Monday, October 5, 2015

For Evangelicals, Evil is Spelled S-E-X (Part 1)

Matthew Vines: Do you think supporting same-sex marriage is a more serious problem than supporting slavery?

Douglas Wilson: Yes, far more serious.


This two-part post is written in part as a follow-up to my review of Steven Pinker’s excellent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. 

The book raised (again) some questions regarding the Evangelical worldview. I had also discussed this with a fellow blogger (in comments on our respective blogs), and I have been thinking on the issue since then. 

The crux of the issue is this: In just about every measurable way, the world has gotten far better over the history of the world - including the last 100 years, 50 years, and 20 years. In particular, violence is on a long term and short term decline - and it’s not even close. (I recommend Pinker’s book for a detailed examination of the evidence.) Likewise, slavery has been abolished in most of the world, and that which still exists is (except for a few places like North Korea) not sanctioned by government power. In the Western world, at least, we no longer slaughter people for political and religious differences. We disapprove of torture - rather than promoted it. We no longer support lynching. War now must be justified by a greater good, rather than glory and plunder. Domestic violence used to be considered acceptable.  Now it is punished by our laws, and is also on the decline. Ditto for child abuse.

And yet, Evangelicals insist that the world just keeps getting more and more evil.

Why is that?

That really is the question.

I’ve thought about it, and discussed it, and broke down the categories of “evidence” that the world is getting worse, and have come to the following conclusion:

For Evangelicals, “Evil” is spelled S-E-X.


When asked exactly how the world is getting more evil, the responses break down as follows:

  1. Instances where perception doesn’t match reality.

Violence certainly falls into this category. Lots of people say, “the world is getting more and more violent.” But this is perception, rather than reality. In our modern world, with universally available media coverage, violence can seem to be everywhere. Back in the “good old days,” one would have little knowledge of events in a town more than a few days travel, to say nothing of events across the world. But now we do.

Other instances include domestic violence, where there is certainly a perception that it is increasing. What is really happening, though, if you look at the statistics, is that we are becoming more aware of the problem, and reporting abuse has lost its stigma.

You can also apply this to other areas, such as political corruption, general honesty, drunkenness, or whatever vice you choose. In most cases, things are about the same as they have always been. Or perhaps better. But not worse than ever before.

Why this perception? Well, the belief in the “good old days” and the decadence of the present age is pretty much a human universal. You can find it as far back as human writing can be found. It’s just how we humans perceive things.

Another contributing factor is the way we teach and learn history. History has often been a hagiography written by the winners, shall we say, and this requires a glorification of the heroes of the past. Thus, for example, Martin Luther is remembered (by Protestants) for his criticism of “Indulgences” but not for his violent anti-Semitism.  England’s Henry VIII is remembered for making England Protestant, gets a chuckle for having all those wives (and whacking a few), but isn’t remembered for the fact that he had at least 56,000 of his subjects executed for political and religious dissent. 

In other words, Mark Antony had it backwards: The good that men do lives after them. The bad is oft interred with their bones.

So, in summary, many of the “reasons” given for why the world is getting worse turn out, on close examination, to be perceptions that conflict with reality.

    2. Cultural changes

This also relates back to the universal human tendency to denigrate the “young people” and their culture.

(From Bye, Bye, Birdie)

[Alas, I can’t find a video of the original stage version, which I think is better. Here are the original lyrics.]

Any time there is a cultural change, the pearls are clutched, and this goes for everything from music to clothing to politics. What’s old is good, and what’s new is bad. And don’t even get me started on the way that the Millennials are called horrid things like “lazy” because they have high unemployment rates. I’m just sick of it.

In any case, a significant portion of the “evidence” that the world is getting worse turns out to be a realization that the world is changing. Some changes are considered to be “bad” by the Boomers but are considered “good” by Millennials. This is more of a generation gap than a true turn toward evil, but it nonetheless is used as evidence of decadence. Essentially, the decline of a certain American, Republican, white, middle class culture of the past is viewed as the rise of evil. I won’t get into all of these things due to length considerations, but many of these are political in nature, or involve urban versus small town values, or racial/cultural issues. Seriously. Dig down and find the root.

I’ll discuss the other factor more later, but a lot of the cultural factors cited as proving the increase of evil also relate to the big one: sex. The fact that sexually based swear words are no longer taboo, sex and sexuality can be talked about, and other cultural changes have caused many to be disconcerted. The cultural change isn’t that these things suddenly exist. After all, prostitution is hardly new or more prevalent than in the past. But they are out in the open, rather than something the boys talked about without women around.

