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A Happy Fault?


Like everyone else, I've been pondering the role that religion plays in American political life. For most of my lifetime, religion may be said to have exerted a powerful but tacit influence on politicians and voters alike, but that has changed in the past twenty years, and I attribute this change (throughout this as-yet short series) to what I call the Augustinian Settlement, a code of ethics concerning sexuality, gender, and original sin that was developed by St Augustine in the first quarter of the fifth century. I will discuss the background of the Settlement elsewhere; the point to bear in mind now is that Augustine's conclusions (which digested the thought of many earlier men of the church) quickly assumed the force of divine revelation, and its propositions, although never formally set out as such, went unquestioned (however inevitably transgressed) for a solid fifteen hundred years. Challenges to the Settlement's orthodoxy were never permitted to broaden, while deviancy was firmly linked to witchcraft and punished as such. Political and social storms raged century after century without disturbing the Settlement's authority about the respective roles of men and women in the world and the scope of permissible sexual behavior. Its authority was not even questioned. Those who disagreed with it or felt oppressed by it might manage to ignore it, but they must do so quietly. If you are over forty years of age, let me assure you that you know the key points of the Augustinian Settlement as well as you know your own name. Its vernacular expression today is encapsulated in the phrase, "moral values."

These are not the moral values of faith, hope and charity - not directly, anyway. They have nothing to do with metaphysical speculation about the nature and will of God. They are unconcerned with ritual and sacrament, or indeed with any explicitly religious behavior. Apart from crudely dividing the righteous redeemed from the eternally damned, the values of the Augustinian Settlement do not bear on ideas of the afterlife. These moral values prescribe acceptable sexual conduct, and, as an adjunct to that, appropriate gender-specific behavior. Marriage is for men and women. Sex outside of marriage - more strictly, any sexuality that does not enable reproduction - is bad. Men and women have altogether different roles to play in this world, and the confusion of these roles is evil. Homosexuality is simply unspeakable. More often than not, "moral values" rest on Augustine's conception of original sin: the sin of Adam that stains us all at the moment of conception. It is the inevitability of original sin that makes every man and woman, no matter how virtuous, a sinner in need of God's love and salvation. "Moral values" governed Western Europe from the twilight of the Roman Empire with the strength of Euclidian axioms.  

That changed after World War II. Why it changed - why the Settlement came to be questioned in open debate - is, again, a matter for separate inquiry. It is enough to acknowledge that the hookup of sexuality to religious principles was rejected by figures of influence, Dr Alfred Kinsey certainly the most notorious among them. For a generation, the debate remained just that, but as the Seventies drew to a close, dissidents began insisting on the right to manifest their defiance in public. Expectations about the domestic arrangements of other people, hitherto presumptive, were upended as homosexual couples began to demand the legal rights and recognition so long enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts. Well over ten years ago, my wife and I submitted character affidavits in support of a lesbian's suit to adopt her partner's child; the adoption, in Washington, D.C., was authorized. Our participation was an honor, and we felt happily progressive, but I would be lying if I denied that we felt the initial oddness of our friend's request. Over the past twenty years, one stricture after another has fallen in the "standards and practices" departments of major media corporations; it is telling that full frontal male nudity retains an untouchable quality even where it is not prohibited. The Settlement is still with us.

While the debate remained rhetorical, so did the opposition - opposition not so much to the opponents of the Settlement as to the very idea of debating it - of religious conservatives, for whom the Settlement became an ever more salient object of faith. When the debate became practical - when employers had to decide what policies to adopt about the partners of ailing employees, for example - Christian opposition became both insistent and articulate. Homosexuality was spoken of as a choice, and then damned as a choice contrary to the will of God (as outlined by Augustine). It is commonplace today to associate "Christian religion" with the "moral values" that embody the Augustinian Settlement in modern terms.

Hanna Rosin, in the current issue of The Atlantic (January/February 2005) invites us to reconsider this association. Her essay, "Beyond Belief," is largely a report on the widening common ground that fundamentalists of all Christian faiths are sharing, despite traditional enmities such as that between Baptists and Catholics. Even conservative Jews are finding more comfort with conservative Christians than they do with Reform Jews.

For most of American history, of course, the important religious divides were between denominations - not just between Protestants and Catholics and Jews but between the Lutherans and Episcopalians and Southern Baptists and the other endlessly fine-tuned sects. But since the 1970s fundamental disagreements have emerged within all these denominations - over abortion, over gay rights, over modernity and religion's role in it. "There's a fault line running through American religion," [prominent Southern Baptist Richard] Land says. "And that fault line is running not between denominations but through them.

Ms Rosin's findings are not extraordinarily surprising; we saw during the last presidential campaign that Catholic bishops might be just as likely to oppose the Democratic candidate as Bob Jones III. What is interesting, though, is the implication that (Judaism aside, obviously) the philosophical divisions that splintered Christendom in the Reformation are no longer terribly important, for it is by those divisions that each denomination and sect defined itself. Even more interesting is the apparent fact that conservative factions are challenged in all of the traditional denominations; even the Baptists have suffered splits between moderates (admittedly not very moderate by Manhattan standards) and literalists. If, as I believe, the fault line of which Mr Land speaks is precisely a gulf between those who accept the Augustinian Settlement without question and those who don't, then one conclusion that I draw from Ms Rosin's report is this: what do moderates make of "moral values"? What, in short, is the likelihood of a developing American religious spirit that, while traditional in almost every doctrinal way, will consider replacing the Augustinian Settlement with some other understanding about sexuality and gender, and perhaps even abandoning the doctrine of original sin?

