This reads like an odd title to me. But after reading enough social conservatives over the last few months, I’m using their term to describe whatever cultural shake up which worked to create a space to allow us to rethink gender and sexuality as a society.
The result in the last 50 years is we can imagine a world that incorporates LGBT folks. We could also imagine a world with marriage delayed, marriage based on love and not to meet social expectations. We could even imagine a space for asexuals, genderqueer, and single folks.We’re halfway there, though we have not reached the promised land.
But whatever was the required norms in the first half of the 20th century, the American nuclear family, was no longer required. It is increasingly becoming optional. Which is to say in such a vision marriage is optional, heterosexuality is optional, compulsory heterosexuality is no longer so universal or compulsory. To the many gay men and women I know who married under such a requirement, I hear a heavy sigh of relief.
If this is all that social conservatives thought the sexual revolution was, I would agree that they would have a lot to be unhappy with. Conservatism is based on established hierarchies, one which privileges men over women, in particular. So gay men and lesbians flout that order. Women who work do too. Even heterosexual men and women who marry but don’t represent their genders in a way that maintains that order, flout it. They could have an egalitarian household, for instance.
That makes it sound like gender norms and expectations are central to the conservative moral vision. Given what I have read of social conservatives, that’s correct. Libertarians and others who want to step off and not be included in this account, feel free to. But social conservative writings on the subject hammer this idea home on a daily basis.
I think the sexual revolution is a wonderful thing. As a liberal, I see a greater possibility for folks to pursue lives of their own making and meaning, no longer facing social compulsion. As a gay man I’m grateful for the struggles LGBT folks had over the last 50 years. The result is, I’m married to a wonderful man. I can work in the church, as a pastor. I can live a life unimaginable 50 years ago.
And I say that as a Christian who believes that the promise of Galatians 3:28, which roots Christian identity in Christ not on gender norms and expectations, is finally becoming more true. Again, not for everyone. But we’re further along. And this is where the dividing line takes off with social conservatives. I can’t be allowed to claim the term Christian in support of this move. I’ll address that later.
The form of argument gets there but starts with smuggling some other ideas about the sexual revolution in as Rod Dreher writes
In the 20th century, casting off restrictive Christian ideals about sexuality became increasingly identified with health. By the 1960s, the conviction that sexual expression was healthy and good—the more of it, the better—and that sexual desire was intrinsic to one’s personal identity culminated in the sexual revolution, the animating spirit of which held that freedom and authenticity were to be found not in sexual withholding (the Christian view) but in sexual expression and assertion. That is how the modern American claims his freedom.
The picture that develops is libertinism, sexual anarchy. Sex is a transaction without consequence and ethical reflection. The only norm is never to be denied. So Christianity, a stand in for the social conservative vision Rod Dreher has, is the only way of life that counsels restraint, denial, and training one’s desires towards proper ends. But us gays opened the floodgates and now we as a society will have no one tell us no.
Corey Robin’s work on the conservative imagination, highlights this line of reasoning. We can’t allow democracy or the mob will rule. We can’t allow the American revolution to take place or colonies everywhere will want their freedom. If women get the vote blacks will want the vote. The floodgates open as we willy nilly give freedom to this or that group and the order of society is at stake. This is not caricature. I’d invite you read Corey’s book or social conservative articles post Obergefell v. Hodges.
Here’s what concerns me. It is just a flat out false picture of what is happening in our country. Millennials, the one generation most likely to support LGBT equality are the least likely group to have sex of any generation in 60 years. There is no connection between wanting legal equality and cultural acceptance of LGBT folks and the idea that we should all desire sex, the more the merrier.
And there is nothing about compulsory heterosexuality that knows limits, boundaries and prudence. I actually felt grateful growing up in the 80s that I wasn’t heterosexual. All the talk of sex, and dating, and conquests, alluded me. I never had to negotiate those concerns. But the expectation was there. It was just one I was not interested in.
The folks who introduced such limits in the end were not social conservatives. It was modern feminism. They introduced consent, genuine and enthusiastic consent as a ground rule for sex. I can hear folks saying, is that the only rule? But given the prevalence of sexual assaults, date rapes, marital rape, child exploitation apparently as a society it has not taken hold.
They introduced the idea of harassment, which is to make a case for boundaries. Boundaries which respect the full personhood of every individual, including women. They rejected the objectification of women as simply objects for sexual interest and gazing. Many rejected pornography for much the same reasons.
It was astonishing watching educational films from the 1960s with my husband. They were meant to teach parents, teachers, and kids social skills. But in one such film the narrator kept on making comments about teenage girls body size, clothes, and suitability for dating. Yes it was creepy. Yes in the 60s this seemed normal apparently. And nothing in American society apparently noticed or made comment on this.
It was feminism that called attention to how women were objectified. Defined by body image. Valued based on their sexual worth to men. It was a feminism that, for the most part, operated outside of the church. Because in the church, it was never sexual prudence and restraint that animated social conservatives, then and now.
It was always a mistake to assume that conservatives somehow were anti sex. It was compulsory heterosexuality and the assumed gender norms that it was built on. So a male commentator talking about the butt size of a teenage girl is fun. But two lesbians who are married is the end of the social and religious order.
The other problem with this description, outside of being wrong, is that it ties a conservative vision of a gendered social order into Christianity. It makes them, in fact, one in the same. There is simply no way to create social and legal conditions for LGBT people, for asexuals, for queer folks, for anyone who is outside of this moral vision that does not feel to them to be an attack on their religion.
So the problem was not when SCOTUS made marriage equality the law of the land last year. The problem goes back to Supreme Court outlawing sodomy laws, allowing contraception, abortion, even interracial marriage. It was gay pride and women’s liberation. The whole later half of the 20th century would need to be repealed to feel like our society had not run into opposition to their moral vision and thus to their religion.
I mention Loving vs. Virginia, not because I take the religious right as racist. I mean that the Supreme Court weighed in on state marriage laws and local customs and norms were no longer sufficient to justify unequal treatment under the law. When the Supreme Court went there, it becomes next to impossible to justify laws against homosexuality.
The point is, the fundamental identity of Christianity has been defined by this conservative moral vision by such folks. And the last 50 years we have seen that been taken apart in our wider society. So they doubled down on it. And so now Christianity is seen as suspect. It’s part of a moral vision that has proved itself to be immoral. To the degree Christianity is intertwined with it, is to the degree that more reject it.
How that bears down on religious freedom for social conservatives and religious liberals like myself, will be a part II of this essay.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma