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Sex after Christianity

Sex After Christianity

By Rod Dreher  April 11, 2013

Gay marriage is notjust a social revolution but a cosmological one.

Twenty years ago,new president Bill Clinton stepped on a political landmine when he tried tofulfill a campaign promise to permit gay soldiers to serve openly. Same-sexmarriage barely registered as a political cause; the country was then threeyears away from the Defense of Marriage Act and four years from comedian EllenDeGeneres’s prime-time coming out.

Then came whathistorians will one day recall as a cultural revolution. Now we’re entering theendgame of the struggle over gay rights and the meaning of homosexuality.Conservatives have been routed, both in court and increasingly in the court ofpublic opinion. It is commonly believed that the only reason to oppose same-sexmarriage is rank bigotry or for religious reasons, neither of which—theargument goes—has any place in determining laws or public standards.

The magnitude ofthe defeat suffered by moral traditionalists will become ever clearer as olderAmericans pass from the scene.Poll after poll shows that for the young, homosexuality is normal and gaymarriage is no big deal—except, of course, if one opposes it, in which case onehas the approximate moral status of a segregationist in the late 1960s.

All this is, infact, a much bigger deal than most people on both sides realize, and for areason that eludes even ardent opponents of gay rights. Back in 1993, a coverstory in The Nation identified the gay-rights cause as the summit andkeystone of the culture war:

All thecrosscurrents of present-day liberation struggles are subsumed in the gaystruggle. The gay moment isin some ways similar to the moment that other communities have experienced inthe nation’s past, but it is also something more, because sexual identity is incrisis throughout the population, and gay people—at once the most conspicuoussubjects and objects of the crisis—have been forced to invent a completecosmology to grasp it. No one says the changes will come easily. But it’sjust possible that a small and despised sexual minority will change America forever.

They were right,and though the word “cosmology” may strike readers as philosophicallygrandiose, its use now appears downright prophetic. The struggle for the rightsof “a small and despised sexual minority” would not have succeeded if the oldChristian cosmology had held: put bluntly, the gay-rights cause has succeededprecisely because the Christian cosmology has dissipated in the mind of theWest.

Same-sex marriagestrikes the decisive blow against the old order. The Nation’striumphalist rhetoric from two decades ago is not overripe; the radicalsappreciated what was at stake far better than did many—especially bourgeoisapologists for same-sex marriage as a conservative phenomenon. Gay marriagewill indeed change America forever, in ways that are only now becoming visible.For better or for worse, it will make ours a far less Christian culture. Italready is doing exactly that.

 

When they werewriting the widely acclaimed 2010 book American Grace, a comprehensivestudy of contemporary religious belief and practice, political scientistsRobert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell noticed two inverse trend lines insocial-science measures, both starting around 1990.

They found thatyoung Americans coming into adulthood at that time began to accept homosexualityas morally licit in larger numbers. They also observed that younger Americans began more and more tofall away from organized religion. The evangelical boom of the 1970s and1980s stopped, and if not for a tsunami of Hispanic immigration the U.S.Catholic church would be losing adherents at the same rate as thelong-dwindling Protestant mainline.

graphic by Michael Hogue

Graphic by MichaelHogue

Over time, the datashowed, attitudes on moral issues proved to be strong predictors of religiousengagement. In particular, the more liberal one was on homosexuality, the lesslikely one was to claim religious affiliation. It’s not that younger Americanswere becoming atheists. Rather, most of them identify as “spiritual, but notreligious.” Combined with atheists and agnostics, these “Nones”—the term isPutnam’s and Campbell’s—comprise the nation’s fastest-growing faithdemographic.

Indeed,according to a 2012 Pew Research Center study, the Nones comprise one out ofthree Americans under 30.This is not simply a matter of young people doing what young people tend to do:keep church at arm’s length until they settle down. Pew’s Greg Smith told NPRthat this generation is more religiously unaffiliated than any on record. Putnam—theHarvard scholar best known for his best-selling civic culture study BowlingAlone—has said that there’s no reason to think they will return to churchin significant numbers as they age.

Putnam and Campbellwere careful to say in American Grace that correlation is not causation,but they did point out that as gay activism moved toward center stage inAmerican political life—around the time of The Nation’s cover story—thevivid public role many Christian leaders took in opposing gay rights alienatedyoung Americans from organized religion.

In a dinnerconversation not long after the publication of American Grace, Putnamtold me that Christian churches would have to liberalize on sexual teaching ifthey hoped to retain the loyalty of younger generations. This seems at firstlike a reasonable conclusion, but the experience of America’s liberaldenominations belies that prescription. Mainline Protestant churches, whichhave been far more accepting of homosexuality and sexual liberation in general,have continued their stark membership decline.

It seems that whenpeople decide that historically normative Christianity is wrong about sex, theytypically don’t find a church that endorses their liberal views. They quitgoing to church altogether.

This raises acritically important question: is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast offChristian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—orgave—Christianity its power as a social force?

 

Though he might nothave put it quite that way, the eminent sociologist Philip Rieff would probablyhave said yes. Rieff’s landmark 1966 book The Triumph Of the Therapeuticanalyzes what he calls the “deconversion” of the West from Christianity.Nearly everyone recognizes that this process has been underway since theEnlightenment, but Rieff showed that it had reached a more advanced stage thanmost people—least of all Christians—recognized.

Rieff, who diedin 2006, was an unbeliever, but he understood that religion is the key tounderstanding any culture.For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what itforbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake ofserving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culturerequires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots thesemoral demands within a metaphysical framework.

