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Religion, Sex, and Roy Moore

November 13, 2017

The clash over Roy Moore reveals a real conflict between two, quite different ethical outlooks. The modern, liberal view is that individuals should have as much autonomy as feasible to plot their own life courses, that relationships ideally are chosen, consensual, and mutual, and that social and legal prohibitions to protect the disadvantaged are appropriate where consent isn’t full. As with children or prisoners.

A romantic relationship is judged on the basis of how it affects those involved, on how it satisfies their needs and wants, on how it changes their life path. Sex is seen as an expression of pleasure and companionship as part of a relationship that is mutually affirming, ideally done not just with the low legal bar of consent, but with joint eagerness and joy.

What Roy Moore did wrong in the light of that ethic is clear. Fourteen and sixteen year-old girls cannot fully consent to a relationship with a man in his thirties. Their youth creates an inherent disadvantage in experience and perception. Adult men pursuing barely pubescent girls either seek a power advantage in their sexual relationships, or seek something else where that advantage serves their purpose. Even if Roy Moore’s dalliances with young girls never led to intercourse, his pursuit of them is creepy and predacious because of those inequities.

To many fundamentalists, not just in the Christian religion, sexual ethics is a matter of rules and rituals they believe are prescribed by their god. Women were made as helpmeets for men. Religious marriage is the only correct form for that. A woman should enter that as a virgin. It is her parents’ duty, and especially her father’s, to protect her until she is married. Sex is aimed at producing children, who will be raised in the same religion and in turn assume their assigned familial duties. Far from being concerned with issues of disparity in authority or social power, that perspective practically assumes their constant presence in all matters sexual. It doesn’t necessarily see anything wrong with an older man wooing a young girl, so long as he is properly religious and intends a marriage that follows the prescribed pattern. In the vernacular of the American south, so long as “his intentions are honorable.” As a child, I often heard that defense of taking young brides. A practice that was not uncommon here in the 19th and early 20th centuries, recorded in most any graveyard. A practice that has been revived in some evangelical circles.

Roy Moore’s critics are speaking the language of the secular ethic. He abused his power, he took advantage of young girls, and he caused them emotional pain that they remember decades later. Those matters don’t have much valence in the sexual ethic of Abrahamic fundamentalists. So long as he didn’t have intercourse with them, what he did still fell within their rules. Mitt Romney condemns Moore. What does Romney say about Joseph Smith, who at 37 married the 14 year-old Helen Kimball?

The differences between those two ethical outlooks run deep. In the secular and liberal outlook, it is natural that people living in the modern world would have concerns and moral prescriptions that didn’t matter to those living in times past. We learn. We have more material freedom. Culture changes. If, today, we have a sharper notions of consent, are more concerned with inequitable power, and have more expectations of romantic relationships, that is partly because we can and partly because we know more, and that is all for the good.

To the fundamentalist, such outlook is a kind of relativism that holds no water. Morality is something laid down once and for all by their god. Its rules are not the result of discussion and human reasoning, but of divine dictate, whose purpose and reason we do not, need not, and cannot fully understand. If their god and their scripture make no mention of such issues, why should they care about the niceties of the modern world? Many get offended that they are judged on such ground, by those who care nothing for what they view as the One True Morality, by those who support gay relations and contraception and all sorts of other sexual sin.

Of course, not all those who are religious carry that fundamentalist outlook. There are a wide variety of theologies that take other approaches to morality. That said, the tension between ethics by divine dictate and ethics by human conscience oft rears its head, as seen even in current debate within the Catholic Church.

In the legend of King David, when he was old, the Israelites searched for a young and beautiful virgin, to restore his virility. David failed that test, ending his reign. The photo above is a painting of Abishag futilely trying to excite the impotent king, by the Brazilian artist Pedro Américo. I expect Alabama to fail its test, too. It carries enough Iron age mentality to make Moore its next senator.


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