The End of Absolute Sexual Morality

My friend Darwin observes:

When trying to make-nice to conservatives, proponents of “same sex marriage” tend to emphasize it as a way of enshrining commitment and sexual morality. However, while this tends to suggest that same sex relationships should have the same moral obligations and boundaries as traditional ones, in practice I have never known anyone who believes that same sex marriages are moral from a Christian point of view, and yet holds that sex outside of marriage (and a host of other, related sexual issues) is definitely wrong. I’m sure that a few such people do exist, but in general even the “conservative” supporters of same sex marriage tend to have adopted a significantly loosened idea of overall sexual morality: Sex is very much what you make of it. Different people have different expectations. The key thing is that everything be consensual and that people never betray the commitments they make, whatever those may be.

This might help explain why some of the more hardline conservative Christians will remain unwilling to accept same-sex relations and recognize same-sex marriages. Christian moral reasoning is typically absolutist–i.e., based on absolute principles–and its approach to sexual moral norms is no exception. Embracing homosexuality as a valid sexual expression goes hand-in-hand with letting go of these traditional sexual norms. This is the trend I’ve seen among friends and acquaintances over the years. The absolute value of consent remains for all of them, but consent falls more in the realm of freedom/autonomy than in the domain of sexuality. Their sexual morality tends not to involve absolute truth-claims about the meaning of sex, but appeals instead to prudence or temperance since sex has ethically-relevant consequences even if it doesn’t have an absolute teleology. Like Darwin, I imagine one could find socially conservative Christians who believe in the moral goodness of homosexuality while believing also in the moral evil of sexual activity outside of a committed relationship, and they might even have persuasive arguments to buttress their position, but so far as I know, I know of none.

In this sense, same-sex marriage, as a legal and cultural enshrinement of homosexuality, does pose a threat, not to the individual marriages of heterosexual couples, but to the hold on absolute principles of traditional sexual morality. Accepting homosexuality and same-sex marriage means, in practice, rejecting most any sort of definitive sexual norms. Given how closely united these norms are to the whole Christian worldview (see for example St. Paul’s comparison of the church’s relation to Jesus with the wife’s relation to her husband), it’s no wonder that many Christians are apprehensive about embracing gay rights, even if, for personal or philosophical reasons, they wish they could do so. From what I can tell, Christians who favor gay rights also take a decidedly cafeteria approach to the Christian tradition generally, but that’s a road not all Christians are willing to travel.

Follow Kyle on Facebook and Twitter.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

You may also like...

103 Responses

  1. “From what I can tell, Christians who favor gay rights also take a decidedly cafeteria approach to the Christian tradition generally, but that’s a road not all Christians are willing to travel.”

    I think that might say something (not necessarily good or bad) about the circles you travel in. I’ve seen no such tendency. In fact, if there’s a tendency of people to take the “cafeteria approach”, I’d say it runs in the opposite direction.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      It’s a tendency I see among my fellow Catholics, but also among Christians who belong to a tradition where some sense of objective sexual morality is pretty well established. Dissent from these norms tends to accompany dissent from other teachings. This makes sense. Once you disagree with authority (either of a person or a tradition) on one matter, you’ve opened the door by questioning the legitimacy of that authority.

      • Kyle,

        I think your explanation has buttressed my initial observation. I don’t run with Roman Catholics enough (or speak in enough depth with them is more like it) to make such a determination. Most of my conversations are with Protestants and maybe a few Evangelical/Charismatic Christians. So I think you and I can only really judge this based on our own experiences, which maybe don’t translate to the wider population, as well.

        As to your last sentence, there’s also the question of whether disagreeing with authority is actually counter to one’s faith, and also defining who those authorities are.

        I hope I don’t come off as overly critical here, I don’t mean to. I think you and I (and, no doubt, most people) are coming from a context that is too narrow to be able to draw definitive statements.

      • hazemyth says:

        You’ve often written about the value (and perhaps necessity) of questioning authority in the pursuit of faith. How do those ideas correlate or contrast with what you here describe as a ‘cafeteria approach’?

  2. Kim says:

    “Hooray, Hooray, the first of May
    Outdoor fucking begins today!”

    … this is not a new sentiment.
    Throughout the middle ages,
    there were culturally allowed and contrived
    ways for folks to commit adultery, and
    occasionally even sex outside wedlock.

  3. Johanna says:

    I don’t know any Christians who are not as you suggest “Cafeteria” types. Even the very traditional and conservative don’t follow their faith by the book. I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who actually does. The problem lies in those who chose to define marriage only through their traditional lens while simultaneously ignoring all of the other dismissed and archaic biblical messages I find harmful and hypochritical. Allowing gays to join into the Christian idea of marriage, in my mind strengthens the idea of marriage being a net positive thing. How is it that accepting homosexuals intersted in what is considered a Christian lifestyle as it pertains to marriage (besides being the same sex) encourages sex outside of marriage or other related sexual conduct unbecoming of a Christian?

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      “I don’t know any Christians who are not as you suggest “Cafeteria” types. Even the very traditional and conservative don’t follow their faith by the book. I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who actually does.”

      It helps, I think, to distinguish between various traditions of biblical interpretation and having a disposition that picks and chooses from within such a tradition. Not everyone takes the bible literally or as indicative of divine dictation, but I wouldn’t call a non-literal approach to the scriptures “cafeteria” in the sense I might apply that term to, say, a Catholic who chooses some definitive church teachings to believe and some not to believe.

      “How is it that accepting homosexuals intersted in what is considered a Christian lifestyle as it pertains to marriage (besides being the same sex) encourages sex outside of marriage or other related sexual conduct unbecoming of a Christian?”

      Logically, I’m not sure it has to.

      • Morat20 says:

        I’m not sure how applicable any of that is to non-Catholic Christians. Protestants, for instance, don’t have any “official” Church positions. (That was sort of the whole point of the Reformation. Well, one of them).

        My Lutheran theology is about 20 years out of date and decidedly rusty, but the end result of it (and it’s pretty applicable across most if not all of the Protestant churches) is flat out: “There’s the Bible, here’s how to pray, here’s what we [those who studied the bible, went to seminary and do this for a living] think, you’re gonna have to work out any kinks yourself”.

        Choosing from various Biblical traditions is pretty much choosing what parts of the Bible to follow and what parts not to. You just didn’t do the work yourself, you grabbed someone else’s filter that was close enough.

        Objective sexual morality is a non-starter anyways. It never existed. Not now, not in the middle ages, not 2000 years ago. There’s just social norms, which are forever changing.

        Marriage alone, well — I realize it’s beating a dead horse as far as points go — but the marriages we have here, in the US today, are absolutely nothing like the marriages of 100 years ago. Which themselves are nothing like the ones 1000 years ago. Much less the marital/bonding arrangements of various areas of Europe prior to Constantine, or the rest of the world in general.

    • I think there’s a problem with the “cafeteria” analogy. For some (many? all?), the “food” (faith) isn’t laid out like a menu; it’s foraging. It’s not about picking and choosing. It’s about discerning (and often failing at that).

      Of course, we all fish up, even when we know better.

  4. Sam says:

    I continue to boggle at the idea that individuals cannot lead their own lives if somebody, somewhere else is doing something differently. The Amish manage.

    • trumwill mobile says:

      It helps when you can keep you and yours separated from the broader culture by not having electronics.

      • Kazzy says:

        While visiting KJ (the Satmar community in my town I wrote about before) the other day, I wondered how much their community requests for visitors are based on shielding their kids from divergent ideas.

        They do tend to venture out into the broader community enough that I think this is likely a small piece of it, but it did make me wonder.

        • Will Truman says:

          I still need to write a post on KJ!

          But yeah, I very much think it is about shielding kids, at least in part. Even if you can’t do it 100%, you can stop it from being internally perceived as normal (and thus, respectable). I don’t think the KJ’s have a ban on electronics and the line, but it probably is preferable, from their point of view, that licencious behavior is the stuff of television rather than real life (and something they could participate in).

          • Kazzy says:

            If you still need fodder for your piece, I can send you articles on a big debate going on about a plan to tap into a main water artery with an eye towards expanding the community.

            Some of the objection is based on genuine concerns about what will be done with waste water and will this prevent other communities from growing.

            But some of it is very, very different.

            Many people keep referring to “the voting bloc” and how politicians kowtow to it… which sort of strikes me as the way politics works… but it gets people very, very upset.

        • LeeEsq says:

          I live among the Satmar in Williamsburg. A street that I walk through to get to the subway is populated mainly by Satmar families, Puerto Rican families, and a few Hipsters. The Satmar kids see a lot of very inappropriate and immoral behavior from the Satmar viewpoint; people dressing immodestly, openly sexual behavior in public, etc; and mainly seem to stay in the community.

        • NewDealer says:

          The guilty secret of the Hasidic Jews is that they keep the TV hidden and take it out after the kid’s have gone to sleep.

      • NewDealer says:

        The Amish are not explicitly anti-tech. They adopt as needed or after discussion.

        The ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jews manage to live in the heart of NY and other cities as surrounded by the broader culture and still stay the same

        • Kim says:

          They’ve also been known to accept rides in cars, and things like that.
          But talking about the Amish as if they’re one entity is probably a bad idea.

          I mean, we could talk about the guy who was selling whips and
          chains to the NYC BSDM community…but I think he’s in jail now, anyway.

          • NewDealer says:

            Another secret is that plenty of Hasidic men do frequent prostitutes to experience sex with non-Jewish women. IIRC I read an article around the time Spitzer’s scandal broke. A lot of sex workers said that Orthodox and Hasidic men like to come in during the lunch hour.

        • dhex says:

          “The ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jews manage to live in the heart of NY and other cities as surrounded by the broader culture and still stay the same”

          not a whole lot of avenues for escape from a culture like that. even the educational situation for male children is mostly lousy. and the women are basically chattel.

  5. BlaiseP says:

    I have no idea where you’re getting these ideas about Conservative Christianity. The Evangelical tradition from which I come is awfully conservative in its outlook. They will not only adapt, they’ll likely come to apologise for their maltreatment and discrimination of homosexuals.

    The Evangelicals came to terms with their racism and apologised for that mess. Now black people are deeply engaged with the Evangelicals: their own traditions haven’t held up quite as well. The Evangelicals came to terms with divorce, particularly remarriage of divorced persons, something the Catholics haven’t managed so well.

    Hardliners are what hardliners do. Though they evolve slowly, hardliners evolve continuously. But as with biological evolution, we only see the changes in the offspring, the children. Every generation of so-called Hardliners makes new rules, mostly in reaction to the idiocy of the old ones. The world changes, Conservatives change with it, adapting their basic principles to the world as it is. Even the Amish are evolving.

    I sincerely wish you knew more self-described Conservative Christians. Nobody’s faith is assembled by hand, picked and chosen from the buffet of doctrinal offerings — as if “Oh, I think I’ll have an Infant Baptism, but only Believer’s Baptism for church membership, a side of Calvinism but with Luther sauce — ooh that Total Depravity, too harsh on my palate. Gotta have good music, gotta have inclusivity — but not for Communion — ”

    No. Doesn’t work that way for Conservative Christians. Any of them. Because it doesn’t work for anyone. Every person has a worldview, whole and entire. If you’re a person of faith, your faith permeates that worldview like cream in coffee. Once in, you can’t get it out. If you can get it out, it wasn’t really there anyway.

    Many years ago, one of the best tenors in my church had recently been divorced from his wife. Seems he’d had a gay affair. Big stink in the church. He was a friend, too. I’d already made arrangements to have him sing at my wedding. He did sing and he remained my friend. He remained my father’s friend, too, a man who called homosexuality a sin. Mostly, my Dad was saddened and angered by his lies on the subject, for the man’s entire family was friends of our family.

    At the time, I considered myself a solid Conservative Christian. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to realise my own walk of faith really has nothing do to with anyone else, it’s all mine. I don’t take much comfort from church as once I did.

    You’re looking for that Persuasive Moral Argument: it’s the real world which provides that argument, the endlessly self-contradictory nature of human friendship. To love someone is to know who they reallyreally are — and go on loving them anyway, knowing what you do about their sins and shortcomings.

    Conservative Christians can look a sinner in the eye, tell him he’s a sinner, then feed that sinner, bind up his wounds — Christians are called to forgive. They’re ordered to forgive in the Lord’s Prayer — their own forgiveness depends upon their forgiving others. At least four of the parables of Jesus were about unforgiving people.

    Conservatives are not buffet-style Christians, that much of your argument is true. But Conservatives aren’t as adamant in their positions as even they think: their children, generation after generation, prove they’re adapting to the principles of Jesus Christ, abandoning their prejudices as surely as the early Christians had to abandon their prejudices about Samaritans and Gentiles.

    • Jaybird says:

      Yeah, the divorce scandals rocked the church in the 80’s. In the 70’s, it was possible to engage in some light shunning. By the 80’s? We had deacons getting divorced! DEACONS!!!

      The church found that it needed divorce workshops, not because it was condoning divorce, mind, just that this was a service that people needed… and then it needed divorce support groups, and then these things on multiple nights, and then and then and then.

      The church had so many divorces that it had no choice but to be Christian (like, “comforting the afflicted” Christian) in response. By being forced to abandon the whole “perfect facade” thing, I think that a lot of churches were improved by having to admit that, yes, they had a problem.

      I think (I hope, anyway) that enough churches remember those hard lessons to make the next transition easier.

      • BlaiseP says:

        All the elders within my family who condemned me for marrying a divorced woman? I lived long enough to see every one of them get divorced. Revenge is a dish best served cold: I reminded each of them of what they’d said to me, in turn.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      “But Conservatives aren’t as adamant in their positions as even they think: their children, generation after generation, prove they’re adapting to the principles of Jesus Christ, abandoning their prejudices as surely as the early Christians had to abandon their prejudices about Samaritans and Gentiles.”

      And so, in adapting, each generation becomes less and less conservative with respect to the beliefs that have changed.

      • Road Scholar says:

        Sure. Otherwise you would be Jewish.

        • NewDealer says:

          Elaborate please

          • Road Scholar says:

            It was a joke… sort of.

            I mean… we can in one sense at least compare “conservatism” to “reformation” and you could sort of look at Christianity as a whole as a reformation of Jewish theology, just as you might view Protestantism as a reformation of Catholicism.

            But it’s not something I’m wanting to get into a big debate over.

      • BlaiseP says:

        That’s right. Each generation remains true to its own doctrines but no two generations share the same worldview. Road Scholar makes a wry joke about Orthodox Judaism but every rebbe in every generation is called upon to make pronouncements on what’s new and fresh. Can an Orthodox Jew use a cell phone? Which rebbe said so? Depends which rebbe you ask.

        Orthodox Muslims and Amish — same story. I’ve seen Amish girls on rollerblades, swooshing down the road, their skirts swirling around them. Quite beautiful, really.

        I wouldn’t phrase it as “less and less conservative”. That would imply they’re not completely committed to their worldview — and they are committed, more so than those for whom The Rules are Mere Suggestions.

        • Kim says:

          … including the guy selling BSDM gear? I’m sorry, but a good deal of the rabbis, as well as certain Amish pastors etcetera are really fucking corrupt. And change laws at their own convenience, or use them to satisfy their own pleasures…

          • Kim says:

            all of which would not be worth pointing out, if it wasn’t SCADS worse in conservative religion.

          • BlaiseP says:

            Huh? What does this have to do with anything? What do you know about Amish pastors? They don’t have pastors, dumbass!

    • Kazzy says:

      “I sincerely wish you knew more self-described Conservative Christians.”

      How do you know he doesn’t?

      • BlaiseP says:

        I laid out my case. Buffet-style Faith is an oxymoron.

        • Kazzy says:

          You said he should know more self-described Conservative Christians, yet never asked how many he actually knew and from whence they came.

    • Morat20 says:

      Kyle’s Catholic, right? That’s a different kettle of fish than Protestants.

      They’ve got binding precedent, so to speak, and an earthly authority with a history of pronouncements and a real problem revoking some of them.

      Protestants have a Bible they’re encouraged to sort out themselves. Evangelicals and fundamentalists have a lot of internal pressure, inside of a given Church, to keep those interpretations close to each other, but there’s a lot less “close to what we believed 20 or 40 years ago” pressure.

      Catholics, for lack of a better term, have an historical weight to their idealogy that Protestants are by and large free of.

      It’d be surprising if Catholics didn’t lag behind in some ways.

      • BlaiseP says:

        The longer I live, the less difference I perceive between Catholicism and Protestant core beliefs. I admire the Catholics for preserving something true and real from ancient times, holding to it through incredible adversity. Vatican 2 damned near destroyed the Catholic Church, by my estimation of things.

        Protestants are also encumbered by historical precedent. Not all Protestants are scholastics, coming to terms with a thorough study of the Bible. Such a study would require learning Greek and Hebrew and parsing the original texts. There’s a buttload of intellectual laziness among the Protestants.

        The Catholics I know are getting serious about Bible study. I entirely approve of the present Pope Francis. I hope he goes through that den of thieves on Vatican Hill as did Our Lord in the Temple of Old. There’s absolutely nothing incurably wrong with the Catholics: though I am a Protestant, I’m secretly rooting for a serious rapprochement between our two branches of Christianity, a coming to terms with what it means to Walk With God.

    • GordonHide says:


      But Conservatives aren’t as adamant in their positions as even they think: their children, generation after generation, prove they’re adapting to the principles of Jesus Christ, abandoning their prejudices as surely as the early Christians had to abandon their prejudices about Samaritans and Gentiles.

      Yes, but the other thing that evolves is the perception of what “the principles of Jesus Christ” actually are.

  6. Jaybird says:

    The number one thing that I think changed everything is The Pill.

    With the advent of 99.44% effective birth control, sex ceased to be something that resulted in children. Yes, yes. I know about the stories of people who couldn’t have children or had the bad mumps or whatever but, seriously, two people bumping uglies resulted in one of them getting knocked up for the vast majority of human history.

    Suddenly, sex was something that you could do and *NOT* get pregnant.

    As time went on, we got better and better and better birth control. The hormones were calibrated better. IUDs got better and better. Rubbers went from being two or three centimeters thick to being… well, a realistic option. Depo. Tubal ligation is still fairly invasive, but vasectomies are walk-in, limp-out surgeries.

    Sex has been divorced from pregnancy.

    Once that divorce sunk in, people saw sex as something that risked pregnancy, rather than something that resulted in it and that had cascading effects down the line including forcing people to ask the question: What Is Sex For?

    And there is no answer for “What Is Sex For?” that doesn’t equally apply to gay couples once procreation has been removed from the equation.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      You’re probably right here, Jaybird, definitely about the inconsistency of being in favor of the pill but opposed to gay couples doing what gay couples do.

      • Jaybird says:

        I see them as lagging. In the same way that the church was behind the times when it came to divorce, it’s behind the times when it comes to what sex without reproduction actually means.

        They spent a lot of time answering the question “What Is Sex For?” by saying something to the effect of “Babies” despite having vasectomies/tubal ligations. They never thought about it. That was just the rote answer to give.

        Now they’re being forced to ask the question again, for reals, and think about their answer and the various tubes that have been stapled shut in their own bodies as they give their answer.

        I’m fairly sure that the lion’s share of them will come around, in the same way that they came around on birth control.

    • LeeEsq says:

      I think the pill merely made public went on in private before hand. The official message might have been no hanky-panky before marriage but there was a lot of it before the pill. It just came with the assumption that if you got the girl pregnant than you did the honorable thing and married her. Even when the official message was no sex before marriage and good girls don’t, we had an unofficial but not subtle assumption that men should seek and get sex as much as possible and any man who doesn’t is not really a man. The pill just made all of this public rather than private.

      • Kim says:

        “It just came with the assumption that if you got the girl pregnant than you did the honorable thing and married her.”
        … like Ben Franklin?

      • Kim says:

        I think this is highly culture specific.

        • LeeEsq says:

          Yes, it is. Till recently, Jews seemed to do the “no sex before marriage” ideal better than their Christian neighbors. Jews had much lower rates of illigitimacy and once records started, had very few early first births, which is used as evidence to show rates of pre-marital sex. Christians seemed to have another practice.

          • Kim says:

            “which is used as evidence to show rates of pre-marital sex”
            … not at all accurate when you’re looking at people having out-of-wedlock sex on the marriage day.

            I think you could estimate ages of boys (along with potential fertility) and get a good idea of how many adulterous/illegitimate babies happened in Jewish culture… a lot more than you’d think, I’d wager.

      • Jaybird says:

        From what I understand, this is how a lot of religious communities dealt with it in practice.

        “Guys, guys. You’re doing this in the wrong order.”

        They had a marriage ceremony, the baby was born premature but, thank god, full weight and everything was okay. Perhaps it was something to be catty about… but given the high percentage of (surprisingly healthy!) preemie first borns, it was a pleasant enough hypocrisy for everyone to engage in.

        The advent of the pill changed such things as “the honorable thing to do”.

        • Kim says:

          Or, there was the other way:

          Marry the girl and boy at age 12.
          Let the groom’s father make certain
          the girl lost her maidenhead.

          Sometimes celebrate boy for being
          “really virile.”

          (note: this was often enough a reason
          to prevent the father of the bride from
          committing incest. )

        • NewDealer says:

          In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Hackett Fisher reported that it was fairly common to allow couples to have sex post-engagement but pre-marriage during the Colonial and Early Republic eras in New England.

        • zic says:

          JB, when I was a kid, my mom served as town clerk for a few years; and the town’s records were at our house. For entertainment, we’d read through the earliest of ledgers, dating back about 270 years. Premature babies, often born only a month or two after a marriage were common.

          But the strangest thing were babies born after a man’s death; with his wife giving birth to his child up to 1.5 years later.