    3. Decline in religiosity

This one makes more sense. For the members of any religion that believes itself to be true - and thus more true than other religions or no religion at all - any decline will be worrying. So I’ll grant this one as having some intellectual justification behind it. It does, however, suffer from a question of perspective. After all, if each group believes it has the truth, then some people will always believe evil is on the rise, because every group experiences declines at some time or another.

The question, though, needs to go deeper. Is religiosity by itself a good, and its lack, evil? I would pose that the question needs to be about deeds more than belief. I would imagine that for the vast majority of us moderns, the Inquisition would be considered to be an evil, not a good. On the other hand, most of us moderns would consider the abolition of slavery to be a good, not an evil.

When measuring good and evil, therefore, one cannot simply look at belief, but what that belief does. Or, as the founder of my own religion once said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” If the fruit is indeed getting better in many ways, what does that say about the tree?

How about this, put another way?

"It is very hard to see into the minds of men," said the Bishop; "but we can see the results of their minds' work. I think that men on the whole do live better lives than they did a hundred years ago. There is a wider spirit of justice abroad, more of mercy from one to another, a more lively charity, and if less of religious enthusiasm, less also of superstition. Men will hardly go to heaven, Mr. Carbury, by following forms only because their fathers followed the same forms before them."

Could this have been written today? Sure. But it was actually written by one of my favorite authors, Anthony Trollope, in The Way We Live Now, back in 1875. If anything, it is even more true today than in Victorian England. It is indeed difficult to see into the hearts of men, but if the fruit shows the heart, then we do indeed show more of the virtues mentioned by the bishop than we used to.

    4. Fundamentalist Islam (and Communism)

This one too makes sense. I am as concerned about the rise of a militarized and totalitarian cult as anyone.

And I agree that persecution of Christians (and others) by Islamic Fundamentalists and Communist Fundamentalists is an evil we should fight.

But history here too makes for some perspective. It isn’t like fundamentalist Islam is all that different from any number of totalitarian and fanatical movements of the past. And, for that matter, they aren’t nearly as effective in slaughtering and enslaving as past ones. The Roman Emperors, the Inquisitors, and Genghis Khan would laugh themselves silly at the incompetence. So evil? Yes. More evil? Questionable at best.

    5. S-E-X

Yup. This is the one that actually fits the facts. When you dig down, this one is very often at the bottom of things. And generally, the “evidence” fits two categories:

  1. Young women are such sluts these days.
  2. Gays are out of the closet.

I lack the space in this post to delve fully into these two fully in this post, unfortunately. However, I will note that an honest study of history reveals that male sexual behavior hasn’t changed much at all. Prostitution used to be widespread, polygamy was widely accepted, and women couldn’t even divorce a man for his infidelity or physical abuse. The phrases “boys will be boys” and “sowing his wild oats” have existed in some form since the dawn of human history, and amply illustrate the cavalier attitude toward male promiscuity. On the other hand, in the past, there was a clear line between “good girls” and “sluts.” 

In analyzing this, I have given weight not to what Evangelicals say about their theology, but to what they actually do. How they act towards others, who finds themselves comfortable in those circles, and what they are willing to do to prevent sex all demonstrate true belief far better than doctrinal statements. If you want to know what god someone worships, check to see where that person directs their sacrifices...


Doug Wilson says what everyone else is thinking

Let me return to that Doug Wilson quote.  He states that supporting same-sex marriage isn’t just worse, but “far worse” than supporting slavery.

And it isn’t just him. Blogger R. L. Stoller collects some names that are pretty big in Evangelical circles that agree with Wilson. And the evidence is clear: these aren't unsourced quotes - these are actual screenshots. 

Leaving aside the fact that so many are willing to associate with someone who has defended slavery, denied that AIDS is a real disease, compared marital sexuality to “conquering and colonizing,” and who married a convicted pedophile to a woman knowing they intended to have children ; what the h-e-l-l are they thinking? Have we really gotten to the point where the deaths of 11 million people in the slave trade, the routine beatings, the rapes, the 50% infant mortality rate among slaves, and for pete’s sake, the ownership of humans somehow is a minor infraction compared to what consenting adults do with their genitals? Really?

