was the sexual revolution so revolutionary?: on the benedict option and conservative christian models of culture
If you’re at all plugged into think pieces about religion, you’ve heard about Rod Dreher’s book on The Benedict Option. Dreher’s an interesting guy: he’s an incredibly prolific writer, and most of his stuff winds up at his blog. He’s got two really lovely books, one about the death of his sister and the other about how Dante (yes that Dante: the medieval Italian poet) saved his life. And he’s a culture warrior through and through, unapologetically hysterical about the world ending.
That’s not an exaggeration. He really does think that at least “a world” if not, you know, all of human life, is ending. Hence “the Benedict Option”: he takes the idea from the ending of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, in which MacIntyre suggests that maybe we all ought to imitate the rule of St. Benedict when he saw the Visigoth writing on the Roman walls. We’ve got to create our own communities. In MacIntyre’s (oft-quoted) words:
What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict (263).
What’s important about MacIntyre (and I’m stealing this from what Michael Warner said in a seminar I took with him) is that he was first a Trotskyite and then a Catholic, but the whole time he’s always hated liberalism. Nowadays we’re a society a bit more aware of the difference between left and liberal, but there are still way too many people who just sort of figure freedom happens. A certain kind of liberal thinks that people basically just grow up free: you don’t have to worry too much about it, and the really important thing is just not to let other folks tell you what to do (or to tell others what to do). Marxists-and in a different way, Catholics–recognize this as bullshit. We’re free in particular kinds of ways because of how we are raised (and, you know, our economic conditions, but this is where the two groups might vary a bit). And so when society changes, it can change us in ways that we can’t really be protected from, despite our earnest love of freedom, etc. Now that’s a pretty harsh take on liberalism, which, you know, exists in no small part because the era before liberalism had lots of Europeans with very strong beliefs killing each other. Liberalism–and with it, democracy–trades the promise of utopia for the promise of not having your head cut off by utopians who disagree with you.
But what are we so afraid of? What’s the problem from which we need protection? Dreher pulls from a lot of work by the sociologist Christian Smith to describe how contemporary young Christians basically have no idea what they’re talking about: members of a religion don’t know some of their own basic theological tenets, setting up what Smith calls a “moralistic therapeutic deism”: be nice and be happy is, apparently, all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.
That’s right enough, I suppose, even if it’s a very Evangelical Protestant way of thinking about religion, emphasizing right belief (orthodoxy) over right action (orthopraxy). One of the weird things about the history of the category of “religion” is that it was developed by Protestants who are, on both global and historical scales, the weirdest form of religion. Most things we’ve come to call religions care a lot more about what you do (praxis) than what you believe (doxa): so it’s actually not super surprising a lot of religious people have no idea what the hell they’re talking about. Of course, Smith et al would say this is a problem not just for non-Protestants, but for Protestants too: the intricacies of belief don’t seem to matter even for the ostensibly orthodox.
But did they ever? One of the smartest and most fair-minded of the many, many reviews of the Benedict Option was Damon Linker’s, in which he pointed out that despite Dreher’s deep concerns about religious knowledge, it really seems to be sex that’s the difference:
Dreher insists that this watery, undemanding form of faith is different in kind from Christianity at its most comprehensive, and I largely agree with him. But is it really different in kind and significantly debased in comparison to the quality of faith one would have found among a random sample of Americans during the 1850s? Or for that matter, in 17th century Prussia? Or 11th century France? I doubt that very much.
Except in one respect: sexual morality.
A Moralistic Therapeutic Deist will tend not to have strong opinions about sex, beyond affirming the importance of consent. Intercourse outside of marriage, masturbation, the use of contraception, homosexuality (including same-sex marriage), transgenderism — none of it will register as raising significant moral or theological issues and problems. That wasn’t true in the 19th-century U.S., in 17th-century Prussia, or in 11th-century France. In all of those times and places, news of what growing numbers of people (including people who define themselves as Christians) think of as sexually acceptable behavior would have been received as inexplicable, and an abomination.
