Let’s copulate?

Publications often set up “experts” to write definitive pieces on certain subjects without asking them to follow some basic journalism standards, such as providing evidence for conclusions. We see this kind of piece from historian Jessica Warner the Globe & Mail on how evangelicals are getting quite sexy.

An earlier title read “Praise the lord. Let’s fornicate” and was later changed to “Praise the lord. Let’s copulate,” but the original headline is still in the URL. We might assume that’s a copy editing issue, but you can tell that it was designed to create a stir.

Sin is still sin among today’s born-again Christians. But exactly what constitutes sin has undergone a certain shrinkage over the past several decades. The clearest sign of this is the explosion of books, columns and websites urging the faithful to drop their inhibitions and become better lovers. America’s conservative evangelicals are in the throes of a revolution–a sexual revolution.

Warner tells us later in the article that evangelicals are not far behind the sexual revolution similar of the 1960s and 70s, but it’s unclear what she means: that evangelicals are participating in sex outside of monogamous relationships, using the pill, etc.? She cites the explosion of books, columns and websites as evidence for how “what constitutes sin has undergone a certain shrinkage,” but it’s unclear what definitions of sin have actually changed.

Besides, haven’t books, columns and websites overall increased in the last few decades? She then looks at evangelicals from the 19th century as her baseline for a shift in attitude.

Where the original evangelicals were squeamish about their food, banning coffee, tea and sweets from their tables, their modern counterparts have higher obesity rates than virtually any other group in America. Where the original evangelicals signed temperance pledges and agitated for Prohibition, their modern counterparts are increasingly relaxed about drinking, so much so that a Pentecostal such as Sarah Palin has no compunction about holding up Joe Six-pack as the “normal” American.

Where is the data coming from? Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin actually attends a non-denominational church now, but since when is she held up as a reflection of a religious body?

Separate beds, a curtain between these, separate bedrooms if you can possibly afford it–these are the sorts of helpful hints you will find in the advice literature that targeted 19th-century evangelicals.

So, yes: When conservative evangelicals such as the LaHayes and the Ethridges encourage wives to be more sexually available to their husbands and more demonstrative in bed, they are saying something that would have scandalized earlier generations of evangelicals.

What’s unclear is whether this is a religious shift or a cultural shift. I would guess that modern authors might have “scandalized” more than just evangelicals in the 19th century, but that’s just a guess.

But when these same evangelicals go around calling sex one of “God’s good gifts,” to be enjoyed within the bounds of marriage but to be enjoyed nonetheless, they are unwittingly reverting to the original Protestant position, to the Reformation theology they claim to reject.

Ah ha! the author seems to say. These authors don’t even know what they’re actually saying. But do the LaHayes and Ethridges actually reject what Reformation theology might have said, especially in regards to sex? Finally, her conclusion:

Can you save marriage by tarting it up? That is a question that conservative evangelicals must answer for themselves. But the historian in me has grave doubts. First food, then alcohol, now sex: America’s evangelicals have compromised on so many core principles that one wonders which will be the next to go.

Since when do evangelicals consider guidelines related food, alcohol and sex core principles? Sure, they might say that the Bible has things to say about those areas of life. But they have nothing to do with, let’s say, Jesus, evil, God, heaven, etc.

Again, our baseline for identifying a shift comes from the 19th century. We’re talking about the Pride and Prejudice era–that’s a pretty easy baseline to set to identify a shift in public discussion about sex.

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  • http://www.redletterbelievers.com David Rupert

    I wonder if becuase of our monogamous nature, Christians have ALWAYS had better sex? That would be a story worth pursuing — how trust in a relationship leads to greater intimacy.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    David, I wonder how someone would measure that. Happiness, satisfaction studies?

  • Matt

    I agree that this author has a serious attitude problem towards her subject, and is seriously misinformed in places (in what way do the reviewed authors, all avowed Protestants, reject Reformation theology?). But I found the extended positive quote about sex from John Calvin to be worth the price of admission.

  • Chris

    Actually, Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, very early in the 19th century, and written (in first drafts at least) probably at least 10 years earlier.
    That was about the time of the first shift. If you look at solidly 18th century novelists (eg. Richardson, Smollett, Fielding)–they are much earthier, and have substantially (infinitely!) more sexual and scatological content in their books. Austen’s “Mansfield Park” (written about 1812) is a good example of changing social views of what constituted a proper public conversation about sex and what constituted sexual immorality. We often forget that there was a huge social shift in the early 19th century in Great Britain and the US–about everything. The Evangelical movement was a religious part of that–as was the rise of the middle class. Sexual immorality came to be identified with the dissolute rich (and the criminal classes). But, sexual mores were just a tiny piece–the change was far more education, access to printed books, industrialization, and “taking” the social conversation from the rich and landed aristocracy. People must have been having sex (despite the separate bedrooms)–the population expanded. ;-)

  • forty-two

    Well, the author might have a point wrt “Protestant” writers having disavowed Reformation theology, in that some Protestant groups (where Protestant equals not Catholic or Orthodox) don’t actually consider themselves as Protestants in the sense of having their origins in protesting/trying to reform the Catholic church. They are mostly some flavor of anabaptist, and trace their history to the anabaptist groups considered heretical by the RCC, Luther, and Calvin (hey, something they could agree on ;) ). Plus these groups often have the idea that the RCC was completely false from the start and so any theology that merely “reformed” RCC doctrine isn’t much better than the RCC itself.

    That could be what she means – LaHaye is an anabaptist-flavored Baptist iirc, at least – but I wish she’d gone into that a bit more.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I think you could probably save yourselves some time in looking at how most media cover religion and sex by focusing on stories that do justice to or adequately introduce the diverse religious understandings of sexuality.

    Of course, that would probably mean that there would be only a couple of posts on this matter through the entire history of the blog, so maybe my idea’s not that useful. On the other hand, it seems like stories in which reporters — hampered by laziness, lack of curiosity, disinterest, unquestioned assumptions or any combination thereof — fail to do justice or adequately introduce these matters have become the “dog bites man” of the religion-in-the-media arena of commentary.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    Aside from the criticisms already leveled against this piece, is it even news? I mean, the La Hayes wrote their sex book, The Act of Marriage in 1976. I don’t think 35 year old news is news.

  • Chaplain Kathleen O.

    I come from a Pennsylvania German background, and when I became a women’s nursing home chaplain some years ago, I set aside my culturally-accepted habits of drinking beer and wine, and smoking the occasional corn-cob pipe, because “evangelical” Christians don’t do those things. I don’t miss them.

    On the other hand, I’m still scandalized when I see “Englischer” evangelical Christian ladies wearing cosmetics and short skirts, or not wearing a kapp on their heads, for that matter.

    There’s a much wider cultural sampling among theologically-conservative Christians than most secular writers recognize. And yet, in the essentials of the faith, we are one.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    The writer needs to check a few facts:
    Years ago, a Redbook poll showed religious women had the highest rate of sexual satisfaction.
    Andrew Greeley did a survey that correlated sexual satisfaction with couples praying together.

    Just because someone doesn’t show their affection in public doesn’t mean it’s not there.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I’m still chortling at whatever editor thought “fornicate” was merely a disapproving word for sex. Speaks volumes about either his view of Christians or his knowledge of English.

  • http://www.priestsforlife.org Leslie Palma

    The Globe & Mail piece was one of those stories I see more and more these days, the ones that don’t bother with attribution. This, for instance: “… their modern counterparts have higher obesity rates than virtually any other group in America.”

    Evangelical obesity is not the point of this story, but it is used as an example of one way the Christian faithful have strayed from their austere roots. It might be true and documented and I might be the last one to know, but I still think some attribution would be nice here. Even the lazy “studies have shown” would have been better than nothing.

    When Live Action started releasing its Planned Parenthood videos earlier this month, it was reported just about everywhere that Planned Parenthood reported to “local and national authorities” every visit of the pimp and prostitute team. Says who? Says Planned Parenthood! With very few exceptions, reporters did not even bother to try to confirm this alleged diligence.

    I think if you are fortunate enough to still be working at a newspaper or magazine that readers can hold in their hands, you owe it to those readers to tell them where your “facts”a are coming from.

  • Dave

    Too often, religious ‘culture’ is viewed as having the same authority as Scripture itself. Isn’t that at the crux of legalism?

    It’s so interesting for me to read Scripture and see Jesus take religious leaders to task. Isn’t that at the crux of religion: A relationship with culture vs. a relationship with Jesus?

    I’d be interested to hear about the religious background of Ms. Warner. She seems to write from a bias directed against religious culture, while not allowing herself to be open to what Scripture teaches about the joy of sex.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    She seems to write from a bias directed against religious culture, while not allowing herself to be open to what Scripture teaches about the joy of sex.

    I’m not sure it’s that so much as being stuck on the stereotype that Christians find sex a distasteful thing. That one seems to be a hard mental block to cross.