Two things in the last week have brought to my attention that those who wish to maintain anything approaching traditional Christian standards are facing a brave new world. The first was a conversation with a young couple who were reflecting on the problem of finding modest, non-sexualizing clothes for their very young daughters, a point which led them to express concern about the educationally sanctioned sexualization of even elementary school children.
The second was the reading I have been doing in preparation for the Day Higginbotham Lectures at Southwestern Baptist Seminary that I will deliver later this week. My theme is ‘Christianity and Its Discontents,’ and in the first lecture I will address the way in which the psychologization of the politics of the Left has transformed, and continues to transform, public life. I had previously always thought Herbert Marcuse was the key figure in this narrative. It is now obvious to me that it was that delusional master of psychobabble, Wilhelm Reich, who was the key post-Freud figure.
Reich was a thoroughgoing quack but quackery has never been a bar to influence. In fact, his book, The Sexual Revolution (1936), has proved to be a remarkably prescient and influential work. It is a beautiful example of how two entirely bogus philosophies—Freudianism and Marxism—can be made to look impressive and authoritative through the liberal use of scientific jargon and an air of authorial detachment. Little argument is offered, alternative positions are rarely mentioned and never analyzed nor refuted, no real evidence for his positive proposals is provided, there is page after page of blunt assertion, and after the first chapter I simply lost count of the leaps of logic which larded every section. But it is dressed up in the confident objective tone of one who knows he is on the winning side of history.
Reich’s core argument is that human beings are fundamentally sexual beings—one might perhaps say ‘nothing more than sexual beings’—and that all social ills can be traced back to the repression of their sexual instincts. Where Freud saw this as the basis for civilization, Reich sees it as the origin of everything evil. The family unit, resting upon the ideal of lifelong monogamous heterosexual marriage, was the ultimate source of the evil and was to be the primary targeted in the sexual revolution. This had obvious political implications: Where traditional sexual morality is the equivalent of oppression and abuse, the government has an obligation to intervene. Here is a representative gem:
[A] free society will provide ample room and security for the gratification of natural needs. Thus, it will not only not prohibit a love relationship between two adolescents of the opposite sex but will give it all manner of social support. Such a society will not only not prohibit the child’s masturbation but, on the contrary, will probably conclude that any adult who hinders the development of the child’s sexuality should be severely dealt with (emphasis mine).
Two things are striking about Reich’s vision. The first is how such a poorly argued piece of nonsense from the early twentieth century appears to encapsulate so accurately the sexual philosophy of the early twenty-first. But perhaps this is more striking than really surprising. Just as sex sells everything from automobiles to detergents to the customer, so sexual license sells psychobabble and quack science to society. Indeed, reading Reich, I was reminded of the common accusation lodged against Christians: We only believe our dogmas because we desperately want them to be true. If that applies to those who believe the Christian gospel, it would seem to fit the world of the Reichian vision tenfold. We religious types are not the only ones vulnerable to accusations of wishful thinking.
Second, the book makes it clear that the sexual revolution is predicated on an entirely different understanding of reality to that found in Christianity or even in traditional patterns of Enlightenment thought. Reich and his sexual revolution do not offer a reform or revision of older patterns. They destroy them and replace them with something utterly different.
This has practical implications for everyone. Religious and social conservatives, and even traditional liberals, may well have disagreed over the years about what constitutes modesty (Speedos or shorts? Bikinis or bathing suits?) but they have typically accepted that the concept itself is legitimate and appropriate. In a world where Reichian quackery rules, we do not debate the limits of modesty for the simple reason that the very concept of modesty itself is illegitimate, a fundamentally oppressive notion. Thus, the couple to which I alluded in the first paragraph are raising children in an environment where their very concern is likely to appear at best ridiculous, at worst a sign of their moral depravity and, perhaps at some point soon, “to be severely dealt with.”
Commenting on Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, Alasdair Macintyre makes the point that the choice between the ethical and the aesthetic is the choice of whether or not to choose in terms of good and evil. Today the choice is between the ethical and the therapeutic; But the significance of the choice remains exactly the same.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.