Now, anyone who reads my blog knows that I loathe Doug Wilson. But I also enjoy the fact that he is usually an easy target. And I also enjoy the fact that he is willing to say out loud what far more Evangelicals really believe, but are afraid to say.

Evangelicals really do - by and large - believe that sex is “far worse” than other sins.

Doug Wilson is merely willing to say that out loud. 


Everything about how Evangelicals talk about the world, from politics on down, is tainted by the belief that sex is the worst of all possible sins.

Just a few examples:

  1. How we talk about abortion.

I’ve noted before that I am personally opposed to abortion. So don’t assume that I am trying to defend the practice. But I do need to note that how we talk about it reveals a lot about what we think the actual “sin” is.

Let’s start with this: James Dobson said this a few months ago. 

America has killed over 55 million babies, 55 million. You know, the Holocaust involved 6 million Jews, we’re talking 55 million babies. There’s a Planned Parenthood about two blocks from my house and I drive past it every day and I see these cars out there and I fear for the women who are making, I think, the biggest mistake of their lives and certainly the implications for their babies. We need, as a nation, to repent of the immorality, what we see on television and in the movies and how young people are being led into immoral behavior, there’s just so much.

I want you to notice the sharp hairpin turn the statement takes. From killing babies to...wait for it...wait for it…

“We need, as a nation to repent of the violence…”

Oh wait. That isn’t what he said.

“We need, as a nation to repent of the immorality…”

[For those of you who didn’t grow up in Evangelicalism, “immorality” is code for “sex outside of marriage.”]

See, the underlying “sin” isn’t the abortion. It isn’t murder, violence, and so on.

It is sex.

Now seriously. I guess if you live in a certain bubble, you can believe that all abortions are caused by out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But that is hardly the case. Plenty of married people have unplanned pregnancies too, and some of them get abortions.

Is this really a Freudian slip, perhaps? A Kinsley Gaffe?

Because what seems to be Dobson’s real concern is that people are having sex.

Here’s another example: in the recent debate over the Affordable Care Act and its provision that contraceptives should be part of basic health care, the leaders of the pro-life movement appear to have thrown in their lot with the Quiverfullers. And the consistent opposition to scientifically accurate reproductive education, despite the proof that it tends to reduce unplanned pregnancies and therefore abortions. Basically, they believe that contraception (which actually reduces abortions) is worse than more abortions. Their actions testify to the belief.

Even the recent Planned Parenthood hearings are an example of this belief. Witness the questions by the (largely Religious Right) Republicans asking the PP director why the organization doesn’t spend more time on mammograms (which benefit Baby Boomers) rather than wasting time on providing affordable contraception and STI testing and treatment. (Which benefit younger people who may or may not follow the sexual rules.) Never mind that contraception reduces abortions, and that STI testing and treatment reduces death and sickness.

In fact, it really seems that anytime the pro-life leadership has the chance to reduce the number of abortions, but at the same time would have to accept that people might have sex without the consequence of pregnancy, it rejects the reduction in abortions.

It isn’t hard to see why, is it?

The real “sin” isn’t abortion. It’s sex. It is more important to stop the sex than it is to stop the abortions.

    2. How we talk about poverty

I won’t discuss this one at length here, but the religious right has essentially concluded that poverty is the result of the wrong people (poor people and minorities) having babies they can’t afford. Poverty surely isn’t the result of structural inequalities, systemic racism, or other factors. No, poverty is the natural consequence of the one sin that matters: sex. If poor people would just stop having sex, then their problems would go away. Thus, we can justify making life worse for the poor as simply providing "incentive" for them to stop sinning so much.  

On a related note, we can spend billions of dollars fighting the effects of gluttony. We can glorify greed and the positive results of that sin. We can work to exclude immigrants, terminate health care for children, and all kinds of other stuff that Christ and the prophets condemned. But we can comfort ourselves that at least we didn’t have sex we "couldn’t afford."

    3. Our political emphasis

The religious right has focused their political clout on two primary issues: abortion (see above) and gay marriage. This is to the exclusion of many other issues that should be considered moral issues This whole political season seems to be proof that one can violate nearly any teaching of Christ and be considered orthodox, so long as one toes the line on sex. 

4. The harmful teachings we tolerate in order to prevent sex.

I’m thinking here particularly of the Courtship/Betrothal movement, which is expressly aimed at preventing sex. Keep the young people apart physically (and emotionally) and they’ll remain virgins until marriage.

