The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on June 12, 2013
Culture Wars—South of the Navel

Cautionary Note: The following text has been rated PG. Parental discretion is advised.
Not all issues in the contemporary American culture wars involve sexuality. A good many do (possibly due to the long shadow of Puritanism). Sometimes issues that started elsewhere, such as in disputes over the role of religion in public life, take on bizarre forms when they are fought over south of the navel. What impresses me is the grim certitude exhibited on both sides of the ideological divide. Both conservatives and progressives ignore the fact that, apart from anything else, human sexuality is profoundly comic.
Two items caught my attention in the Religion News Service online report on June 4, 2013. First item: Christa Dias taught computer technology, with a salary of $36,000, in two schools operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati. She is single and not a Catholic. She was fired when she applied for maternity leave and it turned out that she had become pregnant through artificial insemination. This form of conception is contrary to Catholic moral teaching, which Dias had promised to abide by in the contract she signed when she was hired. Dias is also lesbian and now lives with her partner, who presumably serves as the other mother of the child who has now been born. The Archdiocese has said that Dias’ sexual orientation was not a factor in the case, and she has not claimed the contrary. She sued in federal court on the ground of gender discrimination. As to the contract, she said that she understood it to mean that she “should be a Christian and follow the Bible”; she also said that she did not know that artificial insemination was contrary to Catholic teaching. The federal jury, after eight hours of deliberation, decided in Dias’ favor, and awarded her punitive and compensatory damages in the amount of $ 171,000. The Archdiocese plans to appeal.
Let me leave aside here the certitude asserted by the Roman Catholic Church (mostly, I assume, by celibate males) on all matters pertaining to female genitalia. The key legal issue here is the one previously raised in litigation over the contraception provision under Obamacare: the scope of First Amendment protection in activities by churches that go beyond directly religious ones (say, running schools or hospitals, as against conducting worship or training clergy). More narrowly, the issue here is the scope of the so-called “ministerial exemption”. In an earlier case the Supreme Court had decided that religious organizations were exempt from anti-discrimination laws if the individuals concerned were “ministerial employees”. For example, a woman with a theology degree barred from the Catholic priesthood could not sue on the ground of gender discrimination. Could an instructor in computer technology in a Catholic school, no matter what contract she signed, be viewed as a “ministerial employee” in the sense of the law? The Archdiocese argued (as had been done in litigation over Obamacare) that the First Amendment barred the state from defining what “ministry” means in a religious tradition. If, say, Mother Teresa had run her hospice in Cincinnati rather than Calcutta, could the state refuse to recognize her activity as religious “ministry” unless she conducted worship services?
The case raises some interesting questions. On the one hand, it seems plausible (even to a non-legal mind) that the state should not define how a religious community defines its mission in the world. If a church runs a soup kitchen as an expression of Christian charity, can the state declare that this is not “ministry”, no matter whether the soup is ladled out by nuns or by lay volunteers? On the other hand, even if the Catholic Church considers its schools to be an integral part of its mission in the world, can a teacher of computer technology be considered a “minister”?  Even if she is not a Catholic?  (Come to think of it, could she have sued on the ground of involuntary conversion?) Dias signed a contract promising to follow Catholic moral teachings (though she clearly had no idea what these are). But this contract cannot mean that she thereby gave up her civil rights as an American citizen. But is employment by the Catholic Church a civil right? These are the questions that keep lawyers gainfully employed and emotionally happy…. Could a Catholic handyman employed by a synagogue insist on his right to eat ham sandwiches on the premises? Or, if employed by a mosque, refuse to take off his shoes in the sanctuary? And so on….

