Sex Power and the Revolution,
Observe a fallacy: That sexual permissiveness can be compatible with real social revolution
by Vernard Eller

This article was originally published by The Christian Century Foundation, Chicago, IL, in The Christian Century, on December 14, 1966. It is reproduced here with their kind permission.

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We live in the midst of thoroughgoing social revolution. (As you see, I like to open my articles with a strikingly original statement that will catch the reader’s interest.) The younger generation has determined to replace the structures that have saddled us with the injustices of war, poverty, racism and the like. One of the oppressive orders it seeks to replace is that of our sex mores and practices. The revolt in this case is directed against the Puritanism that contaminates our cultural heritage.

Let's talk about that one for a little.

In the first place, the argument for change would be much more nearly valid if its proponents would speak of "Victorianism" rather than "Puritanism." Victorianism is open to the charge of being superficial and hypocritical in a way that Puritanism is not. However, because Puritanism is the demon the revolutionaries have chosen to attack, we will go along.

Using "Puritanism" in a broad sense to refer to any social ethic that takes a hard-nosed view of sexual permissiveness, let us enlarge our field of vision to include not only colonial New England but also John Knox's Scotland and John Calvin’s Geneva. Then, for reasons which will shortly become evident, let us consider also the Radical Reformation of the 16th century--which certainly was puritanical in its sex ethic--and the granddaddy of all these puritanisms, Old Testament Yahwism.

The Real Revolutionaries

In each of these instances we find a dedicated and cohesive community which shares a common characteristic: what we have called a hard-nosed view regarding sexual permissiveness. Further (hear this), in its day each of these groups represented not the cultural establishment but the revolution, most truly and precisely. What is more, theirs were some of the most successful social revolutions history can claim--and those revolutions pointed most plainly in the direction of justice and righteousness.

Granted, one can point to defects in each of these societies (the burning of witches in New England, Geneva's intolerance of "heretics," the holy wars of the Hebrews). But compared with the cultural establishments against which these revolutionaries stood, theirs represented very impressive gains. Each group had rather notable success in resisting governmental intimidation and control and in establishing one form or another of participatory democracy. Each was quite effective in preventing the development of wide gaps of class distinction and economic differential. The legal practices and community discipline of each held corruption, graft and favoritism to a minimum; social concern was exercised. Each of these revolutions was theologically motivated, but the effect of each was deeply humanitarian (as good theology ought always he). Nowhere else can there be found better models of what the contemporary revolution aspires to.

And--you better believe it!--the sexual Puritanism of all these groups was an integral part of their respective revolutions. None of it was "Victorianism," none of it a sophisticated, prissy, effete disdain of sexuality. Quite the contrary, all of these puritan movements were marked by a certain earthiness and an intimacy with life. These peoples were tough-gutted as well as hard-nosed; they were not celibates; they had no illusions (or hang-ups) about the reality and character of sex. Their puritanical posture was motivated not out of fear or delicacy but precisely out of respect and honor for the power of sex an attitude of which Playboy and Oh! Calcutta! comprehend not a glimmer).

Authentic puritans chose to be hard-nosed about sex for the very good reason that they wanted to harness its power in the interests of their revolution. "Sex is good," cry the modern revolutionaries. "Without qualification, unconditionally, it is good!"

The puritan revolutionaries were more discriminating: "Sex is like fire. Harnessed, disciplined, bent to humane ends (as is controlled combustion in the gasoline engine), sex is indeed a very great good, capable of serving even greater goods than the present generation has dreamed possible. However, if allowed simply to run wild, sex can be a forest fire, a most destructive--and an anti-revolutionary--force." (That wasn't really the ancient puritans speaking: it was me. But I am proud to stand in their train.)

The hard-nosedness of the puritans lay in their attempt to channel sex power for the building of strong and stable families--which families then became the basic units out of which to construct a new and just society. It is not simply coincidence that each of the puritan cultures we have mentioned also turns out to have been strongly family centered. On the other hand, nothing is more obvious than that in America the family is in deep trouble. And the new sex ethic of the revolution affords absolutely no promise for reversing the situation.

Bully for Baal!