Or how about Modesty Culture. I wrote a whole series on this one.  Again, the aim is to prevent sex by (supposedly) eliminating sexual temptation.

Or how about all those “illustrations” we have all heard about a girl being like a piece of chewing gum. Once she is “used,” nobody will want her.  We never say “a boy who has been greedy will never be wanted.” Now do we?

Likewise - at least for females - “virtue” is defined sexually. I have heard, multiple times in multiple churches - to say nothing of books such as Passion and Purity - that “The greatest gift you can give your husband is your virginity.” Not any other virtue. Not any of the Fruit of the Spirit. Virginity. (By the way, the corresponding “virtue” for males is spelled m-o-n-e-y. That may be the subject of a future post.)

As I pointed out in my Modesty series, we don’t do this for any other sin. We don’t do “greed purity” pledges or “humility balls” or warn people about how the country is going to hell because we call brown skinned people rapists. Because these things aren't really important to us. 

On a related note, I am convinced that most Evangelical parents - if they are honest - would rather have their child die than turn out to be gay or lesbian. I can't think of any other sins that are considered "worse than death." Certainly not greed, or pride, or wrath, or any of the other "deadly sins." In fact, if science ever develops a prenatal test that reliably predicts whether a fetus will be gay, you will see Evangelicals embrace abortion in practice. Sadly, this makes a twisted sort of theological sense. Since most gays will be unable to attain lifetime celibacy, it would be more merciful to kill them before the "age of responsibility" rather than lose them to an eternal hell. 

On a lower scale, but still high on the fear list is the child who makes a baby out of wedlock - particularly during the teen years. Not that this is a good thing, of course, but it is treated as a far worse sin than anything else - except homosexuality. So there is a strong fear factor about sex among Evangelicals. This fear is a powerful motivator.  

 And that leads me to…

    4. Predators and Cult Leaders like Bill Gothard, Doug Phillips, and Doug Wilson will continue to bedevil Evangelicalism as long as we are obsessed with sex.

These guys - and their former poster children, the Duggars - are selling something. And it isn’t really a mystery what it is. They are selling sex. And fear of sex. The two go together. The fetishization of virginity (in girls), and the fear of despoliation.

After fanning the flames of fear about the kids having sex, these charlatans then promise a “cure.” A formula that, if followed correctly, will guarantee that the girls will get to the altar as good little virgins, and the boys will avoid fathering a child before they get through college. Everything will just turn out fine if the formula is followed.

I believe this fear was a significant factor in why my family and my wife’s family got involved in the Christian Patriarchy movement. Both of these occurred around the time the oldest female child hit puberty. In my family’s case, a significant part of the appeal was the concentration of “wholesome” young people, dressed in professional attire, or in the clothing of the past. Particularly the girls, who weren’t “sluts” (my word, not my parents’) like the others in the world or even in the church. Such “innocence,” even though that was probably mostly an illusion.

It wasn’t until later that I realized that ATI was overwhelmingly white, middle class, and from Red State America. In other words, it was a throwback in large part to a mythical past. A segregated and pre-feminist past. The appeal was to a time of (mythical) sexual innocence, before the corruptions of modern life.

In my wife’s case, her father expressly stated that he felt he needed to isolate his daughters (in the convent with the 12 foot walls, as Amanda put it) after the 14-year-old son of a colleague impregnated a girl.

Sex may sell, but fear of sex will outsell everything else.

And, for these charlatans, they do an excellent job of social signaling, promising the formation of a group of people who all believe the “right” things about sex and gender and culture.

They will never lack for followers, as long as Evangelicals continue to believe that sex is the true evil. The fear and the false promise will continue to attract adherents and the dollars they spend.

6. Every teaching of the Bible is subject to nuance - or may be disregarded outright - except those on sex.

It is startling, for example, how easy Christ’s teachings on how we use our money or how we respond to violence can be just disregarded as “He didn’t really mean it that way.” This whole election cycle has been discouraging to me, I will admit. With the exception of the usual suspects (abortion and gay marriage), the entire religious right’s political agenda seems to be based on xenophobia and cuts to social programs. And that’s even before you get to the strange embrace of those who make their lives about greed, arrogance, and disdain for others. (Hello, Donald Trump, whose supporters come primarily from white members of the Religious Right.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand that there is nuance in the world, and that a blindly literalist approach to the Bible is not conducive to a good society. So I understand being careful. Nobody should start plucking their eyes out to combat lust. If anything, I’ve spent quite a bit of time arguing against the theonomic approach to scripture, and the tendency toward proof-texting and out-of-context development of doctrine.

