Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Sexual Freedom As Secularist Sacrament

A reader sends this story about a serious campaign underway in Scandinavia to ban non-therapeutic circumcision of boys — an effort that, if successful, would make life very, very difficult for Jews and Muslims. Excerpt: I doubt that religious bigotry, as such, has much to with it–though anti-Muslim sentiment, at least, is on the rise […]

A reader sends this story about a serious campaign underway in Scandinavia to ban non-therapeutic circumcision of boys — an effort that, if successful, would make life very, very difficult for Jews and Muslims. Excerpt:

I doubt that religious bigotry, as such, has much to with it–though anti-Muslim sentiment, at least, is on the rise in Scandinavia, as in much of Europe. Rather, what we’re seeing is a clash of values between a secular worldview that has little patience for traditional religious expression, and the followers of the traditional religions themselves. To put it bluntly, the secular human rights community finds it increasingly difficult to take seriously the arguments traditional religion puts forward, especially when sex is somehow involved.

Here’s an example. Last week, The Copenhagen Post ran an op-ed by Morten Frisch, a doctor and sex researcher who favors a ban. Circumcision, Frisch writes, is problematic not only because it violates a boy’s bodily integrity when he is too young to consent. (Actually, any medical treatment would present that problem). What’s really bad is that circumcision decreases sexual pleasure later in life. “To most Europeans,” Frisch writes, “circumcision is an ethically problematic ritual that is intrinsically harmful to children: every child has the right to protection of his or her bodily integrity and the right to explore and enjoy his or her undiminished sexual capacity later in life.”

What about the fact that Judaism and Islam have required male circumcision for millennia? Isn’t that a factor to consider? You might think that practices that have lasted thousands of years come with some presumption of validity, even if you disagree with them. Millions of people across time have thought such practices important, even sacred. Frisch summarily dismisses these concerns. “Religious arguments,” he writes, “must never trump the protection of children’s basic human rights. To cut off functional, healthy parts of other people’s bodies without their explicit and well-informed consent can never be anybody’s right–religious or otherwise.”

Several things:

1) This illustrates the point that commenter Thursday, and others, keep making here: that the claim frequently made by secular liberals that their worldview is values-neutral and therefore more just is a sham. It’s not that secular liberals are morally wrong in any of their particular claims, but only that they are wrong, and self-deceptive, to claim that their values are in any sense neutral. The idea above of “basic human rights” implies an objective concept of rights inherent to all humans. Where do these rights come from? Why do they not include the right to worship as one sees fit? Why should this conception of “human rights” be privileged above others? I don’t believe there is any such thing as a values-neutral polity, and I wouldn’t advocate for one, inasmuch as it cannot exist. But we really should get it straight in our heads what’s going on here, when we have this clash of visions. Liberals often flatter themselves that they are the open-minded, reasonable ones in these matters, when in fact they are every bit as dedicated to imposing a vision of the good on the polity as any Christian.

2) It is telling that the reason the Scandinavian doctor gives for suppressing traditional Jewish and Muslim practice is that it stands to decrease sexual pleasure later in life. Preserving the possibility for more intense male orgasms is more important than preserving the right of the Jewish and Muslim minority to follow the teachings of their ancient faiths. For many secular liberals, sexual freedom and pleasure is the summum bonum of life, and must be privileged above all else, including religious liberty. Denmark is simply taking what many American liberals believe to a logical conclusion. If you understand that sexual autonomy is at the heart of what many middle-class and upper-middle-class liberals consider to be the Good Life, it becomes easier to understand why they pursue the political and cultural agenda that they do.

3) Damon Linker, on the culture war and the political and cultural future of the US:

The liberal political theory that influenced and inspired America’s founders tells us that these disagreements shouldn’t be a problem. First devised in response to the bloody clashes of Europe’s religious civil wars, classical liberalism proposes that a modern, liberal nation can cohere around devotion to the ideals and institutions that make it possible for its citizens to live together freely and in peace, despite their differences about the highest human goods.