        • LeeEsq says:

          I think doing “the honorable thing” was in decline long before the pill was even in development. It started to decline when women lost the right to sue men for breech of promise when they got cold feet about marriage. This took away a major incentive for men to go through hastily thought out marriage proposals. I’m pretty sure that by the time the pill appeared, very few men thought that they really had to marry a girl if they got her pregnant.

          • Kim says:

            Again, I assume culture dependent.
            Shotguns haven’t exactly disappeared in the last fifty years…

            Poor Jews, for example, practiced wife abandonment quite frequently in America.

          • Morat20 says:

            Did the law die out before or after roughly 1900?

          • LeeEsq says:

            Morat, in the US it disappeared around 1935 according to Wikipedia.

          • Morat20 says:

            Interesting. And fairly predictable — I’d be the use of such lawsuits started falling off as soon as women were able to start functioning as unitary citizens, and not adjuncts to their fathers or spouses.

            If you’re not a full citizen, transfer of..custody, for lack of a better word….between two full citizens is a big deal, especially if the cancellation resulted in permanently lowered value.

          • LeeEsq says:

            Morat20, I didn’t think of it that way but you’re right but only partly. Breach of Promise disappeared because the courts stopped enforcing them or really limiting them, not because women stopped filing them.

          • Morat20 says:

            Not surprised by that, either. Female equality still isn’t a done deal, 70 years later.

            So you’d have a lengthy transitional period in which a lot of marriages would still have the same issues that made breach of promise a problem in the first place. BUT, the changing social mores would give the man an out.

            So, effectively, women who were still harmed by the separate and unequal system would still sue, but courts would be loathe to accept it as the system was — on paper — becoming more and more equal.

            Women could vote and work (if only in women’s jobs and for less pay). Technically. They didn’t lose value or money or status as much as they used to. To some people they didn’t at all. Which is about all you need to get off the hook.

    • zic says:

      History, because it was mostly written by men, is complicated here. But.

      Going back through pre-modern medical practice, when much of medicine was what women knew, a key insight is the herbs and medicinal plants they grew. Among the most ancient of cultivated plants in herb gardens are those who’s only use is ‘bringing on the menses,’ abortifacients. These weren’t considered ‘abortions,’ they were to start menses, and probably highly unreliable.

      So just as there were varying traditions of marriage over time, I humbly suggest women took more control over their reproduction in the past then we give them credit for having.

      • NewDealer says:

        This is a vast oversimplification of the history of medicine. There were certain forms of medicine that were considered in the women’s realm and these often related to childbearing and children, this is true. But medicine was always more.

        • zic says:

          ND, I’m not suggesting it wasn’t, I’m suggesting we fail to give credit to how common ending pregnancy in the early weeks actually was, as if the idea of abortion is a modern plague.

          And I am repulsed by the notion that women didn’t exert more agency then we think; we have the evidence that suggests they did exert agency here. Moreover, the earliest records of actual medicinal gardens come from Christian monks, who grew a variety of abortifacients. I would guess that the moral lines were around quickening, or about 4.5 months into pregnancy.

          • Kim says:

            The moral lines depended on where you were. The scots irish, in particular, were quite known for practicing child abandonment.

            Also, the common line about “barefoot and pregnant” wasn’t truly the case. in a lot of societies, things were way too close to the edge for a woman to be fertile all that often.

      • LeeEsq says:

        Abortion was legal and fairly common in the United States till the mid-19th century. It was how middle and upper-class couples practiced birth control. Anthony Comstock was a driving force in the campaign to make abortion illegal.

        • And at least some of the late 19th-/early 20th-century opposition to abortion was done in the name of protecting women from dangerous and incompetent abortionists. (I’m not saying that was the true or most pervasive motivation behind that opposition and I’m not saying that such a motivation wouldn’t be paternalist in its own right, only that it was cited as a reason.)

      • Zic,

        You’re right. And although Kyle might be the authority here, I have heard that Catholic theology (along with the law and folk understandings) used to make a distinction between pre- and post- “quickening.” Abortion was wrong (or as you say, was counted as “abortion”) only after quickening.

  7. Murali says:

    This is why if we are to win over conservatives, the argument should not be made on the basis of whether one or another sexual morality is the better one. Rather it should be made on the basis of state neutrality or impartiality, without any sort of commentary on the rightness or wrongness of the action thereby permitted

  8. NewDealer says:

    Not that these questions ever get answered when I post about them but:

    What is exactly wrong with the Cafeteria style/approach?

