Over the past fifty years, the rate of technological change and adoption has moved at an astoundingly rapid pace. It took 46 years for electricity and 35 years for the telephone to be adopted by a quarter of American households. But it only took 13 years for the cell phone and 7 years for the Internet to reach the same levels within the population.

Ideas and concepts are also being adopted by society more quickly. Ideas that once seemed radical have gone from implausible to normal within less than a decade. The prime example is same-sex marriage. In 1996, 65% of Americans were opposed; today 53% approve. In May 2003, no states had approved gay unions; 10 years later, one-fifth of the states allow same-sex marriage (the tenth state, Rhode Island, approved legislation last night).

How was the agenda to redefine marriage able to advance to the level of public policy? And how did it happen so quickly? To understand this seismic cultural shift we should turn to an obscure, decade-old political theory. 

The Overton Window, developed in the mid-1990s by the late Joseph P. Overton, describes a "window" in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse. Overton believed that the spectrum included all possible options in a window of opportunity:
Imagine, if you will, a yardstick standing on end. On either end are the extreme policy actions for any political issue. Between the ends lie all gradations of policy from one extreme to the other. The yardstick represents the full political spectrum for a particular issue. The essence of the Overton window is that only a portion of this policy spectrum is within the realm of the politically possible at any time. Regardless of how vigorously a think tank or other group may campaign, only policy initiatives within this window of the politically possible will meet with success.

All issues fall somewhere along this policy continuum, which can be roughly outlined as: Unthinkable, Radical, Acceptable, Sensible, Popular, Policy. When the window moves or expands, ideas can accordingly become more or less politically acceptable.

Overton's model was developed to explain adjustments in the political climate. But I believe it can also illuminate how profound and (mainly) deleterious changes are advanced in our broader culture and society. If the goal were to undermine cultural institutions, the process for getting from Unthinkable to Policy would follow these five easy steps:

Step #1: From Unthinkable to Radical — The first step is the easiest—provided the issue can become a fetish or the topic of an academic symposium. Since both the professoriate and the perverts have a fascination with the faux-transgressive (the truly transgressive [i.e., Christianity] tends to terrify them) all you need to do is get the attention of one of these groups. It doesn't matter which you start with since the politics of the bedroom and the classroom inevitably overlap.

Step #2: From Radical to Acceptable — This shift requires the creation and employment of euphemism. Want to kill a child exiting the womb? Call it "dilation and extraction" and infanticide becomes a medical procedure. Want to include same-sex unions under the banner of "marriage?" Redefine the term "marriage" to mean the state-endorsed copulation of any two(?) people who want to share a bed and a tax form. Be sure to say it is about "love"—in our culture, eros excuses everything.

There will naturally be a few holdouts, of course, but those who reject the shift from Radical to Acceptable can be shamed into approving. All that is required is to deploy a stingingly suitable insult. The word "bigot", for instance, is more effective than a billy club at beating the young into submission. For far too many Millennials, there are few core beliefs they won't change to avoid being called a bigot. The disapproval of their Creator is unfortunate; enduring the disfavor of their peers is unimaginable.

Step #3: From Acceptable to Sensible — There is nothing more sensible than to submit to one's god. And while Americans may profess to worship Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus, we mostly worship an American Idol—ourselves. That is why individualism has become our country's fastest-growing cult. It has tapped into this self-idolatry by preaching a gospel of the Individual. It's a pragmatic and accepting message. You were, as one of its chief evangelist Lady Gaga says, "born this way": "It doesn't matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M / Just put your paws up /'Cause you were born this way, baby."

Step #4: From Sensible to Popular — This step merely requires personalizing the issue. Do you know someone who is LGBT? Divorced? Had an abortion? Sure you do, they are in your family, in your school, at your church. Do you hate them? If not, then how can you still disapprove of their actions? (Note: Be sure to talk fast so that no one follows the logic.)

As it says in the Good Book (or maybe in a Lady Gaga song), judge not lest God judge you for judging. You want people to like you, don't you? Then express popular approval for what your cultural betters (e.g., people on reality TV) believe should be popularly approved. Then you'll be popular and it won't be necessary to call you a bigot.

Step #5: From Popular to Policy — Commission a public opinion poll. Show it to a politician. They'll do the rest.

Of course not everyone in society will agree with every step along the way, but that won't stop an issue from sliding into policy. All it requires is for a majority of the people who find the issue unacceptable to do nothing at all.

Almost every culturally corrosive policy—from abortion to no-fault divorce to gay marriage—has come about in America this way: Christians who find such issues "unacceptable" tacitly accept this shift toward radical individualism by their refusal to take action.

Taking action is perhaps the wrong word, though, since what is most often necessary is deliberate inaction. For example, if every Christian in America who claimed to be pro-life would simply refuse to vote for any candidate—regardless of party—who supports abortion, the abortion laws would change within two election cycles. Similarly, if every Christian in America who claimed to be pro-marriage had refused to support no-fault divorce, there would be less poverty and fewer broken families in our country today. And if every Christian in Rhode Island had made it clear that he would hold his or her representatives accountable for attempting to redefine marriage, then the recent expansion of homosexual-rights legislation would have never come to a vote.

Sadly, such inaction has never happened and is unlikely to occur in the near future. America has produced an overwhelming number of Christians who are adept at explaining why they can support issues that are antithetical to Christianity and depressingly few who can give reasons why we should adhere to the teachings of scripture and the wisdom of the church.

History has shown that dedicated Christians can close the Overton window and reverse the shift from "policy" to "unthinkable" (look at William Wilberforce). But it requires a people who have courage and conviction and a willingness to be despised for the truth. Do current generations have such virtues? Maybe we don't. But I'm holding out hope that our grandkids will be born that way.

Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Joe Carter


Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.

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