In his most recent book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat traces the roots of America’s current spiritual and political decline. In a chapter entitled The Locust Years, Douthat identifies five trends that developed in the 60s and 70s, which permanently, radically undercut American Christianity and have led to orthodox decline.
Each of these trends, and how they’ve shaped our lens upon the world, are worthy of individual study.
Recently, the topic of sexuality, primarily surrounding promiscuity and virginity, has been discussed rather rigorously among Christian bloggers. The conversation seems to perfectly illustrate where we find ourselves in the cultural “progression” of American Christianity.
First was a series of posts, probably best characterized by Rachel Held Evans’ “Do Christians Idolize Virginity?” in which she suggested just that, and took evangelicals to task for their “purity movement,” and the potential shame it wields on others. Bart Gingerich (among others) over at The Gospel Coalition responded with a piece describing extramarital sex as The Millennial Generation’s Acceptable Sin in which he said “many young evangelicals are trying to loosen the standards of moral law to fit their desire to become sexually active before marriage.” Then you have a fascinating Q & A with pastor Tim Keller, ‘Who Are You Sleeping With?’ My Conversation with Tim Keller, which seems to corroborate concern for the loosening of said standards. When Keller was asked about obstacles to revival, the pastor frankly pointed to “fornication.” The author concludes:
If the Evangelical church, and really the Church in general, is going to see serious spiritual renewal, especially among the younger generations like the Millennial, Keller says we need to be ready to speak to the issue of sex — not in a shaming fashion, but confidently calling people to repentance.
As you might guess, Keller’s perspective elicited pushback (notebly from Evans in her post Is Doubt an STD).
And the debate continues.
What strikes me by all this is how Christian perspectives on sex seem less shaped by biblical standards than cultural norms, as if we’ve long ago surrendered biblical sexual ethics to 60s era Free Love and are still sifting the wreckage. Which is where Douthat comes in. The author suggests that our current cultural and religious climate can indeed be traced back to the sexual revolution. It started with the pill. (bold is mine)
“At first, the development of a safe, reliable birth control pill seemed like a moral and theological problem only for the Catholic Church, since most Protestant bodies already approved of contraceptive use by married couples. This assumption proved to be naive: while Catholics spent the 1960s publicly debating their church’s teaching on contraception, the pill’s promise was inspiring a far more sweeping private revolution, one that extended well beyond the narrow issue of birth control to encompass the entirety of sexual ethics. Over the course of a decade or so, a large swath of America decided that two millennia of Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality were simply out of date.” (pg. 70)
Sexual ethics, especially those framed by long-embedded notions of fidelity and sexual purity, were suddenly hocked in favor of the counter-cultural mantra: If it feels good, do it. The consequences were rather immediate.
“Before the sexual revolution, Americans waited longer to have sex, had fewer sexual partners along the course of a lifetime (less than half as many, by some estimates), and were much more likely to see premarital lovemaking as a way station on the road to wedlock rather than an end unto itself. …For the first time in human history, it was possible for the poor and middle class as well as the rich to imagine being safely promiscuous.” (pg. 71)
Perhaps it’s just me, but the debates about evangelical sex culture appear to be an outgrowth of this decades old “sweeping private revolution,” and the collision of two very different ethics. Of course, deifying virginity is nonsense, and the potential shaming that follows is equally destructive. However, the suggestion that it’s possible to be “safely promiscuous” is flat out not biblical. The apostle Paul wrote:
Flee sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. — I Cor. 6:18 NIV
In other words, there’s no such thing as “free love.” The sin of fornication is not erased by “mutual consent.” Of course, those who critique evangelical purity culture are not necessarily condoning pre-marital sex. Nor are they suggesting promiscuity is “safe.” However, their lack of simply “calling people to repentance” seems woefully absent, as if to do so would itself constitute “shaming.” (Note: Evans’ rebuttal of the article on Keller did not address his main point, that promiscuity is an obstacle to revival.) No doubt, Millennials face sexual temptation in ways their parents haven’t. But at what point do we stop telling our children, students, and fellow Christians to “Flee sexual immorality”?
Apparently, the sexual revolution is alive and well. As are a “large swath of America [who have] decided that two millennia of Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality [are] simply out of date.”