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Our messy individualism

One of the more contentious topics tied up with the ongoing “gay marriage” debate in our western society is the question of adoption—that is, the adoption and fostering of children by homosexual couples. At one level, the concern is a very pragmatic one: why, the argument goes, should we be denying children loving homes?

If that were as far as the issue went, then the argument might have some strength—however if we examine the statistics it is clear the argument is an ideological one rather than something driven by real, practical need. In short, there is simply a very small and decreasing number of children requiring adoption.

Broader social trends, such as declining fertility rates, the wider availability of effective birth control and the emergence of family planning centres have also likely contributed to a reduction in Australian children requiring adoption.1

That rather chilling sentence comes from the latest Australian government adoption report. You’ll notice that ‘effective birth control’ is distinguished from ‘family planning centres’, as the latter are the places where abortions happen. There are far fewer adoptions today because abortion is simply much more readily available.

I’ve been looking into adoption numbers over the last several decades, and there’s a general pattern across Australia, the UK, and the US. The numbers and dates are slightly different in each country due to differing legislation, although the overall trends are similar. The number of adoptions tracks fairly closely to the fertility rate, which rose to a peak in the early 1960s, then dropped off sharply. The drop-off in all three areas seems to be firstly correlated with a gradual uptake of the oral contraceptive pill in the early part of that decade, leading to declining fertility. Compounding that effect, however, is the liberalisation of abortion laws in the late 1960s and early 1970s, resulting in a rapid increase in the number of abortions and a corresponding decrease in the number of adoptions.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics expresses it this way:

The reinterpretation of abortion law in New South Wales in 1971 was associated with a substantial fall in births to young women and an increase in the median age of mothers.2

Now, here’s the crunch. It has often been observed that many of those campaigning most strongly for “gay rights” (not least in the area of adoption) are also those who are campaigning for “reproductive rights”, i.e. the right to abort. It seems to me there’s a basic disconnect here: on the one hand the push for adoption is couched in the language of providing loving parents for unwanted children; on the other hand the push for abortion is all about the disposal of unwanted children.

A close look at the statistics on adoption totally undermines the latter argument. Prior to widespread abortion there were increasing numbers of adoptions. The children that were aborted after this change could hardly be said to be ‘unwanted’, since every year previously there had been growing numbers of adoptions and therefore prospective adoptive parents. There were homes that were willing and ready to accommodate those children.

I suspect, therefore, there’s a more basic common motivation that influences the push towards both abortion and gay adoption—that of the increasing perception of children as commodity. When the children are ‘wanted’ then who dare stand in the way of a prospective parent, homosexual or otherwise? When the children are ‘unwanted’ then who dare stand in the way of the soon-to-be-non-parent? Either way, it is the desire of the adult that is the driving motivation to which we are told we must conform, not the needs of the child.

So is there a better way forward? Surely there must be. It must hang first and foremost on the value of each life and also a proper understanding of how life is intended to be nurtured. It’s wrong to stop at the first without tying in the second. As Christians we take our understanding of this care for life from the Bible’s account of marriage and family, and, not least, the created order. The first two chapters of Genesis provide the beginnings of this framework:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…” (Gen 1:27-28)

There is further explanation of marriage in the next chapter where, having described the first ‘marriage’, the narrator stops and comments:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Gen 2:24)

The biblical model is therefore one of a man and woman united together in monogamy, producing children. Now, of course, it all spins out of control after that—we see sin breaking into this good created order—but the original intent is simple to understand, and has long been accepted as normative and good in Western society until very, very recently.

So I’m led to conclude that one of the reasons that gay marriage should be vigorously opposed is not because it is somehow the thin end of the wedge but, more accurately, that it is the capstone that marks the crystallization of a remarkable shift in our culture. We have utterly divorced marriage from procreation and the raising of children. We are seeing the outworking of this divorce between marriage and children across the board: single parents struggling to raise children, increased abortion, cohabitation, and so on. These are all symptoms of the same basic disease. As we move further and further away from the way it was intended to be, downplaying heterosexual marriage and child-rearing as normative, we get more and more messed up. People live together and then split up causing immense emotional pain. Children are raised without the optimum parental situation, if they’re lucky enough to be born at all. Gay marriage is just one step further.

