Several years ago, back in 2005, long before most people reading this would have known me, I maintained a personal blog. It is long gone, its posts long since deleted and its very existence only recalled by perhaps three people (two of whom are related to one another). I devoted a fair bit of that blog to commentary on right-wing and evangelical Christian fatuousness. Part of why I gave up that blog was that I grew to find the task of keeping up with said fatuousness very tiresome. Besides, plenty of other people do this who are way, way better at commenting on evangelical excesses and folderol—its casual sexism, its tormented, kitschy relationship to culture, its rampant victim-blaming and tolerance for abuse, its apologias for rape—than I ever dreamed of being. Grace, Dianna Anderson, Sarah Moon, and Matthew Paul Turner immediately come to mind, and there are lots of others.
I say this by way of preface for this post. I came across an opinion piece yesterday written for an evangelical Christian website, the Christian Post, that may be the single most baffling and (to the extent that I understand it) morally monstrous thing I have read in a long span of years, and that is saying something. (Let’s just say that I have read a lot of hideous stuff since 2008.) This piece comes via Stephanie Drury at Stuff Christian Culture Likes, another blogger who keeps an eye on evangelical fecklessness with insight, grace, and humor. As it deals with ethical and theological issues relating to sex and marriage, issues that have been a thematic interest for me of late, I couldn’t help but read this with a careful eye.
The piece, “Premarital Sex?” is authored by Russell D. Moore, Dean of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary here in my very own Louisville. It is a re-post of a post originally on his own blog. (Moore is also, interestingly, at the nerve center of the evangelical movement to use international adoption as a religious conversion strategy.) In the piece, Moore argues for the thesis that Christians should reclaim the archaic and judgmental-sounding word “fornication” and use it in place of “premarital sex” to refer to sexual activity outside of marriage, all of which Moore presumes is without question morally and theologically impermissible. The reason, broadly speaking, is that “fornication” better pinpoints the moral and theological considerations surrounding impermissible sexual activity better than “premarital sex” (and also, it turns out, better than other terms such as “adultery” that refer to other extramarital sex).
That much is clear to me. But only about that much. The reasons provided for why anyone, Christian or not, should find the word “fornication” so apt remain difficult for me to understand. Seriously, I am scratching my head here. The reason, really, is that Moore’s argument embeds the notion of “fornication” in a broader sexual ethic that feels like it comes from another planet. I have conjectures about what this sexual ethic is and how it functions—hence why this post goes on—but I am still pretty flummoxed. Don’t take my word for this: read it yourself, please, and then come back so we can be confused together.
Back? OK. (And seriously, thank you for returning.) The crux of Moore’s argument seems to be that “fornication” captures something about the specific wrongness of sex outside marriage that “premarital sex” doesn’t. In his own words:
Fornication isn’t merely “premarital.” Premarital is the language of timing, and with it we infer that this is simply the marital act misfired at the wrong time. But fornication is, both spiritually and typologically, a different sort of act from the marital act. That’s why the consequences are so dire.
In other words, “premarital sex” connotes that sex outside marriage and sex within it differ, not in kind, but instead merely in (temporal or spatial) location. Moore wants to convince us, though, that sex within marriage—or, to be more specific, “the one-flesh union of covenantal marriage,” which may not cover all marriages—differs in kind from sex outside of such a union. What accounts for this difference in kind? Moore continues:
Fornication pictures a different reality than the mystery of Christ presented in the one-flesh union of covenantal marriage. It represents a Christ who uses his church without joining her, covenantally and permanently, to himself. The man who leads a woman into sexual union without a covenantal bond is preaching to her, to the world, and to himself a different gospel from the gospel of Jesus Christ. And he is forming a real spiritual union, the Apostle Paul warns, but one with a different spirit than the Spirit of Christ (1 Cor. 6:15, 19).
This paragraph’s distinction between “fornication” and marital sex, I must be frank, reminds me of what philosopher Donald Davidson famously said about the language of “conceptual schemes” (a notion which itself has had a long life in evangelical circles in serious-sounding but opaque talk of “worldviews”): It sounds exciting and important so long as you don’t actually think about it. On its face, it seems to suggest that extramarital sex is bad because it is exploitative: to engage in it without a “covenantal and permanent” commitment is to “use” one’s partner, presumably for one’s own selfish gratification.
