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Conservatism and Sex

Yesterday I pondered John Milbank’s drift towards conservatism. What seems clear about it is that the main point of emphasis in Milbank’s conservatism is sex. The issues that he is coming out on that seem to betray a drift towards the right are all issues of marriage and sexuality. Interestingly enough, the same trend is pretty visible in the pilgrimage of Richard John Neuhaus. Beginning as a liberal Lutheran minister who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., he was primed to be the next leading voice of liberal protestant social thought. However, he ended up growing more and more conservative as the path of First Things makes clear. The reason? From what I can see it stems for him rejection of the social consequences of the sexual revolution in the 60s. You can see the same tendency in the development of Robert Jenson and Carl Braaten. Just check out Jenson’s chapter “Politics and Sex” in his Systematic Theology and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

This raises a rather odd question. Is the path towards conservatism really just about one’s view of sex? For many people sex seems to be the (only?) hinge on which one’s self-identification as a conservative turns.


  1. Hill wrote:

    I think that’s just where the rubber meets the road in an obvious way. The reason this seems confusing is the result of equivocation about what “liberal” and “conservative” mean. For whatever reason, in our society today, they only really have stable meanings with regard to sex. We’ve collapsed any meaningful political distinctions in to a monolithic state corporatism advocated in slightly different forms by both parties. The reason sex emerges as the apparent difference between “liberals” and “conservatives” is because it is the only meaningful difference.

    I think with people like Milbank, Neuhaus, Jenson, Braaten, et al. you simply have Christians attempting to grow in faith. One loses too much to try to call any of the above “liberals that got more conservative” or something. There is a certain amount of circularity in that characterization.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  2. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    One thing is certain: it is incredibly important that theologians resist the path taken by Neuhaus and the First Things crowd. As far as I’m concerned the hard-line position against homosexuality is really the most unhelpful and divisive of them all. We must take the difficult path of Rowan Williams on this issue. Williams has so much to teach us on how to balance the importance of tradition while being open to the strangeness of the risen Jesus.

    If your against homosexuality resist, at all costs, the temptation to align yourself in any way with the agenda of the Right.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    Put otherwise, with the except of Neuhaus, I don’t think any of the people you’ve mentioned would self-identify as conservatives, regardless of how “conservative” they may be on sexual ethics, and I think Neuhaus probably even accepts the term grudgingly and with appropriate resignation to it’s uselessness.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  4. Brad E. wrote:

    Shouldn’t we define our terms first? I’m not sure what being “conservative” means in this context. Are Milbank, Jenson, and Braaten on “the path towards conservatism” because of their views/shifts on sex, or are their views/shifts on sex, as merely one part of their work, identified as conservative? There seems to be a difference, especially insofar as the term is so unwieldy it can mean a variety of things.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 10:10 am | Permalink
  5. An Anxious Anglican wrote:

    You asked, “Is the path towards conservatism really just about one’s view of sex?”

    I do not think so. One’s view of sex is often a presenting symptom of incipient conservativism rather than a cause. The disarray in our collective and individual existence that has been wrought by sexual autonomy is sometimes the first evidence that a contemporary person encounters (and cannot avoid) that causes her to ask if there are limits to the liberal project as classically formulated. The cause of conservativism could therefore be articulated instead as the “blessed rage for order,” especially in the face of the chaos/anarchy/violence wrought by the untrammeled autonomy of modern man. Think Burke and the French Revolution for an alternative model of the birth of conservativism.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 10:10 am | Permalink
  6. Brad E. wrote:

    Well, I repeated what others have already said, having taken too much time to respond!

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Good points all. And its true that many of these people would not self-identify as conservative. What’s interesting is that when people see Milbank, Jenson, or whoever opining on sexual matters, the immediate reaction is “Oh my God, he’s really getting conservative!”

