Sex After Christianity
Gay marriage is not just a social revolution but a cosmological one.
Then came what historians will one day recall as a cultural revolution. Now we’re entering the endgame of the struggle over gay rights and the meaning of homosexuality. Conservatives have been routed, both in court and increasingly in the court of public opinion. It is commonly believed that the only reason to oppose same-sex marriage is rank bigotry or for religious reasons, neither of which—the argument goes—has any place in determining laws or public standards.
The magnitude of the defeat suffered by moral traditionalists will become ever clearer as older Americans pass from the scene. Poll after poll shows that for the young, homosexuality is normal and gay marriage is no big deal—except, of course, if one opposes it, in which case one has the approximate moral status of a segregationist in the late 1960s.
All this is, in fact, a much bigger deal than most people on both sides realize, and for a reason that eludes even ardent opponents of gay rights.
Back in 1993, a cover story in The Nation identified the gay-rights cause as the summit and keystone of the culture war:
All the crosscurrents of present-day liberation struggles are subsumed in the gay struggle. The gay moment is in some ways similar to the moment that other communities have experienced in the nation’s past, but it is also something more, because sexual identity is in crisis throughout the population, and gay people—at once the most conspicuous subjects and objects of the crisis—have been forced to invent a complete cosmology to grasp it. No one says the changes will come easily. But it’s just possible that a small and despised sexual minority will change America forever.
They were right, and though the word “cosmology” may strike readers as philosophically grandiose, its use now appears downright prophetic. The struggle for the rights of “a small and despised sexual minority” would not have succeeded if the old Christian cosmology had held: put bluntly, the gay-rights cause has succeeded precisely because the Christian cosmology has dissipated in the mind of the West. . . .
This raises a critically important question: is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force?
Though he might not have put it quite that way, the eminent sociologist Philip Rieff would probably have said yes. Rieff’s landmark 1966 book The Triumph Of the Therapeutic analyzes what he calls the “deconversion” of the West from Christianity. Nearly everyone recognizes that this process has been underway since the Enlightenment, but Rieff showed that it had reached a more advanced stage than most people—least of all Christians—recognized.
Rieff, who died in 2006, was an unbeliever, but he understood that religion is the key to understanding any culture. For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culture requires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework.
. . . It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among The People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.
Christian marriage, Ruden writes, was “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.” The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is.
It would be absurd to claim that Christian civilization ever achieved a golden age of social harmony and sexual bliss. It is easy to find eras in Christian history when church authorities were obsessed with sexual purity. But as Rieff recognizes, Christianity did establish a way to harness the sexual instinct, embed it within a community, and direct it in positive ways.
What makes our own era different from the past, says Rieff, is that we have ceased to believe in the Christian cultural framework, yet we have made it impossible to believe in any other that does what culture must do: restrain individual passions and channel them creatively toward communal purposes. Rather, in the modern era, we have inverted the role of culture. Instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a society that tells us we find meaning and purpose in releasing ourselves from the old prohibitions. . . .
By the 1960s, the conviction that sexual expression was healthy and good—the more of it, the better—and that sexual desire was intrinsic to one’s personal identity culminated in the sexual revolution, the animating spirit of which held that freedom and authenticity were to be found not in sexual withholding (the Christian view) but in sexual expression and assertion. That is how the modern American claims his freedom.
Gay marriage signifies the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because it denies the core concept of Christian anthropology. In classical Christian teaching, the divinely sanctioned union of male and female is an icon of the relationship of Christ to His church and ultimately of God to His creation. This is why gay marriage negates Christian cosmology, from which we derive our modern concept of human rights and other fundamental goods of modernity. Whether we can keep them in the post-Christian epoch remains to be seen.
It also remains to be seen whether we can keep Christianity without accepting Christian chastity. Sociologist Christian Smith’s research on what he has termed “moralistic therapeutic deism”—the feelgood, pseudo-Christianity that has supplanted the normative version of the faith in contemporary America—suggests that the task will be extremely difficult.
Conservative Christians have lost the fight over gay marriage and, as we have seen, did so decades before anyone even thought same-sex marriage was a possibility. Gay-marriage proponents succeeded so quickly because they showed the public that what they were fighting for was consonant with what most post-1960s Americans already believed about the meaning of sex and marriage. The question Western Christians face now is whether or not they are going to lose Christianity altogether in this new dispensation.
Too many of them think that same-sex marriage is merely a question of sexual ethics. They fail to see that gay marriage, and the concomitant collapse of marriage among poor and working-class heterosexuals, makes perfect sense given the autonomous individualism sacralized by modernity and embraced by contemporary culture—indeed, by many who call themselves Christians. They don’t grasp that Christianity, properly understood, is not a moralistic therapeutic adjunct to bourgeois individualism—a common response among American Christians, one denounced by Rieff in 2005 as “simply pathetic”—but is radically opposed to the cultural order (or disorder) that reigns today.
They are fighting the culture war moralistically, not cosmologically. They have not only lost the culture, but unless they understand the nature of the fight and change their strategy to fight cosmologically, within a few generations they may also lose their religion.
“The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling,” Rieff writes. By that standard, Christianity in America, if not American spirituality, is in mortal danger. The future is not foreordained: Taylor shares much of Rieff’s historical analysis but is more hopeful about the potential for renewal. Still, if the faith does not recover, the historical autopsy will conclude that gay marriage was not a cause but a symptom, the sign that revealed the patient’s terminal condition.
Rod Dreher blogs at www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher.