For reasons best known to the editors of the New York Times, they continue to give Tanya Luhrmann a paycheck (supplementing her funding from the Templeton Foundation) to write an apologetics column on evangelical Christianity. While refusing to divulge her own religious beliefs (she’s an anthropologist, after all), she tells the rest of us why we should have sympathy for the delusions of Christians who talk to God.
Now, in a new piece, “The appeal of Christian piety“, whose title is self-explanatory, Luhrmann chastises the rest of us secularists who mock or criticize the evangelical Christian cult of “purity” and fear of premarital sex. This is not an anthropological report, but simple apologetics. In particular, Luhrmann is enthusiastic about a fairly new (published last November) book on Christian sexuality:
A recent book on evangelical sexuality gives this Christian insistence on the reinterpretation of experience a particular bite. “Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism,” by Amy DeRogatis, an associate professor of religion and American culture at Michigan State University, describes the surprisingly rich and briskly selling literature of evangelical sex manuals.
I’m not sure what “surprisingly rich,” means, but it’s surely not “rational”. Here are the main points of Christian sexuality as Luhrmann sees them. At first her descriptions seem like criticisms, but it turns out they’re plaudits:
It encourages “purity”.
Some of these manuals call on women to stay pure until marriage. (A 2008 documentary, “Virgin Daughters,” claimed that one in six girls in America takes a purity pledge.) They describe a world in which young girls in evening gowns take their fathers as their date to purity balls, and publicly commit to remaining virgins until they find a “gallant and godly husband” of whom their fathers approve.
The authors of what Ms. DeRogatis calls “the princess purity books” present as empowering a young woman’s decision to leave all decisions in the hands of others.
That’s “empowering”? I thought it was empowering to make your own decisions!
It encourages submission to one’s husband. As Lurhmann says,
What Ms. DeRogatis calls the “helpmeet” literature, by contrast, celebrates sex with one’s husband — but does not portray that husband as a fairy-tale prince. In fact, the books admit that sometimes he is loathsome. But they insist that God has given the husband the job of leading the family and that it is the wife’s role to accept this. “It is far better that the job be done poorly by your husband,” one book explains (in bold), “than it be done well by you.” When a wife accepts her man as he is, the books say, she feels God’s grace. She has become a warrior wife.
This kind of language infuriates secular observers, who say these ideas are not only antiquated but can even be harmful.
. . . Add to that the fact that this literature portrays feminism as a menace to godly families, and you can see why secular observers see nothing here that empowers women.
One would think Luhrmann would sympathize with those critical secularists, but guess what? She doesn’t! That’s curious in the face of her admission that not only are half of the purity pledges broken, but the rate of sexually transmitted diseases is higher among “pledgers,” who don’t take proper precautions during sex.
Luhrmann’s point is that if women choose to make their sexuality and sex lives subordinate to religious dictates, that’s a form of empowerment. After all, Muslim women choose to wear the veil:
And yet there is an appeal in this kind of piety. The act of submission, when consciously chosen, can feel empowering, and even politically empowering. Anthropologists have seen these dynamics among Muslim women. In the 1990s, when young women in Java increasingly chose to wear veils, despite the harassment and mockery of others, the anthropologist Suzanne A. Brenner set out to understand why. She found that they saw themselves as activists: as people who were creating a new social order, free of the corruption of the West. They saw themselves as modern but godly. Choosing to submit to Islamic law made them feel powerful, independent and effective. It gave them a sense of control.
It may look to secular readers as if these women who think they are being empowered are merely deluded. But that’s not how they understand themselves.
I wonder, if that kind of submission is so empowering, why do so many Iranian women take off the veil when it’s “No Veil Day”, why do so many Saudi women want to drive, and why do so many Muslim woman, at risk to their lives, protest their second-class status as chattel and breeder cattle? Could it be that Luhrmann is mistaking childhood indoctrination as voluntary submission? This is religion-coddling doublespeak—submission is empowerment! Adherence to ancient norms of behavior is radical!:
Just as some newly observant Muslims see themselves as political activists, the evangelical women who buy the Christian sex manuals are also led to see themselves as political activists. Ms. DeRogatis writes: “Young people are told that they are standing up for Christ and resisting America’s sexualized culture by claiming virginity as a countercultural, radical stance.” Their choice to submit is a choice to create a new social order from within.
Indeed, that may be partly true, but it’s still screwed up, for you could consider any retrograde, pro-religious stance, like denying rights to gays, as a form of political activism that stands up to modernity (or even America’s “sexualized culture,” which includes acceptance of homosexuality).
And if you want to see something truly disturbing, especially in view of the fact that this stuff appears as a regular column in the Times, read Luhrmann’s ending, where she extols the rise of evangelical Christianity and imputes it in part to this kind of “radical” sexuality:
Evangelical churches are gaining converts more rapidly than they are losing any who grew up in the tradition. I’ve always thought that the primary appeal of these churches was the vivid immediacy of their God. The sex manuals remind us that another factor is the sense of being a countercultural activist who sets out to remake the world.
That’s heady stuff. The mainstream churches offer nothing like this edgy rebellion, this nose-thumbing at ordinary expectations. Paradoxically, it may be this invitation that makes what seems like passivity feel so effective.
“Heady stuff”? Maybe in Luhrmann’s world, but not in the world of enlightened people. What we have here is simple apologetics, and an inversion of worldview that makes Luhrmann see repression and submission as “radical acts.”
I’m not sure why the Times continues to publish this kind of stuff, but I do know this: they should allow a secularist the same type of column to counteract the drivel regularly peddled by Luhrmann.