There are times when conservative Christians lamenting unfair media coverage can get tiresome. If you’re like me, you can sometimes find yourself thinking that it’s overblown. But then something like what has happened to Missouri senate candidate Josh Hawley happens and, well, you start to understand why people get crankish about the media.
At a campaign event in December, Hawley was addressing the problem of sex trafficking in the United States. He made what is a fairly banal point about the relationship between broadly loosening sexual norms and the problem of trafficking. Here are his exact words according to the audio recording that the Kansas City Star had when it first broke the “story.”
“We’re living now with the terrible aftereffects of this so-called revolution. We have a human-trafficking crisis in our state and in this city and in our country because people are willing to purchase women, young women, and treat them like commodities. There is a market for it. Why is there? Because our culture has completely lost its way. The sexual revolution has led to exploitation of women on a scale that we would never have imagined.”
The campaign has since released the audio on YouTube:
If you have spent any amount of time in conservative Christian circles, this argument is entirely unsurprising to you. And while there are better and worse ways of making it, it’s actually similar to an argument that many others have made as well. The idea is simply that many of the norms that shaped sexual behavior prior to the sexual revolution existed to promote stability in sexual relationships, to protect the children that came from those relationships, and also to protect young women from being exploited by young men.
Certainly, these structures and norms did not work perfectly. Sexual abuse of all kinds, including trafficking, existed before the sexual revolution. That said, the only thing that proves is that people are sinful, a fact that any Christian knows quite well. And generally speaking we do not consider the fact that people will still break the rules as grounds for dispensing with the rules. People commit tax fraud and yet the IRS still exists. People break into other people’s cars and houses and yet we still have laws condemning those things. The only thing Hawley is saying in the above is that when norms are loosened around something as powerful as sex we should not be surprised that people abuse sex in horrible ways. You cannot dissolve the informal boundaries around sex, as the sexual revolution did, and then be surprised when people do things that the boundaries were designed to prevent. This is all, in other words, yet another example of Chesterton’s fence.
We should also be clear on something else: Conservative Christians aren’t the only ones making these arguments. Wendell Berry was arguing 30 years ago that the loosening of sexual mores in America would lead to the abuse of bodies as readily as the loosening of economic and social norms would lead to the abuse of the earth.
Elsewhere, many progressives have supported consent legislation which itself implies that sex is a powerful thing that must be protected in some sense so as to minimize the potential for abuse, which is the very point Hawley was making!
The idea that dissolving norms and systems which protect against sexual abuse would lead to the buying and selling of sex, even when the consent of women is violated, is, then, not at all strange or weird. It’s a very normal sort of argument and what Hawley in particular is saying is not that different from what many on the left have (rightly!) said in the past.
And yet few have taken the time to consider Hawley’s actual words. His opponent, Claire McCaskill, whose cynicism knows no bounds, quickly jumped on Hawley’s remarks in a bizarre attack suggesting that he learned such “backward” ways while at those renowned bastions of misogynistic traditionalism Yale and Stanford:
I didn’t go to one of those fancy private schools, but the history I learned in public schools & Mizzou taught me that the evidence of trafficking of women for sex goes back to before 2000 BC. It didn’t begin with women’s rights and the birth control pill. @HawleyMo
— Claire McCaskill (@clairecmc) January 31, 2018
Media outlets were no better. Vanity Fair said the GOP is having another “Todd Akin fiasco,” likening Hawley’s comments to the rightly infamous “legitimate rape” remarks made by former congressman Todd Akin in his 2012 race against McCaskill. New York meanwhile featured a piece saying Hawley had “gone off the deep end” and that he, like Akin, had “(said) (some)thing stupid about women.” Recall that Hawley’s actual words are a lament of the effects of the sex revolution which specifically attacked “the exploitation of women.” It got better too:
But there will always be a political market for the proposition that if we had just kept the womenfolk under control and both genders under bonds of premarital celibacy, we wouldn’t be dealing with problems like human trafficking. It’s very much the point of view of the dominant class of men in the dystopian feminist classic The Handmaid’s Tale.
Then over at Bustle another writer said that the remarks were “extremely inflammatory” before saying that “the 38-year-old told attendees at the ‘Pastors and Pews’ event, held by the Missouri Renewal Project, that American women’s sexual liberation was responsible for ‘our culture’ losing its way.” This, of course, is not at all what Hawley actually said.
Unsurprisingly, political groups were perhaps the worst offenders. Planned Parenthood (!) promptly told us that what Hawley “really” is doing is attacking “women’s autonomy.” To take a speech that is specifically lamenting the exploitation of women and turn it into an assault on women’s autonomy is quite the feat in bad reading comprehension. Another pro-abortion organization said that Hawley’s words revealed a “warped view of women.”
To be sure, progressives are not alone in their ability to misunderstand their political opponents in ways so awe inducing that they suggest active malice. Their opposites are the party of Donald Trump, after all. Republicans spent the better part of eight years routinely twisting the words of Barack Obama. In a particularly appalling incident many of them harshly condemned Obama’s utterly obvious (and heartbreaking) observation that if he had a son, that boy would look like Trayvon Martin. Michael Wear can tell you more about other such examples during Obama’s administration. So the point here is not that progressives have the market cornered on malicious misrepresentation of their opposites. That is, sadly, a universal disease in America right now.
The point, rather, is two-fold: First, we should do better. There’s no reason that the fact that we all do misrepresent each other necessarily means we must continue doing so.
Second, Christians should be alert to the way our political discourse treats faithful believers right now. Even when we adopt a gutless position on abortion (that contradicts our denomination’s position paper to boot!), we’ll get lit up in the media. And when we do take a firmer line, as Hawley did in his otherwise unremarkable comments, we’ll get misrepresented and probably slandered. No matter what, there is no path toward respectability for evangelicals interested in political life. Or, rather, there is no path toward respectability for evangelicals who wish to remain affiliated in any way with their evangelical church.
The only way to attain it is by doing the full Evans or Merritt and loudly and publicly denouncing your former co-religionists as a show of both your penitence and your own purity. Do that and those outside the church will buy your book and you’ll make a bit of money, though they probably still won’t totally trust you. But anything less than that and you’ll be attacked, whether you go the admirable Hawley route or the less commendable route taken by White. One of our great idols for much of the past 40 years as evangelicals has been being respectable, being seen as part of the American mainstream.
It’s time for that idol to die.