What Is ‘Traditional Christianity,’ Anyway?
— Damon Linker (@DamonLinker) July 23, 2014
You will not be surprised to learn that I agree with Damon here. Nor will you be surprised to learn that I think this has been a process underway for quite some time; it’s just that now, the sh*t is getting real.
I think it’s worth asking, though, what we mean when we say “traditional Christianity.” I use the phrase too, interchangeably with “small-o orthodox Christianity,” or just “orthodox Christianity.” What I mean is Christians of whatever tradition who adhere to, um, tradition. You see the problem.
When I push further, I say, in a Kierkegaardian vein, “Well, it means Christians who think that religion deals in objective truths, subjectively appropriated. Christians who believe that truth is something that exists outside of ourselves, as opposed to being something we can bend to suit our time-bound desires.”
But this still doesn’t get us very far. I consider a faithful Southern Baptist, a conservative Anglican, an orthodox Roman Catholic, and an Orthodox Christian all to be “traditional Christians.” Still … whose tradition? What sense does it make to say that Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics are on the same side as “traditional”? From a Catholic perspective, the Baptists are so far gone theologically from tradition that it makes no sense to think of them as “traditional Christians.” And from a Baptist point of view, the Catholics may be “traditional,” but they lost their way when they began adding man-made things to the pure Gospel, like the early church had.
(I’m not trying to argue either side, just pointing out that the term “traditional Christians” is highly relative, and highly contextual.)
It seems to me that “traditional Christian” is political code for “Christians who adhere to traditional teaching about sex and sexuality.” After all, it is possible to be a traditional Christian and a socialist on economics. It is possible to be an archtraditionalist on liturgy and sacred music, but an archliberal on morals and politics — and vice versa. It is much more difficult to say that traditional Christians can believe in a Reformation ecclesiology or a Catholic/Orthodox ecclesiology, and both be paid-up traditionalists. But we certainly do. In fact, one of the core issues involving “traditional Christianity” is the source and nature of religious authority — does it reside in the Church, guided by Tradition and Scripture? Scripture alone? In the individual conscience? — but that concept never really comes up in our generally accepted use of the term. When I deploy the phrase “traditional Christians” in my writing, I’m not thinking about ecclesiology, sacramental theology, or any other thing that separates Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy.
What I’m thinking about — what we are all thinking about — is this: what separates “traditional Christians” from “modern Christians” (or “progressive Christians”) in our common discourse is their beliefs about sex. Nothing else, or at least nothing else meaningful. Think about it — for purposes of general discussion these days, what would you say separates those you would call “traditional Christians” from other kinds of Christians? Take sex out of the picture, and what do you have? If we’re not talking about sex, what are we talking about?
This is quite revealing, if you think of it. We’ve known for quite some time that our politics have been largely defined by attitudes toward sex, even if some people don’t want to think about it. Look back at Thomas Edsall’s 2001 piece in The Atlantic about how the “morality gap” is (was?) the key factor in American politics. Excerpt:
Early in the 1996 election campaign Dick Morris and Mark Penn, two of Bill Clinton’s advisers, discovered a polling technique that proved to be one of the best ways of determining whether a voter was more likely to choose Clinton or Bob Dole for President. Respondents were asked five questions, four of which tested attitudes toward sex: Do you believe homosexuality is morally wrong? Do you ever personally look at pornography? Would you look down on someone who had an affair while married? Do you believe sex before marriage is morally wrong? The fifth question was whether religion was very important in the voter’s life.
Respondents who took the “liberal” stand on three of the five questions supported Clinton over Dole by a two-to-one ratio; those who took a liberal stand on four or five questions were, not surprisingly, even more likely to support Clinton. The same was true in reverse for those who took a “conservative” stand on three or more of the questions. (Someone taking the liberal position, as pollsters define it, dismisses the idea that homosexuality is morally wrong, admits to looking at pornography, doesn’t look down on a married person having an affair, regards sex before marriage as morally acceptable, and views religion as not a very important part of daily life.) According to Morris and Penn, these questions were better vote predictors—and better indicators of partisan inclination—than anything else except party affiliation or the race of the voter (black voters are overwhelmingly Democratic).
It is an axiom of American politics that people vote their pocketbooks, and for seventy years the key political divisions in the United States were indeed economic. The Democratic and Republican Parties were aligned, as a general rule, with different economic interests. Electoral fortunes rose and fell with economic cycles. But over the past several elections a new political configuration has begun to emerge—one that has transformed the composition of the parties and is beginning to alter their relative chances for ballot-box success. What is the force behind this transformation? In a word, sex.
Whereas elections once pitted the party of the working class against the party of Wall Street, they now pit voters who believe in a fixed and universal morality against those who see moral issues, especially sexual ones, as elastic and subject to personal choice.
It’s even more true today than it was 20 years ago, don’t you think? Look at what none other than Thomas Edsall wrote in the NYT the other day about what he terms “the coming Democratic schism”: in short, that Millennials are much more Democratic, but make their voting decisions not so much on economic issues and racial equality issues, but on “social and cultural issues.” So, if racial equality isn’t a “social and cultural” issue, what is?
Answer: for the most part, sex. Dick Morris and Mark Penn nailed this nearly 20 years ago. If it’s true for our secular politics, it’s much more so for our religious politics.
Once again, I call you back to the piece I wrote for TAC titled, “Sex After Christianity,” especially this passage:
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 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.
Sexual autonomy is increasingly more important to contemporary Americans than religious liberty, which was one of the founding principles of our nation. What we call “traditional Christians” in our discourse refers to what 50 years ago would have simply been called “Christians,” given that there was no dramatic dissent among the various Christian sects and churches on sexual morality. So, when we say that we are living through the transformation of traditional Christianity from majority to minority status, what we’re really saying is that the Sexual Revolution has conquered Christianity in America, and that Christians who still believe about sex more or less what nearly all Christians for over 19 centuries believed are becoming a declining population that will be seen as as reactionary weirdos.
If we’re not saying that, well, what are we saying?
UPDATE: Approving the comments is frustrating, because no small number of you seem to believe that I think that defining “traditional Christianity” is all about sex. I do not — not in a theological or philosophical sense. Please stop saying, “If Christianity is only about sex, no wonder it’s dying.” I agree that the theological and philosophical essence of the divide has to do with how we know what Truth is, how we know what Authority is, and how we know how to stand in relation to it. Put another way, it has to do with whether or not there is a telos to which we must submit, or whether we can do whatever we want because there’s no essential meaning to the body, or anything else. Where the answer to that question/those questions becomes relevant to the public square — which is to say, at which point the theological and philosophical express themselves in the sociological and political — is on matters of sex and sexuality. That’s where the conflict is in this place, and in this time. I bet that if you had a room full of people representing all the churches in North America, the quickest way to determine who was “traditional” and who was modern is not to ask them about the Creed or anything else, but to ask them who accepts homosexuality as normal and who does not. Once you divided them according to that issue, I’d guess that nine times out of 10 further questioning would find deeper philosophical commonalities among those who agree on homosexuality, because how you think about homosexuality comes out of deeper philosophical and theological commitments.
Religion journalist Terry Mattingly devised the “TMatt Trio”: three questions, the answer to which neatly summons the divide between traditional and modern Christians in America today:
1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?
(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?
(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?
Only one of those has to do with sex — but only the sex question has to do with conflicts outside the realm of church circles. That is, only the sex question matters in the public square. Which was the whole point of this post. Please understand that before you comment.