    It seems like, at least in popular consciousness, one’s thoughts about sex are really what makes one conservative. Of course Larison’s thoughts about economic issues are pretty applicable to this one as well. Which goes to R.O. Flyer’s point above, I think.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 10:18 am | Permalink
  8. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I hate Red Toryism in all of its forms, but it is a whole hell of a lot better than becoming a First Things endorser. At least the Red Tories are willing to critique capitalism. Ultimately, however, you can’t be Christian and a Red Tory, because you can’t be Christian and conservative. It is just not OK. I really do think that conservatism is an enemy of the gospel.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  9. Chris Donato wrote:

    Well said, that. One’s views on sex needn’t mean in the slightest that that one will then “lineup” with the agenda of the Right. But that’s probably not a problem really for those we’re speaking about (Milbank, Jensen, Braaten, etc.). I mean, King Jr. wouldn’t have been all that keen on advancing any homosexual agenda. Civil rights, yes, to be sure. Those are indeed worth conserving. But to relish in its advancement? Doesn’t seem likely.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  10. Hill wrote:

    It’s hard to tell what you are talking about R.O. What in principle is incompatible with “conservatism” and Christianity. It sounds like a cipher for the things you disagree with to me. Are you saying only liberals can be true Christians? I’m not sure what that would mean either.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 10:25 am | Permalink
  11. Lee wrote:

    I suspect part of what happens is that when people become conservative on “sex” (using that as a stand-in for a whole cluster of issues), they tend to form a united front and downplay their differences on other issues. I’m reliably led to believe, for instance, that Carl Braaten is quite the lefty on economics and war & peace, but whenever he publishes anything these days it’s all about the gay plague on the church. And when was the last time Robert Jenson published anything in FT that departed from the party line? This is how political realignments happen – people find one or a handful of issues so important that they tend to suppress disagreements in other areas, or actually come to agree with their new allies on formerly disputed questions. In other words, it’s not just that one’s views on sex is automatically a proxy for conservatism/liberalism, but that a lot of these theologians (Milbank partially excepted) have either downplayed their views on other issues or, in RJN’s case, became outright conservatives across the board.

    I also can’t help but wonder if men (and these high-profile theologians we’re talking about are almost always men) of a certain age just never made peace with the social movements of the 60s, especially feminism, and, later, gay liberation, and that this stuff is just a deal-breaker for them. But I’m not interested in psychoanalyzing anyone. ;)

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 10:34 am | Permalink
  12. Chris Donato wrote:

    Surely R.O.’s tongue got away from his cheek on this one, decreeing as he is who can and cannot be Christian by virtue of holding one political view or another.

    Reminds me again of how views like that depicted above are merely the other side of the same coin as those he’s presumably deriding…

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 10:36 am | Permalink
  13. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Sorry about that folks. I’m just really sick of hearing about Red Toryism and “genuine conservatism.” I’m not referring to conservative views on particular political issues, but conservatism as a political ideology. I also don’t think the liberal viewpoint (small l) is a good approach to politics. We have to strike a balance between conserving and being open to encounter, being open to radical change.

    I should point out that I’m not referring to Liberalism, as in the philosophical viewpoint. We would do well to remember that the opposite of Liberalism is not conservatism but something more like socialism.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  14. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Conservatism is not a cipher for everything I disagree with; rather, I see it as a particular way of viewing the world that is fundamentally not open to encounter. The risen Christ remains strange to us. We do not possess him.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  15. Dan wrote:

    I’m thinking of the “de-evolution of creation/humanity in Romans 1 and 2…Rm 1 being perhaps a depiction of “liberalism” and Rm 2 perhaps a depiction of “conservatism” both leading ultimately to the same place… the only out is grace. But, hey, maybe I’m just another one of those “of a certain age [that] just never made peace with the social movements of the 60s, especially feminism, and, later, gay liberation…” Actually, as a member of the generation that “did” the 60s it wasn’t a matter of making peace with anything. It was a matter of engaging a historical moment and coming to terms with the powers that be. As one who chose to pursue a life shaped by discipleship to Jesus Christ there were and remain certain aspects of the social movements that came to a head in the 60′s that were incongruent with following Christ into the future. Since then, I’ve never been “comfortable” with either liberalism or conservatism since both of those are part and parcel to the powers and principalities that continue to wreck havoc in the world (i.e. Stringfellow).

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 11:21 am | Permalink
  16. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Not to get too scriptural here, but instead of ‘cloaking’ talk about being ‘closed’ to encounter with socio/cultural symbolism; why not just say what you mean? I thought that one of the realities of the ‘Gospel’ is that He breaks into ‘our’ situation (no matter our affiliation to an array of ‘structural evils’). Aren’t “all ideologies” (politico/cultural) by definition “closed” to encounter with Christ? I thought that was the whole point of Apocalypse.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  17. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Are you responding to me, Bobby?

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 11:42 am | Permalink
  18. Bobby Grow wrote:

    So in other words when you say:

    Conservatism is not a cipher for everything I disagree with; rather, I see it as a particular way of viewing the world that is fundamentally not open to encounter. . . .

    I think that the whole world is Conservative based on this definition. I’m thinking of Paul’s accounting in Romans 3:

    9What then? Are we Jews[a] any better off?[b] No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both(A) Jews and(B) Greeks, are(C) under sin, 10as it is written:

    (D) “None is righteous, no, not one;
    11no one understands;
    no one seeks for God.
    12All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one.”
    13(E) “Their throat is(F) an open grave;
    they use their tongues to deceive.”
    (G) “The venom of asps is under their lips.”
    14(H) “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
    15(I) “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
    16in their paths are ruin and misery,
    17and(J) the way of peace they have not known.”
    18(K) “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  19. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Yes, RO.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 11:48 am | Permalink
  20. Bobby Grow wrote:

    I mean, Yes, RO. I’m not cued in on Halden’s snazzy new template yet.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 11:56 am | Permalink
  21. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    My point is that the driving principle behind conservatism or traditionalism is that truth is ultimately settled. It is precisely apocalyptic, I think, that challenges such an easy settledness. I suppose you could apply this to ideology in general, if by ideology you mean to suggest a lack of openness to encounter. Again, I’m not suggesting at all that conserving traditions is bad thing; what is bad, and this is what I take from Rowan Williams, is a sort of seeking to possess Christ as a way to secure a stable identity. The church’s identity is fundamentally not stable, it is as Chris Huebner puts it, precarious.

    To get back to the discussion at hand, the problem with much of right-wing discourse on the subject of homosexuality is that it is fundamentally concerned about the stabilization of its own identity so as to defend itself against the onslaughts of liberals or what have you. I just don’t think this is the right approach and I think Christian Red Toryism makes a similar move in its nostalgia for Christendom.

    I hope that is a bit clearer.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  22. Halden wrote:

    I’d also say that the left-wing discourse on homosexuality is–exactly the same. A coercive process of identity stabilization. This, again, is why Rowan Williams is not a wuss. Rather he’s understood a good part of the Gospel that many of us miss.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 12:13 pm | Permalink
  23. Dave wrote:

    Have you read much Gadamer? I haven’t (yet, in the fall I am pretty much doing an independent study on him), but from what I know, he has some very interesting things to say about how we stand in tradition. I think it is along the lines of, we constantly reinterpret the tradition in and for the present. To do otherwise is somehow outside of the tradition (or is simply put, impossible).

    I’m not sure, and I’m reaching at vagaries now.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  24. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I agree that left-wing discourse is the same.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  25. Bobby Grow wrote:


    Thanks, that is ‘clearer’, and I agree with what you’re saying . . . it’s unfortunate that Christianity has become so marginalized by a desire to ‘find ourselves’ instead of recognizing that in fact (in a Pauline vein) our identity is actually found in the “kind” of stability that coinheres between and within God’s life. In other words, and theologically, Pelagianism rues the day . . .

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 12:40 pm | Permalink
  26. Paul wrote:

    It bothers me that — with the exception of some serious folks, like the ones that make and comment on these blogs — discussion of Christian morality in America revolves entirely around what we do and don’t do with our genitals.

    I’m Episcopalian, and my denomination is often stereotyped as the “white collar” church. Often times that stereotype really suits us.

    My point is this: if you were to preach a sermon in any denomination (not just the Episcopal Church) where you declare your support for same sex relationships, you can bet your pews won’t be as full the next week. If you, as the bishop of a diocese, were to make a similar statment, don’t expect as much funds from private donors.

    But, if you were to make a statement where you said the war on terror is fine and dandy, or torture is okay in some circumstances, or that you shouldn’t feel guilty if you’re a Christian and you’re filthy rich, would it even cause a scene? Would your parish suffer from what you said?

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  27. Doug Harink wrote:

    I am coming to believe that the Christians who REALLY understood sex were the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Now, were they conservative or liberal? Or…apocalyptic? In any case, I don’t think we can believe we are serious in our discussions about sex before we take them seriously, and put all of our discussions of marriage and gay unions under the questions they put to us.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  28. Hill wrote:

    Here, here.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 12:59 pm | Permalink
  29. Halden wrote:


    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  30. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Sounds great. Can we expect an article on this from you?

