In Sunday’s New York Times, two men who have had “heated debates” on gay marriage conducted the latest peace talk in the culture wars. David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rausch propose a compromise on gay marriage, saying the federal government should recognize civil unions while allowing a religious-conscience exemption. “When a reasonable accommodation on a tough issue seems possible,” they say, “both sides should have the courage to explore it.”

The Wall Street Journal wondered recently if culture wars are “going the way of the fights over the oil embargo or the Soviet missile gap,” Bluntly, no one cares as much as the activists—especially now, when economic survival seems more pressing. Organizations like Third Way, an evangelical think-thank, propose “a governing agenda to end the culture wars” that reduces abortion, gives employment protections to gay people, denounces torture and reforms immigration. Even a majority of young evangelicals support civil unions.

 “When it comes to culture, Obama doesn’t have a public agenda; he has a public anti-agenda. He wants to remove culture from the political debate,” Peter Beinart, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in The Daily Beast. Also in Sunday’s New York Times, consistently thoughtful Slate columnist William Saletan advises Obama on this effort to negotiate the culture wars: “He’ll have to tell two truths that the left and the right don’t want to hear: that morality has to be practical, and that practicality requires morals.”

There’s more to this than prioritizing economic survival or wanting hope and change. For Christians, many of whom are deeply invested in “culture war” issues, there may be times when compromise is not just the second best but the best—the most Christian—way to think about policy.

When we wrestle with morality in the public square, we are talking about public policy, not private morality. Our private morality shouldn’t be practical. If you believe contraceptives are wrong and have an impractically large family because of it, then good for you. You’re doing what you think is right. In our personal lives, we don’t weigh the cost of a moral action versus the benefit. Morality may be inconvenient, and we sometimes live uncomfortable lives because it’s the right thing to do.

But public policy is another matter. Governance is not about growing saints; it’s about containing sinners.  

Abstinence only really makes sense if you believe in a God who asks for sexual restraint. But if you’re not going to catch an STD or get pregnant and there’s no public shame attached to doing it (and let’s be honest: there isn’t), there’s not much of a rational reason to put off sex. In fact, to quote Bristol Palin, it’s “not realistic at all.”

“Compromise” usually connotes ceding ground, or choosing the lesser evil. But in culture-war issues, it’s more helpful to see it as pursuing the greatest good—the best end result. A birth-control-and-free-love culture doesn’t fit with a Christian worldview, but holding out for ultimate worldview victory isn’t stopping abortions or reducing the pregnancies that lead to them.  We need to ask what works. If abstinence education and virginity pledges don’t work—if as a recent study suggested, they only make kids more likely to have unprotected sex—it’s not a “compromise” to stop advocating them. And making sure more people use birth control isn’t “promoting evil” if it’s preventing the pregnancies that typically end in abortion.

Public policy takes practicality. It means setting aside the utopian idea that we can bring heaven to earth and taking a wide-eyed, realistic look at human nature and our own culture. Maybe certain positions are irrelevant as the rest of the world moves on. We’re not writing laws for 1950 but for 2009—and we’re writing them for imperfect people, including ourselves.



About The Author

Alisa Harris

0 Responses to The Christian case for compromise

  1. Marty M. says:

    Well said. Just out of curiosity, which public policy issues do you think rightly try to contain sinners and are worth the fight? Or is it more the case that most of the hot-button issues of the last ten/twenty years simply tend to fit under the “compromise” column?

  2. Lee Herring says:

    Ms. Harris,

    Like, really, Bristol Palin is like, really, the best link you could like really find to support your idea on like, sexual compromise?

    As for growing saints vs. containing sinners, that depends. The New Covenant speaks more to obeying and supporting the civil government because its duty is to contain the sinners. But the First Covenant, I think, presents a different perspective. The LORD God had a high expectation of government leaders because He knew they would help set the standard for the saints, as it were.

    I enjoy your posts, as I did this one. But I can’t help but believe that the art of moral compromise that you advocate is too close to immoral capitulation to a cultural worldview that says, ‘Since the kids are going to fornicate, let’s not make them feel bad about it as long as they don’t get pregnant.’

    I don’t want an old 1950’s morality. Neither do I want a 21st century immorality with reasonable boundaries. Why not advocate a higher moral standard, expect others and ourselves to strive for/maintain it, then respond with grace when people fall short? I would argue that’s not compromise. Its Biblical.

    Thanks for the chance to rant. Yours, Lee

  3. Jacob says:

    I’m not going to lie: I get very anxious when people start throwing around terms like “realistic” and “practical” when talking about morality. Doing what is right is not about doing what is easy, but doing what is good.

  4. Croft says:


    What you say in response is valid inasmuch as it concerns our personal lives and our conduct in the church. But that’s just Alisa’s point: government IS NOT the church and DOES NOT have the same responsibilities. Of course we shouldn’t give up fidelity to the Biblical view of sex, life, or anything else. However, we can still talk about practicality from a decision-maker’s standpoint and not be inconsistent with our moral worldview.

    For example, take two statements: 1. Sex is wrong before marriage. 2. Condoms protect against STDs and pregnancy. The thing is, a Biblical Christian can affirm that BOTH of these statements are true and still be in no danger of going against their biblical worldview. As a Christian, I’m assuming we would counsel our friends to wait until marriage. As civic decision-makers, we have no right to withhold or manipulate information in order to get someone to follow our personal standards.

  5. Mark P says:

    I struggle quite a bit between my deep-seated fear of civil religion… and deep-seated disdain for:
    (a) compartmentalizing our public lives and religion (b) making liberty synonymous with license and © libertarianism.

    The state is not the Church, and we must fight to keep our Christian symbols unblemished by nationalistic encroachments. But I don’t believe the state’s job is to protect our “right” to do what we want. The idea that there is some realm of personal sin that doesn’t affect others is a load of abstract BS. Individuals don’t exist.

  6. Marty M. says:

    You know that it’s not just a matter of a clear dichotomy between “Christian policies,” on the one hand, and “godless libertarian policies” on the other. It’s possible to support policies which look libertarian simply out of practical concerns without buying into or supporting libertarian ideology, much as it is possible for the Christian to critique capitalism without being a Marxist.

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