By Helen Gibson
Moral values in America are changing fast. Since the turn of the century, society has become increasingly supportive of a host of issues that once were considered taboo. Many Christians have felt the tension of living in a society dominated by post-Christian morals.
But it seems there’s one moral issue almost everyone, Christian or otherwise, still agrees is unacceptable: adultery.
“Do not commit adultery,” the commandment Protestant and Orthodox Christians recognize as the seventh of the Ten Commandments, is an idea most Americans agree with, according to recent polling. In 2017, Gallup found only 9 percent of Americans believe extramarital affairs are morally acceptable.
The vast majority of Americans, 88 percent, said they believe extramarital affairs are generally unacceptable—but the reasons might be more complicated than you expect.
Changing views of sex and marriage
Gallup first started asking Americans what they thought about controversial moral issues, such as extramarital affairs, divorce, and abortion, in 2001 with its annual Values and Beliefs poll. Since then, the research organization has reported significant changes on a number of these matters.
For example, in 2001, 40 percent of respondents said they thought gay and lesbian relations were morally acceptable. In 2017, support was at 63 percent—a growth of 23 percentage points.
In the same period, the number of Americans who say sex between an unmarried man and woman is morally acceptable rose 16 percentage points, while the number of Americans who say divorce is morally acceptable grew by 14 percentage points.
These and five other moral issues—the use of birth control, having a baby outside of marriage, doctor-assisted suicide, pornography, and polygamy—reached record levels of support in 2017.
Support for extramarital affairs, however, has remained small. From 2001 to 2017, that category has gained only 2 percentage points.
Experts have different ideas about why this is. Patrick Schoettmer, a Seattle University political science professor who studies the intersection of religion and politics, thinks this is due largely to the values of millennials—values that are not necessarily shaped by a Christian worldview.
“They’re open to anything that people are accepting [of] and consent to, but they’re also very concerned about people being responsible for the actions that they take,” Schoettmer says.
W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, says these changes have come along with a shift in the way Americans view the institution of marriage.
Americans still think marriage is important, Wilcox says, but they’ve started to view it as a capstone, a way to express their love for another person and cement their position in the upper middle class, instead of as a foundation stone.
In other words, people now tend to focus more on the romance and emotional connection shared by a couple—and less on the way marriage helps two people build a life together, remain connected to their children, find financial stability, establish intergenerational ties, and create a sense of kinship.
He says this, along with disapproval of extramarital affairs among many religions, makes adultery seem unacceptable today.
“Because we’re more focused on the couple [at the center] of the relationship today than we used to be, I think infidelity is actually a bigger deal in some ways,” Wilcox says.
He relates this idea to the story of a family friend he knew years ago. The man was a husband and father, and it was no secret that he had extramarital affairs.
“But this older couple would have never considered getting divorced because they were of a certain generation, and they looked at marriage and family as a package,” Wilcox says.
“It was much more than just about the couple’s relationship quality, whereas today, that same kind of behavior would have quickly led to divorce court because people have a much more intense understanding of the value and importance of the communion between two people.”
The deepest rejection
Josh Straub, marriage and family strategist for Lifeway Christian Resources, believes public acceptance of extramarital affairs remains low because of the deep rejection that an affair represents.
“Marriage is an intimate relationship where you literally see each other naked,” Straub says. “You see each other physically naked, but you see each other emotionally naked as well. This is the one person who sees you as vulnerable as you can be as an individual.”
When most people read down the issues on Gallup’s morality poll—everything from gambling to divorce to having a baby outside of marriage to gay and lesbian relationships—they’re thinking about others, he says.
Rather than thinking of rejection, they’re thinking about how accepting they can be of people with lifestyles different from their own.
When it comes to the question about extramarital affairs, people think much differently. “We’re thinking about the affair happening to us,” he says.
Fear of rejection allows many to see the harm involved in adultery, according to Straub. In The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller writes: “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God.”
Adultery, Straub says, taps into “our greatest fear”—being known and not loved. In a marriage relationship, this is the fear of committing to a spouse and then being rejected through that spouse’s infidelity.
“A spouse fully knows who you are, your emotional nakedness,” Straub says. “They see your vulnerability. And when they have an affair, it is a rejection against who you are. That’s why it’s not acceptable in our culture.”
A place of common ground for the church
In the midst of that deep sense of rejection, however, there may be a unique way for the church to step in.
“We can all agree that being rejected is one of the worst feelings in the world, yet we serve a God who knows everything about us—everything, absolutely everything—and continues to love us, over and over and over again,” Straub says.
He says this message should be shared with hurting people—inside and outside our congregations—as a reminder that there is a God who fully knows and fully loves each of us, even when humans fail to do so.
Such a message, he said, can bring healing.
This is something R.G. and Karen Yallaly have witnessed firsthand. For 25 years, they’ve worked in marriage ministry in some capacity, and they helped start the marriage ministry at their church, Woodland Hills Family Church in Branson, Missouri.
They invite couples in crisis to participate in a confidential, 12-week mentoring program.
“A husband meets with a husband and a wife meets with a wife, one-on-one, and we keep pulling them back to the question, ‘What does God want to do in your life?’” Karen says. “Not ‘What does God want to do in your spouse’s life?’ but ‘What does God want to do in your life?’”
In the beginning, there were only four volunteer counselors, working primarily with people who attended their church, but since then the program has seen tremendous growth.
“Word got out in the community and surrounding communities and God started growing our ministry team,” R.G. says. “We learned and grew and God sent more and more couples in need to us.”
Today the church has a team of 27 mentors, who commit to spending 12 weeks walking couples through the program. Some of these mentors have gone through the program themselves.
“It seems like God brings the people to us who have a passion for marriage, and then He brings the people to us that need desperate help,” R.G. says.
Their work of pointing people to Christ and trying to reconcile broken marriages, many of which have been hurt by adultery, seems to be making a difference.
“We lead a lot of people to Jesus,” R.G. says. “A lot of people come into the program simply wanting to save their marriage, but they get both. They get their soul saved and they get their marriage saved.”
For both R.G. and Karen, the greatest reward comes in seeing marriages restored and families coming to Jesus.
“When we see the husband of that family baptizing his own children after we know the struggles and how close to divorce they came, that really warms your heart,” R.G. says. “You know had God not reconciled that marriage, those children would probably not even know Jesus as their Savior.”
Seeing couples that previously were on the verge of divorce serving together in the church reminds the Yallalys of the importance of their work and of marriage.
“When God reconciles their marriage, it changes their countenance,” R.G. says. “It changes their attitude. It changes everything.”
HELEN GIBSON (@_HelenGibson_), a senior at Western Kentucky University, served as an intern on the Facts & Trends team during summer 2017.