Second item: David Barton, an Evangelical pastor and conservative activist, made a speech warning Christians who want to be “Biblically correct” (wonderful phrase!) against buying Starbucks coffee—not because the beverage as such is objectionable (as some Evangelicals think), but because the Starbucks company (along with Microsoft, Fortune 500 and others) supported a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Washington state (the bill passed), and had previously been one of a group of seventy businesses filing a brief opposing the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Barton said: “There’s no way a Christian can help support what is attacking God”. He further proposed that same-sex marriage is as bad as smoking cigarettes and, worse, is like marriage between a horse and a dog. (Let us stipulate that the Reverend Barton has a way with words.)
As far as I know, nobody has sued anyone (not yet). But the event raises some interesting questions. Why did Starbucks take a position, as a company, on this issue? Why did other companies? Is there perhaps an unusually large market of gay coffee drinkers? Or are Starbucks cafes favored gay meeting places? Could it be a matter of class, and therefore of cultural elitism? The higher one goes in the class system, the more one finds favorable attitudes toward homosexuality and fewer people smoke (and certainly more people use personal computers and  therefore are more likely customers of Microsoft). What is the proportion of gays who drink coffee and/or smoke, as compared with the straight population? Do gay men and lesbians differ in these frequency distributions?  Overall, what is the relative size of the gay and the Evangelical markets? In other words, in terms of straightforward commercial interests, whom should you please and whom can you afford to annoy? I would love to get leaked minutes of boardroom discussions of this matter. Above all, I am intrigued by the two categories “Biblically correct” and “politically correct”—do they ever overlap?
It is a relief to come upon a sexually charged item that (at least thus far) has no religious angle. As was reported in the secular press, the actor Michael Douglas on June 2, 2013, had an interview with the (politically rather than Biblically correct) newspaper The Guardian. Asked whether his throat cancer was caused by a lifetime of drinking and smoking, he said no. Rather, “without wanting to get specific”, he said that his illness was caused by the virus papilloma, which supposedly is transmitted to individuals who practice cunnilingus (the performance of oral sex on female genitalia). Douglas said: “Yea, it’s a sexually transmitted disease that causes cancer. And if you have it, cunnilingus is also the best cure for it”. (The part about the cure reminded me of President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, who said that taking a hot shower after unprotected sex with an HIV-positive individual is the best protection against being infected.)
Perhaps, as a certified sociologist of religion and culture, I should make some suggestions how this matter too could be drawn into the culture wars (and thus provide employment for activists and lawyers). I do not intend to do research on this, but moral theologians should clarify whether oral sex of this variety is okay between married heterosexuals but not between single ones. How about lesbians (especially those who, in current liberal Protestant parlance, are in “committed relationships”)? Feminist theorists may have their say: Is cunnilingus a ceremony proclaiming female equality?  Or perhaps of female dominance?  Conversely, is it a ceremony of male subservience? (An episode in the TV series The Sopranos suggested this, when a very macho Mafioso is deeply upset by a rumor that he does it.) May one drink or smoke during it? The mind boggles with the possibilities…..
If there is a Puritan heritage in American culture, it is not primarily evident in a specific sexual morality. Rather, it is in its core an obsession with sex. And that is equally distributed on both sides of the conservative/progressive divide. Where piety intersects with prurience, the “Biblically correct” and the “politically correct” have more in common than they would like to think.
I am told that a renowned Biblical scholar, who would like to remain anonymous, has found a very ancient scroll with fragments of the Hebrew Bible in yet another cave near the Dead Sea. It contains a passage omitted in the canonical text of chapter 2 of the Book of Genesis. The passage describes how God created the first woman and brought her to the first man. The presently canonical passage reads: “The man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed”. The newly rediscovered next sentence reads: “And after they looked at each other, they could not stop laughing”.
(Although this has very little to do with any of the above, I cannot resist the temptation of concluding with a very old joke. It sort of continues the just quoted sentence from the latest acquisition from the Dead Sea caves library: After looking at the first woman for a while, the first man turned to God and asked: “What should I do with her?” God replied: “Go over there and talk with her. Something will occur to you”. The first man does so, has a conversation, then comes back and asks: “What is a headache?”)

  • wigwag

    “Why did Starbucks take a position, as a company, on this issue? Why did other companies? Is there perhaps an unusually large market of gay coffee drinkers? Or are Starbucks cafes favored gay meeting places? Could it be a matter of class, and therefore of cultural elitism? The higher one goes in the class system, the more one finds favorable attitudes toward homosexuality…” (Peter Berger)

    Starbucks knew exactly what they were doing. They made the decision that they did for two reasons; it reflected the values of the senior executives who run the company and more importantly, it reflected the values of most of their customers.

