Same-Sex Marriage: The Millennials and the Way Ahead

130626_scotus_gay_marriage_ap_reactions_328_605The recent Supreme Court rulings on DOMA (The Defense of Marriage Act), and California’s Prop 8 (which said marriage could only be between a man and a woman legally), brought great joy to millions of Americans. It also brought despair and angst to millions of conservative Americans, especially Christians. If opinion polls and surveys are an accurate indicator of American opinion then the changing landscape on this issue was obvious long before these two highly contested rulings/opinions. Within a decade we have moved from a country that generally rejects the idea of “gay marriage” to one that increasingly accepts it. (Many Western nations have already embraced same-sex marriage legally and many more are in the process of doing the same.) The number who believe that same-sex couples should be given the same legal right to marriage as male-female couples has risen every single year and now is a solid and growing majority. The most obvious demographic shift is among young adults. By large numbers they support legal same-sex marriage.

I am often asked, “Why do so many younger Christians accept same-sex marriage?” The answers are not hard to see if you talk to young adults, especially to the Millennials.

Who are the Millennials? Millennials are generally considered (at least in America) to be those adults born in 1982 and after, thus they are thirty-one years old or younger. This generation is also called Gen Y because it is the generation that followed Gen X, which was the generation that followed the Baby Boom. Gen X consists of those born from about the mid-1960s through 1981.

booksAuthors William Strauss and Neil Howe first wrote about the Millennials in a 1991 book titled Generations: The History of America’s Future , 1584 to 2069. In 2000, these same two authors released an entire book devoted to this one generation: Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. (It is this sub-title that is much debated!) According to Bruce Horovitz, writing in USA Today, Strauss and Howe are “widely credited with naming the Millennials.” Strauss and Howe use 1982 as the Millennials’ starting (birth) year and 2004 as their last birth year. A number of alternative names have also been used for this generation, e.g. – Generation We, Global Generation, Generation Next, and the Net Generation.

Interpreting this generation is where this type of data and study gets very interesting. Strauss and Howe believe that each generation has common characteristics that give it a specific character. They speak of four basic generational archetypes, each repeating itself in a kind of cycle. According to this social theory Millennials will eventually become more like the “civic-minded” G.I. generation with a strong sense of community, both local and global. This conclusion is what is frequently challenged by others who study the same data.

Strauss and Howe do have their strong critics. Jean Twenge, the author of Generation Me (2006), considers Millennials, along with younger Gen Xers, to be “Generation Me.” Twenge attributes both confidence and tolerance to the Millennials but she also sees a sense of entitlement and narcissism in Millennials, at least compared to preceding generations when they were in their teens and twenties. She questions the predictions of Strauss & Howe about their premise that this generation will turn out to be civic-minded.

In the end this is all very interesting stuff but we cannot say for sure just how one generation will process their life experience and live out their core values, whatever they are. But we can get some idea, I believe, about how a particular generation will tend to make decisions and process life experience, if we study them and spend quality time listening and learning. I am no expert on millennials but I have studied this generation and taught a lot of millennials. Many of my best friends are Millennials and younger Gen X leaders.

So what does all of this have to do with the same-sex marriage question? A lot actually. Younger Gen Xers, and most Millennials (in even larger numbers it seems), have some common social and moral values. These include the following:

