by ProfDave, ©2021
(Apr. 29, 2021) — “Nothing is wrong if it’s between consenting adults!” declares one of my young friends. He probably doesn’t realize this is the Playboy slogan from the 60’s, the decade that gave us STD’s (AIDS was later), abortion, and the fatherless Gen-X. Depends on what you mean by “wrong,” “consenting,” and “adults.” We’ve learned to fudge all three until they are unrecognizable. What’s left is, “nothing is.” Sexual desire, now called love, is its own justification. How’s that working?
What do radical feminism, divorce, abortion, birth control, gay rights, same-sex marriage and gender expression have in common? These are all issues where freedom of conscience and freedom of sexuality come into conflict. Pornography, unsustainable birthrates, abortion, AIDS, single parenting, fatherlessness and human trafficking are associated problems. Is no reconciliation possible? Is conscience or is sexuality our prime freedom?
Check the First Amendment. We see freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition, but nothing about sexual expression. In the 18th century, I guess, that was considered enough – and wildly more than what the old world offered. Note what was listed first. Two centuries of bloody warfare had just secured religious freedom for the individual as well as for the state church. The Revolution had secured political freedom: independence and popular sovereignty.
The basic idea was that each person was directly responsible to God and, although it was in the public interest to encourage piety and morality, it was unwise for the state to come between the individual and his/her God – essentially to take the place of God. There were enough people in the population who would lay down their lives rather than violate the teachings of their faith to make even an enlightened despot hesitate. In the 18th century, hanging Quakers was one thing, but even Jews commanded some respect.
Is conscience or sexuality our prime freedom? We are back to the question of what it means to be human. Does the real “you” reside in your head? Your heart? Or your genitals? Does your identity come from above or below the belt? From your Creator? Or from your own subconscious? The image of God or the image of the animal?
Freedom of religion as we know it already implies that image of God – the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. If I am not mistaken, it exists only in the West. That’s another discussion. The image of God implies a spiritual dimension (soul) of each of us that is dependent on and responsible to its Maker. We are dependent for our being, our fulfillment and our eternal shalom on our relationship with Him. This is expressed in both institutional (churches) and personal (conscience) forms. Conscience is the internal sense of right and wrong that we all experience. What we believe, how we worship, and how we conscientiously live our lives often rises to the level of ultimate concerns – more important than life itself. That’s what religion is and why it has to be free.
Why should freedom of religion and or conscience be considered our prime freedom? Freedom of religion allows us to define our highest allegiance – that than which there is no greater, no higher authority. “We ought to obey God rather than man” (St. Peter). Whether the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or Gaia or the Great Pumpkin, that authority often means more to us than life itself. By definition we would lay down our lives for our religion. It commands our personal integrity, certain acts of devotion, absolute loyalty, and obedience to its ethical code.
Freedom of conscience is really another form of the same thing, both narrower and broader. Particularly, it demands that we be allowed, in questions of right and wrong, to do what we sincerely believe to be right, up to and including “thou shalt have no other gods before Me” (JHWH, the first commandment). It is part of our religion to do so. In the USA we expect to exercise these freedoms without penalty or discrimination – legal or otherwise.
One way to measure the importance of a freedom is to consider the consequences of violating it. Traditionally, the state was accustomed to enforcing its vision of what was “right” based on the dominant religion or ideology of the society. But what if there was a direct conflict? For example, English laws requiring everyone to take the sacrament in the Church of England. First, it made lawbreakers of otherwise good people. While some shrugged their shoulders and conformed, real Roman Catholics, Dissenters, and Jews evaded or defied the law. They were more afraid of God than of the king. Secondly, enforcement proved impossible – when attempted it filled the jails and populated the colonies. That’s how New England and several others got started. Thirdly, it led to serious civil unrest and bloodshed. Martyrs proliferated.
Historically, religious toleration arose, not so much out of relativism or indifference to religious truth, but out of war weariness on the part of the state in the face of stubborn insistence by dissenters on doing what they thought was right. At last (only in America?) it was accepted that the individual’s conscience belonged to God, not to the state.
