So apparently there’s yet another conservative Christian article out about the theology of sex from a patriarchal perspective. (Apparently that narrative is super important to defend—all the eyeroll emojis.) Anyway, I couldn’t bring myself to look that particular article up after the trainwreck that was the last one I wrote about, but hearing about it got me thinking this week about a sermon I heard a few years back from a nuanced but right-leaning pastor in which the idea of sexual consent was sort of, yeah, the correct word to use here is…demonized. In this week’s blog post I plan to unwrap some of the reasons sexual consent gets demonized in right-leaning Christianity, and why that matters to the broader world.
A Bit of the Impact on the Broader World Up Front
Before I dive in, let me quickly give away some of that last part. In right-wing politics for decades, but especially since the Roe v. Wade overturn, there’s been a push from right-wing politicians to insist that conservative Christian sexual morality ought to be the literal law of the land in the US. This Christian nationalist push ought to be highly concerning to all of us.
It should also be a driver for all of us to understand the kind of rhetoric that lies behind some of the conservative Christian views of sexual morality.
My Background and Standpoint
As always, I’m coming at this from my perspective having grown up as a pastor’s kid in a right-leaning moderate Evangelical church and having gone on to get a PhD in Communication.
As noted above, the moderate right-leaning part means I’ve been exposed to the more nuanced and subtle kinds of this rhetoric, which shows me just how insidious it can be in people’s hearts and minds.
In fact, no matter how far I’ve come from the unhealthy sides of what I grew up with, I’m still conscious that I’m still learning how unhealthy some of it is, and working to retrain my visceral responses to some of it.
To the Matter at Hand
So anyway, if you’re not from this background, you may reasonably ask the question (with or without the swear for emphasis): why the f*ck would conservative pastors preach against the idea of sexual consent?
After all, as we’ve been learning in society, people tend to go into freeze mode in sexual encounters if they feel threatened, especially those who have had been sexually abused or assaulted in the past.
Free and enthusiastic consent, as well as open discussions about what healthy sex in general is, is an important communication tool to make sure people are literally harmed less when it comes to sex.
Especially the most vulnerable parties who have been hurt before.
So Why, You May Reasonably Ask, Would Pastors Rail Against Consent?
It is a fair question to ask why conservative pastors, even the seemingly reasonable and nuanced ones like the one I mentioned above, would be drawn in to preaching against consent.
Well, let’s be clear here—this pastor I mentioned above is genuinely the last person I would believe would be in any way connected to the sexual abuse scandals that have been emerging from conservative denominations lately.
I don’t believe this person would have preached this sermon for that reason at all.
And yet I do believe that pastor’s rhetoric enables the atmosphere that allows those kinds of sexual abuse situations to take place. Give me a few minutes and I’ll explain why I think this happens.
Oh Good! The Culture Wars Again! (Please Read That With ALL the Sarcasm!)
Okay, so the context of this type of sermon goes back to the culture wars perspective—in other words, the idea that “the church” (read conservative Christianity and/or Christian nationalism) is in a battle with “the culture” on several topics, especially that of sexual morality.
In this perspective, the idea is that if one side wins than the other side will lose. And purity culture ideas fit in with this hand in glove. (I’ve previously talked about purity culture and the damages it often causes here, pulling on the helpful work of Linda Kay Klein in her book Pure.)
Oh, Look! Purity Cultural Ideas at the Heart of the Culture Wars! (Again, Not Great!)
How does this work, you ask? See, the idea is about keeping the church sexually “pure” (unlike those dissolute heathens, is the presumed and sometimes explicitly stated contrast).
That means that “secular ideas” about sexuality must ALL be demonized.
Sometimes especially consent.
Why Would That Be?
If you want to know how this rhetorical logic works, well, conservative Christians tend to STRONGLY emphasize that sex should ONLY take place within heterosexual marital contexts in which both people are Christians. And they also emphasize that once there, anything tends to go—as long as the wife submits to what the man wants.
The pastor I mentioned above would probably agree with the first statement I just made more than the second, mind you.
But it’s the first one that is particularly crucial, since THAT’s the one that’s being set over and against “secular views” on this topic, which are usually classed under the rubric of “what two consenting adults do is no one else’s business.”