  1. They have a sense of community that is deep and real. This may be because many of them have come from broken homes. This I am sure about – this generation longs to be in community; e.g. in peer groups that are mixed-race, not deeply religious and where inter-religious dialogue is civil and respected.
  2. They are civic minded, in a local and specific sense, but do not always favor large nationalized approaches to problem solving. They voted for President Obama, if they voted and they did vote in growing numbers in the last two elections, but they voted for him for reasons that are less politically partisan than social.
  3. They do not go to church in significant numbers but they are intensely interested in spiritual conversations and non-material life input that is directed at how to live in community where tolerance is a high value. This must not be confused with love, in every case, but there clearly is a much deeper desire for love among Millennials than among previous generations. They are starving to love and be loved.
  4. Millennials seem to have great expectations. They are often quite optimistic but they also tend to feel entitled in the workplace. They are likely to change jobs quite often.
  5. Economic prospects for Millennials have worsened in the last decade and this is having a huge impact in more ways than I can enumerate. This is why one writer has called this “Generation Flux.” Millennials have benefitted the least from any economic recovery that has happened over the last few years. The high costs of education, housing, and the relative affluence of the Boomers, have all impacted this generation’s view of their future.
  6. Millennials are delaying the transition to adulthood, as commonly defined by rites of passage and social markers. This seems to be a response to their parents’ mistakes. This is why so many are single and those who do marry will marry much later than singles in previous generations. The large majority do want to marry but they want to wait for the right time and not get married several times like their parents did. The feel the same about their “career” and how this works for them.
  7. Millennials are much less likely to embrace religion than any previous generation. They process much information, including a good deal of religious information, via the Internet. They use technology at very high rates, often higher than 90%.
  8. Millennials use social media prolifically. One study showed signs of physical and emotional withdrawal when social media was taken away from them. They are the first generation to grow up entirely with this new technology and all that it means locally and globally.
  9. Many believe that Millennials, to a large extent, transcend partisan ideological battles. They reject the battle lines of Gen X and Boomers. They do not easily fit into the descriptions of liberal and conservative. One example is their views about same-sex marriage and abortion. They are more likely to favor limiting abortion than previous generations. In large numbers they generally believe that a human life is being taken in an abortion, at least if that life is advanced into second trimester. At the same time Millennials think the whole same-sex marriage debate is almost ludicrous. For them it is about their friends and healthy relationships, not about sex and traditional definitions of marriage. Remember, they prefer to marry and have a much higher view of the importance of marriage than Boomers and Gen Xers.
  10. Millennials do not gravitate to “great personalities” in the same way as previous generations. They tend to be skeptical of personality-driven, programatic associations (i.e., most seeker and suburban churches).

There is much here to think about but my primary point is really quite simple – Millennials are changing the social and legal landscape in America and same-sex marriage is embraced by percentages among them ranging from 60-80%. This includes a slight majority of Christians when they are singled out by careful studies. Either way, Millennials are ready to move on and accept same-sex practice. They do not react to it emotionally as previous generations did. The “yuck” factor is generally not an important part of their response.

What does this data, and the response of Millennials, mean for the church in the same-sex marriage debate? I suggest a great deal in the end.

  1. The cultural and legal landscape of marriage has changed dramatically over the last forty years.
  2. The cultural and social development of these changes makes it abundantly clear that the next generation, and likely those that will come after it, will no longer object to same-sex marriage. (Even a larger number of older adults have shifted to a more favorable view of same-sex marriage over time.)
  3. Twelve states already have legally defined same-sex marriage. Couples are already going to these twelve states to be legally married. There is no doubt in my mind that many more states will follow these twelve in the next five years. State courts will have a hard time holding out against same-sex marriage when so many will get married elsewhere and then live in their state. Federal protections for their legal union will eventually come into play I believe.
  4. Same-sex marriages are already being accommodated for in the military and will very likely be accommodated in most other places over the next five years.
  5. I believe Justice Scalia’s warning will finally be proven true, thus same-sex marriage is here to stay and will be openly celebrated all over America by 2020. There is no way that we can deny the reality of these simple facts.

So, how should we respond? I will expand my answer tomorrow but in short I believe that we should respond in the same way that we do to every other human reality and social/moral development in a culture that is secular and post-Christendom. And how is that? We should live such good lives that our friends and neighbors have no good reason to despise us but growing reasons to respect us, even to love us for our good works. Here is the apostle Peter’s counsel to a church that discipled people effectively in a culture that was anything but morally established in the Judeo-Christian tradition regarding sex and marriage:

11 Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. 12 Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. 17 Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor (1 Peter 2:11-17, NRSV).

If we live as “aliens and exiles,” that is we live truly godly and chaste lives, then our actions can precede our words so we have a proper context for witness, one rooted in mission to a culture that starves for deep relationship and personal love.

This must be our first response to the Supreme Court, not the one that we finally embrace after we have spread more invective and done more hand-wringing over the state of the culture at large. If you respond to the issue of same-sex marriage with a whole diatribe about the dangers of these legal and social developments and then, somewhere and at some point way down the road, we finally get to the mission of Jesus for lost people then you will have likely missed an amazing historical moment to show real love. This is how we can truly advance the kingdom of God, through living and proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ reign.

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