Religion, Sex Positivity, Politics, and the Media

In mainstream Canadian media accounts, there is a prevalent portrayal of the “Christian Right” holding “sex-negative” attitudes, while other Christian attitudes about sex get little attention, creating the perception of a generalized conservatism around sexual politics by evangelical Christian denominations. Consequently, a broad and diverse range of denominations are being painted with one brush. In mainstream media, we are inundated with dramatic  messages  about what are  considered to be “good stories” by media franchises attempting to sell drama, because drama sells newspapers, or gets ratings and hits.  For example, Canadians listen to the news tell them about protests against reformed sex education in Ontario’s public school systems, which is  opposed by the president of the Canadian Christian College. In online news sources, Stephen Harper is quoted having sent blessings to “Christian Nationalist” rallies who are said to believe in  the ideal of a Christian nation: “non-believers — atheists, non-Christians and even Christian secularists — have no place, and those in violation of biblical law, notably homosexuals and adulterers, would merit severe punishment and the sort of shunning that once characterized a society where suspected witches were burned” (MacDonald. May 7/2010).  The irony in this is that scripture, when interpreted through a more sex-positive lens, could actually be considered tolerant, even permissive in various ways  that this paper will elaborate. I argue that the media’s depiction of certain fundamentalist views is unrepresentative of the range of Christian views of sex, and that it creates an availability bias among the general public in Canada. I argue further that the media’s skewed portrayal is made plausible because of its consistency with historical yet outdated Christian values around sex. I will define the concept of sex-positivity, outline the myth-based elements of shame and perversion built around sexuality that  may impact public perception of modern Christianity. (In this paper,  my focus on sexuality relates to people’s  romantic or intimate behaviours and attitudes, rather than their sexual orientations.) I will also discuss the Christian Right, its presence in Canada, where they stand around sex politics, and note where sex positivity is existent in modern Christian groups within Canada. Finally, I will acknowledge the relation our current Canadian Government has to these arguments.

Sex and religion 

Sex positivity is a relatively contemporary term, and one not often associated with tradition or religion .  It  signifies the freedom to choose one’s sexuality and an acceptance of  others’ sexual choices, without judgement. “A sex-positive approach means being open, communicative, and accepting of individuals’ differences related to sexuality and sexual behaviour” (Williams, Prior, Wegner, 273). There have been several sexual revolutions over the course of known human history that have helped shape the way we, as a modern society, perceive sex.  When we take the time to think about the ways our personal narratives around sex affect our treatment of it in our lives, we must acknowledge cultural influence on those narratives. Religious belief systems and background are a large part of what lies beneath social scripts, and cannot be left out of the conversation when talking about where sexual politics come from. “Since the dawn of history every civilization had prescribed severe laws against at least some kinds of sexual immorality” (Dabhoiwala. 5). The use of the word “immorality” in this statement is the crux of where things slant in a negative direction. Sexual freedom, or permissiveness of a sexual nature, is associated with acting decidedly immoral as far back as history records. There are countless biblical references to innocence marked by “virginity”, and promiscuity being shamed, despite countless more incidents of sexual activity outside of marriage, which calls into question the  biblical value on monogamy.

A heavy emphasis on monogamy is a common thread through most modern Catholic and Protestant denominational beliefs. It is, therefore, of interest that in early parts of the Old Testament, instances of sexual permissiveness and non-monogamy are common. Despite Abraham’s marriage to Sarah, he has a son with Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar, because he and Sarah assumed she was unable to conceive. Jacob, meanwhile, married Leah, and later Rachel,  and had children with Rachel’s maidservant, Bilah, since Rachel could not conceive. These instances all seem to be in the name of reproduction, and none of them seem to be handled well emotionally by the parties involved, but they are still considered to be appropriate, within the context of the scripture. This also seems to be the case of Solomon,  who had 700 wives and 300 concubines.

Problematic to current feminist reason, there is high value placed on a woman’s virginity throughout the Old Testament, and it is considered the property of her father until sold for a price, literally or figuratively, to her future husband. As modern feminism indicates that virginity is a social construct, and not a natural fact despite it’s social significance, the value placed on “virginity” is problematic for sex-positive thinking. There is little criticism that could be considered productive on this front, however, since within the Bible, “laws of sexuality and the categorizing of perversions (has) remained immune to any amendment for more than three thousand years” (Westheimer and  Mark. 52-53).

In the creation myth of Genesis, there are two instances of God creating humanity. The first indicates more equality, stating “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (New International Version. 1.27). The second version is depicting woman being created out of man: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man” (2.23). These passages are referred to time and time again as evidence of scripture that gave birth to patriarchal concepts that keep women in the shadows of men, and strip them of their rights to express themselves as free and equals, sexually and otherwise. The contrary could also be interpreted, as Reverend Debra W. Haffner states in her article on sexuality and scripture. The first instance of human creation states, “Be fruitful and increase in number” (1.28), suggesting permissiveness around sexual activity. The second version also seems to affirm, saying “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (2.24). Reverend Haffner  explains, “Side by side, the two different creation stories emphasize the equality of men and women, recognize that we need companions and helpers in life, affirm sexuality as both procreative and recreative, and underscore that God is pleased to offer humans this gift” (8). This is important because the roots of sex positive culture lies within equality for every person, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.  Many Christian fundamentalists, however, reject such a reading, and  they have been the most successful Christian voices to attract the attention of the media.

