At least, nobody can say evangelicals are inconsistent with their absolute entitlement to judge and condemn other people for what they selectively call sexual sin. Even amid a decline that shows no signs of slowing down any time soon, they can’t stop doing their all-time favorite thing in the world: stomping on marginalized people and making sure they know that who and what they are, fundamentally, is unacceptable to King Them. In other words, they’re actively doing more of what drives away more people in every succeeding new generation of adults.
But like with everything, they’re doing it for a reason.
(From the introduction: Paseo shopping center in Sapporo.)
(This post first appeared on Patreon on 6/6/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too, and should be available by the time you see this <3)
‘Sexual sin,’ and ‘sin’ generally in evangelical Christianese
When evangelicals talk about sexual sin, they mostly refer to off-limits, unapproved sexual contact of any kind. Sexual sin is the worst kind of sin to them. It is the most unacceptable and the most outrageously off-limits thing anyone can do short of murder.
And it’s all they can think about. I’ve lost track of the gay men I’ve heard remarking that evangelicals think more about gay sex than they themselves do. There’s a reason why evangelicals invariably portray men—even evangelical men like themselves—as ravening beasts who’d rather rape a woman than look at her. It’s the same reason why they keep portraying women as temptresses who can drive men to sexual crimes without even realizing they’re doing it, and also why they insist that women must take particular care not to do so—or risk the horrifying consequences of awakening male lust.
However, “sin” in general has distinctly sexual connotations.
When evangelicals talk about “a life of sin,” they’re mainly referring to unapproved sex. When they accuse us ex-Christians of leaving their religion because we “just wanted to sin,” that’s the exact sin they think we wanted to enjoy.
Segue: When “sin” really just means sexual sin
When applied to women, the term sin takes on a particularly sexual connotation. I suppose that’s not unexpected, given evangelicals’ long-standing habit of fetishizing sexual purity in women.
In particular, “a sinful woman” is one who has unapproved sex.
A young Christian woman pours her heart out to the subreddit r/Christianmarriage, titling her post: “I’ve been living a life of sin, and I want to do things God’s way – not mine or my fiancé’s.” By “life of sin,” she means she and her boyfriend were doing the horizontal bop and living together. There’s not a single other “sin” she mentions in her entire Original Post (OP). (And let me just say I really hope she didn’t end up marrying that guy. I’ve been there. It rarely works out the way women hope it will.)
Another Christian woman releases a memoir called My Truth Uncensored. In discussing the book, a Christian site glowingly calls it “an Enthralling Story of How the Author Was Saved from a Life of Sin Through the Power of Christ.” The “life of sin” in question seems to be sex addiction.
And yet another Christian woman shakes her finger at a lesbian newscaster, Robin Roberts. In 2013, Roberts came out to the public—and this gal, Janet Denison, was very very sad about it, because obviously this announcement from a total stranger had a lot to do with her personally and negatively affected her life in substantial ways that can never be fixed. She performatively fretted and wrung her little handsies about Roberts’ “life of sin.” That phrase apparently meant only her sexual sin, since it is literally the only sin that Denison describes seeing in Roberts’ life.
In her post, though, Denison wrote something that caught my eye.
Judging and condemning sexual sin in the Jesus-approved way
Janet Denison wrote:
If I could speak to Robin Roberts I would tell her that I have no right to condemn or judge her for announcing she is involved in a homosexual relationship.
I’m sure nobody will be surprised to learn that she proceeds to do exactly that in her very next sentence:
But I would want to tell her that a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex is described in Scripture as “leading a life of sin.” And Jesus wants something better for her. I wouldn’t offer her my “opinion” – I would offer her the word of God.
See, it’s okay for her to condemn and judge others. She only has to hide behind her quirky take on “the word of God” while she does it. In fact, it’s mandatory that she condemn and judge others in this exact way. Jesus himself told her to do it. If she refrains, then she herself offends Jesus’ sensitive feelings.
Though Denison might disobey Jesus a thousand times a day, in this matter she is completely obedient to him.
Cultural power means nothing if it can’t be flexed at tribal enemies.
