In his Commonweal essay, “Sex & Christianity: How has the Moral Landscape Changed?” Charles Taylor works to create a space for a Catholic sexual ethic that does not make “a certain kind of purity a necessary condition for relating to God through the sacraments.” For Taylor, the “moralistic code” dedicated to sexual purity fails doubly: it “erects a barrier between the church and contemporary society,” and it does not communicate the “animating spirituality” of aspirations to sexual abstinence and purity. Yet, it would be a mistake, he also insists, one that would “just repeat the mistake of the Protestant reformers,” to “turn around and depreciate” the celibate vocations in an attempt to free ourselves from contemporary sexual moralisms. Ultimately, Taylor wants to show that “there are more ways of being a Catholic Christian than either the Vatican rule-makers or the secularist ideologies have yet imagined.” In seeking to open up spaces for differences within Catholicism, Taylor points to important ethical possibilities for non-Catholics as well, whether they are members of other religious communities or secularists.
It is this “secular” opening we want to pursue here. We want to suggest from the outset that the secular sexual imagination is more capacious than Taylor admits.
Although we do not share Taylor’s Catholic idiom, we too worry about the effects of the sexual ethic developed in the Protestant Reformation, a worry that haunts Taylor’s essay with its focus on the French Counter-Reformation. Like Taylor, we would locate the beginning of a modern sexual ethic in the Reformation and the various contentious and countering movements that it sparked. In fact, we would argue that it was the Reformation that has made sexuality so often stand in for morality tout court in modernity. There is no question that the Reformers actively made a shift away from celibacy and toward a focus on marital sexuality as a site of both moral idealization and concern.
This shift entailed not just a shift in ideals, but an intensification of moral concern. Sexuality is so central to the Protestant vision that in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Reformer John Calvin takes on the three vows of monastic life, obedience, poverty, and celibacy—only by criticizing celibacy. (Having completed a long critique of celibacy, he lets it stand in for criticism of the other two, which he does not pursue, “Lest we seem to criticize every little point too spitefully.”)
Sex provided a means of distinguishing the Protestant way of life from its Catholic forbears. Not only did the idea that Protestant clergy should marry distinguish them from both celibate clergy and the monastic life of Catholic religious calling, but marriage and the idea of the individual householder provided a fundamental distinction between the Protestant vision of human being—as the individual who stands alone before God, responds to God’s individual calling, and manages an individual household—and the Catholic vision of communal being. It was not just a vision of moral purity that was wrapped up in the Protestant sexual ethic; an entire way of life was crystallized around the vision of the individual householder and his commitment to marriage. This was a distinctly gendered vision; and whatever else one wants to say about the Catholic ideal of sexual purity and monasticism, a spiritual calling to celibacy provides women a legitimated means to resist marriage and some of the strictures of gender roles.
We thus agree with Taylor that the singularity of this Protestant vision, including its disregard for the spiritual and material practice of celibacy, creates a set of problems for modern life, just as does the Counter-Reformation’s singularity of focus on sexual purity. But our concern is not just with the loss of spiritual and moral possibility; our concern is also with how this particular vision of sexual life and, indeed, of modern life as a whole becomes intertwined with the nation-state, including with presumably secular nation-states like the United States.
Despite the putative separation of church and state, one of the major places in the U.S. where religion and the state remain entwined is around sexuality, specifically at the point of marriage, where religious officials are actually empowered to act on behalf of the state. And whenever politicians talk about marriage laws, they nearly always do so with reference to religious commitments—and the political affiliation or philosophy of the policymaker doesn’t much matter in terms of this outcome. Whether it’s George Bush invoking his Christian views in a Rose Garden press conference to explain his support of an anti-gay marriage amendment to the Constitution before the 2004 elections, or Democratic presidential hopefuls naming “religion” as the reason they support civil unions but not gay marriage; whether it’s former Senate majority leader Republican Bill Frist calling marriage a “sacrament,” or Democratic Senator Robert Byrd reading from his family Bible on the floor of the Senate in the 1996 debate over the Defense of Marriage Act: when it comes to sex, a particular set of religious (and, we’d argue, specifically Reformed Protestant) assumptions inform the law of the land.
And yet, if marriage is really a religious concern, we wonder why the secular state is in the marriage business at all. The secular state’s commitment to marriage seems to fail the Constitutional promise of the First Amendment on all counts. If the state’s interest in defending traditional marriage is based on religious principle, as so many politicians claim, it fails what is termed the “disestablishment” clause: the principle that the government should not establish or endorse any particular religion or any religion at all. Moreover, when the state restricts the marriage franchise to heterosexual couples it also fails the religious freedom clause, which generally prohibits government interference in religious practice. This is so because many mainstream Christian churches as well as Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish congregations do perform marriages between same-sex couples. Nevertheless, religiously-sanctified same-sex marriages are not recognized by the state.
Why is the state picking and choosing which religious “sacraments” to recognize? We believe the state should not be restricting freedom in this way, and, therefore, should not be legalizing marriages of any kind. The state could find ways to support relationships without abrogating either religious or sexual freedom, whether by offering civil unions to everyone or though other forms of support. Freedom may be the most idealized keyword in U.S. public life. Nevertheless, when it comes to sex, the high value set on freedom comes crashing to the floor. As the contradictions of U.S. laws regulating marriage show, a robust religious freedom is a condition of possibility for the realization of sexual freedom. As long as specifically Protestant notions of the good life and of good sex versus bad sex form the bedrock of “secular” commonsense, not to mention supposedly “secular” law and policy, American ideals of freedom and equality are cramped at their root.