Chastity is for Everyone

The Triumphs of Love, Chastity, and Death by Franceso Pesellino (~1450 AD)

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 246th week, and we’re covering the priesthood  session of the October 1989 General Conference

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that frequently Americans can agree that an inequality exists, but then take opposite directions in how to resolve that inequality. One of the common ones is the notion that, when it comes to chastity, the popular perception is that women must all be chaste but that we make allowances for men to “sow their wild oats.” 

This is unfair. Obviously. If advocates of traditional morality are saying that we should tolerate men sleeping around until they are ready to settle down, but say that woman can’t behave in the same way, then it’s a clear double standard. And, according to Hollywood, that’s exactly what traditionalists say: men can do what they want, but women have to be caste.

Is that really what traditional morality holds, though?

Absolutely not, and Elder Backman’s talk on chastity makes it clear that the Lord has never tolerated anything like that double standard. The talk on chastity was given in the priesthood session of General Conference, so obviously it’s geared towards men. In case that’s not clear enough, however, the title of the talk is: Chastity: The Source of True Manhood.

We need to sort of just take a moment to realize how diametrically opposed this is to the Hollywood stereotype of religious conservatives. Not only are we saying that everyone–male and female–has to follow the law of chastity, we’re saying that chastity (as opposed to the stereotypical alpha male with lots of sexual “conquests”) isn’t just incidental to being a good person, it’s specifically a part of being a real man. 

So when the world’s idea of equality is for everyone to break the law of chastity equally, the Church’s position was and always has been for everyone to keep the law of chastity equally.

None of that really surprised me, as I was always taught and always believed that chastity was a law for everyone. But even I was surprised by the strength of some of the statements in this talk, such as “Sexual purity is… the foundation of all righteousness” and “chastity is the ultimate and perfect standard underlying all spiritual progression.”

I’ve heard lots of more progressive Latter-day Saints–especially some from Western Europe–sort of lament the “sex-obsessed” view (in their mind) of Americans. And yet I can’t help but contrast that with the pretty clear emphasis it gets in scripture. 

And it really shouldn’t be surprising that commandments around sex are so integral to the Gospel, because regulating and controlling sex is so important for communities. When sex is practiced by committed, married, faithful couples the result is peace and stability for the children who come from the union and also peace and harmony between adults. So many issues of jealousy, regret, and anger just never arise in a community that is chaste.

I’m also reminded of N. T. Wright’s observation (I think this was from his recent biography of Paul, but I can’t find the citation at the moment) that there were basically two things that separated the early Christians from the pagans around them. The first was their care for the poor and sick and the second was their adherence to a strict code of sexual ethics. This was virtually unknown in the pagan world. 

The emphatic moral teachings on this matter aren’t an unfortunate byproduct of American puritanism, they are an essential aspect of the Gospel that we have in common with the early Christians and every other dispensation of God-followers who have taken seriously the job of building Zion.

According to the modern narrative, the sexual revolution brought equality to the sexes. Maybe it did, in a fashion. But even if it did, it did so at the cost of essentially repudiating two thousand years of Christian moral teaching in a reversion to paganism that will benefit absolutely no one. 

One of the things we learned in science is that nature abhors a vacuum… Something similar is true of philosophies and worldviews. They abhor a vacuum. You can push God or the gods upstairs out of sight like an elderly embarrassing relative, but history shows again and again that other gods quietly sneak in to take their place. These other gods are not strangers. The ancient world knew them well. Just to name the three most obvious there are Mars the God of War, Mammon the God of money, and Aphrodite the goddess of erotic love. One of the fascinating things about modern western ideas have been the work of the masters of suspicion Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud claiming to reveal the motives that lie hidden beneath the outwardly smooth and comprehensible service of the modern world. It is all about power declared Nietzsche. Everything comes down to money, said Marx. It’s all about sex, said Freud. In each case these were seen as forces or drives that were there whether we liked it or not. We might imagine we are free to choose, but in fact we are the blind servants of these impulses. Take them in reverse order. It’s hard to imagine now way things were in the 1950s when I was a child. There was more or less no pornography. The great majority of married couples stayed married… No doubt a great deal of what was seen as illicit sexual activity went on below the radar, but a broadly Judeo-Christian moral stance was assumed in society which meant, importantly for the story I’m telling, that most people felt at least some pressure to resist impulses that left to themselves would move in a very different direction. But when Freud became popular, filtering down into mainstream culture from novels and plays, people began to speak of the erotic impulse often called the the life force just as they might before have spoken of the divine command. One should not resist. It would be hypocritical and wrong. I don’t think people now speak reverently about the life force in the way they did. It’s just assumed. The late Christopher Hitchens, another high priest of contemporary atheism, said that one should never pass up an opportunity to appear on television or to have sex. The goddess Aphrodite, even if unnamed, is served by millions.

– N. T. Wright in “Surprised by Scripture”

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