But is that really enough when the differences go so far beyond early modern Christian factionalism, to include disagreements about fundamental questions of life, love, sex, pleasure, family, and even the very nature of reality and meaning of existence? Is there any upward limit on how much cultural difference is compatible with national cohesion? How long are Americans stationed on different sides of our numerous cultural fissures likely to feel bound together with strangers who view the world so very differently — especially when each side increasingly treats the others with open contempt?

Can a nation of more than 310 million people bind itself together with little more than an attachment to the very institutions that permit and foster its cultural disunity?

Is there any upward limit on how much cultural difference is compatible with national cohesion? This is a terrific question, but it may not feel quite so pressing to most people now, because it is hard to imagine anything seriously challenging our basic cultural and political unity, however much we may grumble about the Other. But if my country should ever threaten my right to practice the fundamentals of my religion as Scandinavian countries are threatening their Jewish and Muslim citizens, it will become my enemy. That will not mean civil war, as it once did in the US, but if a significant number of Americans come to think of their government as an enemy of their faith — and I think this day is coming, in my lifetime — we will be living in interesting times.

On the other hand: I once met an African-American veteran of World War II who said that he fought proudly for America not because it was perfect — he came home to segregation — but because he believed in America’s ideals. He fought because he believed that American ideals were right and true, and that America simply had to be compelled to see that the way it treated its black citizens was a failure of the nation to be true to itself. That man had an enormous amount of moral courage and insight. How can any of us today be permitted the luxury of despair about America when a man who had to come home to real oppression maintained his faith in the promise of America, despite it all?

The difference, I think, is that there was back then a widely shared idea of the good society. That veteran fought because he agreed with what America stood for, and wanted to make America be faithful to the creed that nearly all Americans endorsed. Plus, in those days, there was a wide consensus around sexual norms, which, cruel though they could be to individuals, provided for relative social and cultural stability. And however far American society fell short, there was still a wide consensus around basic Judeo-Christian moral norms as ideals to which we should collectively and individually aspire. This is why the Civil Rights Movement, emerging out of the black church, was so successful: it forced America not only to face how it was failing itself by the way it treated its black citizens, but it forced Christians to see how they were failing their own deepest religious beliefs.

Those days are gone. We are post-Christian now, and post-Sexual Revolution. As Linker points out, we don’t even have fundamental agreement on many of the basics. In 1798, John Adams wrote: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” What happens to an America whose people have grown far apart on what it means to be moral and religious?

You cannot be a traditional Christian (or Jew, or Muslim) and accept the Sexual Revolution. As I wrote in TAC last year:

 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 underway since the Enlightenment, but Rieff showed that it had reached a more advanced stage than most people—least of all Christians—recognized.

Rieff, who died in 2006, was an unbeliever, but he understood that religion is the key to understanding any culture. For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culture requires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework.

You don’t behave this way and not that way because it’s good for you; you do so because this moral vision is encoded in the nature of reality. This is the basis of natural-law theory, which has been at the heart of contemporary secular arguments against same-sex marriage (and which have persuaded no one).

Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the sexual revolution—though he did not use that term—as a leading indicator of Christianity’s death as a culturally determinative force. 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 was at the core of Christian culture—a culture that, crucially, did not merely renounce but redirected the erotic instinct. That the West was rapidly re-paganizing around sensuality and sexual liberation was a powerful sign of Christianity’s demise.

In the past, Christian values were the cultural core around which American political life centered. In the emerging post-Christian order, Christian values are increasingly alien to American political life. This may cause less political discord than we think, given that so many Americans are deconverting from historical Christianity, and either leaving the faith altogether, or substituting the contentless, bourgeois, and ever-malleable Moralistic Therapeutic Deism for prophetic religion. It may be the case that believing Christians are destined to become a small and increasingly despised minority in the decades to come. In fact, this is what I expect. This is why I expect things like Scandinavian attacks on Jewish and Muslim religious life to become more common in the US in the decades to come. And this is why I expect that my grandchildren, if they somehow manage to be Christians, will more or less be enemies of the state. It has happened before.

UPDATE: Dear Anti-Circumcision Activists who don’t normally participate in this blog, please read the thread before you post. I have published several comments by you folks. I’ve stopped, because they all repeat the same script. The point has been made over and over.



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