woody zimmermann 120Soon after he took office in 1977, President Jimmy Carter issued a public request to those members of his administration who might be shacking up: He advised them to get married and make it legal. I can’t recall if he mentioned “living in sin,” as we used to call cohabiting “without benefit of clergy” in the old days. Even in the “sexy ‘70s,” the practice was still regarded with tacit disapproval by respectable society. A professional acquaintance of mine broke up with his live-in girlfriend because his employer let him know that he could not be promoted if he stayed in this “irregular” living arrangement. My colleague had lived with the girlfriend for five years. He wanted to get married, but she – wounded by a previous failed marriage – declined. She was a beautiful gal, and I think he loved her. It was a real pity. I was sorry for both of them.

For his efforts to make honest women (and men) of his White House staffers, Jimmy (and his toothy smile) got the horselaugh from the media’s blow-dry set. (Imagine! The nerve of the guy…) There is no record of how many shacked-up couples in the Carter administration actually tied the knot, as The Boss had “suggested.” My guess is that it was very few. America – led by its media arbiters of morality – was moving on, and POTUS was seriously out of touch.

Mr. Carter was an evangelical Christian from the Deep South. He made a big production of running on a highly moral platform built around his declaration of being a “born-again” Christian. Numerous friends in my circle said they planned to vote for Mr. Carter because of his profession of faith. I agreed that he did seem to be a fine man, but I warned that his administration would surely be packed with old-time Democrat pols whose commitment to Christian principles was – to be as charitable as possible – questionable (at best) and remote (at worst). Abortion was a defining political issue at the time, and Democrats were already strongly aligned with it.

Later events proved me right about the Dems, but I obviously didn’t carry the argument. Mr. Carter soundly defeated Gerald Ford, who had assumed the vice-presidency from Spiro Agnew, and ultimately the presidency from Richard Nixon. Mr. Ford ruined his future prospects by promptly pardoning the much-despised Nixon. The media never forgave Mr. Ford for robbing them of their chance to see Tricky Dick hung by his heels in the public square.

After Richard Nixon, morality made something of a comeback in the political arena. Mr. Carter was the last president to openly profess a serious evangelical Christian faith. Judging from the history since that time, however, I believe that Democrats elected him in spite of that declaration, not because of it. In deference to voters’ revulsion over Mr. Nixon’s dishonesty, and in order to see their man gain the office, Democrats were willing to overlook Mr. Carter’s overt religiosity. But it was always an uneasy marriage.

Once he was in the Oval Office, Mr. Carter’s party – and perhaps his own liberal instincts – gradually pushed him farther and farther to the left. When he ran against the “godless Hollywood” candidate, Ronald Reagan, in 1980, he did not repeat his “born again” shtick of ’76. Indeed, Mr. Reagan seemed more Christian than Mr. Carter at that point. Which was the real Jimmy Carter? I don’t pretend to know. But few others have come out against “sin” as he did.

What is America’s “problem” with sin? Our problem is that we don’t believe in it anymore – or, more accurately, that we are no longer unified on exactly what “sin” is. Once we knew this. We understood what was sinful and what was right. Hurting others was sinful; also, damaging or stealing another’s property. There was a common understanding of right and wrong sexual behavior. Of course, these views were not practiced perfectly within the culture, but we all knew right from wrong. These concepts were enshrined in our laws and recognized in our courts. (In other articles I have called this the era of the “Normal Culture.”)

Right and wrong have now been redefined. Actually, their codification has been shunted down to the individual level. This means that an individual’s or a group’s concept of “sin” may not be accepted by others. Entire communities now operate under “moralities” not shared by other communities. An ethical consensus no longer exists. My idea of “sin” might not match yours, and vice-versa. Behaviors once considered wrong by most Americans now occupy a kind of “gray” area. “Intolerance” is now the Great Sin in American society, with racism running a close second. “Hate speech” is a new class of speech not protected by the First Amendment.

In the past, if an individual was found to be “living in sin,” society had no difficulty naming it so and denouncing it. Laws in some locales dealt with it. But law or not, under no circumstances could such an individual complain that criticizing or condemning his style of living amounted to “hate speech.” Even the miscreant knew his behavior was wrong.

