Religion and Sexual Freedom

We have actually contrived to invent a new kind of hypocrite. The old hypocrite, Tartuffe or Pecksniff, was a man whose aims were really worldly and practical, while he pretended that they were religious. The new hypocrite is one whose aims are really religious, while he pretends that they are worldly and practical.

G. K. Chesterton

A somewhat quixotic friend whom I’ll call Gus dropped by the other day to reprove me for recurring error. “Don’t take this wrong, Steve,” Gus said. “You know that you and I agree on a quite a few things. But I’m concerned. I have to object.”

“Object to what?” I asked.

“In your last book,” Gus explained, “and in a number of recent articles, and in a blog post just a day or so ago, you describe the current cultural conflict that is tearing up America as one between traditional ‘religion’ and a conflicting movement that you describe as ‘secular.’ ‘Secular egalitarianism,’ you sometimes call it.”

“Okay. And the problem is. . . ?”

“The problem is that this is a fundamental misdescription.”

“Well, of course, in talking about broad cultural movements involving millions of people, we have to generalize, and simplify. But . . . .”

“No,” Gus interrupted. “That’s not the problem. Of course we have to simplify. But you’ve been simplifying in a wrong-headed, fundamentally obtuse way. Because the movement for sexual freedom, which you sometimes associate with ‘secular egalitarianism,’ isn’t a ‘secular’ movement. It’s a religious movement in its own right. What we have, in other words, is not ‘religious’ vs. ‘secular’ but rather a new religion fighting against an old one. So Hobby Lobby, for example, wasn’t a fight about ‘religious freedom’ versus some ‘secular’ interest; it was about which religion government should recognize and accommodate. Until you understand that, you won’t properly understand the conflict, or the hysterical reaction in some quarters to the Court’s utterly modest and moderate decision. In fact, I might add, you won’t properly understand ‘substantive due process’ and ‘equal protection’ jurisprudence running all the way from Griswold and Roe to United States v. Windsor.”

My friend, it seemed to me, was being needlessly contrarian. “Well, Gus, we all know that ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ are slippery terms that can be used in various ways. If you want to call the campaign for contraceptives and abortion and sexual liberty a ‘religious’ movement, I can’t stop you. Admittedly, there’s a lot of passion and zeal in the movement. But is that enough to call something ‘religious’? I think you’re using words in an idiosyncratic way. And I don’t see what you gain by doing that.”

“No, I’m not using words in an especially unusual way. And what I gain is a better understanding of what’s going on around us– of the strange, fraught situation we’re in.”

“How so?” I asked.

“It’s true that there’s no single, canonical definition of ‘religion.’ But I offer this as a pretty good one: ‘religion’ is about identifying the summum bonum– the ultimate good– and helping people to orient themselves toward that good. Most of the things people classify as religions– Christianity, Islam, Buddhism– are centrally concerned with helping people understand and achieve the summum bonum. So that’s pretty conventional usage. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Let’s go with your description, for sake of discussion anyway. So then what?”

“So, through much of Western history the dominant religion in Europe and America was Christianity, of course. And Christianity taught that the summum bonum, or the highest good that humans could achieve, was union with God. The beatific vision. In this union, without actually losing his individuality, a person would transcend his partial and fragmented existence, his confinement to this puny, bodily defined space, and would be joined with something else, with something larger. Thereby expressing and achieving his real identity. And that joining would have an ecstatic quality. It would be the ultimate bliss. Which is why mystics like St. Teresa so often used sexual imagery to try to describe their spiritual union with God.”

“Okay. I’m no historian, or theologian. But that sounds pretty much right, as a description of the way Christians used to think.”

“And if the beatific vision was the summum bonum,” Gus continued, “then it followed that the rest of life should be structured so as to orient human beings toward that ultimate good. Including sexuality. Which could be consistent with marriage. Or, depending on the person, with a life of abstinence or celibacy.”

“That would make sense. On those premises.”

“But now suppose you reject that whole account of things. Suppose you think that this material world, and this life in that world, are all there is. The beatific vision won’t be the summum bonum anymore, with its implications for society and sexuality and all. On the contrary, all this will sound like antiquated, delusional mumbo-jumbo. So then, what will replace it?”

“I don’t know. What?”

“Think of the leading candidates for an ultimate good,” Gus urged. “Money? Everyone wants money, but everyone also understands that money is only good for getting other things. Power? But power is also good for getting other things; otherwise it’s just a burden. As the Kevin Spacey character in ‘House of Cards’ denies but so clearly shows. So then, what? What’s the good?”

“I don’t know. Lots of things. An evening walk on the beach. The pleasure of hearing a really well performed piece of music. A tasty enchilada. A loyal friend. A loyal dog. Lots of things.”

“Well, sure, those are all good things,” Gus conceded. “But they aren’t the ultimate good. They aren’t the summum bonum.”

