Why do conservatives Christians spend so much time concerned about sexual politics? Whether fretting over same-sex marriage or teenage fornication, it seems—to our friends as well as detractors—that we are obsessed with policing eros.
The common assumption is that our motives are similar to those falsely ascribed to the Puritans by H.L. Menken: that we have the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” For some Christians this may be true, but for most of us the issue is more complex, even a tad bit pretentious. We actually subscribe to the embarrassing belief that by defending traditional sexual ethics we are preserving Western civilization.
In this, we take our cues from the brilliant non-believer, Philip Rieff. Rod Dreher notes this fact in his superb essay on Rieff, the sexual revolution, and post-Christian civilization:
The late sociologist Philip Rieff was not a religious man, but he was a chronicler of the cultural revolution and a prophet of it. Rieff’s theory of culture, put simply, is that a culture is shaped by what it forbids (in his term, “remits”). In his 1966 classic “The Triumph of the Therapeutic,” Rieff identified Christianity’s teaching about sexuality (that it is only licit when expressed between one man and one woman, in a state of holy matrimony) as a core principle of Christian civilization. “Historically, the rejection of sexual individualism (which divorces pleasure and procreation) was the consensual matrix of Christian culture,” Rieff writes. He goes on to say that what is “revolutionary” in modern culture is the complete abandonment of the idea that renunciation (of whatever kind) is necessary, toward the belief that impulses should be released. Christianity never preached crude renunciation of sexuality, but rather developed a sophisticated way of spiritualizing it — and built an entire civilization around theories of the human person, and human purpose, that all depended on Christian sexual ethics.
That’s over now. It’s done. Rieff, who writes as a sociologist, points out that the West has abandoned the Christian sexual ethic; therefore, what we can rightly call Christian culture and civilization is also on the way out.
Although I’m not as pessimistic as Rieff, I think he is completely correct on this point. Western civilization is, as the conservative thinker Peter Viereck once noted, a Greek-Roman-Jewish-Christian amalgam. The sexual revolution undermines, subverts, and will eventually replace Christian culture, causing a radical—though gradual—transformation of Western civilization. Christianity will continue, of course, as will Christian culture. As long as there are there are Christians, there will be Christian culture and eschatological hope. What will be different is that one of the pillars that uphold the West will be missing.
Acknowledging this reality is not an admission of defeat. The battle to save civilization may be quixotic, but, like many conservative Western Christians, I’m too much of a romantic to give it up. Nevertheless, it seems inevitable that we will lose. My generation is the last that will retain a dominant number who are willing to oppose such radical institutions as same-sex marriage. Once we die off there will be few to carry on the fight.
Indeed, I know some young, smart Christians—believers who went to the best evangelical colleges and are thoroughly versed in the Great Works of the faith and Western civilization—who fully understand what is at stake and yet they are willing to give it all up because they fear being called bigots by their peers. The fault for this belongs with the Boomers and us Gen-Xers. We have a raised, as C.S. Lewis might say, a generation of men and women without chests. We should have trained them to have the courage of martyrs. Instead, the tremble at the thought that someone might call them a homophobe.
But what comes next? What comes after the pillar of Christian culture is removed? I believe my friend James Poulos, who is himself a disciple of Rieff, has the answer. His prophetic vision of the future of the West is what he calls the “Pink Police State.”
The Pink Police State is a more extreme version of a regime I use to taunt my libertarian friends in my essay on ‘The Sex Vote’ that’s just been published in Doublethink. I worry, and I think we should all worry, about the way cultural libertarianism is snowballing while the snowball of political libertarianism rolls deeper into hell. I’m aghast at the shrug with which many self-styled libertarians greet massive government, so long as it’s run by people with ‘enlightened’ attitudes about pleasure-seeking. It’s not death to the state these libertarians want, it’s the state as cool parent, with a stripper pole in every pot. . . .
On top of this, we all know how intimately sex — or at least images of sex and talk about sex, alas — has become a part of everyday life. What gives me fear is the idea, which large numbers of people seem to be buying into, that a growing sphere of libertinistic freedoms compensates (or more than compensates!) for our shrinking spheres of political liberty and the practice of citizenship. You can guess what I think about ‘liberaltarianism’.
That’s the background brief on the Pink Police State, a vision which came to me courtesy of one of the most visionary videos of the 1990s. I’m talking about Marilyn Manson’s “The Dope Show,” off 1998′s Mechanical Animals. I know it’s a bit odd for a conservative cultural critic to praise Manson as a brilliant genius, but before the Columbine aftermath unfairly derailed his career and life Manson was firing on all cylinders, and Dope Shows’ incredible ‘live performance’ sequence [2:15-3:00], in which an all-male body of riot police wearing head-to-toe pink uniforms are inspired to make out, was deeply prophetic, in an as-yet symbolic way, about the manner in which our manufactured contradictions and desires are apt to show forth in contemporary life.
“Cops and queers,” Manson sings on that track, “make good-looking models.” We should all ruminate on that lyric to better understand the uncannily dovetailing fantasy of administrative omni-competence in official life and sexual omni-competence in unofficial life.
Why do conservative Christians spend so much time focusing on sexual issues? That’s why. We are attempting, however futily, to prevent Christian civilization from being replaced by the totalitarianism of the Pink Police State. We are trying, however ineffectually, to stop our civilization from replacing the Cross with a stripper pole.