Today, this moral clarity is turned upside-down. It is now unacceptable to criticize another’s behavior, even if it violates your idea of right and wrong. And increasingly, complete acceptance of perverse moralities is demanded by cultural pooh-bahs. A few weeks ago, a great uproar arose in Indiana because the state’s legislature passed a law to protect individuals from penalty if they decline to participate in ceremonies celebrating behaviors their faith calls deviant or sinful. Liberal media stirred up such a storm of adverse publicity that the governor felt compelled to request modification of the law to prohibit any discrimination against homosexuals.

In recent days, Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio has decried Americans’ new tendency to brand as “hate speech” anything that opposes their personal morality. If my insistence on adhering to Christian morality offends another person or community, those moral teachings might be denounced and labeled “hateful” by offended persons. How long will it be, asked Senator Rubio, before Biblical morality is denounced for being “hateful” toward practitioners of what we once called “sexual deviancy”? (Not too long, one imagines, at the rate we’re going.)

This tendency to moral confusion has infected even the Protestant Church. Some Mainline denominations have already gone over to the “gay side” – explicitly accepting sexual deviancy among their membership and even among their clergy. The Episcopal Church USA – a branch of the Worldwide Anglican Communion – legitimized deviant sexuality in 2003 by installing V. Gene Robinson, a practicing homosexual, as bishop of the New Hampshire diocese.

This radical act, a virtual declaration of war on Biblical morality – coupled with Bishop Robinson’s declaration that the Bible is “an outdated book” – provoked a schism which prompted some 1000 American congregations to secede from the Episcopal Church and join a separate Anglican communion that still adheres to scriptural teaching. This cost some congregations – like The Falls Church Anglican, where I am a member – to lose their properties because Episcopal bylaws assign ownership of all church properties to the denomination, not local congregations. A civil war is going on inside the denomination.

Reports show that the Episcopal Church lost 200,000 members between 2006 and 2010, bringing its membership to the lowest level since the 1930s. A blogger named David Virtue has noted that if the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion continues to lose active members at the present rate, “in 26 years there will no longer be anyone attending an Episcopal church.” We are seeing the slow suicide of a great Protestant denomination.

Lately, some Evangelical colleges have come under fire for operating under admission and hiring policies which reject practitioners of deviant or non-marital sex. Under the threat of losing academic accreditation because of their “discriminatory” applicant-screening, some – but not all – Christian institutions have begun to waver on the “gay” issue. Indeed, some alumni of these schools are ambivalent about homosexuality, suggesting that their schools might have to make an “accommodation,” since the public seems to accept homosexual practice.

Various reasons are given for relaxing Christian teachings on sex, including the argument that since the Bible contains many prohibitions that modern Christians no longer observe – e.g., bans on women cutting their hair or speaking aloud in church, etc. – this selective disregard of some Biblical teaching should extend to “outdated” attitudes toward sex. The salient point – i.e., that a few obsolete first-century rules on hair-cutting and preaching are in no way comparable to the Bible’s core teachings on human sexuality – is glossed over by these theological revisionists.

When the fog of argument and accusation is cleared away, the old issue of “sin” still lurks in the darkness – like an incubus wickedly confusing and perverting the life of faith. Modern Christians are conflicted over homosexuality, unmarried cohabitation, and the absurd construct of same-sex marriage because they no longer believe these practices are sinful. They have been persuaded that Christians’ rejection of the “anything goes” sexual philosophy is unreasonable and “unloving” – indeed, probably un-Christian. Secular Americans see no problem with all this, of course, but Christians ought to. At the end of the day, you either believe the Bible or you don’t. You can’t just take the parts you fancy – like favorites from a box of chocolates – and ignore the rest.

Woe unto them who call evil good and good evil,” wrote the prophet Isaiah, over two thousand years ago. That passage is not much quoted, today, but it’s far from obsolete. As a nation we need to rediscover it before we’re so far gone that we can’t find our way back. Choosing leaders who exhibit sound character and right behavior would be a good start. It might not be enough, but we need all the help we can get.

When people cease to believe in God, they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.” (G. K. Chesterton, 1923)