In this essay I continue my review of David P. Gushee, After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity, this time focusing on a single chapter: “Sex: From Sexual Purity to Covenant Realism.” It would take a small book to deal thoroughly with the substance and rhetoric of this chapter. Almost every sentence calls for comment. In some cases the choice of one word instead of another places Gushee and me worlds apart. I will try to distill Gushee’s essential argument as efficiently and fairly as possible before I offer my critique.
Gushee opens with a rather contemptuous summation of evangelicals’ view of sex: “no sex for no body outside straight marriage” (p. 119; emphasis original). The double negative in the expression “no sex for no body” seems intended to give the impression that evangelicals are a bunch of backwoods hicks hailing from somewhere in hills of flyover country. And the reference to “straight” marriage, which a few years ago would have been considered redundant, needles those who adhere stubbornly to marriage as it has been understood for a thousand generations. The evangelical view of sex, according to Gushee, has caused great suffering for LGBTQ people and shame for young people, gay and straight, who cannot live up to it. In this chapter, Gushee argues for a sexual ethic “that sets enthusiastic mutual consent as a floor and covenant marriage as its main norm” (p. 119).
The Bible on Sexual Purity
Gushee admits that Paul teaches that for Christians there should be “no sex for no body outside straight marriage.” Jesus’s strict teaching against lust and divorce in the Sermon on the Mount tends in the same direction. In the hands of evangelicals, however, the New Testament texts are made to imply not only that sex “outside straight marriage” is forbidden but that it is dangerous, dirty, and shameful. But the Old Testament book of Song of Solomon celebrates the body and sex in graphic language. “We have tended,” complains Gushee, “toward too much Paul and not enough Song of Solomon, too much “spirit” and not enough “body” (p. 122).
Purity, Gender, and Sex
Drawing on Linda Kay Klein’s book, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, Gushee argues that the evangelical “purity culture and abstinence-only sex education” movement of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century was a spectacular failure. It made no difference in the sexual activity of evangelical young people as compared to non-evangelical young people. But it did “increase the experience of sexual guilt and anxiety and decrease sexual efficacy and satisfaction, especially among women” (p. 123). Additionally, the patriarchy associated with the purity culture facilitated “male sexual misconduct” and “clergy sexual abuse” (p. 123).
One observation before I leave this section: Gushee leads us to the edge of an inference that he does not explicitly draw: the odd characteristics, failures, and negative effects of the evangelical sexual purity movement in advocating the biblical morality of sex, casts doubt on the workability of the biblical view itself. As we shall see in the next two sections, Gushee actually makes this leap.
At the Intersection of Nature and Culture
Nature urges post-puberty young people to engage in sex as often as possible. But cultures recognize the need for rules to govern sexual activity for the sake of social peace and the welfare of children. Most cultures encourage some form of marriage as the best social arrangement to channel natural sexual desire toward socially productive ends. Marriage works best, however, if the gap between the onset of puberty and marriage is not too long. In contemporary America puberty happens between 10 and 12 years old on average but marriage is not contracted until around 30 years old. This means that there is an 18- to 20-year gap between puberty and marriage. According to Gushee,
Religious and cultural constraints cannot be expected to prevail over nature for twenty years, not even for devout Christians…We need a sexual ethic that makes sense amid today’s cultural circumstances but that still pays attention to the real problems that the Christian sex-in-marriage alone ethic was trying to solve (pp. 126-27).
Evangelicals and LGBTQ People: What Went Wrong
In their resistance to the gay rights movement of the 1960s, 70s, and 80’s, evangelicals used “hateful” and “disgust-producing rhetoric” to paint gay people in the worst possible light. Evangelical leaders seemed oblivious to the trauma and terror their rhetoric caused to the closeted LGBTQ evangelicals in their churches, families, and schools. What went wrong? Gushee answers that evangelicals displayed “an inability to deal with reality because the Bible did not appear to permit it” (p. 128; emphasis original). Evangelicals could not accept the “unassimilable reality” that a certain percentage of the population is attracted sexually to persons of the same sex. Scientists now understand that homosexuality is a “routine variation reported in all times and cultures” (p. 129). The problems that plague LGBTQ people do not derive from their sexual orientation as such but from the “stigma (and persecution) inflicted on this population” (p. 129). What needs to change is “not gay and lesbian people, but the cultural worldviews that stigmatize and harm them” (p. 129). Evangelicals need to change.
For this to happen, however, post-evangelicals must find “new ways of interpreting the Bible, ways that reinterpret the handful of condemnatory passages and elevate the many passages that potentially lead to better treatment and full inclusion” (p. 129). Tradition must be abandoned and replaced by “experience and other sources” as contexts within which to interpret the Bible’s statements concern same-sex activity. We must “adjust faith to the legitimate discoveries of science” (p. 129). The choice of dogma over people is driving believers out of the evangelical fold.