Do not think that social justice is one thing and personal morality another. Listen to the prophet Amos:

Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
 and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
 and the needy for a pair of sandals--
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
 and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same girl,
 so that my holy name is profaned;
 on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
 the wine bought with fines they imposed. (Amos 2:6-8)

That oracle is a unit; the prophet does not switch topics there in the italic. The entire speech is a consistent denunciation of Canaanite Baalism (or, more specifically, of the Israelite society that had sold out its revolution to Baalism).

Although the Old Testament Yahwists--and the prophets of Yahweh--were puritans, the Bible knows all about the modern brand of sexual (freedom; it is represented by Baalism. Baalism was a fertility cult. Its priests were real professionals at staging "celebrations of life" (like unto Woodstock and what some churches today--along with the Baalists--think of as "worship") or "celebrations of the body" (like unto what Oh! Calcutta! would sell its religion as being). The difference is that as a fertility cult Baalism was devoted to the fecundity of sex, whereas our sterile moderns are devoted only to the _uckin' fun of it. I would guess that ancient Baalism was just that much more profound than its contemporary counterpart. You know, if they were designed and promoted right, golden bulls might go as a very big item on today's market: "My man wears a golden bull or he wears nothing! My man is golden bull or he is nothing!")

Canaanite Baalism broke down Israel's puritanical hang-ups and introduced sexual freedom. But (note this) Canaanite Baalism also introduced Israel’s governmental tyranny (Ahab took lessons from Jezebel), its empty ecclesiasticism (in a temple designed and built by Baal craftsmen), its class division, its exploitation of the poor, its social reactionism, its graft, its corruption, its three-transgressions-and-four. It was Baalism--beautiful, swinging Baalism--that broke the back of revolutionary Yahwehism. Sorry about that!

Those Swinging Radicals

The Radical Reformation of the 16th century (we're at A.D. now) provides an interesting variation on our theme. Here we have two sorts of revolutionaries cheek by jowl--both avowedly Christian, both dedicated to the service of the new age, both with many goals in common. One group, which George Huntston Williams calls the "evangelical Anabaptists," could accurately be described also as "puritan revolutionaries." Alongside them stands a motley crew (better, another motley crew), "libertine revolutionaries," most famously (infamously) represented in the Münster episode. They resent a truly revolutionary Baalism contrasted against the fundamentalist variety of the Old Testament. Baalism can be revolutionary. So, how goes the revolution?

The puritan effort must be credited a real success. True, these Anabaptists got themselves trampled to shreds by the establishment, but in the process they managed to make quite a mark on the future of the church and the world. And the Mennonites, the Amish and the Hutterites--along with such later-born siblings as the Quakers and the Brethren--are still around, hanging in there, as revolting as ever (not quite, though would to God that they were).

The libertines? No accomplishments to mention; indeed, not a trace of them to be seen for lo these hundreds of years. They are found today only as footnotes in dusty history books--unless observed contemporary reincarnation.

The difference? It can be maintained as a serious historical assertion that a decisive factor was the way in which each group put its sex power to work. There is no disputing the fact that the Anabaptist communities cited above have practiced sexual discipline, built strong families, experienced a minimum of divorce and broken homes--and in the meantime have done right well in preserving their mental health and emotional equilibrium. All this is not incidental to their revolutionary force and endurance. On the other hand, the libertines blew their sex power in one binge, one grand celebration of life. How sweet it must have been--and how short, how tragically short!

And the Yahwists versus the Baalists? Despite the complaints of Portnoy and his ilk, the Jewish children of those Yahwists continue on their merry--and still largely puritanical--way. I think it would be real nice if they should choose to gird up their loins a bit, gather their sex power and outdistance today’s Baalists as they did the golden bulls of 3,000 years ago. Talk about revolutionary endurance!

And Now, the Future

It should be evident that although we have Spoken only of sex the principle applies to many other items of personal regimen as well. You can draw the larger picture for yourselves. But what it comes to is that much of today's revolution is on very shaky ground, lacks power at the core, holds little promise for the future. Baalist means do not lead to a Yahwist outcome. The accomplishment of social justice is going to require more than black power, student power, youth power, demonstration power, reparations power. History would say that such a revolution can succeed only with the support of moral power (personal morality power)--and that includes the power of disciplined sex.

So hear this slogan:


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Copyright (c) 1970, The Christian Century