“And you’re telling me that sex is the summum bonum? Seriously?”
“I’m not exactly saying that sex is the summum bonum. I’m saying that once the Christian summum bonum is discarded, sex is a leading candidate– maybe the leading candidate– to replace it. Think about it. Sex is an ecstatic experience. It takes a person outside himself, brings him into unity with something beyond himself. It is– or at least it’s commonly reported to be– the most exquisitely blissful experience one can have in this sensate sphere. In short, it’s the thing in our natural life that most closely resembles the Christian summum bonum.”

“I don’t see it that way,” I replied.

“I’m not saying you need to see it that way,” Gus explained. “And once again, I’m emphatically not saying that sex is the summum bonum. Still, isn’t it clear that a lot of people today believe it is, consciously or unconsciously? The producers of, or at least the audiences for, many popular movies. The audiences for thousands of popular songs. Most teenage boys. Maybe even the church-goers who hypocritically carry on on the side, in contravention of everything they purport to believe. What about the unremitting ads for Viagra or Cialis or whatever? Let’s be honest: our culture is literally saturated with the idea that sex is the highest good, the ultimate fulfillment– that human beings are who they are because of their orientation toward sexuality, that you can’t have a truly fulfilling life, or even be who you really are, without sexual consummation.”

“Well, it’s pretty obvious that our culture is obsessed with sex. So then, what are you saying that everybody doesn’t already know?”

“I’m saying that just as much of life during the Christian centuries was structured so as to help orient people toward what was perceived as the ultimate good, the same is true today. The movement for sexual freedom isn’t just something independent of traditional religion that occasionally happens to come into conflict with some religions, as in Hobby Lobby. That doesn’t capture it. Rather, the movement for sexual freedom is a campaign to displace and replace traditional Christianity. It’s doing the same thing Christianity tried to do; the only difference is that it has substituted a different summum bonum (though the one that most closely resembles the Christian idea within the purely natural world).

“That’s why,” Gus continued, “the supporters of the contraception mandate are so incensed by the Christian claims of people like the Greens, the owners of Hobby Lobby. In reality, the Supreme Court’s decision did next to nothing to prevent women who want contraceptives from getting them. As Justice Kennedy’s legally gratuitous and rather supine opinion desperately tried to make clear. Kennedy seems to have sensed that he was ruffling the sensibilities of the constituency on which he has staked his legacy. It would be a shame– wouldn’t it?– in one carelessly honest interpretation of the law at the end of his career, to forfeit all of the legacy credit he had piled up over so many years in Casey and Romer and Lawrence and Windsor. So he went out of his way, a bit pathetically, to try to reassure his constituency that they weren’t really losing anything, and to servilely flatter the Ginsburg faction. (Seriously . . . a “respectful and powerful dissent”? In whose world?) But none of that could pacify the supporters of the mandate, because they understood that the Greens, and serious Christians generally, are not just following a different legitimate path; the Christians are in direct opposition to their religion. And they can’t tolerate that. They’re struggling to establish their own religion with its conception of the good as the dominant, legally-supported orthodoxy.

“Of course, most Christians in this country (including the Greens) are okay with contraception,” Gus concluded. “This isn’t really about contraception per se, as a medical matter. It’s a religious clash, as I said. The cross and the contraceptive are central emblems of two different religions– religions that are fundamentally opposed in their summum bonums. And in Hobby Lobby, however narrow and fragile the decision was, those symbols went head-to-head, and the cross came out on top. Barely. For the moment. And of course only as an ‘exception’ to the officially favored religion. Even so: an opposing religion can’t just lie down for that, however harmless the practical consequences. Or at least this religion can’t.”

I’m not sure whether there’s anything in Gus’s view. I can imagine plenty of objections, some substantive, some more semantic. For myself, I expect to keep talking about “secularism” and “secular egalitarianism” when the occasion dictates. Also, it should be clear, in case I didn’t mention it in the beginning, that Gus holds some pretty peculiar opinions, and that he sometimes expresses these in ways that some people will find offensive. (But, seriously, how is that to be avoided, these days?) Still, I’m an old-fashioned believer in the “marketplace of ideas,” and Gus’s idea seems to me to deserve a hearing. Which of course is why I’m reporting it here.

Steven D. Smith is the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law, University of San Diego and Co-Executive Director of the USD Institute for Law and Religion.

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Comments

  1. Richard S says

    Good post. Recall Voltaire’s famous: if there were one religion in England, there would be tyranny; if there were two religions in England, there would be civil war; but there are thirty and there is peace.
    And recall the famous exchange between Emerson and Margaret Fuller, watching the dancer Fanny Elsler. Emerson said it was great art. Fuller corrected him, saying it’s religion. Unless we know morality or truth by reason, it is perfectly reasonable to define religion as the things we take on faith, without proof. What is good, and what is transcendent are certainly on that list.
    P.S. Madison was a fan of that Voltaire quote. It’s one possible origin of his extended sphere ideas)

  2. Glen says

    “Gus” is absolutely correct in interpreting modern American secularism as a religion displacing Christianity. See Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

    However, identifying sex as its highest good is a bridge too far. Modern secularism simply ignores the divine aspects of Christianity while retaining its secular ethics. Hence it finds the meaning of life in achieving a communitarian utopia here on earth – something that God told us was impossible.