But Wait, Conservative Christians DO Like Consent, But Only Applied Their Way
What is the most fascinating part of this is that these same conservative Christians actually believe that consent is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING outside of marital contexts—BUT ONLY IF YOU SAY NO.
See, it’s not that consent concepts are being demonized out of hand. They’re only being demonized when they are used to SAY YES to things the conservative church thinks should be done sexually (as in sex outside of heterosexual marriage, as conceived by those creating the theology of the church) and to SAY NO to things the conservative church thinks you shouldn’t be doing (especially if you’re a woman who should be submitting to your husband’s will in any way).
It’s the Culture Wars Emphasis that Enables Abuse
And it’s the emphasis on the first statement and the war about that that lets abuses of the second statement too often slide under the radar.
Because those who hear these pastoral messages against the idea of “consenting adults” know exactly what’s being shamed and demonized. They’ve been trained to understand how much shame and how little actual room for dissent there in too many conservative Christian contexts. Because it’s all being presented under the auspices of “God’s morality.”
Ah, Back to Churchy Exceptionalism—That Old Chestnut
THIS is the seemingly paradoxical context under which (certain forms of) consent comes to be demonized by conservative pastors. And that’s crucial to note, as this is the way, in my view, the conservative church is persuaded to feel that they are morally superior to outsiders EVEN WHILE a whole lot of awfully reprehensible behavior is implicitly condoned in the church.
Out There Be Dragons?
These things work to maintain a strong attitude that “out there, there be dragons” but “in here, these people are always safe.” (Note that that’s the same false dichotomy driving fascistic views, which I’ve now talked about many times.)
When it comes to the idea that sexual consent is part of the “dragons” package, well, as I explained earlier on, that’s a huge problem for the church to be advocating against that, even in the nuanced ways the pastor I mentioned above talked against it.
In Which Only Certain People Get To Define “God’s (Sexual) Morality”
See, the way he talked about consent being a problem is as I just mentioned—not that consent itself was the actual problem, mind you, but the idea of “two consenting adults” being a moral standard that was in competition with “God’s morality.”
The idea being expressed here is that God’s morality needed to “win” against the “two consenting adults” morality—and, well, that’s how Christian nationalism and dominionism argue. And why we’re facing so many unhealthy political views policing non-Christians’ morality.
Consent as Collateral Damage to the Culture Wars’ Views
So consent itself isn’t really demonized on its own, in this nuanced form of the view. It’s more of collateral damage to the culture wars view itself that “God’s (conservative) sexual morality” has to win at all costs.
And that means that this seemingly opposing idea of “two consenting adults” must be defeated.
All in defense of the “(conservative) church’s” seeming (sexual) purity.
Ignore The Inside of Those Whitewashed Tombs, Mind You!
The problem with this, of course, as noted above, is that if the conservative church is so busy tilting at culture war windmills about consent that a door is left open for an awful lot of unhealthy stuff to happen in their organizations.
At the same time, the door is left open for them to kick out a lot of people enacting or affirming healthy sexual relationships that just don’t happen to fit their version of conservative sexual morality.
So Let’s Talk About How Those “Clobber Verses” about LGBTQ+ Relationships Fit In
This is the base of the problem, as I see it, with the interpretation of the few “clobber verses” that are the basis of anti-LGBTQ+ stances. All of those verses about same-sex sexual relationships, if you look at the context carefully, show that what’s being critiqued in the Bible is abusive and exploitive same-sex relationships.
As I’ve discussed before, using those as a basis to say that ALL LGBTQ+ sexual enactments are immoral is the same as, well, trying to say that all intramarital sex is moral and holy while all sexual activity outside of marriage is immoral and unhealthy.
Fortunate to Grow Up Around Some Christians with Healthier, More Humble Views
The thing is that I was raised to believe that all human perspectives are flawed in some way. This view, when enacted by the healthy people in my tradition, made it so that eventually some people in my tradition came to see that faithful sex is a much much much more nuanced thing than it’s made out to be by the culture wars’ view. Those same people see consent as a crucial ingredient central to Christian sexual morality.
Note that these same voices are being told they are “immoral” in recent years by those fighting the sexual culture wars in our denomination. (All the eyeroll emojis here)
Ah, That “Pride” Issue!
I don’t want to leave this discussion without talking about another problem with consent in conservative church pastors’ mindsets, though: a problem I’d already gestured at when I talked about pride as a devil term for much of the church.