Is freedom of conscience our prime freedom? For most of us, questions of conscience involve both religion and ethics intertwined: our religion is ethical and our ethics are religious. A person who is not free in matters of ultimate concern (religion) is not free at all. When the state lays its hands on what is more important to you than life, there is no telling what you will do! Forcing a choice between God and the king delegitimizes the king. We become lawless. Only a totalitarian would dare to demand that kind of allegiance. And it usually ends in a blood bath.
Recap: In the West we see freedom of conscience as paramount because we see homo sapiens as more than mortal, a spiritual being made in the image of God. Our ultimate concerns – who we are, where we come from, right and wrong, the meaning of life, and our eternal destiny – are spiritual. Even though the average person in average times lives a very earthly life, in our best moments we recognize our responsibility to our Maker transcends our responsibility to the state. At our worst, we feel guilt and shame when we compromise our consciences.
Is conscience or sexuality our prime freedom? Freedom of conscience is on one end of the spectrum and freedom of sexual expression is on the other. Does your identity come from above or below? The spiritual on the one hand and the biochemical on the other. Every cell of your body is either male or female. Nothing is more involuntary. We all start out, long before birth, with one or the other reproductive systems (why fight it?). These are commanded by powerful psycho-active drugs produced by our endocrine systems (comparable to cocaine!). That much is pretty much hard-wired. It’s the software that’s open to freedom – and error(!).
Biological sexuality is a powerful system designed by nature (or nature’s God) to impel us towards pairing up, forming reproductive and nurturing families which, in turn, establish civilizations. It is activated and controlled by our brains, partly subconsciously, partly consciously. Then there is the whole semi-rational process of choosing the proper time, place, and partner.
If done right, we get married, bear and raise children, whom we socialize to repeat the cycle, pass on survival skills, values, and culture. If done wrong, the physical structures become avenues of nasty infections, the chemistry becomes powerfully addictive, our minds become obsessive-compulsive, and our social behavior dysfunctional. Women and children get abused and neglected, survival and prosperity are compromised, culture becomes decadent and society disintegrates. I could go on and on (eg what happens to female children?). Any resemblance to today’s news is purely consequential. Positively or negatively, the exercise of sexual freedom is critical. What you do in bed matters!
What you do in church matters, too! But “church” is just the tip of the iceberg. Just about everybody has a conscience that every day tells the difference between right and wrong. This conscience is directly or indirectly formed by generations of religious instruction by the dominant faith of the society or sub-culture. Not even those who yell the loudest about separation of church and state are immune.
If done right, freedom of religion nurtures spirituality of all kinds (unity in diversity), national cohesion and confidence, dignity and respect towards all humanity, conscientious ethical behavior, and the blessing of God. The last is an incalculable benefit. Literally. God’s influence, should He choose to exert it, would be unlimited, and, since He customarily works through secondary causes, we cannot calculate, say, now much good or ill He actually does. How much of American prosperity, the restoration of Israel, or the Battle of Gettysburg are God’s blessing? We don’t know, do we?
Freedom of conscience, if done right, yields a people who do the right thing, keep their contracts, act with fairness and kindness, remain faithful to their wives and children – in short, make possible a prosperous, free and democratic society.
By the same token, if done wrong, freedom of religion (or freedom from it) can stifle altruism and charity, lead to divisiveness and violence (as we try to force others to change their highest values), moral freefall and the curse of God. How much of 9-11 or Hurricane Sandy or global warming are “acts of God?” You don’t know, do you?
If done wrong, freedom of conscience (or freedom from it) can erode the value of contracts – undermining the economy. It can empty the meaning of oaths, promises, and affidavits – corrupting the political and judicial systems. And it can make a mockery of marriage – destroying family and society. In fact, all commitments go down the toilet when conscience is ignored. Negative fear of consequences is no substitute for positive conviction of right and wrong. Even a police state cannot control a people without conscience. And nobody wants police without conscience!
So both sexuality and religion/conscience are vital to the continuance of civilization and of the human race. And both lie at the core of who we are, demanding a high degree of personal autonomy. You can’t make me worship Caesar or sleep with his sister. Agreed? So what’s the problem?
Religion interferes with sexuality. And arguably, sexuality is now interfering with religion. Every modern religion concerns itself with reinforcing conscience. Either the deity directly reveals an ethical code (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) or at least it promises rewards and retribution in terms of ethical behavior (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and others) or both. It is one of the ultimate concerns addressed by any religion to define what is right and wrong.