  3. Teresa says

    Gus is quite correct in identifying what Helen Alvare has called “sexualityism” (see http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/07/5757/) as a new religion with sexual license (or freedom if you insist) as the highest good. Hence the new demands, both domestic and internationally, that every nation state affirm, not merely tolerate, homosexual conduct and imaginary sexual identities in the face of real health risks and contrary physical attributes. For an example of the international campaign see http://www.yogyakartaprinciples.org/ and Tozzi’s excellent response at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1551652. If the nations of the world sought to ensure clean water to all humans with 10% of the energy applied to the promotion of acceptance for unlimited sexual expression, there would be very few regions where children continue to die from diarrhea due to drinking contaminated river water.

  4. Linda Smith says

    “People in search of something to want” – this headline appeared in a summer Boston Globe article published decades ago. The subject, which was shopping as recreation, may offer some insight into the subject of this piece as well.

    Misuse, through the generations, of wisdom handed down to us in trust, the principle of entropy (recently referred to by Dr. Robert Spaemann in reference to marriage), sin in all of its manifestations – these factors have had their way with us. We are confused.

    But, if it is true, and I believe that it is, that human beings naturally seek goodness, truth, and beauty, this quest must have a goal and a path to that goal.
    If “goodness” and “virtue”, “beauty” and “truth” are eliminated as goals, what can fill the void left by their absence?

    Some in all good faith propose “pleasure” as an anodyne to despair. This provides a path to the religion of “satisfaction of desire”, now seen many as the highest good; one which they propose to make mandatory for those who would participate in American society and political life.

  5. nobody.really says

    Gus has an interesting perspective. I think that it heads in the right direction but overshoots the mark. That is, I understand the battle to be waged between the religionists and the anti-religionists. The anti-religionists may not share the religionist’s hang-ups about sex, but also about other things (working on the Sabbath?). So there’s no special reason to reduce the interests of the anti-religionists merely to sex.

    To my mind, the issues are mostly about the extent of the privileged status of religion: To what extent should people be given a pass from bearing burdens arising from laws of general applicability – and, thus, be able to shift these burdens onto everyone else – on the grounds of religion? People who self-identify as religious have an apparent self-interest in defending this privileged status; people who do not so self-identify have an obvious self-interest in opposing this privilege.

    But I’ll concede that people’s feelings likely go beyond the extent of the self-interest, and enter the realm of tribalism. Each side can dredge up grievances against the other, and can fashion apocalyptic stories about the fate of the world under the other side’s dominion.

    For what it’s worth, I read Kennedy’s concurrence to say, in effect, that he agrees with the dissent, but observes that in the narrow circumstances of birth control we can (at least theoretically) find a resolution wherein the Greens can distance themselves from providing the disapproved birth control, yet the employees can still get this birth control at no incremental cost. Recall, Kennedy has not been a doctrinal judge; he seems to care more about reaching the outcome he favors than about fashioning a coherent legal standard to guide future decisions. So if we were to re-run the Hobby Lobby case, but involve circumstances in which accommodating the Green’s religious views would necessarily require shifting burdens onto the Green’s employees, all bets are off.

  6. scory says

    The “new” religion is simply a revival of the very old religion which was an amalgam of many cults lumped together by historians of the Christian era as paganism.

    The more successful empires of the ancient world learned to avoid sectarian conflict by making each of the cults an adjunct of the state religion with the First Citizen, king or whatever he was called as pontifex maximus. Thus each had status and standing and was free to practice as they chose so long as they did not challenge the authority of the ruling elite. The First Citizen would grant acceptance and legitimacy and would acknowledge and quite often attend and even conduct worship of the various gods. Once acknowledged by the state the cult received official sanction. Not all cults were equal or regarded with the same degree of respect – some of them had rather bizarre beliefs and practices not shared by the ruling elite – but so long as everybody paid their taxes and gave allegiance to the proper authority there would be little or no interference in whatever their particular practices happened to be. There would, of course, be exceptions if the cult was prone to things like human sacrifice but, by and large, just about anything went if it didn’t contribute directly to civil unrest or insurrection. As Pontifex Maximus the head of state would arbitrate and judge disputes that arose among the various and sometimes quite different cults and this would maintain the peace. In an extremity the state could always call in the army and extinguish any threat – a reality that was well known to all – and so the cults that wanted to survive fell in line.

    In the Hobby Lobby matter the modern acolytes of Venus have been affronted and they have expressed their anger and outrage. Others within the overarching state religion, even though they might be devotees of other gods, jump to express support of there brothers and sisters and to right the wrong that has been done them. After all, if one cult can be restricted all can be subject to something similar. The rule is tolerance of all with that tolerance being enforced by the state. The pagan state will not tolerate intolerance which must be silenced, marginalized and eventually eliminated.

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