Sex after Christianity…

Rod Dreher

In 1954, C. S. Lewis talked about the un-christening of Europe.  In 1966, sociologist Philip Rieff described the “‘deconversion’ of the West from Christianity.” 


Non-Christian was the term used by poet and essayist T. S. Eliot in 1967.  Even at that time, Eliot pointed out, “The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us.”


Journalist and cultural commentator Rod Dreher picks up the theme of de-Christianization in an astute and provocative article on same-sex marriage, “Sex After Christianity.”  Although he doesn’t quote or refer to T. S. Eliot, his essay develops a point Eliot makes in Christianity and Culture: “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes.”


Dreher argues that we are reaching the end of a cultural revolution:  “Now we’re entering the endgame of the struggle over gay rights and the meaning of homosexuality.”


Conservatives have been routed, both in court and increasingly in the court of public opinion. It is commonly believed that the only reason to oppose same-sex marriage is rank bigotry or for religious reasons, neither of which—the argument goes—has any place in determining laws or public standards.


The magnitude of the defeat suffered by moral traditionalists will become ever clearer as older Americans pass from the scene. Poll after poll shows that for the young, homosexuality is normal and gay marriage is no big deal—except, of course, if one opposes it, in which case one has the approximate moral status of a segregationist in the late 1960s. …


This revolution is much more than mere cultural change.  It is, in fact, a profound change in the very nature of our civilization.  Christian cosmology no longer undergirds the cultural and social arrangements of the West.


[Philip] 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. …


Dreher continues by providing a brief but very helpful history of the Christian sexual ethic—an ethic at the core of the disappearing civilization.


It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among The People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.


In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitive especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.


Christian marriage, Ruden writes, was “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.” The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is.


It would be absurd to claim that Christian civilization ever achieved a golden age of social harmony and sexual bliss. It is easy to find eras in Christian history when church authorities were obsessed with sexual purity. But as Rieff recognizes, Christianity did establish a way to harness the sexual instinct, embed it within a community, and direct it in positive ways.


What makes our own era different from the past, says Rieff, is that we have ceased to believe in the Christian cultural framework, yet we have made it impossible to believe in any other that does what culture must do: restrain individual passions and channel them creatively toward communal purposes. …


Rather, in the modern era, we have inverted the role of culture. Instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a society that tells us we find meaning and purpose in releasing ourselves from the old prohibitions.


Rieff labels this inverted role of culture “anti-culture.” 


 [O]urs is a particular kind of “revolutionary epoch” because the revolution cannot by its nature be institutionalized. Because it denies the possibility of communal knowledge of binding truths transcending the individual, the revolution cannot establish a stable social order. As Rieff characterizes it, “The answer to all questions of ‘what for’ is ‘more’.”


Will Western Christians lose Christianity altogether in this new dispensation?  This is the question that Dreher ends with.  The answer is, of course, “No!”  The fate of Christianity is not tied to the fate of marriage as an institution in American society.  But as Dreher rightly points out, the task of being a Christian in a culture operating according to the new cosmology will be “extremely difficult.”



T. S. Eliot’s Christianity and Culture (1967) is available here.


Sex After Christianity” was published in the March/April issue of The American Conservative.



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One Response to “Sex after Christianity…”

  1. Douglas B. Kennard Reply April 22, 2014 at 8:53 pm

    Phillip Reiff was prophetic and had great foresight. Though we are tempted to blame the 1960s for the on-set of sexual deterioration, the antecedents go way back. In the late 40s and 50s, the therapeutic attitude was established in the Greatest Generation, tired from two decades of Depression and War, by Dr. Benjamin Spock.

    That generation was a “sitting duck” for his relativistic feeling-oriented child-raising theories. The young baby-boomers (my generation) became saturated with this in their toddler years; and it would only be another decade or so before literally all “sexual hell” would break loose in the 1960s. We know the story form there all too well. Downhill only!

    But one had to go further back than the late 1940s.

    After the Civil War and with the migration of people to growing urban centers, people became alienated from kin and family, left behind in smaller towns and farms. Advertising and consumerism took hold on individual identity as the tide of orthodox Christianity receded and was replaced by the theories of Freud and Darwin. And Nietzsche’s “Death of God” certainly did not help.

    The Christian community in America is faced with a real crisis…but also an opportunity. Believing that nothing is outside the sovereignty of God–and that he will always have the first and last word–we need to prophetically engage the increasingly paganizing culture as a community in exile. We have hope. Habakkuk prayed that, in spite of the coming Chaldeans, God would revive his work in the midst of the years. Amidst His wrath, God would remember mercy. God did answer that prayer with Zerubbabel, Nehemiah and Ezra. And since God will never abandon His people, He will do it again. We need to be faithful and pro-active and declare the beauty of God’s Biblical plan for love and marriage without compromise!

    Doug K.