This is why the debate over gay marriage is so important. It’s almost as though we have one final attempt, out of love, to speak to our culture and implore those around us to stop and think about what they’re doing. as they continue in the relentless push to endorse self-fulfilment as the great moral good. Every time someone says “why shouldn’t I be allowed to do what I want?” they’re taking part in this broad, relentless push to endorse self-fulfilment as the great moral good.

Marriage used to be understood to be the regulation of those desires for the sake of the weakest parties in the relationships—the women and children. It is, of course, more than that—but it is not less. These days, however, our attitudes to marriage are more often redefined as “me doing what I want to do and insisting that you recognize and affirm it”. Sacrifice and self-giving love have been replaced with gratification and self-fulfilling love. We wouldn’t put it so starkly, of course, but that’s where it is. For example, I’ve lost count of the number of couples who, when I prepare them for marriage and ask them why they’re marring their fiancée, couch their response as an expression of how that other person makes them feel.

We used to understand ‘love’ far more in terms of what we can do for the other person, both personally and corporately. To steal the words of Kennedy, “ask not what your spouse or child can do for you, but what you can do for them”. More and more this whole mind-set is being eroded under the constant barrage of a culture that prizes autonomous freedom and action above all else. We increasingly refuse to accept any constraint upon ourselves. No wonder we’re such a mess.

Into this calamity Jesus still walks, the one who came to serve, not to be served. He laid down his life for others, not least for his own bride. He bade little children come unto him when others pushed them away as being less important. He affirmed that “in the beginning God made them male and female”—indeed Jesus made them male and female in the first place. And, of course, he went to those of his own day who had messed this all up so much with their own sin and who suffered from others’ sin—prostitutes, a socially outcast woman at a well, sinners—and offered them mercy.

What we ought to recognize is that while some things have certainly changed in the past 2,000 years, others have not. The basic mission statement for Jesus announced by the angel to Mary is equally relevant today:

…he will save his people from their sins. (Matt 1:21)

We are still the same sinners that we were back then, indeed that we were since the first man and woman chose to do things their own way back in the Garden. Jesus still is the answer. The expression of our sin may have changed, but the basic problem of it has not. Christians must always turn to Jesus for the answer to the disaster we see unfolding around us.

His way is the better way. In the context of this discussion let’s not forget that his way is not simply the way of heterosexual marriage and the affirmation of the precious value of life (although it certainly is those things), it’s also the way of the offer of forgiveness and a fresh start. It occurs to me that we are in danger of losing sight of that as the debate intensifies.

It’s easy to respond to what we see as a gradual moral erosion around us with our own morality. We do it both personally and corporately through organizations who identify themselves as Christian, seeking to defend ‘Christian values’ in the public arena. I have the utmost respect for them, but there are moments when I wonder if it’s the right approach. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying we shouldn’t engage on the question of morality! Far from it, I think one of the most useful things we can contribute to our society is our own measured critique of prevailing philosophies and their results. In that respect, the answer to the person who insists upon the ‘right’ to ‘equal marriage’ is not to respond with a clear “but marriage is between a man and woman” (as correct as that certainly is) but, rather, to engage in a debate over where we get our rights from, how one measures equality, and how far that principle actually extends. Then we can begin to return to our own position and hold it up as far more cohesive and sensible. But as we do this kind of measured critique there’s more to the story, and this is where I fear we’re just not getting it right.