At least I think this is the point: Moore never says here just what fornicators are using their partners for. This point seems to matter; it seems to matter quite a bit just why “using” one’s partner for sex is such a bad thing, especially in Christian contexts due to the long heritage within Christianity of ascribing nothing but instrumental value to sex within marriage (i.e. as a mere means to the end of reproduction). It is especially important in light of the fact that this instrumental view of sex in marriage often extends to a purely instrumental view of women in marriage. There is a widespread view that a key, perhaps the, role of a woman in marriage is thoroughly passive: she is to be sexually available for her husband, controlled by his decisions about sex, and (ideally) fertile and receptive to his seed. Maybe Moore himself subscribes to such a view of women. He seems to think that men who have extramarital sex “lead a woman into sexual union without a covenantal bond,” as if women who have extramarital sex somehow lack sexual agency, and he seems to think that especially worth mentioning that extramarital sex “preaches” “a different gospel” to the woman than the one of Jesus, without any apparent concern for what “gospel” the woman might be preaching to the man. Not only is this an inexcusably dim assessment of the inspiration women bring to the bedroom (heh heh), but it also implies, at least rhetorically, that men alone can preach, and when doing so to women they do so most eloquently and consequentially with their penises. And, to flesh out this distinction between “fornication” and marital sex, it isn’t enough just to say that, well, one kind of sex happens within marriage and the other doesn’t; Moore’s entire point is that the sex itself is intrinsically different, not just different in virtue of when and where in one’s life it happens. It is not just where the penis preaches its sermon, its choice of pulpit; it is what the penis actually says.
What gives us a handle on this difference? The key, it seems, is Moore’s language of spiritual union. All sex, Moore seems to be saying, forms a “real spiritual union”; it is just that extramarital sex (sorry, I just can’t use the word “fornication” with a straight face and without scare quotes) forms a union “with a different spirit than the Spirit of Christ.” In other words, marital (covenantal) sex and extramarital sex are animated by, and perhaps themselves effectuate, different “spirits.” To have extramarital sex is to produce, or otherwise ally oneself with, spirits other than that of Christ. (Implied but not stated, I suspect, is the notion that spirits other than that of Christ are at best a waste of time and at worst adversaries of God and all that is good. My Southern Baptist forbears would, I think, shudder to think that the Dean of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary takes this kind of “spiritual warfare” talk seriously. But even so.)
Other more subtle minds may have a better sense of the difference Moore is trying to describe here. I am a Christian, although I suspect Russell Moore would not think me one, and I can scarcely discern what he is after here. But whatever “spirit” is produced by extramarital congress, it is the sort of thing that produces the need to repent, and the locution “premarital sex” obscures that need:
The language of “premarital sex” can enable a conscience to evade repentance. After all, if the problem is one merely of “timing” or of “waiting” then the problem is resolved once one is married. The event was in the past.
So far, so good (I guess). Premarital sex, it appears, produces “spirits,” or at least associations with “spirits,” that can endure well into marriage, and one must repent from these spirits. This business of “spirits” supervening on sexual activity mystifies me, but at least I can sort of form an image in my mind of what it would be like for that to happen. But then Moore’s train leaves the rails, or at least any rails I can see, and he goes into regions where perhaps only he can follow. He continues to illustrate his point by contrasting (premarital) “fornication” with adultery:
This makes fornication even more dangerous, in this sense, than adultery. Both fornication and adultery are acts of infidelity. But a man who has committed adultery, if he is repentant, understands something of how he’s broken trust, attacked a covenant. He can see that even when his wife has forgiven him, he must invest years in rebuilding trust. He can understand why his wife concludes that if he’ll cheat with one woman, why would he not cheat with another? He must work to show himself faithful.
The fornicator can be deceived into thinking that marriage has solved the problem. He doesn’t see the ongoing nature of the problem. Often he finds it difficult to lead his wife spiritually, or to fully gain her trust. The root problem is a sin committed together, driving the couple apart.
What to make of this passage? Let’s set aside my already-conceded deafness to whatever work “spirit” and “spiritually” are meant to be doing here and just focus, for a start, on the straightforward moral distinction Moore purports to make. It is surprising: contrary to plausible intuitions we might have, Moore contends that “fornication,” in his sense, is “more dangerous” (so, I suppose, worse?) than adultery. Setting to one side, for charity’s sake, that up to now his account had implied that “fornication” includes adultery as well as premarital sex, it seems that premarital “fornication” is worse somehow than marital infidelity.
Why would anyone think that? Aside from the fact that, like half of any given issue of The Atlantic, Moore may be making a counterintuitive statement for no better reason than to get our attention, we get hints that for Moore “repentance” plays a decisive role. As he writes, “A man who has committed adultery, if he is repentant, understands something of how he’s broken trust, attacked a covenant.” The point seems to be that the adulterer, who has a marriage covenant but has strayed outside the shelter it provides, can turn his mind and heart back around to the Spirit of Christ at work in his marriage and do the hard work of guiding himself (and his wife, who still lacks any agency whatsoever and needs to be led) in the way that Spirit leads. He can turn back towards that covenant because he has a covenant to which to turn. But the (now-married) premarital fornicator, despite the fact that he has, we are encouraged to think, entered into a marriage covenant and is having licit marital sex, is kidding himself if he hasn’t also done this work of “repentance.” “The [premarital] fornicator can be deceived into thinking that marriage has solved the problem,” Moore says. “He doesn’t see the ongoing nature of the problem. Often he finds it difficult to lead his wife spiritually, or to fully gain her trust. The root problem is a sin committed together, driving the couple apart.”