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  31. kim fabricius wrote:

    I also agree with Doug that there is somatic wisdom in the wilderness about (as Rowan Williams puts it) “What … we want our bodies to say”, and its contemporary retrieval is a crucial contribution to the discussion of sexuality, as indeed is the entire history of Christian asceticism. On the other hand, beware of bandwagons when it comes to the libido – remember the anti-Augustine bus that a lot of theologians were jumping on a few years ago? – not least because the desert fathers and mothers do not wail in unison. But they all do wail, reminding us that the body is a contested site which mocks the nostrums of left and right alike.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  32. Hill wrote:

    This was especially well put.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 3:24 pm | Permalink
  33. Doug Harink wrote:

    “We” torture and go to war to defend the right to be filthy rich, to be gay, poor and Episcopalian, to have lots of genital fun (solo, straight, gay and otherwise), to have happy, healthy marriages (gay or straight) with two kids, a house, and lots of birth control, to maintain tax-free status for religious institutions (liberal or conservative), and to take great vacations when we retire. How can you preach against torture and war?

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  34. Dan wrote:

    do homosexuals need birth control… or is homosexuality the ultimate birth control?

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  35. Hill wrote:

    This may prove relevant to the discussion, and it’s straight from the horses mouth. An excerpt:
    I stand thereby in a long tradition of Anglican and Catholic Christian socialism, which has always insisted on the necessity of the “Christian” component for the “Socialist” one. In that sense I have always stood proudly amongst those who see themselves as “conservative theologically, radical politically.”

    But over the years I have become more aware of the potential for smugness and inertia in that perspective. One can gently challenge it in three ways. First, there is a dimension that I have already hinted at. Can Christians really, fundamentally, categorize themselves as either left or right? Surely, as André de Muralt has argued, both the ideas of “the rule of One,” of the sovereign center, and of the “rule of the Many,” of individuals either in contracted dispersion or collective unity, are equally “nominalist”—both genealogically and ontologically?[3] For both deny primary real relation, the real universal that is “the common good” and the role of “the few,” whether that of the guiding virtuous elite or of the mediating institutions of civil society. But “right” and “left” define themselves variously in terms of either “the One” or the “the Many,” both nominalistically construed.

    Today, of course, what we really have is two versions of a “left” celebration of the “Many” either as individuals or as a democratically voting mass. For reasons still not yet sufficiently accounted for by historians and social theorists, we have a “liberal right,” stressing economic negative liberty, and a “liberal left,” stressing cultural and sexual negative liberty. In reality, of course, the two liberalisms are triumphing both at once and in secretly collusive harmony. So perhaps what still sustains party conflict is alternating anxieties among the populace about the inevitable insecurities generated by now economic and now cultural “freedom” in different temporal phases.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  36. Hill wrote:

    It also includes references to The Dark Knight.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 4:31 pm | Permalink
  37. Halden wrote:

    Well, in that case…

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  38. bruce hamill wrote:

    even the rhythm and meter of it was beautiful

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 6:29 pm | Permalink
  39. JM wrote:

    So, if one wanted to get a grasp on sex in the desert, where would one go? Is there a monograph on the topic or where do I go in their writings, or both?

    Saturday, April 25, 2009 at 1:18 am | Permalink
  40. Doug Harink wrote:

    Kim, I recognize that they “do not wail in unison.” But your point about “the body [as] a contested site” is the one I want to make. They saw better than we do that sex and food and possessions are exactly those sites upon which the cosmic war between Flesh and Spirit is being engaged. Only in this light does a discussion of these matters become Christian — everything else is just Christian blather that makes no real difference (in discussions of sexuality) either to “traditional family values” or to the liberal sexual imperative. Further, if they enable us to see that these are sites of the cosmic war between Flesh and Spirit, then we are also able to see that you cannot talk about sex and food without talking about war, and vice versa. The notion (as Paul would have it, above) that we should stop talking about (relatively unimportant) things like sex, and get on with talking about the important things like torture and war, is ludicrous. The wars on the large scale simply mirror the wars within, and vice versa. The desert fathers and mothers knew that — as did Augustine.

    Saturday, April 25, 2009 at 9:26 am | Permalink
  41. I disagree with your main point. I detected Milbank’s conservatism from the get-go while folks like Hauerwas were gushing over him. Milbank’s conservatism is shown in his preference for Constantinian church-state arrangements, his defense of violence, his antipathy toward liberation movements (no matter if nonviolent), his belief that all interfaith dialogue is a path to syncretism and a surrender of the unique claims of the gospel, etc. His conservatism on sex is just the latest manifestation.

    Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 12:52 am | Permalink
  42. roger flyer wrote:

    Aha…I think this gets to the root of a lot of this. We want to save ourselves by our good behavior, our good doctrine, our piety.

    Homosexuality, grace, ‘openness to encounter’–these are all messy and scary deals–and screw up our program for salvation and justification.

    Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 7:24 am | Permalink
  43. roger flyer wrote:

    I’ll check with the Vatican and get back to you.

    Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 7:26 am | Permalink
  44. roger flyer wrote:


    Not a lot of sex going on in the desert. Probably lots of fantasy in hairshirt…?

    Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 7:28 am | Permalink
  45. Hill wrote:

    Because conservative sexual ethics and “Constantinianism” are part and parcel of the same thing? I’m sorry, but trying to paint Milbank as a run of the mill “conservative” is a heinously uncharitable reading of him.

    Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  46. dan wrote:

    I’ve wondered the same thing, Michael.

    Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  47. dan wrote:

    (Um, to be clear, I’ve wondered the same thing as you, Michael, and not the same thing as Hill’s objection to you.)

    Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  48. Charlie Collier wrote:

    Milbank says he’s theologically conservative, and I doubt there’s a solid defense of some other position. “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you . . .” This is intrinsically conservative, no? Or should we defend handing on something other than the gospel? Of course, what was handed on to Paul was apocalyptic, so it’s no good to contrast theological conservatism with apocalyptic openness. What’s at stake here is the meaning of the gospel that is to be conserved, not labels. Politically, Milbank is certainly no conservative. Red Toryism is one political expression of radical orthodoxy—a oxymoronic descriptor meant to alert us to the fact that they want to change the terms of the debate. Moreover, I’m not sure Milbank self-identifies as a Red Tory. That’s Philip Blond’s thing. Lastly, I agree that Milbank is deeply Constantinian, but that hardly distinguishes contemporary conservatives, theological or political. The liberal Episcopalians who celebrate openness and diversity are, I suspect, every bit as Constantinian as Milbank; if not in the church-state sense, then certainly in the “my side needs to win and rule” sense.

    Monday, April 27, 2009 at 6:29 am | Permalink
  49. d. stephen long wrote:

    I agree with Charlie Collier. I’m unsure the terms conservative/progressive do much, if anything, in our contemporary political situation. Take for example this statement pasted below from the “TEC Chicago Consultation,” which is basically the remnant of Seabury Western Seminary, dedicated to the full inclusion of GBLT and opposing the Anglican Covenant. Is this a ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’ statement? I think it is both. It “conserves” the “progressive” orientation of the American experience that everything up to this present moment cannot serve us well and must be subject to critique, rethought and made relevant to the ‘modo’ the ‘just now,’ which is almost here but never quite arrives.

    I also agree with the worry about ‘constantinianism’ amongst the Anglicans and the RO folk. It is one place I would differ significantly. In fact, I don’t think we should be surprised that a church that still practices investiture faces a significant crisis at the end of Christendom. That Milbank has now argued for an intrinsic connection between sex and reproduction is one of the most hopeful signs of overcoming this legacy. It was after all Adam Smith who said the rich get richer and the poor get children.

    “The Episcopal Church was founded shortly after the American Revolution. In keeping with that democratic tradition, the Church’s constitution and canons and its historical polity provide us with both the strength and stability of the General Convention’s governing and legislative processes as well as the local ability for dioceses to discern and elect the bishops who can best serve them and make other decisions about their common life. We believe that these canons have served us well, are essential to the Church’s continued health and bind together the strongest elements of our common spiritual heritage and tradition of democracy.”

    Monday, April 27, 2009 at 8:03 am | Permalink
  50. Patrik wrote:


    The fact of the matter is that the desert fathers say almost nothing on sex. What that say is more about marriage and family (something they would reject.

    But we must be a bit more precise. I would argue that we in fact have little to learn form antiquity regarding sex – sex then was so different from now. To have sex then always ment risking her life (in childbirth). There would always be a bit of death in it. Can we grasp what this means?

    However, I do think we have a lot to learn from their view of the body, and this of course is very important in order to create a sounder view of sexuality today.

    Thursday, April 30, 2009 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

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