Sex-obsessed evangelicals focus like lasers on sexual sin
A long time ago, Neil Carter (of Godless in Dixie fame) compared evangelicals to 13-year-old boys in school freaking out whenever their teacher talked about anything vaguely related to sex. Boys were like that when I was in school, too. Every single time, their reaction was like the cringey “Reproduction” number in Grease 2 (1982), just without singing (this might not be completely SFW):
And yes, evangelicals are just like the fake teenagers in that movie: thrumming with sexual tension, inappropriate behavior, and urges that they barely understand. Their entire approach to sex itself has been to demonize it as evil and depraved, to demonize young men for feeling lust, and to set young women up as being responsible for men’s feelings.
Similarly, evangelical sex education can be best summarized as a bare-bones overview of basic biology, and then making sex as dangerous and scary as possible to women in particular, and to underage girls most of all.
Despite having this attitude toward sex—or perhaps because of it—evangelicals certainly have a lot of trouble following their own tribalistic rules about it. In his 2005 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Ronald Sider spent a considerable lot of time fretting about that. Maybe that’s why sexual sin sets evangelicals off more than any other kind of sin, and why it has has for decades now.
Evangelicals’ sex obsession hasn’t gone unnoticed
For years now, the heathen world at large has noticed the utter obsession evangelicals have with policing sex and judging those who have forms of it that they don’t like. And evangelicals, in turn, have noticed that they’ve been noticed.
In 2005, Al Mohler asked a plaintive question over at his site: “Are Evangelicals Obsessive About Sex?” In keeping with both Betteridge’s Law of Headlines and evangelicals’ beloved DARVO tactic, his answer is a resounding “Um no, YOU are!” As he puts it:
As a matter of fact, evangelicals were mobilized for political and social action precisely because they would not accept sexual anarchy, the denial of human dignity to the unborn, and now, the destruction of marriage. Beyond this, the most thoughtful Christian conservatives do recognize the need for a broader moral engagement, but are convinced that nothing meaningful can be done about poverty and related issues if civilization’s most basic institution is dismantled and if sexual sanity is abandoned. If the leaders of the evangelical left really want to alleviate poverty, they should start by focusing on marriage and rebuilding a culture of responsibility.
See? It’s the evil ickie heathens trying to destroy evangelicals’ cultural dominance that has led to evangelicals laser-focusing on sexual sin. If we all would just shut up and let our self-appointed Designated Adults drive the car again, then finally, evangelicals could chill out about sex. They can’t deal with the stuff Jesus specifically told them to do until they control the sex lives of everyone in America.
Years of analysis that have gone exactly nowhere
For years after, evangelicals recycled Mohler’s evasion and deflection tactics. A writer for Mere Orthodoxy refused to engage with the question in 2010. In 2012, a guy claiming to be a bioethicist asserted that it only looks like evangelicals are sex-obsessed. In fact, if evangelicals only made sure their victims understood exactly why they were trying to control other people’s sex lives, they’d totes understand.
Others try to understand just where evangelicals’ sex obsession comes from. In 2018, a retired Anglican priest, Stephen Parsons, briefly tackled the subject. He castigates right-wing Christians in general for seeking control over others’ sex lives. Like a similar critic in 2023, he wishes they’d spend those resources elsewhere.
And others lament that evangelicals’ sex obsession has backfired. In 2022, Sheila Wray Gregoire wrote movingly about the failure of evangelicals’ war on unapproved sex. “Because evangelicals have gotten sex so wrong,” she asserts,”we really have had nothing to say to the world about sex.”
Comparing sexual sin to wearing shoes in the house
But evangelicals gonna evangelical. Yesterday, Christianity Today ran an opinion post from an evangelical pastor, Peter Coelho. It is an astonishing glimpse of evangelicals’ utter lack of self-awareness. Even more than that, though, it tells us more about this guy and how he operates than he really should want us knowing.
Someone titled the post “Welcome, Visitors! Here’s Our Church’s Take on Sex: Hospitality demands that some things be clear from the start.”
