to a renewed emphasis on morality and moral majorities in many contexts. With the reaction to what was considered a permissive and free love era came emphasis on standards, convictions and absolute beliefs. In some places, a legalistic attitude took over and people became very judgmental and hypocritical. It seems (at least in some places) that we’re experiencing a reaction to the reaction with a clear movement away from perceptions of self-righteous moralizing.
4. The influence of the university
Some sociologists postulate that the universities in the US have often taken their cue from European influences. So it is argued that the philosophies of existentialism, moral relativism and even nihilism (from Europe) have invaded our college campuses and produced the predominant outlooks of modernity and post-modernity in our young people. When young people go to a university, they often come from more limited and controlled environments with limited influences. The range of diversity they encounter at the university is a bit of a shock that’s hard for some to absorb. Universities are places where becoming broad-minded is an educational objective. I have not doubt that some of these influences have significantly contributed to the reticence among young people toward dogma and absolute truth.
Four potential dangers
When absolute opinions must be avoided to promote tolerance and protect civility, people tend to become more cynical. Have you noticed how quickly cynicism becomes the default setting for many people? Many operate with a filter of suspicion as protective screen to keep from being duped or at least from appearing to be. It is common (especially among young people) to suspect deceitful or evil motives behind firmly held beliefs. Those who hold to any form of absolute truth are more quickly suspected of oppressive or imperialistic agendas.
There are times when two opinions cannot logically both be correct. There also times when important choices must be made between differing viewpoints. Yet it has often been noted that in the transition from modernity to postmodernity, the two areas granted authority to speak in absolute categories (science and math) lost their authoritative seats. With postmodernity came a refusal to grant anyone the right to make truth claims that all people must accept –even if they came from science. Of course, it’s hard to accept that 1 + 1 could equal 2 or 3 or whatever you wanted it to equal. But postmodernism came with a radicalization of relativism to all areas of knowledge.
Changes of tone in public dialogue shifted toward uncertainty in an aversion to absolutes just as universals became more deeply part of the social narrative. This is especially the case when it comes to religion and morality. An extensive survey found that teenagers in the United States had a one word response to absolute opinions on religion and morality — “Whatever.” Yet should we be able to agree that a religious practice like jihad is intolerable? And how can we make laws and exact punishments without absolute moral decisions?
3. Neutrality and indecisiveness
Part of leadership is the ability to make tough decisions when popularity is at risk. The president (for example) is also a Commander and Chief. He cannot remain neutral or indecisive on issues that affect the well being of the nation. When people are uncomfortable with conclusions and prefer endless discussions, they risk avoidance of necessary difficult decisions. Leaders must be willing to offend some people if the right and best choice requires it.
4. Fear and manipulation
People can easily be manipulated by those in power when they’re controlled by fear of offending. Vocal and militant groups will seize the weakness of indecisive people to promote their agendas. This often leads to duplicity in people as they publicly affirm what they privately disapprove — but fear speaking up. As strange as it might sound, indecisive people are more vulnerable to totalitarian governments.
Few teachers spoke with more authority on matters related to God and morality than Jesus. And we should understand that Jesus taught in a time when people feared offending the dominant religious leaders. But He forthrightly challenged the deceitfulness of the establishment.
Here is a simple but profound truth: If there is a God and He has spoken, we are obligated by His words. If Jesus is God than he did not lie or deceive in anything he taught. When he said, “ “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” he was not offering a suggestion or a personal opinion.
These tone changes and postures toward truth statements are part of what makes the work of those who preach more challenging. Preaching and proclamational ministries can easily come off as socially rude to people conditioned to think in the most subjective terms possible. Certainly those who preach should be aware of prevailing cultural conditions and be wise in the way they communicate (see: Colossians 4:4-5).
Yet, when we teach Scripture, we cannot treat as mere recommendation what is presented with binding authority on all people. We can tone our teaching thoughtfully while remaining faithful to the truth. Pastor Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC has been an excellent example of how this should be done. We must always seek to be postured with gospel-based humility toward all people (see: Titus 3:1-7).