The exiles know that a religion that systematically harms vulnerable groups of people is not a good thing in the world. It is the opposite of Christian humanism; it is inhumanity in the name of Christ (p. 130).
Toward a Post-Evangelical Sexual Ethics
Gushee proposes a two-tiered sexual ethic. Covenant marriage should be the aspirational norm by which every other use of sex is measured. In covenant marriage, people pledge to take care of each other through thick and thin. For all the reasons cultures down through the ages have encouraged it, marriage is still the best place to direct sexual energy toward personal and social wellbeing. Although Gushee does not mention gay marriage in this immediate context, it is clear that he includes these marriages within his category of covenant marriage. He says,
I personally affirm that full acceptance of LGBTQ people is a nonnegotiable dimension of post-evangelical Christianity, and most others in this terrain seem to feel the same way (p. 130).
Covenant marriage may be the ideal, but any workable sexual ethic must articulate a minimum as well as an ideal norm. Young unmarried people will have sex, so we must provide guidance for those not ready for marriage. Gushee offers as a minimum standard this rule: sexual encounters should be conducted with “mutual enthusiastic consent,” because “irresponsible, exploitative, and sadistic sexuality is extremely dangerous. It can deeply harm others and self” (p. 130). Marriage is Gushee’s ideal, but he is willing to make “a concession to reality”: if “legal marriage is unreachable or unwise,” it would nevertheless be “best” for partners “to structure long-term romantic-sexual relationships in a covenantal fashion” (p. 133).
Interestingly, Gushee finds himself defending a more conservative position than fellow post-evangelicals Nadia Bolz-Weber, who recommends “sexual flourishing” as a new norm for sexual behavior, and Brandan Robertson, who considers polyamory (many sexual partners) as an acceptable Christian option. Gushee’s defense of his position, by the way, amounts to a plea not to go to extremes in reacting to the perfectionism of the purity culture. A plea, not an argument.
Three Critical Observations
1. Humanist, Utilitarian, Pragmatic, and Libertarian but Not Christian Ethics
Gushee is a professor of Christian ethics. He has written elsewhere on sex and marriage and other ethical topics. I’ve not read those works, but I am very clear that this chapter is not an exercise in Christian ethics. I am not speaking here merely of the fact that I disagree with his conclusions. Every argument, every observation, and every conclusion is based on avoiding harm and pursuing psychological/sociological wellbeing in this life. None of his conclusions helps us understand what we “ought” to do, none speaks of divine commands, and none roots our obligations in a Christian vision of creation, salvation, or redemption. Instead he uses “science,” psychological and sociological expertise, utilitarian thinking, and personal testimony to determine what are constructive and destructive—not right and wrong!—ways to use sex. The Christian language Gushee uses is ornamental and, without loss to the argument, could be jettisoned. The basic principle of his ethics (in this chapter) is consent. Even his ideal of marriage is derived from human experience of what works for this-worldly ends. Marriage is not “holy.” It’s not a sacrament. It’s not a mystery (Eph. 5:32). It is, rather, a beneficial social construct.
2. Misplaced Appeal to Science
Gushee appeals to facts, reality, and science in a way I find questionable. He takes the statistic about the number of LGBTQ people in the population as possessing moral significance. But it cannot carry such weight, because statistical studies describe what is whereas morality prescribes what ought to be. You cannot move from what is to what ought to be without introducting moral principles derived from sufficient moral grounds. His appeal to science is especially troubling. He implies that the discovery of the universal presence of LGBTQ people in human society parallels the discovery that the Sun, not earth, is the center of observed planetary movement. After Galileo, we had to reinterpret the biblical texts that seem to imply erroneously that the earth does not move and is the center of planetary motion. In the same way we must now reinterpret biblical texts that condemn same-sex activity…because we now know these texts are wrong.
But Gushee’s analogy between biblical references to empirical facts and its moral teaching is misplaced. For the parallel to hold, one would need to discover from some other source the moral knowledge that same-sex activity is good and right. And this source cannot be empirical science, for empirical science produces only empirical knowledge. Gushee does not explicitly admit that he relies on a source of moral knowledge of greater authority than the Bible, but he does so nonetheless. And that moral source is progressive culture as it comes to expression in the self-testimony of LGBTQ people.
3. Psychologically Implausible
Does anyone really believe that telling hormone-intoxicated teenagers that “enthusiastic mutual consent” is the minimum ethical floor for having sex and that “covenant marriage is its main norm” (p. 119), will do anything but clear the way for having sex early and often? What teenager would choose the hard way when their teachers tell them that it is morally acceptable to take the easy path? Can you imagine a responsible Christian parent telling their sixteen year old son or daughter, “Don’t have sex unless you are “enthusiastic and your partner consents”? Our sex-drenched culture has been telling them this for decades!
Shouldn’t Christian ethicists have something better to say?
Next Time: We will examine Gushee’s chapters on politics and race.