In the post, Coelho describes his church’s rules about sex. They’re a basic evangelical church. They think marriage is for opposite-sex straight people only. And he compares that stance to his house rule about wearing shoes indoors. See, he wants visitors to his home to take their shoes off at the door. He doesn’t want guests tracking dirt and grime into his home. To make sure everyone follows his rule, he put a sign on the door. For anyone slow to take the hint, he reminds them verbally to do it:
We hung the sign several years into our time in Austin. After more than a few awkward greetings—an effusive welcome coupled with quick instructions about our footwear convictions—we decided that clarity was a necessary part of hospitality.
His church’s official stance on LGBT people is exactly the same, he tells us. He sees absolutely nothing wrong with this completely false comparison.
(For a start, nobody in evangelicalism goes to Hell over tracking dirt into a house. Nor do most evangelicals consider visiting Coelho’s home to be a mandatory part of their faith.)
Unfortunately for him, his church is in Austin. For anyone not from around the US, Austin is an extremely liberal city. It’s an actual and figurative oasis in the middle of a deep red fundagelical conservative hellhole desert. So this church is like a dead dog floating in the spring in the oasis, fouling its waters and making everyone there sad.
At least he’s not suggesting coffee dates to solve sexual sin
Because of the church’s location, most likely, it gets a lot of visitors who aren’t on board with Coelho’s brand of sexism and bigotry. He’s learned that he needs to get right in front of them with his culture-war stances. That way, they don’t hang around too long and get the wrong ideas about his congregation—or about him.
Coelho says his church developed a “white paper” outlining all their bigoted, sexist opinions. I could not find it anywhere on their website. He offers no links to it, either. Of it, he writes:
Our hope is that the position paper, imperfect though it is, serves as an act of hospitality by providing openness about our views. We make the paper available to those in our community who inquire, and we also share it as part our membership process at the church.
He offers some non-solutions around how to communicate his opinions, but they’re just the usual hand-waving. Evangelicals have long thought that if they can express cruelty in simperingly-nice ways and with lots of Bible verses, then that’s all they need to do to consider themselves “loving.” No matter how much pain they cause to others, they take no responsibility for it. And you’ll find no taking-of-responsibility here.
If people don’t like Coelho’s bigotry, then tough noogies. They can stay if they like, though I wonder how long Coelho and his congregation will allow them to do so comfortably.
Or they can leave. There’s the door.
I mean, at least he’s not suggesting endless “coffee dates” to emotionally manipulate potential recruits before dropping the bigotry hammer on them once they’re invested. But it’s still so darkly funny to me.
But this approach doesn’t work very well
Why yes, Coelho’s approach definitely drives people away from his church. In fact, he tells us so himself:
While talking over several months with one gentleman in our church who identifies as queer, I realized that, even after extensive discussions, what I referred to as “the traditional perspective on marriage” had not landed with him as meaning “the marriage of male and female.” That moment of clarification was painful and disorienting for him. After a few more conversations, he left our church—a place where he’d been making friendships, forging connections, and feeling loved.
He’d been talking “over several months” on the topic of off-limits sex, all of it using the usual evangelical evasions and hand-waving. But his hints all failed to land. Finally, Coelho finally set up a confrontation, a make-or-break control grab. Though he understands that the visitor felt disorienting emotional pain at this confrontation, Coelho never says another word about him after relating that the control-grab failed.
Being crystal-clear about his opinions hasn’t led to buy-in from less oppressive and regressive members, either:
Recently, one parishioner who’s unconvinced by the historic position told me he appreciated our willingness to let the “weirdness of the Christian position” stand. [. . .]
I’m glad that he and others continue to stay in our community and give our views a hearing, even though their disagreement is significant and consequential. It’s better for them to know the vision and convictions that animate our pastoral care and teaching.
Again, I wonder how long Coelho will be completely happy to allow dissenters to stay in his congregation. Authoritarian evangelicals, which he absolutely is, don’t tend to tolerate dissent for long.
The real “traditional perspective on marriage” would be sexual sin to evangelicals
Around the mid-2010s, atheists used to share around a funny comic strip about what the Bible really said about marriage. It offered descriptions of all of the divinely-approved relationships in the Bible.
Then, Jesus and his team of ghostwriters instituted a new marriage rule. For Christians, marriage could only mean one man and one woman, with divorce off-limits except in the case of infidelity. But Jesus himself also apparently said he hadn’t incarnated to change Yahweh’s existing rules, only to “fulfill them.”