That is what makes our time decisively different from past eras in the history of the Christian West: We live on the far side of the sexual revolution. Neuhaus thought that revolution could be at least partially reversed through concerted democratic action. Dreher has no such hopes and so advises withdrawal and self-protection.
Linker goes on to point out that there are, in fact, progressive Christians who care deeply about their faith and live countercultural lives and who, nonetheless, also support gay marriage or birth control or abortion, or many other changes from the sexual revolution. Another thoughtful review, this one from Russel Arben Fox, puts it well:
At one point Rod refers to Hillary Clinton as someone “deeply hostile to core Christian values” (p. 89)–yet I strongly suspect that Clinton herself (a life-long church-attending Bible-quoting Methodist, one who has frequently spoken publicly about her prayer life) could quickly–and honestly–assent to believing that “the point of life is to pursue harmony with a transcendent eternal order.” Rod has long been bothered–and rightly so–by “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a sociological label developed to capture the vague spiritual sensibilities held by so many Americans, but allows that even that collection of beliefs includes the conviction that God “created and orders the world” (p. 10). So it can’t simply be a matter of affirming the existence of a “transcendent, eternal order”; the Benedict Option is, I think, to Rod’s mind, essential to the cultural survival of a Christianity with a very particular doctrinal version of the universal moral order.
So it’s about the sex. But here’s where things get even more interesting. Because was the sexual revolution really so revolutionary? Of course it changed a lot in a local context: the 1970’s does look different from the 1950’s, as Kristin Luker brilliant captures in her book, When Sex Goes to School. Yet you don’t have to be a full-on Foucauldian to recognize Foucault got something right about his repressive hypothesis* in History of Sexuality, Volume 1. Indeed, I wonder how much Dreher’s worldview would be a bit more cheerful and world-affirming had his medieval sage been Chaucer instead of Dante. You’ve got the Wife of Bath, you’ve got the Pardoner who’s a “gelding or a mare,” and you’ve got the Miller’s Tale, which, well, just, don’t bring your children is all. Now the Canterbury Tales is no more obviously representative of high medieval Christendom than is The Divine Comedy, but, well, if I were a betting man I’d wager there were a lot more folks like the Wife of Bath than like Dante’s Beatrice.
Sure: most conservatives upset about the sexual revolution aren’t thinking about deep history. But they do sometimes make it seem as though sexual morality began in 1900 and that somehow Christendom was a lot less horny than it turns out to have been (the great conservative novel, The Elementary Particles, is especially guilty of this myopia). As Luker herself admits, the world felt different after the 60’s, even if she points to an earlier sexual revolution at the turn of the century that might well have been more important (although her argument would have been stronger if she had pointed out how much that earlier sexual revolution was also tied in with eugenics and scientific racism). But what was actually so different about the 60’s, I mean, besides in a relatively small span of a century or so? Sex outside of marriage ebbs and flows in salience throughout history, and to the extent that Foucault is right about persecuting sex (and his argument parallels Moore’s argument about persecuting Jews and heretics), the real question is not whether we allow sex outside marriage (the repressive hypothesis) but how much sex matters as a thing to worry about anyway.
It’s the pill, alongside legalized abortion. It seems obvious, but to many it’s not, precisely because local changes in sexual practice can make it seem like there’s more moving parts than there actually are. To quote Luker:
Between 1964 and 1975, sex became possible for millions of women in the way that it always had been possible for men, as something you did when you wanted to, because you wanted to, for its own sake. With legal, readily available, federally subsidized, and highly effective contraception, and with abortion available as a backup if pregnancy occurred anyway, sex for pure pleasure rather than sex necessarily tied to an ongoing and committed relationship became an option for women. And they didn’t have to be ashamed of it. (73)
Again, I’m suspicious the history here is still a bit too local, too victim to the Repressive Hypothesis (not to forget there are lots of ways people have been sexual without the risk of getting pregnant: once more, the Miller’s Tale). But there is a story here about female autonomy that’s an important linking of technology and culture (see May’s important history of the pill, though there’s a ton of important work on this), and which does, in fact, make the world look very different.
