For all of secularism’s stated lofty and noble ideals, the separation of state and church in modern western democracies is now akin to two drunken, fighting cowboys rolling around in the gutter in gold rush California. Or perhaps two female wrestlers in jelly (that’s Jell-O in the US apparently), so tawdry and voyeuristic has it become.
What we have learned the past few years – and it is only a few years – is that secularism has bottomed out, and lo and behold it has bottomed out on the issue of sex. I think I am going to start calling it sexularism. And to that end, secularism is not the friend it seemed to be, and which we, as a minority in Australia at least, assumed it would always be, allowing us to play marbles in the corner of the school yard. It’s gonna start playing rough, throwing its weight around and stealing lunch money. Put simply secularism is going to play the play ground bully, and especially in areas of sex.
Sexularism is secularism’s holy grail, it’s G-spot, it’s petit mort, it’s… (okay, we get it – Double Entendre Ed). And there we were, thinking that secularism had bigger fish to fry, when all along it’s primary interest has been in the bedroom, with plenty of implications for the board rooms, the lunch rooms, the rest rooms, and the sacred rooms of our culture.
That this has happened has come as a surprise to some, especially those naively thinking that the recent decisions – and the looming ones – by courts and votes, would have little or no effect on religious behaviour. Note that. Not religious belief, but religious behaviour. This is not going to be the case. You will be free to practice religion, but not free to run onto the pitch with it for an actual match. The common secular assumption is that beliefs and opinions are private and personal, and hold no traction in the world of facts. Why would it be any different when it comes to sex?
Writing in today’s The Australian, Paul Kelly, an astute and circumspect observer if ever there were one, quotes the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, himself gay and openly in favour of SSM, who is concerned that the state will over-reach itself. Here’s what Wilson says:
“The primary problem is that people think of religious protection just in terms of a minister of religion solemnising a marriage,” Wilson tells Inquirer. “But this is a superficial analysis of the issue. The question of religious freedom has not been taken seriously. It is treated as an afterthought. We cannot allow a situation where the law is telling people they have to act against their conscience and beliefs. We cannot protect the rights of one group of people by denying the rights of another group.”
Kelly observes that the real debate is just starting, and he states: It poses an unprecedented challenge for our law-makers. There has never been an issue like this, as the US Supreme Court decision made clear.
This is no swooshy “just do it” issue at all. No simple tick the box and get on with life. It will have reach and over-reach well beyond what everyone envisages, or possibly wants. Well, maybe not everyone. Some are positively salivating at the notion of such over-reach. Take this quote from Sally Kohn, a liberal commentator who used to work for Fox News (now get your head around that!):
“Will anti-gay Christians be politically and socially ostracized? I sure hope so. . . . To those who remain in the fringe minority stubbornly mired in hatred and the dark rationalizations of the past, please try to lose gracefully. You are not being exiled. The world is simply moving on without you.”
This is the same Sally Kohn who, in another life not two years past, irenically stated in a TED talk:
Liberals on my side, we can be self-righteous, we can be condescending, we can be dismissive of anyone who doesn’t agree with us. In other words, we can be politically right but emotionally wrong. . . . Conservatives are really nice. . . . I think Sean Hannity is 99 percent politically wrong, but his emotional correctness is strikingly impressive, and that’s why people listen to him. Because you can’t get anyone to agree with you if they don’t even listen to you first.
She sure proved her liberal colours last week then, with a snarl of self-righteousness right up there with a Pharisee. If a week is a long time in actual politics, then two years is positively aeons for its sexual cousin. Kelly and Wilson are flagging this issue for Australia as well as the US. And one wonders what Kohn means by “lose gracefully”. I take it from her tone that it means line up, or else.
So why has sexularism triggered such debate like no other topic has? Surely it is because of what the Christian framework has said all along: Sex matters – and it matters a lot. And, perhaps despite the at-times tragic gap between what Christians say and what they do, the Christian message has been consistent in a way that sexularism’s has not.
Back in the day – MY day -, the 1980s at school, the prevailing zeitgeist breathed out from on high in the education system was that sex itself didn’t ultimately matter. That somehow it was just another one of those bodily functions you did. And as for marriage? It was an outdated power play that would soon wither on the vine. and we would be emancipated from its steely grip. That message didn’t have to be written on the subway walls, it was right there in the Year 11 and 12 text books.
Well Christianity hasn’t changed its message, but sexularism has completed a breath-taking and rubber-smoking 180. The cultural message has clunked into reverse and is screaming back down the driveway threatening to take out the letterbox on the way out onto the road. Suddenly something that did not matter is pretty much the only thing that matters. Listen to the words of SCOTUS’s Justice Kennedy, who states with all the Mills and Boons/Oprah Winfrey syrup he could muster:
“Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.”
Really? Marriage means all that? Marriage can DO all that? I have rarely, if ever, heard Christians come close to eulogising marriage like that. Yes we have always thought sex and marriage matter, but not because we think what Justice Kennedy thinks. That’s simply too much weight for any institution to bear, or any married person to bear for that matter.
I am speaking at a wedding next week, and I hope there’s a sniper in the rafters with a red dot trained on my chest should I utter such idolatrous notions. A head shot even, should I take out and polish that particular golden calf before a listening crowd. And if a Christian came up to me and said that about marriage I would, I would…. well just don’t do it, ok?
Which shows that the reason the debate is so strident is simply this: For sexularists marriage is an ultimate thing. Something that answers the lonely call in an ultimate manner. Pity the person who finds that the one who answers their call of companionship turns out to be an ultimate dead-beat or the complete partner-beater, or ultimately bipolar, or…well, you name it. And we all know what happens when what we idolise lets us down. We end up demonising it.
Which gets to the heart of the matter – the matter of the heart. The separation of church and state simply papers over the reality that whether we be secular materialists or secular religionists, we are all worshippers. We were built to worship, and worship we will. Jesus and David Foster Wallace line up on that one. We want an ultimate thing. We desire something that arrives at a climax. And sex will do that just nicely in lieu of anything else. It’s an exceptional idol – and an instant one to boot. Sex is a mainline drug, and is a heaps cheaper experience than an overseas trip. Hence to challenge its hegemony in our culture is to challenge a dark, insatiable god.
I love Debra Hirsch’s conversation with her husband Alan about what heaven will be like, in her book Redeeming Sex (have a read – it’s worth it). I love it because my wife and I had the same conversation and arrived at the same conclusion, a conclusion that gets to the core. When she asked Alan what he thought heaven would be like, his reply? “One eternal orgasm”.
That’s not trite. Not trite at all. In fact it gets to the heart of why, in the end, sexularism will win out in our culture. After all, you need as many guilt-free, culturally, politically and legally endorsed orgasms as you can if – in a manner of speaking – there is nothing else to come. If this is the pinnacle then the best thing to do is to reach the zenith as many times as you can in the here and now. Anyone threatening, questioning, or legislating against that, is tampering with the idol; threatening the order of things by refusing to bow to the image.
So what does this all mean for Christians in a sexular age? It means that we will lose. We will lose not just culturally and politically, but legally also. Be under no illusions about that and be prepared for it. Kohn’s desire for political and social ostracisation will become reality. I conclude with three reasons why sexularism will win:
1. We Don’t Have the Numbers
In Australia this is more obvious. I remember being scorned at school for going to church. No one went. You even, ironically, got called “gay” for doing so. For most Aussie kids who did go, they shut up and kept their heads down, and waited for school to pass like the brooding sub-tropical storm it was. But Kohn shows something very revealing about the American situation when she says:
“Perhaps most strikingly, 64 percent of self-identified Millennial evangelicals support same-sex marriage. As the literal future of orthodox Christianity, it would be hard to paint their views as at odds with such orthodoxy. Rather, they are a portrait of that future—not of a post-Christian America, but a post-homophobic Christianity. That is the “new normal” that Obergefall does not singularly usher in but merely reflects. The world has changed. Christians and Christianity has changed, too. And again, I say, “Hallelujah!”
I don’t disagree with her figures, simply her suggestion that what she describes is orthodox Christianity. I’m pretty sure 64 per cent of self-identified Millennial evangelicals wouldn’t know an orthodox doctrine if they tripped over it, and that’s an indictment on evangelical America. Either way the “new normal” is pro-gay until that time at least when, like their mainline counterparts, such “orthodox” evangelical churches age and empty; hollowed out for looking no different to the culture, and having nothing worthwhile to say, nothing prophetic to pronounce, doomed to a slavish “me-tooism” that sends people to sleep on a Sunday, if not to the footy instead.
2. We Don’t Have the Weapons
Or at least we shouldn’t. The Sally Kohns of this world have a distinct advantage. They are under no compulsion to be consistent with how they speak about their enemies. Sally Kohn can be irenic in 2013 and polemic in 2015. She can cosy up to conservatives two years ago and scorn them in 2015. This is a language battle for sure.
Yet we can not – must not – fight it that way. The same word that in 2013 said “Let your gentleness/reasonableness be evident to all” (Phil 4:5) still says it in 2015. The same word that reminded us in 2013 that we should be like our Saviour who “when he was reviled he did not revile in return” says that still in 2015, and will continue to say it in 2025. And finally the same word that in 2013 said “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:10) still calls for a blessed response 24 months later.
Be under no illusions. The heat is going to be turned up, harsher and harsher words are going to be employed and we will still have to be gentle, forgiving and careful with ours. The language bullies will have their day because we will fight with two arms tied behind our backs. We don’t have the weapons, and even if we did, we should not employ them.
3. We Don’t Have the Need
This is the primary reason we won’t win this battle. We just aren’t desperate enough. Why not? Because, for us, it’s not a battle for everything. It’s not a war over an ultimate thing. After all, we aren’t fearful that we could call out to a lonely universe and no one would answer, are we? Hasn’t God spoken to us in many and various ways through the prophets and then finally in these last days through a Son?
Which all means we won’t be desperate enough to fight dirty. We won’t be as scared as sexularism is to lose. When the Red Army was defending Moscow from the German army during WWII, why were they so desperate? Why did they fight like mad men and mad women? Because if they lost Moscow there was nowhere else to go!
So too sexularism. It is fighting an ultimate battle because for it, should it lose, there is nowhere else to go. But for us marriage is not ultimate, only a pointer to that which is. Or to put it more gently than the battle on the Eastern Front, when you know you’ve won the league by ten clear points with three matches to play, you tend to drop points against relegation threatened Desperate United who are playing for Premier League survival. They’ll throw everything against you, while your aim is simply not to break a leg before the Majorca holiday.
Sexularism has to play hard ball because this is its last shot. A sexular age doesn’t have another city in which its hopes lie, so it has to fight hard for Washington, London and Canberra because these are the cities that count. Those are the cities where their hopes lie.
But not us. We have another city – a city in which the true marriage between a loving Bridegroom and a faithful Bride will be celebrated at the mother of all wedding feasts. Remember these words from Hebrews 13:13-15
Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.
Reproach is coming, and all the language signs indicate that when it arrives it won’t be in the prisoner-taking mood. Be assured of that. But don’t be scared. Don’t be angry. The command of the Bible is to endure it. And to do so with joy, just like our Saviour did. And for that, let me quote Sally Kohn once more, with approval: