By Charlie Johnston
Few people are shocked to learn that my Mom was 15 years old when I was born. Most are shocked to learn that she had been married to my Dad for over a year and a half when I arrived. She was married about a week after her 14th birthday when Dad was a couple of weeks shy of his 17th birthday. It was not the most common age for marriage in Alabama 60 years ago, but not so uncommon as to raise eyebrows. A century ago, it was not uncommon enough to raise eyebrows anywhere in the country. The first Republican candidate for president, General John Fremont, when he was 28, was married to Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton’s 16-year-old daughter, Jesse. After Fremont’s death, Jesse moved to Los Angeles where she became the city’s grand dame until her death in 1902.
This is NOT to encourage young marriages. My Mom used to aggravate me by pointing to how young she was and how steady and solid their marriage was. I finally got through to her one day by pointing to a story about a man who survived a jump when his parachute failed to open. Comparing it to my parents’ marriage, I said it was a thing to be profoundly grateful for, but it was not a reason to recommend jumping out of planes without a parachute. She laughingly said I might just have a point. Times and customs have changed so much that I doubt people so young are emotionally or practically ready for marriage yet.
Rather, the point is to look at how much the framework in which we view sexual activity has changed. For most of our history sexual activity was viewed in the context of marriage as the end. Even disordered relationships were viewed from that point of view; from whence flowed approval, disapproval, or studied indifference. Sex was both the most potent weapon in the arsenal of courtship and a self-giving sacramental sign of a committed, covenantal relationship. What it was not was an end, in itself. Some of the lesser weapons in the ritual of courtship included dating, flirting, friendship, repartee – and even seduction. All were geared toward forging a permanent bond – and everyone knew it. Most normal people went through several failed attempts, even several disordered attempts before succeeding. Even in those efforts that did not eye such an end, the participants knew they were doing something disreputable. With the exception of a few disordered eras doomed to ultimate destruction, that is the framework with which sexual activity has been viewed throughout most of world history.
The sexual revolution re-tasked sex from its role as a sacramental sign of covenantal love or, even, as a means to that end, into a casual form of recreation without consequence. But sex is never without consequence. It touches our deepest selves; our hearts, our aspirations, our insecurities, and our vulnerabilities in visceral and unpredictable ways. To sustain the dogmas of the sexual revolution required we suspend judgment and adopt schizophrenic contradictions: that sex is simultaneously inconsequential and deeply traumatic, that it is good clean fun and also the ugliest offense one can commit. We have become Caligulan libertines and Victorian prudes all at the same time. That’s what happens when the rituals of courtship become tools of mutual exploitation.
A common meme of modern sexual revolutionaries is to ask, “What’s wrong with love?” to justify their disordered attachments. What a poverty to re-define love down as merely one’s preferred form of sexual stimulation! Aristotle wrote in his “Rhetoric” that “..love is to wish the good of another.” That deceptively simple statement gets to the heart of what is wrong with all the modern efforts to re-define love. Love is not about what you get, but about what you give; not about satisfying your wants and desires, but about willing and working for the good of those you love, often in self-sacrificial ways. Too many moderns postulate that love, to be authentic, must be sexually expressed. That topples sexually-expressed love from its elegant position as capstone of an exclusive, covenant relationship…and reduces it to so much manure to be spread among all relationships to see what sprouts. Small wonder that so many modern relationships have such a noxious odor about them.
It was the generation just before mine that began to dislodge sex from its privileged ideal as the capstone of an exclusive, committed relationship. That, in itself, unleashed a host of disorders, almost all of which were accurately foretold in the most prophetic public document of my lifetime: Blessed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, “Humanae Vitae.” Now we are surrounded by the wounded from that era, walking forlorn and baffled through the rubble of what was once a robust culture. In my grandparents’ era, people were very slow to grant access to their bodies, but brave in offering access to their hearts. Where the heart found safe haven, then consideration began of opening the body, as well. That is not to deny the power of the sexual impulse in every era. In the south of my childhood, people adopted the useful fiction of the “seven-month baby.” All recognized that the normal gestation time was nine months, but noted that it was often common for first children to only take six or seven months. Even so, there was little gossip about it unless those involved did not get married. Now, people carefully guard their hearts, but open the body with casual indifference. Alas, as I said earlier, sex is never without consequence – and the consequences often wound the heart. With each instance, the heart grows a little scar tissue. Keep at it long enough and soon the heart is so scarred over it is incapable of being opened to anyone. The possibility of joy evaporates – and the dispirited sexual revolutionary often seeks ever more salacious sensations to recapture a simulacrum of joy. He usually only succeeds in inflicting fresh wounds on his own heart. Sound familiar? Modern society provides rich material for an aspiring Dante wanting to describe a fresh circle of hell.
Sometime in the 90’s, we began to functionally redefine ‘love,’ itself. Instead of willing and working for the good of another, it devolved into the childishly imperious command, “Amuse me!” We degenerated into a rank materialism, judging everything by how it contributed to our self-actualization. Everything became a question of ‘how does it make me feel’ or ‘what’s in it for me’ rather than ‘how do I build my fellows up’ or ‘how do I make others feel.’ The relentless quest for self-actualization made every aspect of relationships into a commodity, to be marketed and bargained for. Instead of instances of self-giving, of mutually willing each other’s good, personal interactions became exercises in mutual exploitation. How could such a poisonous environment become anything but a cauldron of broken dreams, tears and abuse? With virtue-signaling replacing virtue and pious platitudes standing in for compassion, a simple set of secular indulgences was set in place: pledge your fealty to whatever the bilious, trendy bluster of the moment is, and you are free to sin at will. Men who declared their support for women’s rights and abortion saw their predatory behavior winked at or ignored. Women who treated their favors as items to be traded like alewives at a fish market were rewarded with jobs, promotions and applause – and if worse came to worse, they could cry #MeToo. All were telling the truth, all were lying – and all are miserable. Harvey Weinstein’s pledge to go after the NRA was simply a plaintive cry that, “Hey, I’ve always paid my indulgences.” Meryl Streep and Oprah Winfrey now claim the high ground, after being enablers, close friends, and public fans of Weinstein and the rest. Who paid the highest price? As always, the marginalized…those on the edge looking for a way in who were used, then tossed aside – or pre-emptively tossed aside when they refused to be used. Now all can say, “We are not amused.”
Hollywood and elite anti-God ideologues are not trying to banish mendacity, but to manage mendacity. They will shuffle the deck of predators and victims and discover, to their feigned horror a few years down the road, that some of the victims have now gamed the system to victimize new prey. That is what happens when everyone exploits everyone else, seeking leverage to advance their own ambitions and enhance their own self-actualization. ‘Tis a terribly cynical game. Outlawing courtship and romance, equating flirtation with rape will not renew us – only impoverish our lives and remove another bit of joy. All the zero tolerance policies in the world will not change things until we change our hearts. How to do that?
First, abandon identity politics. That can never do anything but divide, forever shuffling the deck of who’s up, who’s down; who is predator, who is victim; who is unjustly privileged to unjustly oppress the transient children of a lesser god. It is a forceful repudiation of Martin Luther King’s dream to see the day when all people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin – and is mockingly repudiated by people who pretend to be heirs of King’s vision. The only healthy and proper way to see each other is as fellow children of God, formed in His Divine Image and imbued with His very dignity.
Second, formally re-commit to the traditional definition of love as willing and working for the good of another. As long as we treat love as another tool to facilitate our own self-actualization and advancement, we will remain incapable of either love or joy.
Third, understand that sex is fire. Fire, uncontained, is raging chaos bringing agony and even death to those in its path. When properly contained in a furnace, it brings warmth and life. Quit endlessly arguing over which forests it is currently okay to set fire upon and, instead, set about containing the fire safely.
To accomplish these things we must return to the God we have abandoned, the God who facilitated the rise of civilization, the God who made human liberty truly possible, the God who set the fullness of the dignity of the human person against the depredations of transient tyrants and warlords who sought to build themselves up by tearing others down. Almost everyone knows that the anti-God left recoils from any authentic expression of Judeo-Christian faith with the same blind rage as Dracula confronted with a Crucifix. What is less well known is the contempt much of the conservative intelligentsia has for authentic faith. One of the most depressing aspects of my final days working full-time in politics was how many nationally known conservatives and their staffers regarded social conservatives as the problem. They constantly indulged in fantasies of setting the social issues to the side and getting to grips with economics and the machinery of government. I constantly railed that the economic and governmental issues could never be resolved until the social issues regained their religious foundation. I suspect I was tolerated because I was a useful tactical and strategic thinker. But the horrible reality is that the lip service most conservatives give to faith is just an effort to keep from spooking the rubes who, unfortunately, are a necessary part of their coalition. It never occurs to most to consider whether the rubes may be right.
We rubes are right. I am fond of philosophy. Still, long before I entered the Church, I had noticed that the most piercing insights of Aristotle, Locke, DesCartes, Burke and Mill were all meagre fare, indeed, when set beside the ponderings of St. Paul, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine and, in modern times, St. John Paul. Modern conservative intellects don’t bother to refute them, thinking them largely irrelevant, but simply ignore them. What divine irony that the finest flower of human intellect is most carefully preserved by people who modern ‘intellectuals’ consider rubes.
The current political, intellectual and social elite classes are not going to rebuild a healthy, robust culture, though some may be useful in helping to prevent catastrophic buckling. To transform the ruins around us into renewed glory from within, we must first build around love. Real love, not the Dollar Store knock-off that passes for it these days. The sort of love Our Lord spoke of when He said, “…whatever you wish men would do to you, do so to them.” (Matthew 7:12)
First live and proclaim your faith both boldly and charitably. Do not react in defensive hostility to attacks on your faith, nor in blushing apologies for it. Simply say plainly that you believe in the morality taught by the Gospels (or the Torah) and you try to live it to the best of your ability, given our fallen nature. Remember the great quote by G.K. Chesterton in his book, ‘Orthodoxy’: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” (Try that quote out on any of the many pseudo-intellectuals walking about sniffing at what rubes believers are).
Second, understand that every healthy family is an image of the Holy Family. The family is the forge in which genuinely self-giving love is formed. It is the First Church. It is the authentic cradle of liberty. Understand that, historically, any society which does not elevate and prioritize healthy family formation is a society on its way to ruin. If some cad asks you to define family, refer them back to the previous point.
Finally, commit to freedom. A man need not agree with me to be my friend, but he must respect my conscience as I respect his. If he won’t do that, we can’t be friends. Neither browbeat anyone nor suffer anyone to browbeat you. Wish their good, that is, love them even as you disagree. I often think that the reason society has gotten so bitter and intolerant is because of the dearth of large families these last few decades. I am the oldest of a family of six. My siblings and I often disagree on things…but only a fool would think that because we sometimes disagree, we don’t always have each other’s backs. Children of large families learn to manage disagreement without the need for trigger warnings.
You can’t force anyone else to do this. But you can commit to living it yourself. When you do, watch the love bloom around you. Once enough people do, even some of the most hardened cynics, weary of their constant, wailing misery and dissatisfaction, will give it a try. The ruins are not ruined, only neglected. Their rebuilding begins with the revival of the mystery, the ambiguity, the thrill of courtship in romantic love, properly contained and ordered.