A long time ago I worked in a major children’s charity in London which was drifting away from clear Christian convictions. An explicit gospel imperative was no longer anywhere to be seen. One day I heard one of the few remaining evangelical case-workers bemoan, “we’re sending children to hell with full stomachs”. So it could very well be with our approach on broader social issues. Are we in danger of sending people to hell with better morality? I imagine there are very few readers of this article (if any) who will for one moment countenance the suggestion that people are saved by moral behaviour, yet the danger for most of us in this debate is that we will end up being understood in this way.

Jesus doesn’t want us to be more moral. Well, actually, he does, but moral behaviour is only the outworking of a deeper change brought about by the Spirit as he applies the gospel of Jesus to our hearts. So Jesus doesn’t want us only to be more moral—he wants to effect a change in our hearts that brings, amongst other things, a new morality. The danger in our lobbying is that we fail to communicate the first and most important of these two steps and so end up promulgating a form of justification by works. Surely we don’t want to do that? I’m not yet sure what the answer to all of this is—we can’t set out a full exposition of the gospel every time we make a statement in public—but we can talk about Jesus a lot more than we do. Let’s face it, sometime’s we act like we’re ashamed to mention his name.

Let’s not give up on this issue of marriage and children. Keep speaking, thinking, praying, engaging out of love for the nations we live in, because we want the very best for the people around us who cannot tell their right hand from their left. Let’s not give up on speaking the gospel rather than mere moralism. As we do so, we’ll be pushing our culture towards not only recognizing and diagnosing the problems we face (problems far more profound than who we allow to marry), but also holding out the solution—the forgiveness and fresh start that Jesus brings.

  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, ‘Adoptions Australia 2010-11’. Child Welfare Series, no. 52, p. 34.
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Births, Australia’. 3301.0, p. 14.

18 thoughts on “Our messy individualism

  1. David,

    I’m not sure if you’ve seen the latest move in the area of fostering/adopting. At the end of last year the govt announced that it will be moving away from long term fostering and toward adoption, for the sake of the children. I think this is an excellent move on their behalf. However, I believe a significant number of children are fostered with homosexual couples. I imagine their hope is that if homosexual marriage is permitted, they will then be able to move forward and adopt the children in their care. If this doesn’t happen, I am not sure what becomes of these children.

    I think, as Christians, we ought to be more involved in fostering than we currently are. There are so many children who need homes where they can be cared for and loved. This is not about preventing homosexual couples from adopting, but leading the way in our community in showing these children in great need the love they deserve.

    • Thanks Erin, I entirely agree.
      Plus adoption is a thoroughly Biblical thing to do. We have a wonderful story of the unwanted children becoming dearly loved heirs…

  2. This is an interesting piece, but it still runs into the difficulty of selling a view of morality (or whatever you call might label types of behaviour) based upon a certain religious doctrine.

    It also seems a little rich to suggest that only non-believers and homosexuals have made children a commodity in some pejorative sense. Christians are surely no different in their fundamental motivations. We all make commodities of everything, idols of everything. If we did not, why Jesus?

    The argument for opposing gay marriage sounds more like an argument for not speaking of it at all. If gay marriage is the end of the line in the cultural shift, then what is the point of making it the Waterloo of our time? Why should this be the ‘one final attempt’? When gay marriage happens, assuming it will, are we really all going to just give up and sit in our little churches, singing hymns and feeling comfortably righteous?

    Why not instead simply promote marriage as the great social engine room which appears quite an easy argument and perhaps try to be actually loving to those outside the communion instead of banging on and on about how they are an abomination in the eyes of God?

    It is worth noting while we are using statistics, that the ABS reports same sex couples comprise 0.7% of all couple families in Australia. Those with children comprise 12% of that 0.7% (most female and presumably most often one being the biological mother of the child). The actual numbers are so small, the churches could offer them all free social services to help them care for their children. I think it was about 7,000 children under 18 in Australia in 2011. Of course you would have to start with being nice to these people, a bit like Jesus did to the prostitute at the well. No that all sounds too hard.