But then there are hard questions about Christians’ specific roles to change the culture, something to which Dreher is (very) sensitive, though his critics are divided on whether he goes far enough. This raises some interesting questions about how religious conservatives think about culture and how people are able to change (and be changed) by it. I can appreciate how certain religious conservatives like Dreher (see also Patrick Deneen) recognize that capitalism is not always so great, that it can, in fact, lead to a greedy, callous materialism (to wit: this fellow) rather than any sort of Christian leadership. And I think people like Dreher are right that that sort of procedural liberalism is hard to escape, perhaps even requiring a tactical retreat.
And this gets to something Dreher is very worried about and for what it’s worth, I think he’s right! Christianity in a certain strong form might well be dying, at least in the United States and Western Europe. Of course, Peter Berger famously changed his mind about secularization theory, so, you know, we might be wrong about this as well. But it does look like a certain form of Christianity–the kind that insists only Jesus can get you into heaven and the institution of marriage must look a certain way–is dying out. Now there are a few ways to think about that. One is to think that Christianity is in some senses dying but in other senses has done quite well: it’s not at all a crazy argument to suggest that the ways we think about human rights and social progress have roots in Christian agape and eschatology. There are smart people who disagree, but there also many who don’t. Believe it or not: it’s possible be an atheist, hate the Crusades and the Inquisitions, remember the countless pogroms, and nonetheless recognize historical Christianity has done some good.
It’s a fair point that once Christianity says you don’t need it to get into heaven, it doesn’t seem to do as well (though the strict church argument is still somewhat controversial and I’m not convinced by the rational choice underpinnings, it still seems pretty useful). And Dreher’s right: robust pluralism is hard (even if other orthodox Christians think it’s worth it still to try).
Yet what’s hard for some is whether or not the dying of a certain kind of Christianity is such a tragedy once you don’t believe you need Christianity for heaven. The question then becomes what can people of good will agree are problems in our society that we need to oppose, and what is our mooring for our critiques? Christians have a pretty decent grounding in, you know, the universe itself (though that might not work if their interlocutors don’t share their vision). To be fair to Dreher: on his blog he seems quite willing to continue this work (even if the way he talks about the modern academy can be at times a bit hysterical and counterproductive, but, hey, the way that some in the academy talk about folks like Dreher can probably be that way too).
Yet the basis of critique is an ongoing and important questions within the academic left, and it’s something that we too often take for granted. If not because humans are made in the image and likeness of God, then why is racism wrong? What about sexism? Autonomy you say? Sure, fine. But why is autonomy so great? What is the vision of flourishing to which we should direct that “agency” we’re all so worried about? You can make fun of critical realism all you want, but I appreciate that those folks are thinking about these questions, even as I really appreciate how other folks-like Paige Sweet and Timothy Rutzou– within critical realism are posing really important queer unpackings of what it means to flourish.
That was really long. tl;dr: certain conservative Christians are really worried about changes in sexual practice. Sexual practice is always changing though. However, one important thing sociologists can take from all of these debates is to think a bit harder about our own implicit normativity and the ground upon which we base it.
*Two things. First, in earlier versions of this, I called Foucault’s idea “the repression hypothesis” which isn’t quite right. Sorry about that. Next: I realize some folks might not know what I’m talking about here. The Repressive Hypothesis is basically Foucault’s idea that certain contemporary folks feel quite smug about how they’re no longer repressed like the Victorians, but in reality both of them make a huge deal about the classification and intense moral salience of sex in a way that just wasn’t the case a few centuries earlier: we might control sex differently than the Victorians, but “sex positive” is just as obsessed as “sex negative.” So the big difference isn’t negative to positive but from not a big deal to a very big deal.