The compulsively readable and admirably honest blogger, Rod Dreher, had an epiphany the other day. He was trying to define what he means by “traditional Christianity.” And what he means by the term is the following:
It seems to me that “traditional Christian” is political code for “Christians who adhere to traditional teaching about sex and sexuality.”
That is a really striking statement – though not one that exactly comes as a surprise to those familiar with Rod’s evolution over the years. It’s striking because it doesn’t actually concern itself with doctrine, the critical content of a faith tradition, like, say, the Resurrection of Jesus or the doctrine of the Trinity. It is not about a literal reading of Scripture as the only avenue to truth; it is not about whether doctrine can evolve; it is not about a belief in a personal, intervening God as opposed to a more distant and absent one. It is entirely about how one manages one’s private parts. Rod is pretty frank about that:
When I deploy the phrase “traditional Christians” in my writing, I’m not thinking about ecclesiology, sacramental theology, or any other thing that separates Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy. What I’m thinking about — what we are all thinking about — is this: what separates “traditional Christians” from “modern Christians” (or “progressive Christians”) in our common discourse is their beliefs about sex. Nothing else, or at least nothing else meaningful.
He later clarified that he was talking about Christianity as it relates to the public square. And I can certainly see how, as an empirical matter, the sex issue has become central to public debates over abortion, homosexuality, marriage and so on. But the difference between me and Rod – and what I’d argue is the actual dividing line between modern and traditional Christians in the public square – is that I do not regard sexual matters to be that important in the context of what Christianity teaches about our obligations as human beings in the polity and the world. The difference between moderns and trads is that the trads see sex as the critical issue, and we moderns see a whole host of other issues.
My mum once told me as a kid that “sex outside marriage is a sin, but not that big a sin.” That remains my position. It’s up there with over-eating, excessive consumerism, the idolatry of money and profit, and spoliation of our environment – except the powerful sex drive in humans and the absence of any direct harm to another, gives sexual sin, I’d argue, a little more lee-way. The sexual obsession among trads, in other words, can be deeply distortive. It elides and displaces other vital issues. Access to universal healthcare and asylum for children escaping terror, for example, matter far more in traditional Christianity than whether my long-term relationship is deemed a civil marriage or a civil union. Torture is exponentially more sinful than a pre-marital fling – and yet it is embraced by evangelical “traditional” Christians most of all. The Catholic hierarchy has devoted far far less time and effort to combating torture than to preventing birth control as part of the ACA – to its eternal shame. And the centrality of sex to celibate traditional Christians has a lot to do with it.
I’d go further and argue that placing sex as the critical, core rampart of traditional Christianity is a very dangerous game. It’s dangerous because sexual repression is a very potent psychological tool. A key part of traditional religion’s success in luring and keeping adherents can be by leveraging sexual sacrifice into a greater collective sense of belonging and meaning. If people have to give up sex to be a faithful adherent to religion, they are much more likely to attach themselves strongly to that faith, if only to justify their sacrifice. They are also more likely to want others to join in – to help buttress their commitment. I think that’s where Rod’s point is strongest.
But it’s also where it’s weakest. Faith should surely not be a function of sexual repression. And sexual repression should not be a tool for religious faith.
Introduce that element as the critical one, and you are using social and personal pressure to buttress religious claims that should stand or fall on their own merits. And when sexual restraint or repression is what defines your religious experience, you’ve lost your way. Within religious institutions the sexual repression can also have terrible effects. It is not an accident that cults use sexual control as ramparts of their enterprise. The mind plays games with us on this subject – so powerful and so close to home.
That doesn’t mean that traditional arguments about sexuality should be dismissed. The glibness with which some gay activists now scorn traditional sexual moral codes as mere bigotry is deeply depressing. Damon Linker makes a good point about the scale and novelty of the West’s experiment in sexual freedom over the last half a century or so. And there are obvious developments – like the rise of single parenthood and children outside marriage – that can be shown to harm people’s prospects in life.
But is it a harbinger of social collapse? I look around me and see a sexually liberated society with much lower crimes rates, boundless cultural innovation, declining divorce rates and more stable gay couples. I do not see catastrophe. This “Family Week” in Provincetown I see some of the worst excesses of sexual novelty, as far as trads are concerned – gay couples with children everywhere. But I fail to see the ominous social implications of happy children playing on the beach, or of their two dads’ often super-vigilant parenting. I see a pretty healthy model of family life. And when I look back on the great era of sexual repression, I see evidence of horrifying sexual abuse of children by priests and many others, women treated as prisoners of their husbands, and homes for illegitimate children with mortality rates far higher than average. What I see today, in contrast, is a society not less open to Jesus’ core commandments to love one another, but rather a society less willing to excuse the abuse, distortion and repression of the deepest human longings in inhuman and cruel ways.
I see, actually, in the demise of what Rod calls traditional Christianity the emergence of a calmer, gentler Christianity less obsessed with social control and more open to divine truth. I see hope where Rod only sees calamity. Well, I guess we’ll both find out soon enough.