For many critics, though, critiquing ‘purity culture’ is simply a proxy for Christianity’s sexual ethics—the prohibitions on same-sex and pre- or extra-marital sexual activity, most of all, but also the injunction to live modestly and chastely in all arenas of our lives. A few are more careful–I appreciated Katelyn Beaty’s endorsement of a married sexual ethic here, for instance. But similar problems to those that entangled Harris’ book threaten even those level-headed critiques: by reacting against the excesses and distortions of purity culture, they risk distorting or diminishing aspects of that sexual ethic that are essential for the full flowering of chastity within our lives and communities. Those who wish to critique purity culture should, for instance, be unhesitatingly vocal about Scripture’s prohibitions, including those against same-sex unions.
As an aside, I’d note that I said something almost identical to the gathering of gay Christians at the Spiritual Friendship pre-conference at Revoice two years ago. The dangers of starting reflection about ethics from a reactionary posture are real, and can prompt us to be hesitating and milquetoast about stances that Scripture is unambiguous and bold about. When that occurs, though, the legitimate criticisms gay Christians have to make about evangelicalism’s culture of teaching get lost within the broader cultural capitulation by those who would make the same criticisms and throw out Scripture’s teachings as well.
To put the point differently, reactionary critics should start from their positive vision of things—rather than working toward such a vision in and through their deconstructive efforts or prophetic denunciations. After all, when ‘purity culture’ is overthrown, what then? Ambivalence or ambiguity about Scripture’s teachings on such questions can only leave a different type of wreckage in its wake, and one that is probably more destructive.
As I’ve said before, I don’t have any direct experience with “purity culture,” though I have friends who are theologically conservative on sexual matters, but who say that they were damaged by it. Their point, as I understand it, is not that traditional Christian sexual ethics are wrong, but that “purity culture” distorts them in a rigidly legalistic way that can harm the ability of particular believers to live out these ethics. I accept that this can be true. I have seen this kind of thing at work within non-Protestant religious circles too.
That said, Anderson is certainly right that whatever the problems with purity culture, they can never justify throwing out Christian sexual ethics, tout court. As Christians are thinking critically about purity culture and its deleterious effects, they should be ruthlessly honest with themselves about their true motivations. Are they trying to rationalize their own desire to be “liberated” from the obligation to obey teachings that they don’t want to follow? In my past, I kept my distance from Christianity exactly for this reason — not wanting to submit to Christian sexual morality — but I told myself that I had serious theological doubts about this or that Christian claim. I was a sophisticated self-deceiver; my objections were, deep down, entirely about valorizing my refusal to accept and obey teachings that limited my options.
So yeah, I’m deeply skeptical of Christians who throw out traditional Christian sexual teaching based on the faults of others who profess them. Argumentum ad hominem is a logical fallacy, it is true, but I have found over the years that there is no subject on which contemporary Christians lie to themselves and to others about more than sex and sexuality. Sexual autonomy is the god of this age, and most Christians are eager to be syncretists, while hiding from themselves their true motivations. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and nearly messed up my life and the lives of others trying to live out that appealing lie.