As a result, Christians have had to do some fancy maneuvering to make their new rule sound like the only one that Yahweh actually likes—and has ever liked. The results are universally hilarious. Often, the hand-waving lands on Yahweh’s total inability to make his “hard-hearted” Israelites do what he really wanted. (Many evangelicals utilize the same hand-waving to excuse the Bible’s clear embrace of slavery.)
But I vastly prefer that hand-waving to the rationalizations found at Christianity.com and at Got Questions. There, we learn that practices like concubinage were Yahweh’s best-case solution to massive injustice and subjugation. Yep, that was the best he could do to fix the horrific treatment of women in ancient times. God of the universe, sure, yes. But that’s the very best he could manage right then. And sure, yes, trafficking of women and children continues to this day, while Yahweh does nothing. I’m sure if all those traffickers only followed Old Testament law, their victims would be fine with their new lives.
Evangelicals insist that the new rule is the only one that Jesus accepts now. If they’d existed in 1000 BCE, I wonder if they would have been just this insistent on the relationships depicted in that comic strip.
While evangelicals drill down harder on sexual sin, people keep leaving their groups
As we’ve already seen, Coelho’s position drives off visitors and fails to gain buy-in from everyone attending his church. That’s what is happening in evangelicalism in the main.
In the last year or so, a number of interesting new studies and research articles have come out to examine the ongoing decline of Christianity in general and evangelicalism in particular. A few evangelicals got their hopes up a tiny bit in the mid-late 2010s, as we see in this 2019 post, but it wasn’t to be.
July 2021: WaPo reports “a bigger decrease” in the number of white evangelicals than they’d expected to find. They also found that mainline Christians had slightly increased in number. Mainline Christians now outnumbered white evangelicals.
Also July 2021: Someone at The Conversation interviewed 75 young adults. They cited the usual reasons for steering clear of evangelicalism, hypocrisy, control-lust, bigotry, and over-politicization. In July 2022, Yahoo News literally reprinted the entire post.
December 2021: A Church of Christ minister quotes Russell Moore (previously a big name in the Southern Baptist Convention) regarding young adults leaving evangelical churches. He agrees with Moore in thinking that those young adults are really rejecting evangelical hypocrisy and unsettling hyper-politicization.
December 2022: A writer with Baptist News Global, Brandon Flanery, asked a bunch of ex-Christians why they’d left the religion. Anti-LGBTQ bigotry and hypocrisy were far and away the most popular answers, though politicization was also frequently named as a reason for leaving. It’s an interesting article.
And now, we can add to this an April 2023 article regarding Benjamin Gagné’s research in Canada. Like many other places, Quebec is seeing big declines in the number of affiliated Christians. So Gagné interviewed twelve ex-Christian young adults. They told him that primarily, they didn’t feel that they’d ever had a truly divine conversion experience, and that they just didn’t vibe with evangelicals’ strict rules about sex.
And not even evangelicals themselves bother following their own rules
While all this is going on, remember that evangelicals themselves don’t follow their own rules about sex. There is little to no difference in the real-world behavior of evangelicals and heathens. Beside Ronald Sider, evangelical leaders have fretted about that problem for years as well.
Meanwhile, it’s evangelicals themselves paying the price for those sickening teachings.
Boundless, operated by Focus on the Family, presented a post all the way back in 2012 exhorting evangelicals to save their virginity for marriage. But if they couldn’t, they could at least cultivate shame and “purity” of thought:
Though it’s too late to just speak of virginity, you needn’t surrender to promiscuity. For all who didn’t save it, it’s never too late to become pure in thought. [. . .]
True, you can’t get your virginity back — you’ll never be the person you once were. You can, however, be stronger and wiser than you were before — and more able to resist what you know is wrong.
In 2021, a guy writing for the net-nanny software Covenant Eyes offered a similar path back to purity for men.
But it looks like young evangelicals are less and less interested in playing their leaders’ reindeer games with them. They’re seeing the damage that purity teachings do to men and women both. And they want no part of it. The so-called Joshua Generation push alone has traumatized many thousands of young evangelicals—many of whom are sensibly leaving groups that have hurt them, then never looking back again.