    The Starbucks executives aren’t stupid. They know perfectly well that its not just the quality of the coffee that brings in the customers. The Starbucks logo printed on their cups is an insignia of success highly valued by the owners of the upper middle class lips that touch those cups. Starbucks patrons are as interested in what their patronage of the company says about them as they are about the quality of the beverage they are about to imbibe. Gay rights is a value that is important to most of their patrons do naturally its a value that is important to the company.

  • Anthony

    “Where piety intersects with prurience, the Biblically correct and politically correct have more in common than they would like to think.” Is the message that sex pervades wittingly and unwittingly the cognitive determinants of both? That is, are they conflating religious/moral issues (Biblically correct persons) and secular/libertarian issues (politically correct persons) via attempts to reconcile established personal predilections in the obsessive domain of American sexuality?

  • wigwag

    “After looking at the first woman for a while, the first man turned to God and asked: “What should I do with her?” God replied: “Go over there and talk with her. Something will occur to you”. The first man does so, has a conversation, then comes back and asks: “What is a headache?”(Peter Berger)

    The interesting question is, who was the first woman? If Jewish mystical tradition is to be believed, it wasn’t Eve, it was Lilith.

    The myth derives from the fact that the Bible offers two somewhat different accounts of creation. In the first, the implication is definitely left that the first man and the first woman were created more or less simultaneously and out of the same material; dust. In the second more detailed account, the woman is created by the deity using the rib of the anesthetized man as the starting material.

    There are numerous versions of the Lilith myth; some go back as far as Gilgamesh. Whether there are biblical references to Lilith is not entirely clear (maybe Isaiah 34:14) but she is clearly mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls; specifically in the “Songs of the Sage.”

    For those who are unfamiliar with her, the bottom line is that when Adam proposes their first sexual encounter, Lilith has a lot more to complain about than a headache. Apparently Adam felt certain that as the man, he was entitled to be on top during copulation. Lilith explained to him that being created from the same dust that he was, he had absolutely no claim to position himself on top of her. Being new to sex, it never occurred to them that a compromise might exist; they could have adopted a position that required neither of them to be on top, but these were early days and no one had invented those sexual positions yet. Suffice it to say that the couple quarrels and not only is there not sex, but there’s no make-up sex either.

    At this point, the stories begin to diverge and things become a little fuzzy. In one account, Lilith stomps out of Eden, absconds to an area around the Red Sea and begins to cavort with the various demons who call the place home. According to another account, Lilith finds her heart’s desire in the archangel Samael (the Angel of Death) and the two embark on a career resembling that of Bonnie and Clyde, sowing mayhem wherever the go.

    Meanwhile back at the OK Corral otherwise known as the Garden of Eden, the deity realizes that what has transpired isn’t anyone’s idea of Paradise. He vows not to make the same mistake twice and to insure that Adam’s second wife is far more obedient than his first, he creates Eve out of Adam’s rib. The thinking was that surely Eve would understand that her existence and the existence of her female progeny was entirely subordinated to the male of her species who made her life (and the life of all future women) possible by donating his very precious thirteenth rib.

    John Milton was very familiar with the story of Lilith. As both a philo-Semite and an anti-Semite his feelings about her must have been complex and ambivalent. What we do know is that in “Paradise Lost,” Milton creates a hypersexualized Eve who bears little or no resemblance to the Eve of the Bible. Milton’s Eve with her “wanton locks” was a temptress who drove not only Adam and Satan to distraction but also the angels placed by the deity as monitors of the Garden of Eden. In fact, Milton’s Eve resembles no one so much as the Lilith of Jewish myth.

    So what has Lilith been doing since the glory days in the Garden of Eden? According to Jewish myth, she’s still a seductress tempting men as they sleep. If Jewish stories are to be believed, Lilith is responsible for nocturnal emissions. Talk about culture wars south of the navel.

  • Tom

    Of course, the American “obsession” with sex has nothing to do with the fact that sex is kind of important.

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