    I grew up in a household that practiced Reform Judaism. Reform Judaism believes that the Torah is a result of the relationship between God (if there is God) and the Jews. It is not something that comes from God to the Jews. Basically it is written by people who were trying to explain their world, their law, their culture, their history, and examine what happened to them.

    This does not make it bad or wrong. It merely makes the Torah more like Plato or Aristotle. Worthy of study with parts that are relevant and true today and valuable but other parts that have been proven to be incorrect and/or the products of their time. We must live in the modern and the now. If something has been proven to be wrong or incorrect, there is no shame or fault or wrong in not following it.

    And there has never been an absolute morality. I am currently reading The Crisis of the European Mind: 1680-1715 by Paul Hazard. Early in the book, he reports how Europeans of the era were astonished by the King of Siam refusing to convert to Christianity. The King’s reasoning was that if there was one true religion by an all powerful God, then it would be the easiest thing in the world for that God to make everyone follow the one true religion. Yet there are multiple religions.

    For many centuries, Christianity held vast sway and influence through might and a series of other historical incidents. What they never held was a monopoly on truth. Currently the sway of Christianity is eroding even further and the Orthodox dragons are in a panic.

    I find it interesting that other religions did not officially break into the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox distinctions that Judaism did. Or at least they did not do so as explicitly.

    • Kim says:

      Islam does not have as much of the Reform movement, but that is because they didn’t start into the process of reform until this century.

      Reform was popular around the time of the Deists. Reevaluate, rethink, struggle.

      • NewDealer says:

        Somewhat. Reform Judaism was a product of the Enlightenment and Napoleonic liberation. The idea of Reform Judaism was to keep being Jewish while fully engaging in the secular world. Over say converting

      • NewDealer says:

        I find the term “cafeteria” style to be very telling. There is a close to implicit statement that you just can’t pick and choose.

        The history of humanity tells us that we all pick and choose. Time to embrace it.

        • Kim says:

          Such a thing automatically assumes that the orthodox aren’t being cafeteria style.

          • Morat20 says:

            If your theological ancestors were cafeteria christians, you aren’t. You just have a different Biblical tradition. 🙂

            A bit snarky, but certainly true. Today’s heretical change is tomorrow’s tradition that shouldn’t be altered.

          • Kim says:

            oh, come on now! they make up (“discover”) new (“lost”) traditions all the time.
            We have horses clopping around our neighborhood now. Lord knows why. But it’s something to do with the orthodox.

          • Morat20 says:

            This sounds like the same sorts of arguments you hear about voting blocks on the Supreme Court. 🙂 Living versus textual Constitutionalism.

            Is the Supreme Court still entirely Catholic or Jewish? (What a strange, strange turnout. We’re not that far from Kennedy having to explain how he wouldn’t let the Pope dictate America’s policy if elected)

        • Morat20 says:

          “Cafeteria” tends to have the implied “You’re just making it up” vibe to it. You’re not following the RULES, you’re just doing what you want and saying “But see, I’m obeying those rules!”.

          Basically the implication is you don’t have rules, you just do whatever, and then say whatever rules you’re breaking you don’t believe in and whichever ones you happen to be following you do.

          It’s basically like having no rules at all.

          Of course, the problem being — without mind reading, you can’t tell the difference between someone who honestly accepts a subset of the rules and follows them faithfully from someone who just says they do.

          • Kim says:

            The orthodox jews do this all the time. (okay, not all of them. but the hasid feel quite free to come up with new rules. Nothing like watching a rabbi-fight in the supermarket)

          • NewDealer says:


            Rabbi fights over what is and what is not kosher are nothing new. You can read novels by the Singer’s and set in the Old Country. There are plenty of stories about how the poor rabbis were always much stricter about what was unkosher. The well-supported rabbi’s were a bit lax with the requirements.


            Perhaps it really just is all made up. I am proud of my Jewish background but experience and observation tell me that there is probably not a deity. This is not to say that practicing a religion is bad. But I will always challenge those who think their religion gives them a monopoly on truth and morality. This includes Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists (not likely here), Shinto, Hindus, Pagans, etc. There is good in many or all religions.

          • Morat20 says:

            NewDealer: I wasn’t trying to bash religion, yours or anyone’s. I come from a Lutheran background, which was one of the founding churches of Cafeteria Christianity.

            After all, we — along with the Anglicans — were the first to tell the Pope “Nah, we’re just gonna jettison a lot of stuff you’re into and go our own way. For reasons good and bad, depending”.

            I’m just saying that there’s no way to tell, externally, whether someone is telling the truth or not on why they have the rules they have. If I HAND you a set of rules, you either obey them or not.

