Friday, January 2, 2015

Humanum: Russell Moore on Marriage, Sex, and Gender

To read an introduction to the Humanum conference, click here. To read about Pope Francis' opening address at Humanum, click here. To read about Rick Warren's talk, click here. To read about Theresa Okafor's commentary, click here.

Humanum: The Complimentarity of Man and Woman took place in Vatican City on November 17-19. Among the speakers at Humanum was Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Moore's talk exalted heterosexual marriage and binary gender roles, caricaturing people who rejected these paradigms as sinister.

At the 0:17 mark, Moore opened his talk by accusing people who reject binary notions of gender of seeing humans as "machines", of deluding themselves with a "Faustian myth". Moore champions a binary notion of gender, painting any notions of gender outside of this narrow paradigm as "arbitrary". In Moore's eyes, those who accept binary gender roles accept their created role as defined by scripture, while those who do not are ignoring natural "limits".
"Poet Wendell Berry observed several years ago in reacting to the technological utopianism of naturalistic scientism that the key question of the modern era is whether or not we will think of persons as machines or as creatures. I believe that this question frames the entire discussion that we have today.

If we are creatures, then we have meaning and purpose and dignity, but with that, we have limits. If we see ourselves as machines, then we will believe the Faustian myth of our own limitless power and the ability to reshape even what it means to be human. And this is, it seems to me, the question at the heart of the controversies that we face around marriage and sexuality.

Are we created, as both the Hebrew scriptures and Jesus of Nazareth put it, male and female from the beginning, or are these categories arbitrary or self-willed? Do our bodies and our sexes and our generational connectedness, do they represent something of who we were designed to be, and thus place both limits on our ability to recreate ourselves and responsibilities for those who will come after us?"
I would argue that the "limits" Moore imposes are arbitrary. First, we are not created only "male and female". Like other complementarians, Moore ignores the existence of intersex people. Second, sex and gender are not synonymous, as Moore's talk implies. One's biological sex does not dictate one's gender presentation, strengths, skills, temperament, and life path, which all vary from individual to individual. Gender roles vary across eras and cultures, with some cultures acknowledging more than two possible genders. Few people perfectly fit their culture's notion of "masculine" and "feminine", and some people transcend those man-made categories altogether. As much as Moore would like to think otherwise, sex and gender are complex, and always have been.

Moore applauded heterosexual marriage, asserting that such unions are "embedded into the creation order". Any other notion of marriage was creation of the state, he insisted, saying, "Marriage and family were not created or crafted by any human state, and thus cannot be redefined by any human state."

Heterosexual marriage is the "means of human flourishing", not "the arena of individual human desires and appetites", Moore argued. In saying this, Moore insultingly refused to acknowledge that love, trust, and devotion could exist in unions other than heterosexual marriages, reducing them to a matter of urges.

Like other speakers at Humanum, Moore depicted heterosexual marriage as intrinsically good, ignoring examples of unhealthy marriages. In his haste to glorify heterosexual marriage as a universal good, he ignored blights such as domestic violence, reproductive coercion, child marriage, and forced marriage around the globe. To boot, for gays and lesbians, heterosexual marriage would be inappropriate and deeply unsatisfying for both spouses. Marriage is a social good when it involves adults whose sexual orientations and temperaments are compatible, but it is not a universal good per se.

"Sexual difference" is rooted in the "natural order", Moore claimed. At the 5:16 mark, he argued that alleged gender differences and heterosexual marriage were created by God.

"The man needed someone similar to him and yet different from him, and fitted together, they form an organic union, as a head with a body. Humanity then, in the image of God, created male and female, with male and female identities that correspond to one another and fulfill one another, we are not created as Spouse A and Spouse B, but as man and as woman, and in marriage as husband and wife, and parenting as mother and as father. Masculinity and femininity are not aspects of the fallen order to be overcome, but they are instead part of what God declared from the very beginning to be very good."
Moore's talk of "a head with a body" made me uncomfortable. The head does the thinking for the rest of the body, so was he implying that the husband should do the thinking for the wife? My suspicions were conformed at the 6:07 mark, when Moore waxed poetic about male "servant leadership" over the family.
"A man is created then to be other-directed, to pour himself into his family. Headship, in God's design, is not Pharaoh-like tyranny, but Christ-like sacrifice."
Fundamentalists Christians justify male dominance over the family by calling it "sacrifice" and "servanthood", as if playing fast and loose with word definitions somehow makes the practice less repugnant. Such reversals do not change what male dominance is. As much as complementarians speak of "sacrifice" and "servanthood", male dominance doesn't look like this in real life. More often than not, such "headship" encourages boorish behavior among husbands, silences wives, and robs wives of adult autonomy. No matter how much fundamentalists sugar-coat it, male dominance is still unethical and unfair to women.