It's understandable that moderates haven't been making any noise about the metamorphosis of sexual deviancy into social diversity. But progressives everywhere, whether religious or not, should fight the surrender of American churches to fanatics obsessed with the not particularly Christian precepts of an uncertain and profoundly self-involved North African bishop who died in CE 430.


But how does one fight the good fight if one is not actively engaged with a church, of whatever denomination? And how does one become truly engaged with a church if one can't profess a wholehearted belief in its principles? In my experience, the people I consider to be progressive thinkers have either completely abandonned organized religion (which was my solution) or attend the services of some church out of a need for spiritual ritual while ignoring those aspects of the church's beliefs that offend their consciences (and I do not want to be construed as denigrating this practice, because I don't). But in any case, it seems to me (and perhaps this is not the norm), those of us who do not accept, lock, stock and barrel, the views of an organized religion are viewed by those who do as lost souls whose opinions are the product of, at best, ignorance, and, at worst, Satanic possession. I used to think that my inability to persuade was attributable to the fact that I slept through my high school and college theology courses and, hence, couldn't cite definitive religious authorities; what I have come to believe, though, is that there are many people in this world who are simply frightened of what they don't understand and, if they are truly proponents of the principles of the Augustinian Settlement they don't want to even attempt to understand things (like homosexuality, married couples who chose not to have children or heterosexual couples who, for whatever reason, choose to live together without the benefit of holy wedlock) that deviate from the rules they were taught in Sunday school class. How does one deal with this? (But as an aside, where ever did you find that lovely picture of me and my better half...?)

I forgot: Curtis wanted me to add, quoting (or perhaps paraphrasing) Ogden Nash: "Home is heaven and orgies are vile, but I'll take an orgy once in awhile." I think this may be more apropos of Augustine before he found religion...

Indeed it is (Augustine and orgies). Rather than spin my own arguments, I would simply point to the work of Bishop Spong, particularly Why Christianity Must Change Or Die, a book reviled by all literalist conservatives but full, nonetheless, of a distinctly Christian wisdom. Check him out - he was an Episcopal bishop (there's a redundancy there...).

Oh, and Kathleen wanted me ask about your haircut.

To Kathleen: I am going for that Barbara Cleaver look these days; I think it might play better in the conservative environment to which I expect to be moving in the next six or so months.

Better get the names straight. Barbara Billingsley, June Cleaver. Legendary Stork Club entrepreneur Sherman Billingsley had a daughter named Barbara, and I used to hope that she was Beaver's Mom. Not so, apparently. (See IMDb.)

Come to think of it, "Barbara Cleaver" sounds like Dubya's Mom's secret name.

Oops...I had a brain lock...in any event, I am looking forward to the opportunity, via my conservative appearance, to attempt to sway the hearts and minds of my neighbors once I settle in to the south. The religious climate can't be worse--can it?--than Chicago winters?

And it it weren't so late (east coast time) I'd call you to discuss further.

Just tell them that you're a Fargo girl at heart.

But, as no one knows of Fargo except from the movie of the same name, everyone will expect that I will kidnap them, put them in the woodchipper and/or bury them under some big snowdrift if they don't accept my views.

God, it's turned into a static chat room. If jkm gets close to Tuckassee refer her to me. If she doesn't find us helpful or interesting, she'll at least find us unusual, eh?

RJK has bit off a big chunk here and JKM finds the nut that seems to intrigue us all: how to reconcile the inherent appeal of pharses like fight the good fight of faith, which I prefer to quote in whole especially liking the part about taking hold of the everlasting life, with contemporary issues like same sex marriage.

As usual RJK has the upper hand here since he has the time to probe and refine the ideas in depth while I'm left with only the feeling of the heart that somehow the idea of Jesus must be right, something that without proper verbal amplification is nearly as banal as Wilfred Brimley's 'It's the right thing to do.' phrase, something that may simply be the ultimate demonstation of the Jesuit axiom that if given the child at age six they will have him forever.

I suppose by the time I have completed Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind : The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason and refreshed myself in Augustine's writings and ideas you folks will be much further down the road and on a new topic, but we persist Freeman is too good to quit.

Sorry about the lack of paragraphs, they appear in the compostion window, but I've forgotten the tag to make them work in the HTML.

God bless us all, thinkers and nonthinkers alike.

May the God of hope fill us with all peace and joy as we trust in Him so that we might overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. See Romans the fifteenth chapter the thirteenth verse.

Well, maybe I haven't forgotten the tag for paragraphs, but they didn't show up in the Preview window. Now they're here in the Posting, go figure.

My apologies if I appeared to be either xenophobic or condescending...that was not my intent.

Now you've got me to wondering about the tone of my posting. I thought you had it dead on: how does one reconcile heartfelt spiritual issues with organizaitonal and doctrinal issues. I saw neither xenophobia nor condescention. If you're headed to anywhere near the intersection of the Tennessee-Kentucky borders and I-24 and US 41A, look us up the email is in the posting.

Oh, and by the way, JKM, we've been to Fargo. We know a Stieger tractor from a bean pole, and we've seen Pelican Rapids, Barnsville, Detriot Lakes and on occassion Minot. More lutafisk anyone?

Condescension and organization, so easy, but then fumble fingers and lsydexia combine to make a fool of me often. Well, this thread seems to have grow cold, too bad, I found the topic interesting.

I am a kottke.org micropatron

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