It is no secret that Christianity is in decline in the UK. And far from being replaced by another religion, society appears to be becoming more secular, with younger generations less likely to be religious than their parents. For some, this is a cause of great celebration – a chance to pursue societal progress based on reason and science unencumbered by the forces of religion. But it would be wise to pause for a moment and reflect on whether Christianity’s decline really is a move towards progress.
The decline of Christianity can be seen in a plethora of ways from the falling numbers of bums on seats, to the way UK citizens respond to the Census, but it can also be seen in changing ethical norms and practices. Take for instance, the impact of the sexual revolution on marriage and divorce, the proliferation of explicit pornography, rising numbers of births outside of wedlock, and even the hook-up culture fostered by apps such as Tinder.
The traditional Christian sexual ethic, in which sex is held as a sacred act to be enjoyed within the bounds of marriage between one man and one woman, has long passed and it is difficult, nigh impossible, to argue that such developments in what’s considered ‘normal’ sexual behaviour could have taken place within a society still governed by Christian moral values.
Societal change is often multi-factorial and discerning the weight of every contributing aspect is difficult. That being said, even a cursory glance at society can be highly insightful in assessing the impact of various cultural developments on human flourishing and the common good Whilst this piece will not be a comprehensive study, it draws upon the work of various others to add credence to its moral claims.
The sexual revolution that emerged in the 1960s and has continued right up to this moment is perhaps the most noticeable example of society’s rejection of a Christian ethic. In the eyes of many, the sexual revolution is an unmitigated good: a time of emancipation, freedom, pleasure, and love. It was a win for women, a win for LGBT individuals, and a win for society more broadly – generating a culture of open-mindedness, compassion, and liberation.
And yet there is plenty of work to suggest that this repudiation of Christian values (for a repudiation it is), has not brought about the societal progress that we think.
Take, for example, the family. The family is one of the basic building blocks of society, the place in which children are conceived and raised, the centre of human formation as people learn to interact with one another, and their earliest taste of the duties and privileges that being in a relationship with others brings.
Yet a repudiation of a Christian sexual ethic does not play well at all with the family structure and impacts children particularly negatively. This might not bother those in favour of the ‘free love’ that the 1960s unleashed, but it should. The evidence is bleak.
The Centre for Social Justice notes that “those who experience family breakdown when aged 18 or younger, are:
· Over twice as likely (2.3 times) to experience homelessness
· Twice as likely (2.0 times) to be in trouble with the police or spend time in prison
· Almost twice as likely (1.9 times) to experience educational underachievement
· Almost twice as likely (1.9 times) to experience not being with the other parent
· of their child/ren
· Approaching twice as likely (1.8 times) to experience alcoholism
· Approaching twice as likely (1.7 times) to experience teen pregnancy
· Approaching twice as likely (1.7 times) to experience mental health issues
· More likely (1.6 times) to experience debt
· More likely (1.4 times) to experience being on benefits”
Another report even found that divorce had a larger impact on a child's educational achievement than parental death. Divorce, far from being harmless, causes profound societal damage – undermining the flourishing and healthy development of children which in turn has knock-on effects as they become adults and begin to form families and relationships of their own.
Stable marriage relationships are, seemingly, a better basis upon which to raise a family and have children (something recognised by the rich in practice even if few would publicly admit as much). This perhaps explains the trend in contemporary society to view your 20s as a chance to experiment and chase sexual fulfilment before settling down in your 30s to have children.
But this attitude is not immune from structural cracks either. Though there appears to be an ongoing debate over the matter, some scholars have suggested that cohabiting before marriage increases the likelihood of divorce down the line.
Perhaps even more striking is a report by the University of Exeter which suggests that far from the popular conception of religious people as prudish and negative about sex, highly religious people tend to experience more satisfying sex lives. And the Institute for Family studies found that there is a significant correlation between those who have fewer partners and those who report being ‘very happy’ in marriage.
Furthermore, it seems that a “stable marriage correlates with mental and physical health benefits for both men and women. But being married seems to be a particularly significant factor in happiness for women.”
There is a need for more research into these matters and their implications, but it does seem clear that the Christian sexual ethic has something going for it, particularly for family stability and the flourishing of children.
This is controversial, and yet such attitudes aren’t just found on the fringe of society amongst Christians and religious conservatives. There is an increasing number of feminist writers who disparage the sexual revolution and its most recent sex-positive guise as damaging for women.
Louise Perry argues: “we are supposed to believe that hook up culture offers women the opportunity to revel in their sexual autonomy, but the survey data tells a different story. Unlike men, the vast majority of heterosexual women do not orgasm during one night stands. In fact, they are more likely to feel pain during penetrative sex. Most experience a sharp dip in self esteem following casual sex, suspecting — correctly, if we go by counterpart surveys with men — that they have been used for sex by partners who do not respect them.”
