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Cheap Sex = Dying Christianity

It's not science that's causing the young to abandon the church -- it's sex

In 2014, a reader of this blog who identified himself as an ex-Evangelical, pro-gay Millennial wrote to explain why he changed his mind on homosexuality. Excerpt:

You see SSM [same-sex marriage] advocates as employing emotive arguments in order to win, but you have to realize that a lot of the Christians that are being argued against have traded in nothing but emotion for the last 30 years.  Salvation is a weeping, sinners-prayer mumbling, emotional roller coaster, and the emoting never stops.  In all the years I was a member, my evangelical church made exactly one argument about SSM. It’s the argument I like to call the Argument from Ickiness:  Being gay is icky, and the people who are gay are the worst kind of sinner you can be.  Period, done, amen, pass the casserole.

When you have membership with no theological or doctrinal depth that you have neglected to equip with the tools to wrestle with hard issues, the moment ickiness no longer rings true with young believers, their faith is destroyed.  This is why other young ex-evangelicals I know point as their “turning point” on gay marriage to the moment they first really got to know someone who was gay.  If your belief on SSM is based on a learned disgust at the thought of a gay person, the moment a gay person, any gay person, ceases to disgust you, you have nothing left.  In short, the anti-SSM side, and really the Christian side of the culture war in general, is responsible for its own collapse.  It failed to train up the young people on its own side preferring instead to harness their energy while providing them no doctrinal depth by keeping them in a bubble of emotion dependent on their never engaging with the outside world on anything but warlike terms.  Perhaps someday my fellow ex-evangelical Millennials and I will join other churches, but it will be as essentially new Christians with no religious heritage from our childhoods to fall back on.

With that in mind, I hope that every conservative Christian reader of this blog — and all religious conservatives, for that matter — will read this stunning Washington Post op-ed by sociologist Mark Regnerus, and share it widely. Regnerus points out that Christians are becoming more permissive on everything sexual because they don’t see dating as having much of anything to do with religion:

Young Christians are suffering the bruising effects of participating in the same wider mating market as the rest of the country. Many Orthodox Jews and Mormons have eschewed the wider mating market, while Christians in their 20s and 30s have not. These Christians’ narratives are seldom radically different from non-religious Americans.

Marriage rates across the board are decreasing, and Christians are no exception to this. More:

As marriage rates among Christians begin to decrease, additional change is afoot. Yale sociologist Justin Farrell assessed the sexual and marital attitudes of evangelicals and found consistent age differences — younger evangelicals (below age 30) were notably more permissive on nearly all issues, especially on pornography. Critics might claim that this is nothing more than the standard age effect on sex visible from time immemorial — that older Americans have always been less permissive about sex than younger ones. However, exceptions to Farrell’s age effect are apparent among married evangelicals, meaning that under-30 evangelicals who were already married were notably less permissive. But the age at first marriage of evangelicals is climbing, in step with — about a year earlier than — the median age of other marrying Americans (27 for women and 29 for men).

Pastors can no longer count on people becoming more conservative, and involved with their churches, as they get older. More:

It’s not only in the diminished numbers of returnees that mating-market dynamics are affecting congregations. Longstanding Christian sexual ethics are making less and less sense to the unchurched — a key market for evangelicals. That’s giving church leadership fits over just how “orthodox” they can be or should be on matters of sex and sexuality. “Meeting people where they’re at” becomes challenging. Congregations are coming face to face with questions of just how central sexual ethics are to their religious life and message. The new Nashville Statement on marriage and sexuality — and emotional reactions to it — newly demonstrates just how live and poignant the tension is.

Regnerus lists some truly jaw-dropping statistics about how confused even regular churchgoing Christians are about Christian sexual ethics. For example, 17 percent were not sure whether or not consensual polyamorous unions were okay for Christians, or not. Having sifted the sociological data, Regnerus concludes that there is a connection between sexual “liberation” and the loss of Christian faith:

Cheap sex, it seems, has a way of deadening religious impulses. It’s able to poke holes in the “sacred canopy” over the erotic instinct, to borrow the late Peter Berger’s term. Perhaps the increasing lack of religious affiliation among young adults is partly a consequence of widening trends in nonmarital sexual behavior among young Americans, in the wake of the expansion of pornography and other tech-enhanced sexual behaviors.

Cohabitation has prompted plenty of soul searching over the purpose, definition and hallmarks of marriage. But we haven’t reflected enough on how cohabitation erodes religious belief.

We overestimate how effectively scientific arguments secularize people. It’s not science that’s secularizing Americans — it’s sex.

Read the whole thing. If you can’t get behind the Post’s subscription wall, you may be able to access the piece via news.google.com.

I am really looking forward to reading Regnerus’s new book, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy.   It sounds like he’s found strong evidence for something I wrote about in The Benedict Option. From that book’s chapter on sex and sexuality:

As the Benedictines teach, one of our tasks in life is to be a means by which God orders Creation, bringing it into harmony with His purposes. Sexuality is an inextricable part of that work.

Wendell Berry has written, “Sexual love is the heart of community life. Sexual love is the force that in our bodily life connects us most intimately to the Creation, to the fertility of the world, to farming and the care of animals. It brings us into the dance that holds the community together and joins it to its place.”

This is more important to the survival of Christianity than most of us understand. When people decide that historically normative Christianity is wrong about sex, they typically don’t find a church that endorses their liberal views. They quit going to church altogether.

This raises a critically important question: Is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force?

Though he might not have put it quite that way, the eminent sociologist Philip Rieff would probably have said yes. Rieff’s landmark 1966 book The Triumph of the Therapeutic analyzes what he calls the “deconversion” of the West from Christianity. Nearly everyone recognizes that this process has been under way since the Enlightenment, but Rieff showed that it had reached a more advanced stage than most people — least of all Christians — recognized.

Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the Sexual Revolution — though he did not use that term — as a leading indicator of Christianity’s demise. In classical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism” was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant that renouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture and redirecting the erotic instinct was intrinsic to Christian culture. Without Christianity, the West was reverting to its former state.

If the churches today compromise on sex and sexuality, it’s over. This may or may not be a theological truth, exactly, but it is a sociological truth. This is why Christian sexual ethics — including but not limited to same-sex marriage — is so important, and not something otherwise orthodox Christians can agree to disagree about.




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