Part 3 of Will Barrett’s series on “The Intra-Evangelical Culture War.”
The X could be any number of good and important things the church ought to be doing. Most likely, it means feeding the poor, healing the sick, promoting racial reconciliation, or agitating against economic injustice. It it is possible that some churches neglect their part in these activities, but to point this out in a dialogue about sexual morality serves no purpose but to divert attention away from the question at hand with an irrelevant attack on the credibility of the opponent.
Imagine a formal debate in which one speaker declares that both sides would be better served by calling off the debate in favor of doing something more constructive. Then, after his opponent leaves the room, he proceeds to stump for his own point of view on the issue. This is precisely the tactic some progressive Christians use when faced with conservative arguments about the morality and theology of sex. Although they may complain that conservatives are taking too much time away from works of justice and mercy to preach about sex, I have yet to hear of any sexually progressive Christian commentator hold his own advocacy to the same standard.
Perhaps this is because progressives view sexual liberation as a work of Christian compassion. This is completely within the bounds of debate—but many conservatives are equally convinced that traditional Christian sexual mores are ultimately more compassionate and just than the modern alternatives. Ultimately, we cannot avoid arguing each case on its merits.
Why don’t progressives notice this plank in their eye? They seem unable, even for the purpose of debate, to bracket their assumption that conservative sexual mores represent oppression. In their minds, their own opposition to conservative sexual mores amounts to fulfillment of the Christian duties that they accuse their opponents of neglecting.
Of course one may sincerely believe that conservative sexual mores are bad for people, but Christian liberals seem to forget that their interlocutors sincerely believe the opposite. That’s what the argument is all about in the first place. But some liberal Christians treat “resisting oppression,” including the oppression of conservative sexual mores, as a check mark on the side of charity, even when such “resistance” only amounts to loudly expressing disapproval for a particular teaching of the church. They adopt a double standard: lamenting charity as the casualty of the culture war, but only when conservatives are the ones waging it. Talking about sexuality distracts from more important aims—unless liberals are the ones talking.
It is outside the scope of this essay to dislodge the intractable assumption that conservative ideas always and everywhere represent oppression. My purpose in bringing it up is to show how it intrudes upon honest debate to insist on dismissing the discussion in favor of paying more attention to “the things that really matter.” How a church spends its time and resources is a vital concern, and one that deserves more respect than to be used as a red herring to slap traditionalists in the face with.
It is childish and unfair to call a debate and then rebuke one’s opponent for showing up. Pile on the unquestioned assumption that conservative views represent an entrenched system of institutional oppression, and distractions flourish. With this confirmation bias, all conservative conferences, think tanks, and corporate sponsors immediately appear, in the eye of the liberal beholder, to be secret guilds peddling an insidious, authoritarian agenda, wasting money that could have been spent on nobler pursuits to score meaningless political points.
The rhetorical tactic of “following the money trail” does nothing more than expose how the sausage of “democracy” is really made, but it raises the specter of conspiracy. This was recently seen in the negative media attention surrounding “The Economics of Sex,” an animated video presentation of research by the Austin Institute. Every liberal reaction I read said exactly nothing about the film’s argument, only that it was funded by some pretty lame cats who have also funded some other pretty lame things.
There is also a more covert, though quite widespread prejudice that cultivating liberal attitudes toward social issues necessarily places one in the camp of compassion, and that holding right-leaning opinions on those same issues places one at an ethical disadvantage. A conservative needs to prove an extraordinary degree of personal altruism in order to be perceived as anything other than a bourgeois pig wallowing in privilege, while all a liberal has to do to prove goodwill is wear clothing associated with the working class. Conservative opinions about sex are subjected to a kind of indentured servitude: you aren’t free to talk about anything until you’ve paid up a large deficit of good will to “the marginalized.”
This prejudice works on the mind to make statements of conservative opinions or beliefs on sexual issues seem not only reprehensible, but coming at the expense of goods that conservatives are thought not to care about. But this is, once again, slyly changing the channel from sex to charity and implying that the opposition privileges one over the other. This tactic is not meant to encourage sincere and thoughtful conversation about the church’s social witness, but only to score a cheap and unrelated point by assuming that conservatives enter the discussion at the expense of other goods. Even if this were true, it has nothing to do with the discussion at hand about what proper sexual morality ought to be.
I don’t want to waste time here making an apologetic for conservative Christianity’s social witness. Conservatives don’t have it all together, but honestly, neither do liberals. The evangelical megachurch down the road may spend too much of its budget on ostentatious flat screens and espresso bars, but the Episcopal Church, one of Christianity’s most sexually progressive denominations, is spending millions on legal battles to wrest church property from small congregations who have parted from the church over its teaching on sexuality. No church is spending more on the culture wars than the Episcopal Church. (Meanwhile other more traditional churches, such as the Catholic Church, are actually feeding the hungry, healing the sick, opposing economic injustice, etc. . . .)
This too is beside the point. We could all stand to be more compassionate, to invite more people into our homes and be more generous when we give alms, instead of spending so much time and money on things that are perhaps less important. But as long as we’re having a discussion about Christian sexual mores, it does no good to evade it by first accusing the other side of not having their house in order when there is little evidence of the orderliness of one’s own. It leaves the accuser vulnerable to the same attack. Wouldn’t it be better if liberal Christians abandoned their polemical crusades for theological revisionism and full acceptance of sexual practices that the church has historically condemned in order to go serve the poor? The objection cuts both ways.
Do you think the author should have spent his time volunteering at a local charity instead of writing this essay? Leave a comment below!
Next week, Mr. Barrett will examine the objection: “Sexual sin shouldn’t be decried to the exclusion of other sins.”
Featured image: “Same Sex Marriage Debate” by Bill Stilwell (Flickr)