Obviously this “repentance” business is tough. It is far more than turning towards one’s wife and only having sex with her, forsaking all others (as the old rite in the Book of Common Prayer put it). You can do that in a marriage that (it seems) is sufficiently “covenantal” so as to sustain perfect sexual fidelity and still be kidding yourself if you don’t “repent.” What’s more, you drag your poor wife into your sin (who, remember, has no agency here and is only being led wherever you follow), turning it into a “sin committed together,” so long as you don’t—“repent.”
What is this “repentance,” then? What does it look like? How do you do it? It would have to be something more than just saying “I repent,” right? Does one have to say it a certain way? Look a certain way when you say it? Lather, rinse, repeat? (Is it a performative that depends on repetition and reinforcement?) Whatever it is, it seems to be a key ingredient in a woman’s ability to trust that her husband will remain faithful. Women seem to lack spiritual and moral agency here, but they seem to be pretty darn distrustful. (O ye of little faith!) But wives know the score, it seems: If men who claim to be Christians nevertheless had premarital sex, nothing would stop them from adultery. Their distrust, otherwise spiritually debilitating and leaving them in need of constant moral and spiritual guidance, nevertheless harbors a critical insight, seen as it were from beneath, through snakes’ eyes: it is nothing less than Moore’s professed chief insight that premarital sex is no better than adultery because it testifies to a man’s lack of control over his libido. Premarital sex and adultery are, when reflected in the jaded gaze of distrustful femininity, two heads of the same beast:
Moreover, she knows, especially if he professed to be a Christian before the marriage, that his libido is stronger than his conscience. If he’s able to justify his fornication, he will justify his adultery. They are not two separate things, but two different phases of the same thing: immorality in contrast to the self-giving and uniting covenant of marriage.
So, here is where we are. Somehow, we are supposed to believe that an adulterer, who has (by definition) broken a promise he made before God and the world, but can “repent,” is somehow in a better position, morally and theologically, than someone who has had sex before marriage but who has committed to monogamy and not broken his covenant but failed to do something or other that signifies appropriate “repentance.”
Let me set aside any purely assumed ignorance I might have taken on here and state flatly that Moore’s account fails to track any intuitions or sense of principle I possess. Moore and others sympathetic to his account would probably assert that this is simply my problem, that I am insufficiently “spiritual.” But if, at the end of all this, all Moore can say for himself is, like one of the moderators of the comment thread on Moore’s article wrote, in response to a commenter, “The evidence is within me by God’s Holy Spirit,” full stop, end of sentence, and the burden is on me to prove otherwise, this is simply mystifying at best and a rank appeal to arbitrary authority at worst. (Perhaps the evidence is “within” his pants?) I fail to imagine any moral magic trick that one could perform under the banner of “repentance” that would make the wrong of adultery, of breaking a promise you made to someone with whom you are supposed to share a special bond of intimacy and trust, somehow better and “less dangerous” than being in a committed monogamous marriage but not ashamed of having sex beforehand.
Here is where my charity runs out and I can’t help but interject cynical explanations. (O me of little faith! Perhaps I am insufficiently manly, too feminine and distrustful?) If we can’t give a decent account, not only of what “repentance” is but why it has the power to work like a moral “Get Out of Jail Free” card to husbands who sleep around, it is hard to resist the conclusion that “repentance” pretty much gets to be whatever Christian married men say it is. Who in this scenario could tell them they are wrong? Certainly not their wives, of course, and what stake do the men themselves have in having transparent criteria around this? In other words, it seems a placeholder for male power, the right redounding to them in virtue of the unquestioned spiritual leadership they exercise over their wives.
In fairness to Moore, it’s not as if he is saying men just get to do whatever they want. His recommended norm for male sexual behavior, after all, is rather strict, and his regime of “repentance” seems to be, at least in principle, something that is costly and difficult. Men, too, have to bend to the force of strict norms. The problem, though, is that, as so often happens under our current norms of gender, men are accorded a power and privilege over naming and adjudicating their own violations of these norms that women are not. As Simone de Beauvoir put it, men get the privilege of being “both judge and party to the case.” After all, Moore at least rhetorically implies that, whatever male “repentance” looks like, it entitles them to their wives’ forgiveness and to recognition of their rightful spiritual leadership. As he writes, “He [the husband] can see that even when his wife has forgiven him, he must invest years in rebuilding trust.” Not if his wife forgives him; there is no question that she will, she must, because his rightful place demands it. It is a matter of when, of how long it will take to overcome the sluggishness of her spiritual debility and learn to trust the message the husband’s penis is trying to preach to her through the fog of her doubt.
Thus endeth the lesson of the penis.
Fortunately there is, I think, a better Christian sexual ethic to be had. I don’t claim to have anything fully worked-out to share, but I am working on something. Watch in the coming days for some initial thoughts. In the meantime, what do you think? Feel free to leave me a comment!