Moore blasted noncommittal sex, cohabitation, divorce, and evolving notions of marriage, ignoring the fact that these are not new phenomena. At the 7:39 mark, he caricatured feminism as a misguided force trying to tear down patriarchy with free-wheeling sexuality. He further caricatured male sexuality outside of heterosexual marriage as a "Darwinian" and dangerous force that the sexual revolution had unleashed.
"Western culture now celebrates casual sexuality, cohabitation, no-fault divorce, marriage definition, and abortion rights as parts of a sexual revolution that they say can tear down old patriarchal systems. But this is not the case. The sexual revolution is not liberation at all. The sexual revolution is merely the imposition of a different sort of patriarchy. The sexual revolution empowers men to pursue a Darwinian fantasy of the predatory alpha-male, rooted in the values of power, prestige, and personal pleasure. [Applause] Does anyone really believe that these things will empower women and children, when we see the wreckage of sexuality as self-expression all around us?"
Where to start? First, Moore depicts the "sexual revolution" as something recent and monolithic, ignoring the fact that sexual mores have always evolved across eras and cultures. Second, Moore ignores the boons that non-stigmatized sex, divorce, and reproductive freedom have bestowed. I fail to see how forcing women to bear unwanted children, forcing people to stay in unhappy marriages, and stigmatizing premarital sex between consenting adults creates anything but misery.

Finally, Moore demonizes male sexuality outside of marriage as the path of the "predatory alpha-male" defined only by "power, prestige, and personal pleasure". The implied message seems to be, Ladies, keep those legs closed and get married, or those bad men out in the world will devour you! He ignores the fact that some men behave this way in heterosexual marriages, and that not all men behave this way outside of marriage. Plenty of men value consent, trust, honesty, and intimacy in their sexual lives, because they understand that their partners are human beings. Plenty of other men (both single and married) still need to learn these values, but heterosexual marriage does not automatically instill these virtues. Healthy communities, open communication about sex, and quality sex education do. Demonizing all men as beasts who must be tamed with heterosexual marriage is dishonest and unhelpful, and such stereotypes will not help people cultivate healthy sexuality.

Listening to talks by Pope Francis and Russell Moore made me realize that Humanum is less about championing strong families, and more about championing rigid gender roles and facile notions of sexuality. The world is changing, however, and more people recognize that gender, sexuality, and marriage don't have to look a certain way. Humanum represents a segment of society that sees society evolving, and cannot accept it.


  1. "Marriage and family were not created or crafted by any human state, and thus cannot be redefined by any human state."

    Oddly enough, for most of history marriage in most cultures included polygamy as an accepted form, and the abolition of this in most countries in recent centuries was certainly a re-definition of marriage by human states, but they don't seem too worked up about that one.

    These guys are just another case of "the way things were when I grew up is the only possible way for things to be".

    1. Infidel -- Pretty much. These "traditional marriage" types never buttress their arguments with logic, history, or anthropology.

  2. It's somewhat amusing that when reactionaries like Moore talk about values embedded in the creation they're usually referring to values embedded in the 1950's. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Donna -- They conveniently ignore values from their holy book and their religion's history that contradict those 1950s values. It makes for absurd listening.

  3. So the underlying justification for Moore's entire argument supporting rigid gender roles including male "headship" is that humans are creatures and not machines.

    In other words, his entire argument is one of semantics. He could just as easily argue that we are machines created by God and therefore we have meaning and purpose, as opposed to mere creatures like animals that exhibit diverse behaviors and sexuality.

    Their arguments are completely illogical.

    1. Agi Tater -- Playing fast and loose with semantics is a time-honored Religious Right strategy. Logic, on the other hand, is not.


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