    • Tom, I fear that you’ve not read my piece properly. I don’t recognise a number of positions that you claim I hold. Specifically,

      only non-believers and homosexuals have made children a commodity in some pejorative sense.
      I agree that Christians are also in danger of such an approach. I’m not sure that I would call it idolatry, as you do.

      The argument for opposing gay marriage sounds more like an argument for not speaking of it at all.
      On the contrary, I think I make it very clear that we ought to be speaking a great deal about it.

      When gay marriage happens, assuming it will, are we really all going to just give up and sit in our little churches, singing hymns and feeling comfortably righteous?
      No, and I never suggested we should.

      Of course you would have to start with being nice to these people, a bit like Jesus did to the prostitute at the well. No that all sounds too hard.

      well, you may consider it too hard but I think it is actually incumbent upon Christians to do so. Of course what you’re really suggesting is that it is impossible to think that someone’s behaviour is wrong and also “be nice” to them. Since I don’t share that assumption I’m afraid I can’t answer the implied challenge which relies upon it.

      • David, fear not on my behalf. I only attempt to give a view with what appears to be a stated position so you’ll have to give me some latitude.

        I can see the point in adopting religious dogma in preaching conduct to fellow believers. But if influence is seen as in anyway necessary, I can’t see the point in preaching at the non-believers.

        I’m pleased you agree that people of the Christian beliefs also experience the weakness of humanity. I do not think that you mentioned that specifically. And in the context of the whole piece it certainly seems as though homosexuals are more particularly in the sights for being sick with individualism, and/or wanting the commodity of children, and/or wanting to put them down when it suits.

        My point re the argument for opposing gay marriage is that it seems to suggest on the one hand the labeling of the relationships of homosexual people as ‘marriage’ alone is of little practical consequence being as it were this ‘capstone’. But on the other hand, somehow we are about to cross some kind of Rubicon from which there can be no return. These positions in my view are inconsistent, a point of view I am sure you will have no trouble dismissing. Acknowledging this would make things difficult for you, as both are apparently needed to justify the overall argument against gay marriage.

        You will have to forgive me for my assumption. It appears more consistent with reality than the assumption you appear to hold regarding that point. I am sure Bishop Bonner said he really ‘loved’ all those heretics, he loved them to pieces. They just had to go. I just don’t agree with your position.

        • And in the context of the whole piece it certainly seems as though homosexuals are more particularly in the sights for being sick with individualism, and/or wanting the commodity of children, and/or wanting to put them down when it suits.

          Glad to clarify that misapprehension for you. I am arguing that our general culture of commodification and self-fulfilment leads to the outcomes I have noted. I’m not suggesting homosexuals are more inclined to this, simply that this particular issue is one outworking of the prevailing principle.t,

          I am sure Bishop Bonner said he really ‘loved’ all those heretics, he loved them to pieces. They just had to go. I just don’t agree with your position.

          I don’t recall anywhere suggesting that I “hate” homosexuals let alone that they ought to be burned. It is, in fact, an utterly unjustified accusation to make of me.

          If you think it is impossible to disagree with someone’s actions without hating them then I am afraid you have a very limited view of human nature. Or should I suggest that you hate me too since you clearly state that you do not agree with me? That would be nonsense, but you seem to feel free to sling the accusation my way.

          • Hi David,

            I wouldn’t take various extrapolations to extremes and so personally. It does tend towards excessive defensiveness.

            I only mention Bishop Bonner as an obvious example of a Christian leader who had little apparent problem with conducting himself in a way that in my opinion anyway was most prejudicial to his opponents. The example suggests that my actual ‘assumption’ about the conduct of Christians towards those they disagree with is borne out in the factual history of the Christian church.

            I wouldn’t go so far as to say this becomes a general rule and therefore it is impossible to disagree with someone and still treat them in a truly loving way. But I do think it is hard to do this.

            You will have to forgive me my faint degree of cynicism but where I come from I don’t see a lot of love for the marginalized coming out of the church. On the contrary see a fair bit of self-righteous moralizing that seems more designed to make the faithful, righteous ones feel warm and fluffy.