That is to say, a lot of conservative Christians interpret the command to “love God…and your neighbor as yourself” from a lens of hierarchy. (Note that this interpretation is deeply at odds with the sheep and the goats passage in Matthew 25, in which caring for the vulnerable is seen as equated with love of God, rather than blaming the vulnerable for asking to be treated well.)
That casts a whole other light on the perceived conservative problems with the idea of sexual consent that also ties into culture wars issues I’ve previously talked about as battles with the idea of “humanism” (I’ve previously written about this here).
Unwrapping the Consequences of Seeing Consent as Prideful and Rebellious
See, the idea from this view is that if Christians were properly humble (especially women, mind you) they wouldn’t have the prideful gall to set boundaries around sexual encounters within marriage. After all, the Bible verses say the church is like a bride to Jesus’ bridegroom, and the church is supposed to submit its will to God’s, isn’t it?
See? Sexual boundaries within marriage=rebellious! Prideful! (PLEASE READ THIS WITH SO MUCH SARCASM!)
Sexual boundaries OUTSIDE OF MARRIAGE? NOW THAT’S WHAT GOD WANTS. (BUT ONLY WHEN THEY FULLY SHUT DOWN SEXUAL EXPRESSION, MIND YOU.)
Makes Sense Within the Culture Wars’ Mindset (Which Doesn’t Make It Healthy!)
So yeah, the logic here is not strong when you look at it objectively. And most definitely doesn’t fit with all sorts of academic findings about healthy humans and relationships. But within the culture wars framework, and the theological arguments that enable it, it makes utter sense.
SO MUCH VICTIM-BLAMING, Especially of Women
Interestingly, what actually happens to consent in this framework is that young Christians raised in conservative Christian purity culture (especially young women) are taught that EVERYTHING HANGS on their enacting consent and enforcing it on others before and outside of marriage. But are taught that all of that is fully revoked once they might get married.
The ramifications of that are super disturbing when you think about this applied to both intramarital and extramarital situations of rape and abuse.
After all, the burden is on the victim, in this model, to set the boundaries strong around refusing to consent regarding sex outside of heterosexual marriage. And inside heterosexual conservative Christian marriage it removes the right of the woman to consent at all lest she be thought prideful like Satan.
In both cases, this “logic” leads to the greater burden of “purity” being put on one party more than the other. And can obviously lead to a lot of victim-blaming both in heterosexual marriage and without.
Not a Theology of Love toward Marginalized and Abused Individuals
The saddest and most disturbing part of it all, if you ask me, is that those same people who are claiming to believe that everyone is made in the image of God and that we need to love God and neighbor are fighting the very basic thing that can communicate that love to vulnerable individuals in the act of physical intimacy.
The same people who are claiming to be defending God are making space for a lot of the “least of these” to be sexually abused and hurt. And then claiming that is somehow a “godly” theology to be defended against the seeming “dragons” advocating for consent.
Shutting Down Space for Healthy Vulnerable Discussions as Well
And in the process, they are so stigmatizing the very act of sex to young people to the point where conversations around sex, including questions around consent, become points of shame, both in and out of marriage.
THIS, friends, is rape culture baptized by seemingly sacred language. Talk about your “evil becoming good and good becoming evil.”
A Strawman That’s Not the Whole Picture
It’s also important to note that “two consenting adults” isn’t actually being set up as the apex of sexual morality by those outside the church. After all, in most “secular” versions of sexual morality as in progressive Christian forms, sexual consent is only one of many ways to show the basic forms of relational respect in physically intimate relationships.
A Hope for More Voice from More Careful Christians on These Issues
I really appreciate the ways in which the more thoughtful and humble Christians I know recognize that this is helpful wisdom to learn from and incorporate as they continue to try to love the least of these.
I very much hope more thoughtful Christians recognize the rot at the roots of these culture wars around sexual morality and ethics, and continue to work together to build more careful and actual nuanced perspectives that recognize the importance and dignity of sexual consent for all parties as part of those views. Truly loving our traumatized neighbors requires it.
And May All Who Can Work Together Against the Unhealthy Stuff
And I hope that all people will assertively work against laws and policies that rest on the rotten base of these unhealthy conservative Christian viewpoints.
A Final Charge
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