But isn’t it interesting that everything else about how Christians should behave seems to involve nuance and grey areas? Everything else has context, and exceptions, and ways of bending the text to fit the needs - and desires - of modern (white, middle class) American life. Except one thing. Sex is completely black and white. No nuance, exceptions, or grey areas. Depart from the official script, and you are essentially accused of denying the authority of the Bible. Evangelicals are sure that we know exactly what is permitted and what isn’t, and that is the end of the discussion. Period. It’s a black and white, bright line issue - like no other moral issue in Christianity. On a related note

7. Nothing will get you “church discipline” faster than departure from the script on sex.

Just as an obvious example, you can own a private jet, live a lavish lifestyle, abuse your congregation (hello, Mark Driscoll), protect predators (hello, Doug Wilson and C. J. Mahaney), advocate that women stay in violent marriages (hello, John Piper) and American Christians will still send you money.

But have an affair, and you probably will lose your pulpit. At least for a while. And a woman who committed sexual misconduct would certainly lose her career. Heck, poor Tammy Baker became a byword because her husband slept around.

Let me add in a true story here, one that concerns my own family. My great-grandparents got a little ahead of things, and conceived my grandfather out of wedlock. They had a shotgun marriage, and stayed together until he died decades later. By the accounts I have heard, they were basically decent - if ornery and otherwise human - people. However, he was a pastor. And he ended up losing a pulpit when the congregation computed the anniversary date versus the birth date of their first kid. (I am relying on the stories told by my grandfather and his siblings. Alas, most of them have passed on, and I can’t go back and confirm the exact details.) How they lived and ministered didn’t really matter to the elder board, did it? Not compared to what they did with their genitals before they married.

Moving to a more modern instance, I wrote a post on what will get you “farewelled” from Evangelicalism. And I was absolutely right.

Recently, people I know and love have gotten grief from other Christians - and the threat of going to the pastor for discipline - because of doing the “rainbow facebook picture” thing.

You know what? I have also seen plenty of Christians I know post about how Donald Trump is right about immigrants. How many of those have suffered any blowback? [crickets]

Or how about this morally appalling sentiment, posted by someone I know to be a very devout Christian:

Now, this isn’t a universal Evangelical sentiment. I know others who have generously offered their homes to refugees. But the fact is that this sentiment got ZERO blowback, even though it would seem to be xenophobic, uncompassionate, and contrary to what the founder of our faith advised us to do. I’m not suggesting that this calls for church discipline. But it does disturb me that this sort of thing is uncontroversial - that people who think this way are comfortable in a place where we allegedly try to follow Christ - while deviation from the script on sexuality is a reason for discipline and people leaving the church when discipline isn’t imposed. 

We are just freaking fine with fellowshipping with those who say, “God bless you, be at peace…” and send victims of terror and civil war packing. 

But we apparently cannot fellowship with anyone who comes to a different conclusion about God’s opinion about sexuality.

Because, you see, the thing that matters is the one sin God really cares about: Sex.

More and more, I have come to realize that, for most Evangelicals, their god doesn’t really care what you do with your money. He doesn’t really care about what you do with most of your body. (Unless you drink or smoke or use drugs.) He doesn’t care about violence now or in the past. He didn’t care about the genocide of the Native Americans. He didn’t care about the slave trade or slavery. Lynchings and the Inquisition didn’t really matter that much.

All that stuff is secondary.

Because, when it comes right down to it, what God really, really, really cares about more than anything else - His true measure of good and evil - is measured by what we do with our genitals.


I decided to break this up into two parts due to length.

In the second installment, [stay tuned] I want to look at the way that stories from the Old Testament which are about violence have been twisted by many Evangelicals to actually be about sex.


Before you comment, please read my Comment Policy.

I understand that this will be a controversial post. While I welcome thoughtful discussion, there are some things that I do not feel are worth allowing.

In this instance, I am not interested in hearing (again) why God supposedly supports right wing politics. I am not interested in hearing arguments about abortion on either side, unless you are actively working to help people plan their pregnancies and lessen the burden they bear for carrying children to term, rather than just lecturing them about not having sex. I am also going to delete any comments that go off quoting scripture about why I am all wrong about sex. Been there, done that, have the scars.