            If you choose your own rules, then I can never tell if you have a philosophical, theological, or whatever base for them — or simply do as you wand, and cherry pick the rules to suit and are maybe pretty facile at explaining it.

          • J@m3z Aitch says:

            After all, we — along with the Anglicans — were the first to tell the Pope

            Ahem. Let’s not forget the Anabaptists, who begn around the same time and went much further in their reaction to the Catholic Church.

          • Morat20 says:

            Sadly, I always do forget about them. 🙂

          • What about Jan Hus, or John Wycliff, or the Albigensions?

    • ND,

      I agree mostly that “cafeteria religion” is not wrong. My major concern is when holier than thou (or holier than I) folks criticize others’ cafeteriaism without acknowledging their own.

  9. Jaybird says:

    There’s a movie out there called “Trembling Before G-d” that you may be interested in. It studies the issue of homosexuality within the Orthodox Jewish community.

    Now, when I first heard about this, my first response was to scoff. “Yeah, the sequel is about Orthodox Jews who eat bacon cheeseburgers” but, as time went on, I softened when I thought about it and see it as, seriously, a step forward. “How can I reconcile my faith with my self?”

    This is a *HUGE* question that should be asked by a hell of a lot more people than just the Orthodox people who happen to be gay.

    (I find myself hoping, someday, to hear about a movie called “God is Great” (or something) that deals with this issue within Islam.)

    • George A. Chien says:

      “A Jihad for Love”
      A documentary on gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims across the Muslim and Western worlds.
      Director: Parvez Sharma
      Producer: Sandi Simcha Dubowski (Who also produced “Trembling”)
      It’s on Netflix, among other places.

  10. J@m3z Aitch says:

    The end of absolute anything morality is cause to cheer. Moving away from absolutes to more nuanced positions is an element of intellectual maturation.

    • Kim says:

      mmrrr… even where murder is concerned?

      • Morat20 says:

        Self-defence is an accepted reason to kill. So is war. There are various types of charges reflecting killing someone “illegally”, so circumstances are factored in.

        So yes. 🙂 Even murder. Unless you want to get tautological about it, as murder is a specific charge that is defined as ‘wrongful’, but it’s actually a subset of “killing”.

        • Kim says:

          Yes, actually, I did want to get somewhat tautological.
          I have been asking myself the troublesome question —
          “What if you saw a sex slave? Would you consider it moral to murder them?”

          … this is quite naturally assuming that all sex occurring is nonconsensual (rape), and that one has limited window of opportunity (and, by extension, her chances of rescue are slim at best).

    • Jaybird says:

      Well… sometimes.

    • Michigan University Basketball?

  11. Jim Heffman says:

    “Christian moral reasoning is typically absolutist”

    *All* moral reasoning is absolutionist. Otherwise it wouldn’t be moral reasoning. You can’t *not* find immoral things to be immoral.

    You can, however, understand the situations and feelings that led someone to act in what you consider an immoral manner; you can decide that another person’s immoral behavior has no particular effect on you; you can recognize that your sole duty is to provide counsel and support for those who want to mend their ways, and not to try to make immorality impossible through secular force.

    Or, as a Christian might put it, “hate the sin, love the sinner”.

    • Murali says:

      Not necessarily, one might say that some action or way of being is morally better than another without saying that one has a stringent obligation to act in that particular way or that failing to act in that way displays a particularly degenerate character.

      Contrast the following 2:

      1. It is wrong to eat meat and you will be reborn as an animal destined for slaughter in your next life for doing so.

      2. It is morally worse ceteris paribus to eat meat than not.

      The first is an absolutist statement while the second is much gentler. Absolutism conceives of immorality as binary while non-absolutists think that at least in a lot of cases, immorality admits of degrees.

  12. George A. Chien says:

    Posting in order to be able to read.

  13. dexter says:

    Gee whiz and golly but I get tired of having to write something. I would much prefer to be a fly on the wall instead of a known lurker.

  14. dexter says:

    hooray for the day when I can just lurk.

  15. GordonHide says:

    The key thing is that everything be consensual and that people never betray the commitments they make, whatever those may be.

    I would add that participants need to be of roughly equal status to demonstrate that the relationship is not manipulative to the disadvantage of one of the participants. I see little wrong with any consenting sexual arrangement between adults provided that:

    no harm is done
    no-one is betrayed
    deception is not involved
    no trust is betrayed
    no-one is being manipulated to their disadvantage