            Nothing personal now David, remember we don’t know each other and I don’t presume to be in a position to comment on people I don’t know.

          • Nothing personal now David, remember we don’t know each other and I don’t presume to be in a position to comment on people I don’t know.

            And yet you did. Go figure.

  3. David, as far as I am aware abortions do not occur at “Family Planning Centres” in Australia, in NSW especially.

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  5. Thank you, “God is fake”. I’m sure your conduct here is powerfully persuasive for the atheist cause.

  6. “There are far fewer adoptions today because abortion is simply much more readily available.”

    This statement needs some qualification. What I suspect you mean is that there are far fewer BABIES available for adoption today. For two reasons: 1) the legality and cultural acceptance of abortion; and 2) because single mothers no longer face stigma and prejudice. The truth is that thousands of young unmarried mothers were pretty much forced to give up their babies for adoption during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Often rejected by their shocked, respectable families, these girls had no choice but to relinquish all legal rights to motherhood. Thankfully, adoption became a much more open process in the UK after 1975.

    Meanwhile, thousands of British children are languishing in care and many of them will NEVER be adopted. These kids face a very bleak future. A sign of how broken family life has become in our culture, for sure, and the children are paying the price.

    Adoption is a great thing but it is also complex. I’m an adoptee myself, adopted into a loving Christian family and reunited with my birth mother in 1997.

    I would love to see more Christian families offer to adopt, but they need to be aware that the challenges facing adoptees today are greater than those of my generation of adoptees. At least most of us know that our birth mothers loved us: we are aware it was a harsh and judgmental society that dictated ‘illegitimate children’ be given up for adoption. Most of us realise that our birth mothers were neither incompetent nor cruel. They didn’t give us up for adoption because they rejected us. As my birth mum said to me, they were literally given no choice in the matter.

    The issues facing today’s prospective adoptees are, I believe, much tougher. They are more damaged than my generation and therefore their needs are all the greater.

    • Thanks Philippa. Lots of helpful nuancing there.
      And yes, we ought to be known for adoption.

      I think your point on knowing that you were loved resonates with my “commodification” comments – but I’d never heard it expressed that way. Very helpful for us to hear and get your particular direct experiences.

  7. David, I’m being kind in saying that I think what you meant to say was I had implied a characterization of you personally in what I wrote re Bonner.

    It really is drawing a rather long bow to state as you have that I have made direct comments about your character. You could at least be precise about it if we’re leaving the topic to drone on about who insulted who first .

    I think for the future try to avoid interpreting yourself into the position of victimized martyr. I know it is a guise that some Christian commentators find themselves comfortable slipping into, presumably because it allows them to avoid the actual issues.

    But it doesn’t really allow for brisk dialogue if everyone retreats to their bed to suck their thumbs in outraged self-righteousness.

    • It really is drawing a rather long bow to state as you have that I have made direct comments about your character.

      It was written in direct response to my piece. I think we are all clear what you intended to achieve. By all means apologise for it but backpedalling and making it my fault now that you’ve been called on it is hardly improving on the matter.

      If you want “brisk dialogue” don’t brand your conversation partners the way you did on this thread. That’ s not playing the martyr, that’s simply calling you on your behaviour. Only one of us soured the milk here.

      And now I think we’re done.

      • I think you need to learn the difference between a view about a view and a view about a person’s character.

        And you crying about being branded is ironic given that in your piece you implicitly link gay marriage with abortionists, the great evil of individualism, and those who regard children merely as commodities. Ha ha I wonder how the homosexual reader would feel about being ‘branded’ so.

        Oh that’s right, it is only a personal insult when someone implies a comparison between you and someone who may be regarded poorly in society. But not when you do it. Hilarious.

        David, look for your apologies elsewhere. An attempt to clarify your misinterpretations of my views is not an apology.

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