To no one’s surprise, a Gallup poll released May 30 indicates “New Record Highs in Moral Acceptability.” That is, situations considered unacceptable by more than half the population in 2001, such as same-sex relationships, have edged over the halfway mark by 2010. Sex between unmarried heterosexuals is now considered morally OK by 66 percent, and even polygamy, accepted by only 5 percent of the population in 2006, is up to 14 percent. Younger Americans tolerate these unique domestic arrangements more than their elders, even though they have enough doubts about abortion to lift it to the “contentious” category.
Some Christians compare this state of affairs with Sodom and Gomorrah, and we may yet get there. But to me the more likely comparison is Athens. The city of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle has a golden reputation, but for most of its history, and even during its brief “Golden Age,” Athenians were pretentious, quarrelsome, arrogant, and vulnerable. By the time the apostle Paul visited the city around A.D. 60, his companion Luke had their number: “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21, ESV).
The evolving moral standards of America, especially those related to sexual relationships, personal responsibility, and human value, were all topics of conversation among the Athenians. Advances in science have made human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research factual rather than theoretical, but the philosophical arguments go back to bearded men wrapped in cloaks as they strolled in the shadow of the Acropolis. For all their sophistication the Athenians were, as Paul noted, “very religious.” Most of them probably nodded sagely at his point that a Supreme Being had created the world and everything in it, and that “We are indeed his offspring” (Acts 17:28, ESV).
Americans, who are also “very religious,” agree that God created humanity: A large minority of 42 percent still accept the Genesis view of special creation, while 31 percent believe some form of guided evolution. That, according to another Gallup poll released last week, makes a whopping 73 percent. You can almost hear the culture mavens groan about America as a land of yahoos and Bible thumpers. But whatever we’re thumping, it’s not the Bible, and we’re not yahoos: We’re a cosmopolitan society of latter-day Athenians who adore novelty and set up shrines to a variety of gods so as not to offend.
As the Athenians did, we worship our autonomy and draw lines we will not cross. The Athenians couldn’t get past the resurrection of the dead. Americans balk at biblical authority. Even in some evangelical churches, the Bible is scarcely quoted, and the message preached is a form of moralism that can’t help but evolve. It’s a depressing view, but Paul assessed the situation accurately, found his opportunity to uphold the Word of God, and lives were changed. Now it’s our turn to uphold the Word of God. Will we?