This post is the final in a four part series on Secularization and the Sexual Revolution.
How Did We Get Here?
The question remains, how did all this happen? As already noted, the sexual revolution did not emerge in a vacuum. Modern societies created a context for moral revolution that had never been available in intellectual terms before. In other words, certain cultural conditions had to prevail in order for the revolution to get the traction it needed to succeed. One of the things we need to note is that we are looking at an explicitly cosmopolitan revolution.
Urbanization, Technology, and the Weakening of the Family
Modernity and modernization brought urbanization such that increased numbers of people were now living in cities, and the cities shaped the culture. As odd as it may seem, even as the city is a concentration of human beings, it actually offers an unprecedented opportunity for anonymity. Many observers of the sexual revolution point to the fact that, from the very beginning, this was a cosmopolitan revolution—emerging first in cities and then spreading out to the rest of the culture.
This same period also saw the weakening of the family unit, as new moral voices emerged as both attractive and authoritative in the lives of modern people. For some younger Americans, this meant that arrival on the college campus would present the professor in the classroom as a clear alternative to the morality that had been taught by parents in the home. This was true as early as the 1930s and the 1940s and is now understood to be the expectation on American college and university campuses. At the same time, the secularization of these societies and institutions meant that Christianity and its authorities, including the Bible and its teachers, would be relegated to voices with less and less authority and cultural traction as secularization worked its way through the larger culture.
Technological advances also fueled the sexual revolution. Pornographers, for example, have taken advantage of every new technology from the printing press to the latest digital advances. Of course, the most technological achievement for the new sexual morality was the arrival of contraceptives and antibiotics. Put bluntly, so long as sex between a man and a woman implied the likelihood of pregnancy, there was a certain check on extramarital sexual activity. Once the Pill arrived, with all of its promises of reproductive control, a biological check on sexual immorality that had shaped human existence from Adam and Eve forward was almost instantaneously removed. The sexual revolution could not have taken place without the arrival of effective, cheap, and available contraceptives.
Whereas many scholars recognize the importance of new contraceptive technology in the sexual revolution, fewer scholars have noted that the sexual revolution would not have progressed at the same speed without the emergence of antibiotics. This is due to the fact that one major check on sexual immorality throughout human history has been disease. As Emory University economist Andrew Francis has observed: “It’s a common assumption that the sexual revolution began with the permissive attitudes of the 1960s and the development of contraceptives like the birth control pill. The evidence, however, strongly indicates that the widespread use of penicillin, leading to a rapid decline of syphilis during the 1950s, is what launched the modern sexual era.” That is a very important observation. As a review of medical literature will reveal, the vast reduction in the cases of syphilis that were recorded in the 1950s indicate, not that Americans were engaged in less sexual immorality, but that they now were aided and abetted by penicillin, removing the horrifying effects of syphilis from the moral equation. Clearly we do not want to go back to an age without antibiotics. We are thankful for lifesaving drugs and medical technologies. We certainly do not reject all that modernity has brought. At the same time, Christians must recognize that every new technology brings new ethical and moral challenges—and often unintended consequences as well.
Science and The Sexual Revolution
The sexual revolution could also not have taken place without the fundamental intellectual change that would lead Americans to believe that a revolution in sexual morality was inevitable and right. One of the major assists in making this argument was the arrival of “experts” on sexuality who argued that science would prove the need for a revolution in morality. The most important figure in this aspect of the revolution was Alfred C. Kinsey. In two books, Sexual Behavior In The Human Male and Sexual Behavior in The Human Female, published in 1948 and 1953 respectively, Kinsey became one of the major agents of moral revolution.
As we now know, Kinsey’s research was fraudulent from the start. For one thing, he drew his research sample from those who eagerly volunteered for his studies, including a sizable percentage of men in prisons. No credible researcher would give any credence whatsoever to the statistical claims Kinsey made concerning sexual behavior, but the media does. Nevertheless, the actual text of Kinsey’s book was far less important to the sexual revolutionaries than its cultural effect. Those who read the book carefully would have come to the horrifying recognition that Kinsey was tilting his research towards the population most likely to be living outside of what both Christianity and the larger society understood to be proper sexuality. Even worse, his book actually included data that could only have been drawn from the sexual abuse of children.
Among the Theologians
Yet, even as many Christian churches continued to maintain the clear teachings of Scripture, and even as many pastors and theologians defended the Christian moral tradition and biblical authority, there were those within institutional Christianity who did everything possible to join the sexual revolution. The sexual revolutionaries found great assistance in the form of Joseph Fletcher and his book, Situation Ethics, published in 1966. Fletcher, who at one time was professor of Christian Social Ethics at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the dean of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Cincinnati, argued for a new understanding of Christian ethics that he called “situation ethics.” According to Fletcher, “The situationist enters into every decision-making situation fully armed with the ethical maxims of his community and its heritage, and he treats them with respect as illuminators of his problems. Just the same he is prepared in any situation to compromise them or set them aside in the situation if love seems better served by doing so.”
Thus, Fletcher argued that the Bible and Christian sexual morality could serve as a guide to decision-making, but that all of the Bible’s teachings should be set aside if, in his words, “love seems better served by doing so.” In 1970, Fletcher told a group of Christian ethicists, “I am prepared to argue in the utmost seriousness that Christian obligation calls for lies and adultery and fornication and theft and promise breaking and killing—sometimes, depending on the situation. Fletcher’s clearly left his own indelible mark in liberal protestant theology. But so did others such as Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr.
John A.T. Robinson, an unbelieving bishop of the Church of England, in his book Honest to God similarly continued this revolution. Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School, famous for his book, The Secular City. Cox said simply, “We must avoid giving a simple yes or no answer to the question of premarital chastity.” Well, as any parent or pastor well understands, if you can’t give a simple yes or no answer, the answer is yes.
The Withering of Vice
Philosopher Philip Kitcher makes the very important observation that the sexual revolution could not have happened without what he calls “the withering of vice.” What Kitcher also understands is that the withering of vice could not have happened without the withering of theism that came before.
The modern or postmodern quest for sexual emancipation cannot be neutral when it comes to the teachings of the Bible and the moral witness of historic Christianity. It must not only be revised, as was the claim at the midpoint of the twentieth century and even into the 1960’s, it must be supplanted.
In terms of understanding the challenge we now face I began my most recent book, We Cannot Be Silent with a quotation from Flannery O’ Conner who says, “push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you.” To understand what we are up against is at least part of the problem, part of the challenge. To understand the roots of the moral revolution requires some very careful thinking and the acknowledgment that the sexual revolution could not have happened without secularization and that secularization could not have progressed without producing the sexual revolution.
R. Albert Mohler Jr.