30 June 2005

Southern Baptist Big Ponders the Young and the Sexless

By Jeff Sharlet

R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Seminary, takes on my recent Rolling Stone story on virgins in a lengthy rumination for Crosswalk.com, available at The Christian Post. Mohler, declared by Time the “reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S.,” challenges my argument that Christian activists have politicized chastity to make it an organizing principle of the Christian Right.

“Anyone who thinks that the idea of sexual abstinence is a recent development tied to a political agenda within the Christian right,” writes Mohler, “just hasn’t been in touch with conservative Christianity.”

Actually, I agree. But my argument isn’t that Christian conservatives have just discovered chastity; it’s that there’s a new, broad embrace of it among a generation of exceptionally pious virgins who are, however, fully engaged with mainstream culture. Moreover, that Christian political activists have moved it to the center of their concerns, a notion emphasized by many abstinence activists. It’s worth pointing out — as I failed to do in Rolling Stone — that this shift began in the early 1990s, just as the Cold War ended. What’s the connection? Pre-marital sex is the new communism, the new “evil empire.”

Such an assertion, however, is evidence of my secular perspective. I look for explanations in worldly events. As such, my foray into the chastity movement has an inevitable “among the natives” tone, but not for the reasons Mohler guesses.

“The reporter’s analysis,” he writes, “serves as a fascinating lens through which to see the sexual values of the dominant media class. They haven’t considered sexual abstinence as an option for years, and at least some of them have a hard time believing that sexual abstinence before marriage was ever considered the normative expectation for young people. Coming of age in the 1960s–or raised by parents who came of age in the 1960s–those who live in the dominant sexual culture now hear the idea of sexual abstinence as something genuinely innovative and assuredly radical.”

There’s a bit of missing nuance in Mohler’s remark — occasional freelancing in Rolling Stone andHarper’s does not make one part of the dominant media class, which might be more correctly defined as network news — but he’s otherwise correct. But then, so am I. It’s true that I see the growing chastity movement as “innovative and assuredly radical,” although I came of age in Reagan’s America, raised by parents who came of age in Eisenhower’s, hardly the bohemian cultural influences Mohler diagnoses. The reasons the current moment strikes me as new are that 1)the sexual revolution made pre-marital sex more of an acceptable option. Choosing to forego it means something different now than it did 50 years ago, although it’s worth remembering that even in the days of the Puritans there was plenty of pre-marital sex; 2) Today’s sexless prayer warriors say they’re doing something new. Some see it as old, but very old — a return to medieval chivalry, or to first century Christianity; 3)An examination of the rhetoric of the Christian Right reveals a surprising evolution of current notions of chastity.

For example, what’s interesting is that an examination of Christian conservative media from those decades — the 1980s, preceding the beginning of the abstinence boom, and the 1950s, the golden age of public virtue to which many Christian conservatives look — reveals absolutely nothing to compare with the explicitness and pop culture style of current abstinence movement. Indeed, most discussion of the matter tended toward lamentations; America, went the story, had fallen. Now, abstinence activists trumpet a new sexual revolution.

Evidence of its cultural peculiarity is found in Mohler’s own article. He seems as fascinated by the convictions of the young men I profiled as I was. “Sharlet does see something of a paradox at the heart of the evangelical abstinence movement. ‘It is at once an attempt to transcend cultural influences through the timelessness of Scripture and a painfully specific response to the sexual revolution’ he explains.” Mohler, it seems, agrees.

Rolling Stone, he rightly charges, is no longer a magazine of the “counter-culture.” As the story’s main subject understands, he writes, “‘Abstinence is counter-cultural.’ He ties it to a rejection of materialism, consumerism, and the sensuality that has debased the culture even as it has corrupted sex itself.”

Which is it? Is sexual chastity an old tradition, or a new counter-culture?

Both, of course, but not simply because “the culture” has shifted radically left. Mohler should give his Christian conservative comrades more credit. They’re not simply looking backward to the golden age that never was — they’re inventing a whole new narrative of paradise, one with sex at its heart.

MORE MOHLER: Poking around Mohler’s site, I came across his response to attack journalist Ed Klein’s new book, The Truth About Hillary. Like many conservatives, Mohler wants to distance the Right from Klein’s slipshod work. But his response is more revealing than most. Mohler wants conservatives to engage and defeat Hillary’s ideas, not her character. What are the ideas he finds alarming? Her “ideological feminism, her early work developing a radical concept of children’s rights, [and] her ‘it takes a village’ approach to raising children.”

I’ll be the first to admit it: This is news to this Reagan-era child of the ’50s generation. I don’t think I ever fully understood the principled opposition to Hillary as based on, among other things, the “it takes a village” idea. Most liberals suspect that the Christian Right loathes Hillary simply because she’s a powerful woman. Mohler reveals a more complicated reality, a fundamentally different philosophy of childhood.

This points to a vein of exploration for journalists who’re serious about understanding the differences between religious conservatives, moderates, secularists, and the vast majority of folks who aren’t self-consciously ideological: Just what do we mean by the word “children”? Beyond the broad definitions of “family,” how do various religious conservatives conceptualize relationships between parents and their kids? Are their ideas traditional? Or do they constitute “genuinely innovative and assuredly radical,” “painfully specific” responses to the strangely conservative but turbulent moment we find ourselves in?