You don’t behavethis way and not that way because it’s good for you; you do so because thismoral vision is encoded in the nature of reality. This is the basis ofnatural-law theory, which has been at the heart of contemporary seculararguments against same-sex marriage (and which have persuaded no one).

Rieff, writingin the 1960s, identified the sexual revolution—though he did not use thatterm—as a leading indicator of Christianity’s death as a culturallydeterminative force. Inclassical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism”was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant thatrenouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture was at the coreof Christian culture—a culture that, crucially, did not merely renounce butredirected the erotic instinct. That the West was rapidly re-paganizing aroundsensuality and sexual liberation was a powerful sign of Christianity’s demise.

It is nearlyimpossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern ofearly Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explainsthe culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among ThePeople. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of theApostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky paganhippies, ordering them to stop having fun.

In fact, Paul’steachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in thepornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitiveespecially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in theirability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, asarticulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channelingmale eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, andinfusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.

Christian marriage,Ruden writes, was “as different from anything before or since as the command toturn the other cheek.” The point is not that Christianity was only, orprimarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within aChristian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one thatmandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity,what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the humanperson is.

It would be absurdto claim that Christian civilization ever achieved a golden age of socialharmony and sexual bliss. It is easy to find eras in Christian history whenchurch authorities were obsessed with sexual purity. But as Rieff recognizes,Christianity did establish a way to harness the sexual instinct, embed itwithin a community, and direct it in positive ways.

What makes ourown era different from the past, says Rieff, is that we have ceased to believein the Christian cultural framework, yet we have made it impossible to believe in any other that does whatculture must do: restrain individual passions and channel them creativelytoward communal purposes.

Rather, in themodern era, we have inverted the role of culture. Instead of teaching us whatwe must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a society that tells uswe find meaning and purpose in releasing ourselves from the old prohibitions.

How this came to beis a complicated story involving the rise of humanism, the advent of theEnlightenment, and the coming of modernity. As philosopher Charles Taylorwrites in his magisterial religious and cultural history A Secular Age,“The entire ethical stance of moderns supposes and follows on from the death ofGod (and of course, of the meaningful cosmos).” To be modern is to believein one’s individual desires as the locus of authority and self-definition.

Gradually the Westlost the sense that Christianity had much to do with civilizational order,Taylor writes. In the 20th century, casting off restrictive Christian idealsabout sexuality became increasingly identified with health. By the 1960s, theconviction that sexual expression was healthy and good—the more of it, thebetter—and that sexual desire was intrinsic to one’s personal identityculminated in the sexual revolution, the animating spirit of which held thatfreedom and authenticity were to be found not in sexual withholding (theChristian view) but in sexual expression and assertion. That is how the modernAmerican claims his freedom.

To Rieff, oursis a particular kind of “revolutionary epoch” because the revolution cannot byits nature be institutionalized.Because it denies the possibility of communal knowledge of binding truthstranscending the individual, the revolution cannot establish a stable socialorder. As Rieff characterizes it, “The answer to all questions of ‘what for’is ‘more’.”

Ourpost-Christian culture, then, is an “anti-culture.” We are compelled by the logic of modernityand the myth of individual freedom to continue tearing away the last vestigesof the old order, convinced that true happiness and harmony will be ours onceall limits have been nullified.

Gay marriagesignifies the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning ofChristianity because it denies the core concept of Christian anthropology. In classical Christian teaching, thedivinely sanctioned union of male and female is an icon of the relationship ofChrist to His church and ultimately of God to His creation. This is why gaymarriage negates Christian cosmology, from which we derive our modern conceptof human rights and other fundamental goods of modernity. Whether we can keepthem in the post-Christian epoch remains to be seen.

It also remainsto be seen whether we can keep Christianity without accepting Christianchastity. SociologistChristian Smith’s research on what he has termed “moralistic therapeuticdeism”—the feelgood, pseudo-Christianity that has supplanted the normativeversion of the faith in contemporary America—suggests that the task will beextremely difficult.

ConservativeChristians have lost the fight over gay marriage and, as we have seen, did sodecades before anyone even thought same-sex marriage was a possibility.Gay-marriage proponents succeeded so quickly because they showed the publicthat what they were fighting for was consonant with what most post-1960sAmericans already believed about the meaning of sex and marriage. Thequestion Western Christians face now is whether or not they are going to loseChristianity altogether in this new dispensation.

Too many of them think that same-sex marriageis merely a question of sexual ethics. They fail to see that gay marriage, andthe concomitant collapse of marriage among poor and working-classheterosexuals, makes perfect sense given the autonomous individualismsacralized by modernity and embraced by contemporary culture—indeed, by manywho call themselves Christians. They don’t grasp that Christianity, properlyunderstood, is not a moralistic therapeutic adjunct to bourgeoisindividualism—a common response among American Christians, one denounced byRieff in 2005 as “simply pathetic”—but is radically opposed to the culturalorder (or disorder) that reigns today.

They arefighting the culture war moralistically, not cosmologically. They have not only lost the culture, butunless they understand the nature of the fight and change their strategy tofight cosmologically, within a few generations they may also lose theirreligion.

“The death of aculture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals inways that remain inwardly compelling,” Rieff writes. By that standard,Christianity in America, if not American spirituality, is in mortal danger. Thefuture is not foreordained: Taylor shares much of Rieff’s historical analysisbut is more hopeful about the potential for renewal. Still, if the faith doesnot recover, the historical autopsy will conclude that gay marriage was not acause but a symptom, the sign that revealed the patient’s terminal condition.

Rod Dreher blogsat www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher.