The Elephant in the Room: Sexuality in The Benedict Option

My intention had been to wait until I got to the chapter on family before dealing with this, and I got oh so close. But the reality is that the culture war battles over gay marriage, transgender rights and abortion run through the entirety of TBO, and I don’t think I can do justice to Dreher’s chapter on work without having addressed this. I’ll save abortion till that chapter; let’s deal with the other two here.

For me, it was 1998 when my perspective on the culture wars began to change. That was the year when Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra got married. If you’ve forgotten this, I’m sorry to remind you, but there was a time when the former NBA player and former Baywatch actress used to be celebrities that pop culture paid attention to. After seeing each other for 9 months, they showed up at a wedding chapel in Las Vegas in the wee hours of the morning to get married. They wavered on whether to have the marriage annulled when they came to, and ultimately decided (as best I can reconstruct) to give it a go. It lasted a few months.

Rodman and Electra weren’t the first or last or most famous to marry with less than full appreciation of what they were getting into. Nor were they the first, last or most outlandish in seeking media attention by promoting an image of rebelliousness in their sex lives, a forwardness that now probably seems tame.

But what struck me was the lack of reaction by the culture warriors. There seemed to be, if anything, almost a palpable sense of relief that Rodman was marrying a woman, since he had been wearing dresses as a way to get attention previously. Better he make a joke of heterosexual marriage than crossdress, was the takeaway I got from the buzz of the day.


There is a theological story to tell about sacramental marriage that I find compelling. Perhaps this is a surprise, but the person most responsible for articulating the sacramentality of marriage was Saint Pope John Paul II, who dedicated more than 100 of his weekly audiences to weaving the Biblical threads together to present a sense of why sex between a man and woman in the context of marriage is a sacrament – a tangible sign of who God is and how we are related to Him, as well as a means of bringing us closer to the reality we were destined for as God’s children. The “Theology of the Body” as its called, teaches that, contrary to the general perception people have about Catholic teaching, sex isn’t bad at all; instead, it is so incredible within the sacramental context for which it was intended that we shouldn’t settle for anything less. This is a vision well worth embracing, and I’ll come back to it in commenting on the chapter on the family. But at this point, what’s relevant is that, in the culture wars, this concept doesn’t often appear as the primary motivator for debate.

If it were, then there would be a couple of potential applications. One would be to draw a bright line around sacramental marriage and call for condemnation of any alternatives equally – rejecting any other form of sexuality than that expressed within sacramental marriage with equal fervor. There are some cultural conservatives who still throw a few stones at premarital sex, and Dreher worries about the sexualization of our culture broadly. But I don’t see any evience of culture warriors applying judgment uniformly — and I state that absolutely because I’m hoping someone can prove me wrong.

Another approach that I don’t see evidence of is putting more pressure on those deviations from the sacramental norm that might be most likely to waylay those called to marriage as a sacred vocation. In this approach, you would expect more scorn for the normalization of non-marital sexual relationships between heterosexual couples than for same-sex couples, under the theory that those hetersexual liaisons are more likely to distract people from pursuing the perfection of sacramental marriage. By this theory, those inclined to same-sex relationships are less likely to be candidates for sacramental marriage anyway. Again, I don’t know of anyone who takes this approach.

Another, less combative approach, would be a form of gradualist, highlighting the elements of non-sacramental relationships that bear witness to the beauty of “the real thing.” A couple that learns to sacrifice self-interest for their beloved, that focuses on helping their beloved the best possible version of themselves, even in a non-sacramental union, could be celebrated as a sign of hope that others could follow, or a sign of God’s ability to work with us imperfect souls in imperfect settings.  But in this case, you would expect more welcome to a stable, loving same-sex relationship than a deeply flawed opposite-sex one. And that’s not where the culture war has been at all.

So what to make of this? Many have chalked up the cultural conservative focus on homosexuality as simple bigotry. Some have argued a psychological case that it is easier to stand in judgment over someone whose sins you aren’t tempted by than to speak loudly against the sins that you suffer as well. (And of course some argue the reverse, that many who are loudest in opposition of same-sex relations are masking their own attractions.)

Let me offer a different angle, a sociological one. It has been a very long time since I studied sociology of religion, but my recollection is that what anthropologists and sociologists found across cultures is that virtually every culture’s dominant power structure enlists a religion that serves to legitimate the power structure. This is a cross-cultural finding that relates to each culture’s norms for marriage and family, politics, economics, art, and all sorts of other norms. The “state religion”, whether by official designation or by custom, takes on the role of enforcer for what the dominant culture calls acceptable, either directly or indirectly by equating transgressions against those norms with sins or moral failings. Because family norms are most central to any culture, religion and marital rights are most central to the sociological understanding of the role of religion in society.

