On the Difficulty of Arguing for “Zero Grazing”

It almost goes without saying that Christians who affirm traditional standards of sexual morality are increasingly marginalized in American culture.  In a host of ways—e.g., the contraception mandates of Obamacare, sanctions in the workplace and in academia against those who oppose promiscuity and same-sex marriage, and so on—the message is sent that traditional Christian morality is not just quaint and outdated but positively harmful.

Sociologist Peter Berger recently addressed this in a blog piece on The American Interest site.  In short, he contends that the new secular militancy directed against traditional Christianity is an effort to consolidate the sexual revolution.  Berger puts it this way:

Let me venture a sociological hypothesis here: The new American secularism is in defense of the sexual revolution. Since the 1960s there has indeed been a sexual revolution in America. It has been very successful in changing the mores and the law. It should not be surprising that many people, especially younger ones, enjoy the new libidinous benefits of this revolution. Whether one approves or deplores the new sexual culture, it seems unlikely to be reversed. Yet Christian churches (notably the Catholic and Evangelical ones) are in the forefront of those who do want to reverse the libertine victory. Its beneficiaries are haunted by the nightmare of being forced into chastity belts by an all too holy alliance of clerics and conservative politicians. No wonder they are hostile!

It is difficult to argue with this, although I also think there is a theological dimension that Berger’s concisely stated “sociological hypothesis” may obscure (especially if one is unfamiliar with Berger’s broader arguments in The Sacred Canopy).  At issue here is not just libidinous libertarianism, but also the redefinition of social reality in ways that effectively deny the constraints of both transcendent truth and history.  For example, same-sex couples can get most or all of what they want in terms of practical benefits through domestic-partners legislation, so why the insistence on redefining marriage in the face of not only Scripture and the Judeo-Christian tradition but also thousands of years of human history?  From the perspective of the latter same-sex marriage is not marriage at all.  But that limitation—rooted as it is in the doctrine of creation and the lessons of history—on human autonomy is precisely the point, and this helps to explain why homosexuality has come to be invested with such symbolic significance.  It has become for many the sacrament of human self-creative autonomy, a rite received vicariously by the secular faithful as they demonstrate support for gay marriage.

The reflexive reaction of many conservative Christians, especially in the American South, to all this has been forthrightly to defend the normativity of biblical morality in the public arena. Among the more popular lawn ornaments in the semi-rural portion of South Carolina where I live are signs listing the Ten Commandments.  This in itself is not a bad thing—certainly the quality of our national life has been impoverished by the exclusion of the religious expression from public discourse—but such appeals to authority are unlikely to be very effective.  They elicit at best a yawn and at worst the overt hostility of which Berger speaks.

As the broader culture becomes more and more post-Christian, conservative Christians will inevitably look increasingly strange.  As my friend Ken Myers has put it, we will appear “more and more Amish.”  One implication of this is that we as Christians need to learn to speak two languages—the language of faith within the Christian community and the wise language of public accessibility to a hostile world.

In other words, we need to find creative ways to gain a hearing for the truths of God’s Word, and we can begin to do this by paying closer attention to the doctrine of creation.  By the “doctrine of creation” here I am not referring to the details of God’s creation of the cosmos and the current controversies over evolution (though these are important matters).  Rather, I’m speaking of the notion of a creation order established by God which sets meaningful and beneficial parameters for human behavior.  This concept of a creation order implies that there are good and healthy ways to live that are consistent with the way God made us, and that if we ignore these principles we will inevitably pay a considerable price.  Of course, as we noted above, much of the contemporary militant secularism in our culture is driven by a desire to be free of any such “creation order” constraints.

As we seek to communicate God’s truth to others, we should be looking for the many points of contact where non-Christians are confronted by this creation order.  After all, even if they deny God’s creation order, they still have to live in it.  A number of years ago I ran across a stunning example of this in an issue of the Vanderbilt Magazine, an alumni publication not known for its sympathy to conservative Christians.  In an article on the AIDS epidemic in Africa, the author noted the remarkable impact of governmental policies in the nation of Uganda in reducing the AIDS infection rate from thirty to five percent.  With little in the way of resources or outside assistance, in the late 1980’s President Museveni of Uganda embarked on a program that emphasized sexual abstinence and faithfulness.  In a sub-Saharan culture where promiscuity is widely accepted, the Ugandan government hammered home the principle of “zero grazing,” i.e., that one should be faithful to one’s spouse.

Of course, the secular western AIDS “experts” were not impressed by the Uganda program.  The author quotes Norman Hearst of the University of California at San Francisco, “Fortunately for Uganda, there weren’t a lot of foreign experts telling them how to do things in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  So they did things their own way.  That’s when Museveni went around with his bullhorn telling people about ‘zero grazing’ and, in the circles in which I travel (the so-called AIDS experts), everybody thought he was a clown, a buffoon.  Everybody made fun of him.  Well, it turns out he was exactly right and we were all wrong” (Lisa A. DuBois, “Singing for Survival: The Music of AIDS in Uganda,” Vanderbilt Magazine [Fall 2004], p. 55).

So much of the western secular wisdom on this topic assumes that people will behave promiscuously and that there is nothing we can do about it.  This African example suggests, however, that biblical principles of sexuality are grounded in the structure of the created order, that it behooves even non-regenerate people to live in a way consistent with this order, and that there are publicly accessible arguments to be made for this.

[a portion of the material above was previously published in the August 2005 issue of The ARP Magazine]