All evangelical leaders can do is try to shame those leaving, or make them feel obligated to stick around even if it’s emotionally dangerous for them to do so.
No sexual sin: it’s his way or the highway (and I don’t mean Jesus)
The way Coelho describes his direct approach in his post at Christianity Today, it’s just standard-issue evangelical bigotry and sexism. He’s just a little more forthright about it than most evangelical leaders would be. I can only award him half a point for being so forthright, if indeed he is. (Tell me again why that “white paper” can’t be found on his church’s website?)
As he himself says, he needs to make sure that any visitors know right off the bat where he stands on those issues. That way, he thinks there are fewer big surprises and hurt feelings when those visitors do find out what their new church is really all about.
For Coelho, his flavor of Christianity is shaped completely by his take on sexual sin. Indeed, if evangelicals lose that emphasis, then they think they’ll stop being evangelicals. It is one of their tribal marker beliefs.
But Coelho no longer has the benefit of ignorance to inform this opinion. As far back as 2016, evangelical leaders mocked mainline and progressive churches for being in a worse decline than their own churches. They were completely positive that it was their strict rules about sexual sin that were saving them. But just a few years later, evangelicals learned that their decline had accelerated past those of the other groups. Their rules and culture wars delayed things a bit. But they couldn’t stop the flood.
Cracking down on sexual sin is evangelicals’ substitute for obeying Jesus
So much for Jesus’ failed prediction about love being the way heathens would instantly recognize evangelicals, huh? No, it’s because they hold to outmoded strict gender roles and sex rules for men and women that hinge not on consent, but rather on whether or not an insignificant godling is offended in his widdle fee-fees by what people do in private in their spare time when others are down for it too.
If evangelicals stop caring what adults do in their spare time in private, then they can no longer consider themselves TRUE CHRISTIANS™.
I talk about evangelical substitutions a lot. They substitute Jesusing for doing anything to markedly improve their situations, for behaving compassionately, for everything under the sun. Now, they use a set of particularly unworkable and backfiring rules about sex to substitute for doing literally anything that Jesus actually supposedly told his followers to do.
Al Mohler rationalizes evangelicals’ sex obsession. “Bioethicists” try to figure out ways to over-explain that obsession. Researchers find out more and more about just how much young Americans despise and reject that obsession. While all this goes on, evangelicals paint themselves into a tighter and tighter corner by drilling down harder and harder on those opinions as they continue to decline.
What evangelical church leaders are not going to do about sexual sin
The reason this is happening to evangelicals is simple:
There is a way that seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death. [Proverbs 16:25]
Evangelicals have chosen a very, very select group of “sins” to demonize as sexual sin. But remember, there isn’t much difference between their sexual behavior and that of anyone outside their group. Very few of them are virgins at marriage. They cheat on their partners and spouses, consume porn, and do every single thing that they condemn in others.
Way back when we were long-form reviewing This Present Darkness, I noticed that problem. One of the central conflicts in the book involves the brand-new TRUE CHRISTIAN™ pastor trying to throw a noted adulterer—and a very prominent church member—out of his TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church. What wishful thinking! Churches just don’t do that to prominent members, especially not little ones that struggle to pay their bills (as most evangelical churches are and do). It’s even more rare to see anyone in evangelical leadership ever getting any blowback from ignoring the tribe’s sexual rules.
It’s very easy for them to slam down hard on LGBTQ people. Those folks are already marginalized in evangelicalism. Likewise, young adults who reject their sex rules lack power anyway in the evangelical power-generating machine.
Older evangelicals long ago figured out how to rationalize their own sexual hypocrisy with both their embrace of those rules and their ongoing attempts to force those rules on others. I’m sure it was quite easy, too.
We’re not the problem, they reassure themselves. Not us, never us. It’s those darn heathen kids who don’t understand that we’re totally right.
And slowly, the lights will flicker out in their churches, leaving them alone in the dark to natter and grumble among themselves. They will float among that wreckage like old, withered ghosts, while memories of their long-ago glory days keep them from moving onward.
This is what they chose. Do not pity them.
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