So while I would affirm that there is valid theological grounds for understanding marriage from the perspective of faith, the what I can only describe as outsized reaction to issues of sexuality in Western culture may have less to do with the theological underpinnings of the faith. It may instead be an outgrowth of the pining for Christendom, the subconscious recognition that if a culture know longer aligns with Christendom on core social structural norms around sexuality and the family, than the rest of the religiously sanctified order is lost.


Let me revert to my premise – that Dreher goes astray by falling in love with Christendom instead of falling in love with Jesus Christ. If you look at the earliest Church, the pre-Constantinian sect that was aligned with no power structure or dominant hierarchy, you may not see a different view of sexuality, but you certainly see a different level of prioritization. In the earliest church, the expectation was that Jesus would return from heaven to usher in the end of time at any moment, and in that urgency to prepare for His coming by spreading the Good News, a lot of  cultural norms were either ignored or at least de-emphasized. I am often struck by the evidence that Peter had a mother-in-law, but there is never a mention of a wife or family. Paul writes to the Corinthians about sexuality, but primarily from the perspective of warning early Christians against practices that would sow dissent in the community or distract from the mission or establish barriers to others from coming to faith. Engaging in culture wars, then as now, pulls focus from spreading the Gospel and gets in the way.

I find Dreher’s hypothesis, that Christianity’s lost place as the de facto state religion, worth discussing separate from his views on sexuality, but it’s unavoidable that his expectation that Christians will become a persecuted minority relies heavily on the degree to which Christians continue to claim opposition to gay marriage and transgender rights as central parts of their faith. I would suggest that there isn’t Biblical grounds for those issues to be in the very core definition of the faith, and that Christians can operate in a pluralistic environment in which the dominant culture supports gay marriage and transgender rights without sacrificing core values of the faith.


I’ll talk about this more in the work and marriage chapters, but before I do, let me say a little more about transgender rights and gender theory, because it was a significant factor in the education chapter that I just skipped over in hopes of dealing with it later. (And, hey, this is later!)

To a pretty significant degree, Dreher’s book suggests a retrenchment by cultural conservatives around the issues of gender theory and transgender rights. This isn’t surprising, as these have been hot issues in America since the Obergfell ruling rendered the debate over same-sex marriage moot. There is a sense, not only here in Dreher’s work but more broadly among cultural conservatives, that between court rulings and polling they recognize that the ship has sailed on the fight over honoring same-sex marriages, and that the next bulwark in the culture wars is around transgender rights and gender theory.

There is a distinction worth making here because I see both sides failing to understand the view of the other that I think is avoidable. While mutual understanding wouldn’t resolve all the issues at play here, it might take some of the heat out of the discussion. (Or it might just ensure both sides were fighting over the same issue.)

Pope Francis is probably the most LGBT-friendly pope in history. (No, this is not a high bar to hurdle. I know.) In several of his celebrated public statements, he has made a point of offering welcome to LGBT Catholics and sought to emphasize their value as children of God just like “the rest of us.” He has seemed to say, even if homosexual activity is sinful, it is worth treating the person  who commits it with understanding and mercy as we should treat any person who commits any sin. I can understand why gay rights activists would reject this as no better than the condemnation of his predecessors, but I suspect there are some who recognize this as a potential opening. Should the Church develop more sensitivity to, say, those who divorce and remarry, or those who engage in sexual activity before marriage, Francis’ attitude, extended across the Church, might also offer openings for fuller inclusion of LGBT Catholics. It isn’t overt acceptance; but it isn’t nothing, either.

Yet even Francis rails against gender theory, so what gives? In the pope’s statements, there are examples of him suggesting that there is a Christian call for support and understanding for those who experience a transgender identity – people who are biologically one sex but fully identify with the other. But at the same time, Francis joins cultural conservatives in opposing “gender theory”, which they define as an ideology that asserts that gender is wholly socially constructed and subject to the choice of the individual, regardless of their biology.

Maybe there is a discussion to be had about whether gender theory is really a thing. Dreher et al can identify examples of it – and there are anecdotes in Dreher’s education chapter in which he relates stories of parents whose public schooled children are in classes where 1/3 if students identify as bisexual, and a high percentage of teens seek hormone treatments to assist them in transitioning to the opposite gender. Those parents are told that gender is fluid and non-binary, and there are plenty of blog posts circulating around the conservetive internet to support the belief that our dominant culture is encouraging this point of view.

(And I would say that I, though no social scientist, can appreciate the claim that gender is socially constructed and not solely biological, even if I also see biology as a central determinant in almost every case.)

Is this what LGBT advocates are pushing for? Or is their goal for society to recognize that for some people, being transgender is a reality that should be protected from discrimination? Is it possible to affirm the latter without accepting a fully subjective theory of gender? I think it is, and while I don’t think Dreher has much interest in it, I do think it’s a reasonable middle ground for a pluralistic society.


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