Sex and religion in Canada

The concept of the Christian Right is one that is relatively new to Canada, even if the foundation of the terms’ roots is not. The definition of the term, in accordance with its American roots, suggest it to be “first used in the late 1970s to describe the surge in political activity among Protestant fundamentalists and evangelicals. Its usage has since been flexible, sometimes referring to the broad community of religious conservatives and other times referring to a small subset of institutionalized organizations pursuing cultural and economic conservatism” (Moen). Its presence in Canada seems to have come along with our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and his emulation of a Republican approach to politics in the United States. That being said, Malloy argues that incorporating religion into politics is not how Canadians behave themselves, and the Canadian Christian Right pales in comparison to its American counterpart, having a long way to go to garner the kind of influence over political climate that exists in the U.S.  When The National Post is quoting Charles McVety comparing teaching small children about consent to teaching them how to engage in sexual activity, suggesting allowance of statutory rape, a picture is painted of an institution holding a set of beliefs around what are acceptable conversations to be having in a public educational setting. In the realm of sexual politics, a conservatism exists around issues such as consent, sexual orientation, sex outside of wedlock, and how sexuality plays a role in our lives. These conservatisms are not conducive with an increasingly unprejudiced Canada, as they are largely an inaccurate portrayal of Christian value systems. They monger fear to people who do not know any better, and they silence those who do know better about their religious beliefs, because they  do not want to expose themselves to the judgments of a progressive perspective. In a nation with a growing percentage of non-religious people, it is becoming  less safe for those with Christianity-based belief systems to be transparent about them, and that goes directly against Canadian charter of rights and freedoms.  Thus, Christian denominations who are much more sex positive  are not compelled to argue their views. Since the topic of sex is already one that is hesitantly discussed, inertia has room to take hold here.

Many Christian denominations have become more sex positive; they have supported  women’s equality and same-sex marriage, which is being legalized all over the Americas as countries drop like dominos for the current climate of acceptance. Women are being ordained as ministers within many denominations. While the Roman Catholic church still holds tight to  conventional institutional practices, the current Pope Francis has been making strides toward a more forward thinking stance on things like climate change and issues of class inequality, which is more than could have been said for any previous pope. That being said, the Roman Catholic Church still sits firmly on the right end of a spectrum reflecting views on women’s rights and sexuality, referred to by Hunt as “traditional Catholic teachings in which sexuality refers only to heterosexuality, usually married, and procreative” (159).

The top three religious orientations in Canada, according to 2001 Census, are Roman Catholic at 45.8%, No Religion at 17.2% and United Church at 10.2%. “The United Church is (therefore) considered the second largest denomination in Canada. It is a union between the Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians” (Edmonston and Fong. 331). The United Church of Canada is considered “the largest and most widespread Protestant denomination in the country” (Scott, 128). and follows a Protestant line of thinking, in that “because our purpose is affirmative we have as far as possible adopted rather the language of Scripture, a language which matches the supreme facts it tells of, God’s acts of judgment and of mercy… So we acknowledge in Holy Scripture the true witness to God’s Word and the sure guide to Christian faith and conduct” (United Church of Canada. 1940). The United Church’s thinking was built upon a Protestant idea, one with attention paid to the scripture as what was to be looked at for guidance and direction. While the United Church of Canada is considered “progressive” use of that descriptor is a long forward stride from the roots of where their ideologies began. In the 16th century, at the peak of the Protestant Reformation, there was heavy criticism of the Catholic Church and their short-comings in the policing the sexual exploits of their congregation, and especially within their priesthood. Ideals for reformers such as Luther were that  “God’s many pronouncements against whoredom were to be taken even more seriously; all sex outside marriage should be severely punished” (Dabhoiwala. 12). With beginnings such as this,  we can observe the origins of Protestantism’s sex-negativity. Simplification of their daily life, church, and family practices “gave rise to the cliche that protestants feel awkward if they are having too much fun” (Scott. 85). Weber argues, when speaking of Puritan Protestantism, “wealth is thus bad ethically only in so far as it is a temptation to idleness and sinful enjoyment of life,  and its acquisition is bad only when it is with the purpose of later living merrily and without care” (163). Today, however, “The United Church of Canada prides itself on welcoming everyone the way Jesus did, regardless of age, race, class, gender, orientation, or physical ability” (United Church of Canada. 2006), suggesting nothing short of radical inclusivity.

Conclusion

When the diverse range of religious  perspectives found among Canadian Evangelicals is  characterized narrowly according to an unrepresentative subset, only certain Canadian values are  made visible. Canadians often pride themselves on their multiculturalism, diversity,  and peaceful reconciliation of differences. The last decade has been particularly interesting when it comes to religion’s presence in politics, as Prime Minister Harper has not only taken an approach to politics reminiscent of Republicans in the U.S.;  he has also dismantled numerous policies that conflict with his particular Christian view of the world. Malloy reminds us that “[Harper’s] government’s cancellation of national daycare, cutbacks to women’s programs, and ham-handed cuts to arts funding can be interpreted either as fiscal or social conservative initiatives” (360), highlighting the Prime Minister’s penchant for cutting social programs. Harper’s tactics have been criticized for their deviation from the principles of Canadian politics by popular media and academic sources alike. As Malloy highlights, many observers of Canadian politics have acknowledged the “mixing [of] religion – especially evangelical Christianity – and politics” — a behaviour which many view as “unCanadian” (352).  Canadian sexual politics have been significantly affected by Harper’s approach. Progressive social groups working on issues of sexuality, sexual health and consent should be aware of and concerned with these political tendencies if they are to preserve the hard-fought advances that have been secured in the domain of sex and sexuality.

WORKS CITED

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