Mary Harrington continues: “a sexual revolution that set out to free women from unfair expectations of modesty hasn’t levelled the playing field between the sexes at all. Instead, it’s rolled out an aggressive, visual, low-intimacy, emotionally disconnected male-standard sexuality for everyone, including women — to our considerable detriment. In doing so, it’s stripped women of any vocabulary with which to pursue their own erotic interests, in the form of long-term sexual and also emotional commitment.”
And so again, there appears to be significant support for the Christian sexual ethic, this time from the feminist perspective. Harrington concludes that the damage of the sexual free-for-all is only mitigated by contraception, ‘reproductive healthcare’ and the welfare state, and that without these the supposedly ‘patriarchal’ institution of marriage might once again be recognised as the pro-women position it once was.
Likewise, Rebecca McLaughlin determines that “ironically, the demographic most pitied by secular progressives – women in religious marriages – are happier than those who pity them. But the reason isn’t just that they’re happily married. Being actively religious gives women a boost in happiness.”
One could argue that sexual freedom isn’t the issue per se, it just needs to be regulated better – we need better sex and relationships education with a stronger focus on the principle of consent. Overlooking the irony that even this concedes some need for sexual limits, the principle of consent has been deemed woefully short of the robust and comprehensive sexual ethic that was once provided by Christian norms.
Writers such as Christine Emba have provided a powerful and harrowing polemic against consent as the sole regulatory principle, noting that “it leaves out so much”, and instead contending for a better ethic centred on love, restraint, and “willing the good”.
Similarly, the harm principle is arguably the only other guiding norm for public behaviour, and one need not look far to see flagrant violations. Examples are visible in the hardcore pornography that is so prolific in modern culture, but also in the destructive effects on women and children as noted above.
This is desperately bleak reading but should not come as a surprise to the believer. God gives us His law that we might flourish and to depart from His design for life only ever brings disharmony and damage – a quick look through the history of Israel makes that abundantly clear.
Furthermore, we are told that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen”, and yet people suppress the truth. To reject God as Lord, neither glorifying nor thanking Him, leads to darkness and futile thinking – we do not become more enlightened and more just, we simply worship different things with destructive consequences.
We see the societal effects of this destructive thinking all around us. As mentioned, this is abundantly clear in the sexual ethics of our present moment, but one could just as easily look at developments in healthcare, art, environmental destruction, economics, and public discourse, to name but a few, and make similar arguments.
Take for example the shift brought about by the erosion of the sanctity of life and its impact on healthcare. A look at the situation in Canada or the Netherlands shows the devastating consequences of this particular slippery slope as pointed out by authors like Henry George amongst others. For a differing example, one could consider some of the problems created by an abandonment of Christian economic principles on our economies and societies as highlighted in the work of the Jubilee Centre.
To cast off God, and with Him to cast off any notion of the sacred or spiritual, might seem wise but it is the epitome of foolishness. The devil both encourages and revels in our folly – indeed he “has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of God.”
Despite such a tragic tale, Christianity is not a mere legalistic code for the self-righteous to lord it over those they deem ‘immoral’. Nor is it a moralising cult designed to oppress the downtrodden and wayward.
Christianity has much to say about our public life. God gives us laws and principles which He holds out as good and lifegiving. He mourns when we turn away from the freedom He presents. Yet, He also offers hope to those living in darkness.
At the heart of it all, beneath the ethics, the moral framework, the guiding principles, is a person. A person who came into this world of darkness. A person who lived amongst the wretched and rejected of their society. A person who, though given ample opportunity to suppress the truth, continued to glorify and thank God. A person who, though perfect, went to the cross as a criminal – becoming sin, that we, though great sinners, might be deemed the righteousness of God.
This is the glory of the Gospel. Despite our utter rejection of Him, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And yes this applies to us all, whether we have lived a life of relative ‘sexual purity’ or whether we have fully experienced and perpetrated the damage of the sexual revolution – “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” – we all are at the mercy of Jesus. A mercy that He freely offers all who come to Him.
As we consider all this, what lessons might we take from the tragedy of the sexual revolution?
Firstly, we ought to fight against the sexual free-for-all that is not only allowed but widely championed as the good life. We should not be ashamed of making this case, providing we do so with compassion, integrity, and with the view to the good of our neighbour not the pride of our hearts. Likewise, these developments are not limited to this area alone – there are many aspects of society in which the positive case for a Christian ethic is needed. We must fight these battles and do so with compassion and conviction, noting that we need great humility to discern how biblical principles might best be applied in our messy and broken world before the Lord’s return.
