Free Speech, Sex Recession, and Our Strange New Public Square

In our era, what’s truly Christian or conservative is not always easy to discern.

A few years ago, Bill Maher appeared on the (now shuttered) Charlie Rose Show. Maher is one of the smugger, less sufferable “New atheist” types, and has more or less made a lucrative career out of representing conservatives and religious people, especially Christians, as idiots at best and theocrats at worst. So it was a bit surprising to see a clip from his interview with Charlie Rose getting passed around with enthusiasm amongst many conservative (and Christian) politicos. In the clip, Maher draws the ire of Rose by arguing that Islam is a “unique threat” to democracy and freedom. After Rose countered that many Christians are just as intolerant as Muslims, Maher blasted the equivalency, pointing out that opinion polls of Muslims in the Middle East show majority support for capital punishment of apostates and adulterers—something not true of worldwide Christians.

Now, if you’re used to the type of New York Times-style progressivism that both Rose and Maher typically traffic in, this was definitely a surprising exchange. Maher stood his ground when Rose tried to implicate Christians (presumably evangelicals) as comparable to Islamists—a comparison that plenty of progressives have and continue to employ. For that reason, I suppose, the exchange caused a bit of a sensation with religious, right-leaning folks. “Bill Maher sounds like a right-winger about Islam lately, and it’s great,” fawned a PJ Media writer. The Right Scoop’s headline was similarly exuberant: “FANTASTIC: Bill Maher DEMOLISHES Charlie Rose in a debate about Islam and ISIS.” National Review’s coverage was more restrained but sanguine: “Bill Maher Defends Christian Right.”

What fascinated me about this positive response from conservative media was how none of it mentioned a moment a few seconds before the “defense” of Christians. Maher, chuckling and with a distinctly Dawkinsian gleam in his eye, assured Rose that “All religions are stupid” and goaded a giggling Rose by saying, “It’s hard for me to believe someone like you could believe in these embarrassing anachronisms from the Bronze Age.” The moment, which felt distinctly like an inside-joke between two people who’ve never had an actual conversation with an educated Christian in their lives, was totally on brand for Maher. Nothing that Maher said in the rest of the interview mitigated whatsoever his disparagement of the IQ of religious people. Yet the conservative response to Maher’s dressing down of Rose on Islam seemed to not think this mattered at all. What mattered was that Maher had said a politically incorrect thing about Islam and the West. For this, conservatives rejoiced enough to share the clip and express appreciation, if begrudgingly, for Bill Maher and his, erm, courage.

I soon realized that this episode illustrated something I’d felt but couldn’t quite articulate. Conservative Christians cheering Bill Maher for criticizing Islam in the same breath that he insulted religion writ large symbolized some sort of realignment that was/is happening. Again, to these conservatives—many of whom are Christian—what really mattered was not that Maher dismissed religious belief but that he had held the line about Islam. To be happy enough about the latter that you ignore the former seems to me an unmistakable sign of your priorities. It means at least in some degree that offending Charlie Rose and the network suits at PBS is worthier of adulation than atheistic elitism is worthy of censure.

This is a small but meaningful example of a visible phenomenon wherein conservative and/or religious Americans are finding more common cause, or at least expressing more common cause, with strident secularists who champion free speech than with, say, religious (nominal or practicing) people who like to be PC and listen to NPR. The rules of sociopolitical life appear to have shifted, so that the really meaningful ideas that separate competing truth-claims are now ideas about manners. “To trigger the snowflakes or not to trigger”  is a question that, today, will sort out worldviews and tribes quicker and more efficiently than a question like, “What is the chief end of man?”

Consider the fascination many evangelicals have with Jordan Peterson. I admired Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, but there’s no question he is a thoroughly secular thinker with a decidedly sub-Christian anthropology. Of course, Peterson has some valid and fascinating ideas about life and culture. But the majority of evangelicals I see getting more and more interested in Peterson are not doing so for his insights about archetype but for his confrontations of feminists and transgender activists. It was not that long ago at all that Freud and Jung were non-starters for evangelicals. Now, a professor whose entire life work is dedicated to secular psychoanalysis can command loyalty from Christians on the basis of his punchy (and admittedly very compelling) interviews with progressives.

My point is not really that Christians are “compromising.” My point is that the definition of “compromise” has transformed almost imperceptibly. Conservatives and/or evangelicals are facing a trade-off between things like free speech/gender orthodoxy/ free range parenting and things like theology and ethics. Which is more worthy of solidarity and celebration? Which is a better shorthand for confessional and tribal identity?


All of this was on my mind last fall as I read The Atlantic‘s cover story on America’s “sex recession” and wondered, blankly, how Christians should feel about it. To sum up the cover essay, American young people are having less sex and fewer sexual partners, and sociologists are concerned—not because they want more teens to have more sex, but because the decline in adolescent and twentysomething sexual activity seems linked to a larger problem of delayed maturation, high aversion to risk, and an overall failure to transition into adult life.

The challenge here from a traditional Christian ethical perspective is obvious. On the one hand, the unambigous teaching of Scripture and the church’s tradition is that sex is holy when and only when it unfolds in the context of a maritally covenanted husband and wife.  Yes, “purity culture” had/has its big problems, but those problems exist because the problem of sexual sin exists too. Chastity and monogamous faithfulness are the way of Jesus. To that end, a “recession” of adolescent sex is a boom of flourishing, right?

But what do we make of the reasons for the sex recession? Perhaps it would be best to imagine a scenario. Let’s say you’re a pastor or lay minister at a decent sized evangelical church. You find out that, contrary to what was generally perceived to be the experience of evangelicals in years past, most of the teens and college students in your church are not sexually active. Great! After a little bit more research, though, you realize that this is less due to spiritual renewal and growth and more due to the following:

1) Porn. The young men especially have heeded the warnings about premarital sex and pregnancy and aren’t touching the girls. But this “chastity” is compensated by widespread porn use, which you suspect is both taking the edge off the compulsions to physical intimacy and demotivating the boys from trying to look a girl in the eye.

2) Digital addiction. You notice that, while there doesn’t seem to be much dating going on in the student ministry, just about everybody has a phone and 3-4 social media accounts. The girls in particular seem hooked on Instagram, and none the happier or more confident for it. Netflix and social media seems to be what the kids in the student ministry do instead of hang out.

3) Helicopter parents. It’s less surprising that the teens in your church aren’t sexually active when you realize that the vast majority of their waking moments are scheduled and supervised by their parents. The high school seniors in particular fill their nights and weekends with homework and extracurricular activities that will look great on a college transcript. They seem tired, unusually stressed, and unconcerned about life until they “make it.” They don’t work jobs and have little free time.

The question is this: If the “sex recession” in American culture is pretty much the sum total of these three trends (and that’s where the Atlantic article lands), how should we think about it? Is it good or bad? By turning the trends of broader culture into hypothetical trends in your church’s student ministry you can see how practically important this can be.

What does any of this have to do with the political realignments in American culture?  The point is that the realignment of the public square forces us to express the fullness of our convictions. In this era of intense tribal sorting, sorting that often depends more on the baiting headlines of media than the actual consequences of ideas, the “Why”—in all its irritating nuance, temporal bandwidth, and un-tweetable complexity—is crucial. The conservatives who lauded Bill Maher failed to realize that dinging Islam for being bad just like all other religion is bad is NOT a conservative observation but a radically secular one. They failed to realize this because contemporary conservatism in America is a hapless media creature, lifeless except to the degree that it can generate 8PM ratings and clicks. Contemporary conservatism is not a “Why” worldview but a “That” worldview. The lack of a Why is precisely the reason in the Breitbart era the goalposts keep moving. Truth is whatever makes the other team angry.

And for evangelicals, the sex recession is a good illustration of why rich theology and robust ethical reflection matter more than truisms. To the truistic evangelical a sex recession is an unmitigated good because abstinence is an absolute good. But a truly Christian theology of sex would immediately tell you that sexlessness due to tech addiction or perpetual childhood is not the same as chastity. The trends driving the sex recession are not automatically good simply because they keep young Americans from sleeping together, just like the new free speech advocacy is not automatically good because it frustrates a certain kind of liberal. To get to this conclusion, though, you have to have more reasons than many evangelicals have.

In the strange new sorting of the public square, what’s truly conservative or truly Christian is not always easy to discern. The good thing is that we now have many opportunities to identify and explain ourselves—if we’ll take them.

Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.

3 thoughts on “Free Speech, Sex Recession, and Our Strange New Public Square”

  1. We have completely disengaged from the underlying “Why” something was said or done, especially in the context of social media. Which is a symptom of the bigger problem of losing both context and focus. “Sound bite” politics and theology over against full-orbed theology and worldview.


  2. Thanks for writing this article. I’ve had similar uncomfortable feeling about these polar opposites but can’t really understand why. Now I understand the why. I’m really glad you point this out.


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