A spectre is haunting the West—the spectre that, on the question of sex, the prudes are right. All the Powers of the West have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pop-stars and Sociologists, Markets, Media and Government, Silicon Valley Radicals and Public Grade-schools.
Where is the person that has advocated for sexual restraint and monogamy that has not been decried as retrograde by her opponents in power? Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of “conservative!” against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its progressive adversaries?
Two things result from this fact:
I. An intact family is already acknowledged by most academic research to be one of the most powerful antidotes to many social ills, but chief among them, poverty.
II. It is high time that those who understand these facts should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Conservatism with a Manifesto of the Prude itself.
To this end, social conservationists of various nationalities have assembled and sketched the following article, in the clearest and most charitable language.
Chapter I. The Prudish Bourgeoisie and the Licentious Proletariat?
The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted in the ruins of late industrial society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes, with one desperately trying to avoid facing the other—the rich and powerful who preach sexual libertinism while living like social conservatives, and the poor and disenfranchised who practice sexual libertinism and live with its consequences.
While it might seem totally out of place in an issue dedicated to “redeeming conservatism,” I’d like to suggest that a transposed Communist Manifesto might just be what we need to refocus a more productive, fruitful conservatism.
Earlier this year, in a provocative article entitled “Social Liberalism as Class Warfare,” Ross Douthat asked:
Is it just random that the one idea binding the post-1970s upper class together—uniting Wall Street’s Randians and Harvard’s academic socialists, a left-leaning media and a right-leaning corporate sector, the libertarians of Silicon Valley and the liberal rich of the Upper West Side—is a hostility to any kind of social conservatism, any kind of morals legislation, any kind of paternalism on issues of sex and marriage and family? Is the upper class’s social liberalism the lone case, the rare exception, where our self-segregated, self-interested elites really do have the greater good at heart?
“Maybe so,” he continues, “but for the sake of argument, let’s consider the possibility that they don’t.”
He goes on to cite a wide range of evidence supporting the assertion that “in upper class circles, liberal social values do not necessarily lead to libertinism among the people who hold them, and indeed quite often coexist with an impressive amount of personal conservatism, personal restraint.” In an Atlantic article surveying trends in marriage in the United States, Richard V. Reeves notes that “during the 1960s and 1970s, it looked as if the elite might turn away from this fusty, constricting institution. Instead, they are now its most popular participants.” And this tendency is not just an American phenomenon. A recent Canadian study, conducted by the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, also suggested that marriage is an upper class institution, as 82 percent of the highest earning Canadians are married.
Douthat goes on to suggest that the gap between the lifestyle preached by our cultural elites, and the lifestyles they actually live reflect the same tendencies that the “reactionaries” of Marx and Engels’s time adopted to maintain their social position. “If we’re inclined . . . to see our elite as fundamentally self-interested,” he comments, “then we should ask ourselves whether the combination of personal restraint and cultural-political permissiveness might not itself be part of how this elite maintains its privileges.”
What if we do ask ourselves that question?
In a sense, to ask it the way we’ve framed it here is already to answer it. You look at the confluence of the major powerful institutions and personalities in our day and age and you do find a surprising degree of agreement on the removal of sexual norms beyond that of the individual will. Not only do you find a high degree of consensus, but you also find that consensus maintained and supported in much the same fashion as Europe’s elites in the early twentieth century. It’s all there: the ability to close ranks and to use social, financial, and legal penalties to enforce the norms that the wealthy all believe are true and right. There are all kinds of examples of this. The Brendan Eich episode in Silicon Valley is one of the most egregious American examples. In Canada, many provincial law societies are moving to prevent graduates from a Christian law school (duly constituted under provincial law) from practicing law. Why? Because they dared to have a policy that required students to abide by Christian sexual mores.
And this is happening in the face of increased concerns about income inequality, with many decrying the increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor. Studies in both Canada and the United States have shown that the poor who practice the sexual mores preached by the upper classes actually lose the security—financial security included—of traditional structures related to sexuality, especially marriage. Only 12 percent of the least wealthy quartile of Canada’s population are in married relationships, and in the US, as a recent Atlantic article notes, “Matrimony is flourishing among the rich but floundering among the poor.”
As one sifts through the wide range of data on who’s practicing what in North America, and the relationship of these practices to financial security, Kuyper’s words about the tendencies of the elite in the late nineteenth century suddenly look like a plausible explanation of today’s elite: “the stronger have always known how to bend every custom and magisterial ordinance so that the profit is theirs and loss belongs to the weak.”
It would be fair to ask whether it is the family arrangements that generate stability and wealth, or is it that wealth motivates and makes possible such family stability. And are the rich really making a conscious effort to keep the poor away from the financial benefits of sexual restraint and traditional sexual mores?
It’s at this point that a social conservationist might respond, controversially, in Marxian fashion: it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if our current situation is the result of a cabal of elites working together consciously to advocate for laws and mores that keep the poor down. Did the wealthy of Kuyper’s day—at the height of the industrial revolution— have a concerted strategy? The answer is no. There was, no doubt, some coordination, as there is today. But the fact is that it was less a strategy than the maintenance of an institutional manifestation of unconscious assumptions. The superstructures of the day were torqued in favour of the rich, who didn’t really believe that what they were doing created structures that prevented the poor from emerging out of their poverty.
The same, I argue, is true today. More and more of our limited moral attention is being given to issues relating to sex, and less and less is being given to the traditional focus of the left: the poor. And yet the poor are still there, and there are all kinds of indications that the moral energy spent on advocating for individual will as the only moral consideration with regards to sex is, at the very least, contributing to cultural structures that exacerbate and replicate poverty.
What, then, is to be done about this?
I’d like to suggest that social conservationists, in alliance with anyone who will listen and work with them, take a page out of the old left’s playbook and advocate for class struggle. It’s time to foster a renewed focus on the poor, complete with all but one part of the Marxian package.
No doubt this will come as a shock to those who equate Comment with the two Christian traditions—Reformed and Roman Catholic—that advocated specifically against class struggle. One might cite, for instance, John Paul II’s reading of Leo XIII, when he says, “The present-day reader [of Rerum Novarum] cannot fail to note his severe condemnation, in no uncertain terms, of the class struggle.”
But, if you read closely, neither Kuyper nor the papal social encyclicals suggest social quietism as the alternative. In fact, both Kuyper (who famously argued for “architectonic change”) and the papal encyclicals note that struggle for the good of the poor is a necessary component of social justice. So I’d like to make a few suggestions for how Christians concerned for the poor should take on this struggle—to offer, as it were, a short manifesto for a particularly Christian class struggle.
In Centissimus Annus, John Paul II noted that what should concern Christians about class struggle is not the issue of struggle per se, or even the idea of class. What we should avoid, he says, is “a struggle ‘against’ others.” This is the first characteristic of a Christian class struggle: it must be marked not by a fight against something, but a promotion of particular conception of the good. John Paul notes that “even if in controversial questions the struggle takes on a character of opposition towards others, this is because it aims at the good of social justice, not for the sake of ‘struggle’ or in order to eliminate the opponent.” Christian class struggle is not an exercise in pitting one group against another, but a struggle to commit rich and poor alike to a good that transcends class. In the face, then, of opponents who seem hell bent on eliminating the goods of a normative conception of human sexuality, Christians should never take on the language, posture, or attitude of total war.
John Paul notes that the intent of any class struggle should be “first and foremost [to] unite people. In this consists its social power: the power to build a community.”
Our efforts should not be to call the elites a bunch of hypocrites for saying one thing and doing another. Leo XIII wrote, “If the class struggle abstains from enmities and mutual hatred, it gradually changes into an honest discussion of differences founded on a desire for justice.” We need to be honest: there is a vast difference between what many elites believe about sexuality and the Christian faith. But there are also two areas in common. The elite’s beliefs about sex might be divergent from Christianity’s, but their practice might be more in line with it than we might assume. And if we are to be charitable and note that the consequences of the libertarian approach to sex—increased instability among the poor—are inadvertent, we might extend that charity a bit further and note that many of our elites, like Christians, do genuinely grieve poverty and want to see its end.
The Christian class struggle is the struggle to find ways to leverage those commonalities— however difficult they are to find, however difficult they are to execute—into pursuit of the common good.
We might be further ahead than we imagine. Christians are called to exercise a consistent life-ethic. That means we don’t have to choose between holding orthodox beliefs about sex or orthodox beliefs about work and economics. We should care about sex and money. We should care about sex because it is deeply connected to the good of the human person, and that includes the financial and working good of a person. And we should be concerned about the financial good of people because it affects the way we have sex. As University of Virginia researcher Bradford Wilcox notes, “economic security and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.”
Which causes me to ask: Given the lack of success in stopping the great libertarian policy juggernaut on issues related to sex, is it time to start from the other end? Because sex and labour are so closely tied, perhaps social conservationists could start with labour, and end up with a more wholesome sexual culture, one that is more conducive to flourishing.
This idea leads me to an otherwise completely counterintuitive suggestion: intentional Christian involvement and influence in the North American labour movement. As Lew Daly notes, the North American labour movement has largely abandoned religion and this has caused it, and the people it has traditionally protected, to suffer. He says:
Widespread indifference and even hostility toward religion among progressives in recent years has helped to reinforce certain trends in our political and legal culture that are equally hostile to the goals of organized labor and, indeed, to the very idea of organized labor.
What would it look like if Christians were to swim toward the sinking ship of godless trade unions of North America instead of swimming away from it? How would the message of labour be different if the American Federation of Labor or the Canadian Labour Congress had a consistent-life Christian as its head? Certainly—hopefully— it would look a lot different than the current labour movement and more like the AFL of Samuel Gompers who advocated fiercely for the rights of workers, and for strong collective bargaining, while avoiding tying the union to social fads or programs that would diminish the worker. His warning is one we might do well to heed today: “whatever is done under the guise of philanthropy or social morality which in any way lessens initiative is the greatest crime that can be committed against the toilers. Let social busybodies and professional ‘public morals experts’ in their fads reflect upon the perils they rashly invite under this pretense of social welfare.” Indeed his concerns about “public morals experts” and “social morality” and their effect on the toilers might now take on new meaning.
This class struggle is also a struggle for the church. A recent study entitled “No Money, No Honey, No Church” notes that “Economic characteristics, current and past family characteristics, and attitudes toward premarital sex” are contributing to the decline in church attendance. So, while we might criticize the “elites” for their part in class divisions, many churches in the US and Canada are not helping either. Perhaps it’s time for some churches to visit the types of churches who do better with these classes: chief among them Pentecostal, black, Latino, and other immigrant churches. If the church is going to win people back, it needs to make the gospel manifest for people’s financial lives. If the church wishes to do this well—and not fall into the honey trap of the prosperity gospel—it will take the same quality needed to make the union movement succeed. It will take solidarity, a particular type of struggle alongside the poor; a struggle that will, like any good revolution, require sacrifice. Not of others, but of ourselves. In other words, what we need to do is reacquaint ourselves with the words of John Paul II, who notes the essential unity of Christian concern for the poor, and all other parts of her social doctrine, with the core of the good news of Christ.
To teach and to spread her social doctrine pertains to the Church’s evangelizing mission and is an essential part of the Christian message, since this doctrine points out the direct consequences of that message in the life of society and situates daily work and struggles for justice in the context of bearing witness to Christ the Saviour.
The Christian struggle is the struggle to live by the gospel, in unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ—rich and poor alike.