And a disproportionate chunk of every one’s conscience, and the ethical codes of every religion, concerns sexual behavior. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is pretty much hard-wired. Exactly where the line is may vary from people-group to people-group and religion to religion, but when we cross the line we experience guilt and shame. That’s what “the closet” is all about. Passing on these codes and definitions is a critical part of socializing the next generation. Disruption threatens survival, provoking religious push-back. Which acerbates guilt and shame, provoking repression.
Recap: Religion interferes with sexuality. Sexuality is one of the most powerful forces in our bodies and in our relationships, constructively or destructively. It is a critical role of conscience, directed largely by religion, to curb its destructive potential. Since guilt and shame of conscience generally come too late, society proactively applies religious and ethical teachings, mores, taboos, and laws.
All this limits sexual freedom, traditionally to man and wife, barring incest. What sexual liberation does is weaken and broaden the barriers of conscience, dilute our definitions of adultery and marriage (normally the business of religion), and strike down laws restricting sexual expression. It isn’t easy to change the conscience of a nation.
Conscience testifies to us that there is a right way to live that is not necessarily automatic. For most animals, the rules of mating behavior are fixed by instinct, a combination of biochemistry and chance. For sentient beings, while biochemistry is powerful, choice plays a directing role. We are not entirely determined. We are free to follow or violate our instincts and/or our consciences (sometimes they conflict), to do right or to do wrong. So much so that we hold each other responsible for our behavior. Do you agree?
Responsibility? Yes, responsible to our children (present and future), to our wives and husbands, to society (both church and state) and to God. Responsible to our consciences. There are no victimless sexual violations. You hurt yourself first, then everybody who loves you – or ever will.
In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – the world religions that supplanted morally ambiguous paganism in the West – God is the giver both of conscience and the ethical systems that define and enforce its standards. Figuratively speaking, you can’t divorce your wife without divorcing God and, traditionally, breaking the law. Furthermore, it is a prime responsibility of parents, teachers and everyone in any relationship of influence not only to behave themselves, but to do all in their power to encourage everyone else to do the same. Problem.
Freedom? Christian society, at its highest ideal, grants freedom of sexual expression within marriage. It supplements and supports the innate mating requirements of the species (exclusive lifetime commitment of one male and one female to each other and to their offspring) with commitment to the human dignity and worth of both male and female. One is free to select as spouse virtually any consenting member of the opposite sex who is of age, not a close relative, and not married to anyone else. Even the blood test is mostly for full disclosure, not restriction. What happens in the bedroom is pretty much up to us – unless we abuse our spouse or kill our young (some debate about birth control). Gender equality (not identity) is granted in the image of God. So far so good, but not very far, you say.
The possibilities are so much more. The ideal freedom of Christian marriage was never enough for some. Fornication, rape, adultery, incest, prostitution, abortion, child sexual abuse, pornography, homosexual behavior and more have always been present. These taboos could be – are being – relaxed, but increased freedom has consequences.
The lusting after and provoking to lust for alternative sex objects (forbidden fruit, “adultery in the heart”) has become a major industrial complex and, I dare say, the most popular entertainment and addiction in America. The male of the species has been particularly prone to take advantage of women and children. And the adjustment of the double standard by corrupting women to male levels has only made them more vulnerable to male predation and irresponsibility. Some liberation!
Freedom to “do the right” sexually is one thing, how about freedom to do the wrong? Freedom to be promiscuous? To dispose of our spouses and children? (Freedom from spouses and children?) Freedom to abuse the innocent and vulnerable? To treat each other as objects? To have sexual relations with heretofore inappropriate objects? Freedom to “correct” (defy?) nature and nature’s God? Oh, yes, and freedom from guilt and shame while doing so? Hardly.
Viewed one way, what the sexual revolution did was push beyond the freedoms of the Christian ideal to new freedoms provided by modern science, business and sexology: scientific escapes from childbearing and family responsibilities, the whole concept of sexual orientation, and more. Viewed another way, the Western Christian conscience – and even the requirements of the species – was weakened, distorted, and obscured. Guidelines vital to the survival of Western civilization and of the human race were being breached.
So is it a deterioration or a modernization?