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Opportunities for Renewal After the Sexual Revolution

March 25th, 2022 | 10 min read

By Jake Meador

Matt Yglesias has an astute piece noting some reasons for concern amongst progressives re: the long string of success their movement has enjoyed with regards to LGBT+ issues:

We had a roughly 10-year period of political routs (starting with the repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell,” continuing to the Obergefell decision, through to Bostock) in which the left was constantly on the march. And a new PRRI poll confirms that both marriage equality and LGBTQ non-discrimination law are not only popular but increasingly so in a population that continues to secularize and grow more tolerant.

But after taking a lot of Ls, conservatives have regrouped around a new set of issues, including an effort to ban gender-affirming medical care in Texas that will be repeated if it holds up in court and key provisions of Florida’s new Parental Rights in Education Act that seem aimed at making K-12 classrooms more hostile to LGBTQ people.

At the same time, I think progressives have grown somewhat overconfident about the broad popularity of some of these issues and are not paying enough attention to the potential electoral ramifications of supporting trans participation on women’s sports teams. The Transgender Law Center itself says that in their message testing that “our opposition wins the debate on trans youth in sports against any and all arguments we have tried for our side.”

In short, Yglesias says, progressives need to recognize when an issue is a political loser and let that slide so that their broader positive momentum can continue. If they don’t, one political loser can be the spark that leads to a broader range of defeats. Freddie deBoer has said similar things.

Here is the difficulty that progressives are running into, I think: The inherent logic involved with the redefining of marriage, redefining of gender identity, and so on runs in decidedly illiberal directions. Matt had the measure of the problem seven years ago:

There is no room for naivety about our current cultural crisis. Only within the evangelical world naivety is the dominant problem. Young evangelicals who are increasingly sympathetic to their cause want to make nice with gay marriage while supporting religious liberty, but until we are given arguments for how they can coexist given our current legal and political history, we have no more reason to think that is possible than that we could unwind marriage from politics altogether (which is the ultimate libertarian fantasyland). The people who are now shouting about “religion-based bigotry” may be outliers now, but if Frank Bruni has his way they’ll be the future of the movement. After all, Rachel Held Evans thinks that conservatives have blood on their hands.  If that’s not sufficient reason to do whatever it takes to eradicate such views, I don’t know what is.

Of course, this fact did nothing to slow the progression of LGBT+ rights for many years. Why is that? It has to do with the significant differences that exist between the “LGB” part of the movement and the “T+” portion. Take the fight over gay marriage as the key example here: American marriage had been reimagined in ways that blur sexual difference for decades prior to Obergefell. This, also, is something we have been saying for some time:

The purpose of the American economy for at least the past 60 years and arguably for much longer has been to systematically dig up the roots of family life by destroying home life and replacing it with work life centered in a place other than the home and cordoned off from all concerns not immediately answerable to the almighty dollar.

What this means is that industrialism made a redefinition of marriage and home-life inevitable. Indeed, it’d be truer to say that industrialism redefined marriage decades ago by making it an essentially genderless relationship consisting of two careerists sharing resources they earned in their separate lives. It was merely a leftover Christian veneer that preserved natural marriage in the time since that initial redefinition took place.

Marriage in the USA long ago ceased to be an institution meant to solve the social problem of “how can we ensure that children are raised in a stable, loving home with their parents?” and instead became a set of legal privileges accorded to independent careerists who feel a strong emotional, social, or relational bond with each other.

So we might put it this way: The reason gay marriage triumphed and the broader suite of rights for gay and lesbian people were often political winners is because they simply brought the American legal regime into alignment with the careerist world that already existed.

The difficulty, once you introduce trans issues, is that that strength disappears. Whereas redefining marriage felt almost natural to many because it was simply a gesture to bring legal norms into alignment with what was already effectively true of American public life, the transgender movement is inherently quite different.

Affirmative care, for example, quite plausibly violates many well-established and still widely held views of medical ethics. Are you “doing no harm” if you are surgically sterilizing a young person’s body (and possibly introducing other long-term health risks) on the basis of their internal felt sense of gender? One can (and many will) argue that this is not doing harm because it is bringing a person’s body into alignment with their internal sense of self, thereby removing the dysphoric feeling that many trans people experience.

However, it is also possible that such dysphoric feelings come from other root causes and, in that case, the surgical intervention is unnecessary, will create unnecessary health risks, and saddle the person with irreversible changes to their body which they might one day come to regret. My point here is that the intuitive case for trans rights is far more complex and raises far more problems for the average American than did the case for gay marriage.

When you tie this reality to the inherent illiberalism of the movement, you’re bound for trouble. This illiberalism was in play with older debates but it didn’t announce itself as loudly simply because it didn’t need to for the reasons stated above. On the other hand, when the natural gravity of American life, as it were, is not running as strongly in your favor, you need to persuade, reason with people, and so on to secure political success. However, as deBoer notes, that is something most proponents of trans rights are unwilling to do.

The outcome is what we are now seeing: some plausible political defeats for the sexual revolution and some signs in public polling and elsewhere that the sexual revolution may be in retreat.

The Opportunity for Renewal

How should Christians respond to these perhaps emerging trends? Certainly not with triumphalism, given our own shameful handling of sexual abuse, to say nothing of our pathetic attempts to participate in the 90s and 2000s-era sexual arms race. Rather, I think we can propose three better responses.

Remember that sex is not necessary for the good life.

First, we need to rediscover the widely taught Christian idea that sex is unnecessary for the good life. In a world where intimacy is increasingly unavailable to most people, sex can feel like the only form of intimacy still possible and so its absence is a kind of torture. But Christianity has always held that there are higher goods than sexual love. We would do well to remember that. I cite it often, but I do that because it is so striking. Read St Ambrose on celibacy:

Virginity has brought from heaven that which it may imitate on earth. And not unfittingly has she sought her manner of life from heaven, who has found for herself a Spouse in heaven. She, passing beyond the clouds, air, angels, and stars, has found the Word of God in the very bosom of the Father, and has drawn Him into herself with her whole heart. For who having found so great a Good would forsake it? For Your Name is as ointment poured out, therefore have the maidens loved You, and drawn You. And indeed what I have said is not my own, since they who marry not nor are given in marriage are as the angels in heaven. Let us not, then, be surprised if they are compared to the angels who are joined to the Lord of angels. Who, then, can deny that this mode of life has its source in heaven, which we don’t easily find on earth, except since God came down into the members of an earthly body?

Read that again: “this mode of life has its source in heaven.” Those who do not marry but satisfy themselves in the love of God and find that it is sufficient are as the angels in heaven. There is something heavenly in the celibate life that does not exist in the same way in the married life. So the call to celibate life need not be a call to loneliness and isolation, but can rather be a call toward a better love whose source is in the eternal world rather than the temporal, a life that images the life of heaven in the world for us to see today. The celibate life, we might say, draws the life of heaven down into the earth. What would our churches be like, I wonder, if we told single people that their unique witness can show us what heaven is like?

There is a striking scene in Of Gods and Men that also makes this point. An aging monk is sitting with a young woman from the village who is asking him questions about love. The priest describes what it it like, saying:

There’s something inside you that comes alive, the presence of someone, it’s irrepressible and makes your heat beat faster, usually. It’s an attraction, a desire, it’s very beautiful. No use asking too many questions. It just happens. Things are as usual, then suddenly… happiness arrives, or the hope of it. It’s lots of things. But you’re in turmoil, great turmoil. Especially the first time.

Then she asks him if he has been in love. He replies,

Several times, yes. And then I encountered another love, even greater. And I answered that love. It’s been awhile now, over 60 years.

I imagine if our churches were more often places where celibate people were affirmed in their vocation and where they were given the chance to mature in it, as this monk had done, that our churches would be able to speak a far more compelling word to our post-sexual revolution world. But because we ourselves have been colonized by that revolution, our voice has been muted.

Make tangible sacrifices to preserve communal life.

Second, the reason our churches have mostly been colonized by the sexual revolution is that resisting it is difficult. It requires communal action, which cuts against the individualism of our day, and it requires sacrifice, which cuts against the obsession with bourgeois lifestyles and respectability that are so often dominant in our churches. And this applies as much to supporting young families as it does supporting the celibate. Young families often feel as if they are drowning, particularly if they lack local family that can offer support and help.

So to truly express an alternative witness to the life found within the sexual revolution, we need to repudiate not just the sexual revolution, but the earlier revolutions that paved the way for it. We will need to normalize home-based economies in our churches, not as the only faithful Christian expression of work, but as a common and plausible one for Christians to adopt in order to truly preserve familial common life. We will also need to normalize mutual involvement in the day-to-day matters of life, transparency about struggles, finances, fears, and so on. And we will need to normalize saying “no” to certain professional and lifestyle choices so as to preserve our availability to one another.

In other words, as I say in the book, we may not need to become the Bruderhof, but we definitely need to become almost Bruderhof.

Celebrate the goodness of celibacy and the goodness of children.

Joie and I have four kids between ages nine and two. They were not all planned, you might say. Indeed, Joie remembers that the morning she told me about one of our pregnancies, she hugged me and could hear my heart racing. Even so, we are grateful for all our children. Indeed, I cannot imagine my life without them. And yet parenting is hard and hard in ways that go beyond the widely cited things such as sleep deprivation or the financial costs of family life.

But if we can form stronger communal bonds in our churches, it also becomes easier to be open to life and to rejoice when it comes. One of the striking things about our own experience in Lincoln has been observing the difference between how local Catholics and local evangelicals have often responded to news of our pregnancies. Evangelicalism in Lincoln is often about lifestyle propagation in the bourgeois way I described above, constantly chasing after status symbols, large houses, new vehicles, and other markers of status and success.

So when a family has a larger number of children relatively close together, which obviously inhibits your ability to achieve that status, many Lincoln evangelicals don’t know how to respond and they struggle to be enthusiastic, at least in our experience. On the other hand, Catholics in our very conservative diocese here in town were almost universally giddy whenever we were expecting a child. But in the city’s diocese, larger families are more common, household economies are more common, and an openness to life and a rejoicing in its presence is more widely practiced. Large families are normal for them (and supported by them) in a way they mostly are not in our experience of Lincoln Protestantism.

Fear and anxiety are normal human experiences, of course. This is even more the case in a time of such fragmentation and rootlessness as is our own. But if we know there is a community to catch us when we fall and to support us when we endeavor to do something difficult—and living the celibate life and pursuing family life are both difficult in their own ways—then the fear and anxiety need not consume us. Unfortunately, in the absence of that community, they often do and the outcome of that consumption is that good things, such as the presence of life, become occasions for more fear. It ought not be this way. And if we are to take advantage of the opportunities for renewal being afforded to us in this moment, it must not continue to be this way.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).