Contemporary society is undergoing a profound Sexual Revolution—it is apparent in our books, magazines, movies, television and everyday conversation—in every area of communication.
To some it represents a decline in moral standards—a turning away from the divinely revealed Word of God, as expressed in the Bible, the Ten Commandments and the Judaeo-Christian heritage that a majority of Americans share; to others it represents a facing up to the "facts of life," an enlightened search for a new morality more in keeping with modern man's greater understanding of both himself and the world in which he lives—a quest for a new code of conduct consistent with our conduct itself and based upon reason rather than superstition.
But whatever viewpoint one espouses, there is common agreement that a Sexual Revolution is taking place and that the old religious restrictions have little or no influence on the sexual behavior of a sizable segment of our society. For these citizens, at least, a new, more acceptable moral code must be found.
We will offer, in a subsequent issue, our own concept of a sexual ethic for modern society. But first we wish to consider the extent to which the old tradition and taboos surrounding sex have become inoperative and largely ineffectual; we want to discuss, also, the dangers inherent in any such societal schizophrenia—where a significant gap exists between professed beliefs and actual behavior—and the effect that such inconsistency can have upon the very fiber of society itself, especially when the moral code that a major part of society refuses to accept is reinforced by legal restraints in all 50 of these United States.
Religion in a Free Society We have previously discussed the importance of the separation of church and state in a free society and concluded that any fusion of religion and government is irreconcilable with the ideals of our democracy. The founding fathers took seriously the lessons of religious persecution and tyranny offered by history and gave us a Constitution and a Bill of Rights that guarantee full freedom to and from religion.
The dominant religion in America is Christianity and all who accept its teachings should be free to live accordingly. But it is obvious to even the casual observer that there is a wide divergence in the social, moral and religious precepts of the various Christian denominations. And what of the non-Christians in our democracy? Obviously the Jews, Buddhists, Mohammedans, existentialists, agnostics and atheists should be equally free to follow their own religious convictions. Each man's freedom should be limited only to the extent that it infringes upon the freedom of others.
It was the search for such religious freedom that brought many of the original settlers to the New World in the first place. It was the awareness of the importance of such freedom that prompted George Washington to say, "The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."
And James Madison, another of our founding fathers, said, "Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?"
Clearly, then, each member of society should be free to practice, and to preach, his own particular religion, but no religious doctrine can be justifiably forced upon society by the state.
Religion and Morality
All religions include some moral precepts as a part of their theology and there are broad similarities among the moral codes of the major religions of the Western World—Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. But there is not nearly the unanimity of opinion on sex within organized religion in the U.S. that is often assumed, and among laymen there is virtually no agreement whatsoever.
Modern Christianity includes a significant strain of antisexuality—introduced, as we observed, first by St. Paul, strongly reinforced by the medieval Church, and again by the letters of the Reformation and the Counter Reformation. The Protestant Puritanism that developed first in England and then America drew its antisexual prejudices primarily from the teachings of Calvin. Puritanism became the principal religious influence on the social patterns that evolved in both countries; in the U.S., Jewish and Catholic immigrants were influenced by the puritanical Protestant culture, and the Catholics reinforced our antisexual mores with sexual prejudices of their own. Thus the Protestant, Catholic or Jew in America is more apt to be sexually repressed than his counterpart in free societies elsewhere in the world.
As the oldest of the major religions of Western civilization, Judaism supplied the historic soil from which Christianity grew. Christian antisexualism was not derived from the earlier Judaic culture, however, and Jewish societies have been traditionally more permissive in matters of sex than either the Roman Catholic or the Protestant.
As we have already stated in our historical consideration of religion and sex in the August and September issues, early Judaism accepted sex as a natural part of life. The early Jews, according to G. Rattray Taylor, in Sex in History, "believed strongly that one should enjoy the pleasures of life, including those of sex, and some teachers held that [on one's] last day one would have to account to God for every pleasure that one had failed to enjoy."
The only sexual injunctions in the Ten Commandments are against adultery and coveting of a neighbor's wife. Of these, Taylor says, "It must be understood that in this period, just as in Rome and Greece, adultery was a property offense and meant infringing the rights of another man. It did not mean that a man should restrict his attentions to his wife; indeed, when a wife proved barren, she would often give one of her hand-maidens to her husband that she might bear children for him. Moreover, as the Bible often reminds us, men were free to maintain mistresses, in addition to their wives; on the number of wives a man might have there was no restriction.
"Nor was there any ban on premarital sex; it is seldom appreciated that nowhere in the Old Testament is there any prohibition of noncommercial, unpremeditated fornication—apart from rape, and subject to a father's right to claim a cash interest in a virgin [daughter]. Once the girl had reached the age of 12½ years, she was free to engage in sexual activity, unless her father specifically forbade it. Prostitution, though frowned on, was common, and in Jerusalem the whores were so numerous that they had their own marketplace. Nor in pre-Exilic days was sodomy a crime, except when committed as part of religious worship of non-Jewish gods."
In an article in a recent issue of the Journal of Religion and Health, Nathaniel S. Lehrman confirms that premarital virginity and extramarital fidelity were "not demanded of Hebrew men. Prostitution, both sacred and profane, existed in Israel...." Morton M. Hunt writes, in The Natural History of Love, "Men in the Old Testament were patriarchal and powerful, and often guiltlessly enjoyed the services of several wives and concubines."
Lehrman states further, "Because the bearing of children was regarded as such a blessing, dying in the virgin state was considered unfortunate rather than desirable.... Sexuality and eating...would seem to have been regarded rather similarly by the Old Testament. It permanently forbade certain types of food and sex, and sometimes temporarily prohibited all eating and sexual activity. Permanent and total sexual abstention seems to have been as foreign to its thinking, however, as permanent and total abstention from food.
"Although sexuality was accepted without question throughout early Biblical times, and in the Mosaic code in particular, various aspects of the latter have given rise to the erroneous belief that the Old Testament is antisexual. Such asceticism appears to be altogether foreign to the traditions of Israel."