Secondly, we need to remember that Christian ethical norms do not save a person or a society. To pursue Christian values without Christian doctrine is simply life-crushing legalism and the construction of empty virtue. We need to ensure that we do not forget the gracious mercy of our loving King in our campaigning, not least when we encounter those trapped and hurt by the rejection of God’s plan for human flourishing. Jesus did not celebrate the misery of those damaged by sin, He sought their restoration amidst weeping and tears. We would do well to do the same.
 British Social Attitudes Survey, Volume 36: https://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/media/39287/0_bsa36_keyfindings.pdf.
 Harriet Sherwood, ‘UK secularism on rise as more than half say they have no religion’, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/11/uk-secularism-on-rise-as-more-than-half-say-they-have-no-religion.
 See Glynn Harrison’s A Better Story: God, Sex & Human Flourishing or Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution for a thorough account of the sexual revolution its causes and results.
 The Centre for Social Justice, ‘Why family matters’, https://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/CSJJ6900-Family-Report-190405-WEB.pdf, p.5.
 Demographic Research, Volume 46, Article 20, https://www.demographic-research.org/volumes/vol46/20/46-20.pdf, pp.581-618.
 Ed West, ‘The Marriage Gap’, The Spectator, https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-marriage-gap/.
 Brad Wilcox and Lyman Stone, ‘Too Risky to Wed in Your 20s? Not if You Avoid Cohabiting First’, The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/too-risky-to-wed-in-your-20s-not-if-you-avoid-cohabiting-first-11644037261.
 See for example, Scott Stanley, ‘Is Cohabitation Still Linked to Greater Odds of Divorce?’, Institute for Family Studies, https://ifstudies.org/blog/is-cohabitation-still-linked-to-greater-odds-of-divorce or Brad Wilcox and Lyman Stone, ‘Too Risky to Wed in Your 20s? Not if You Avoid Cohabiting First’, The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/too-risky-to-wed-in-your-20s-not-if-you-avoid-cohabiting-first-11644037261.
 Nicholas H. Wolfginger, ‘Does Sexual History Affect Marital Happiness’, Institute for Family Studies, https://ifstudies.org/blog/does-sexual-history-affect-marital-happiness.
 Rebecca McLaughlin, The Secular Creed: Engaging Five Contemporary Claims, p.73.
 See for example Tara Thiecke, ‘The Last Days of Women’, The American Mind, https://americanmind.org/salvo/the-last-days-of-women/, or Louise Perry, ‘Is Casual Sex Immoral?’, Unherd, https://unherd.com/2020/11/is-casual-sex-immoral/, or Theodore Dalrymple, ‘Tough Love’, City Journal, https://www.city-journal.org/html/tough-love-11787.html.
 Louise Perry, ‘What Sort of Sex do Women Really Want?’, Unherd, https://unherd.com/2020/04/what-sort-of-sex-do-women-really-want/.
 Mary Harrington, ‘How Sexual Empowerment Screws Women’, Unherd, https://unherd.com/2020/08/what-wap-gets-wrong-about-sex/.
 Mary Harrington, ‘Feminists Shouldn’t Have Sex Before Marriage’, Unherd, https://unherd.com/2020/10/feminists-shouldnt-have-sex-before-marriage/.
 Rebecca McLaughlin, The Secular Creed: Engaging Five Contemporary Claims, p.74.
 Christine Emba, ‘Opinion: Consent is Not Enough. We Need a New Sexual Ethic.’, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/03/17/sex-ethics-rethinking-consent-culture/.
 Romans 1:18-20.
 Romans 1:21-32.
 Henry George, ‘Euthanasia is Liberalism’s Endpoint’, The Critic, https://thecritic.co.uk/euthanasia-is-liberalisms-endpoint/. See also CARE’s article entitled ‘Going Dutch? The Horror Story of the World’s Largest Euthanasia Lab’, https://care.org.uk/news/2019/07/going-dutch-the-horror-story-of-the-worlds-euthanasia-lab or Mary Harrington’s ‘Austerity Euthanasia is Coming’, https://reactionaryfeminist.substack.com/p/austerity-euthanasia-is-coming, or Right to Life’s ‘Parliamentary Group Uncovers Assisted Suicide Horror Stories and Lack of Regulation’, https://righttolife.org.uk/news/parliamentary-group-uncovers-assisted-suicide-horror-stories-and-lack-of-regulation, for further examples.
 Paul Mills, ‘Finance’, Jubilee Manifesto: A Framework, Agenda, and Strategy for Christian Social Reform, pp.196-215 and Paul Mills, ‘Economy’, Jubilee Manifesto: A Framework, Agenda, and Strategy for Christian Social Reform, pp.216-233.
 2 Corinthians 4:4.
 2 Corinthians 5:21.
 Romans 5:8.
 Romans 3:23.
 Matthew 11:28-30.