Published January 2, 2023
Nicholas Kristof is being hunted by the hound of heaven, but The New York Times columnist is still too stuck on his sexual hangups to become a Christian. In this way, he represents many in our culture who want Christianity without the cost of discipleship, especially when it comes to sex.
In an interview with evangelical leader Russell Moore, Kristof continues his tradition of using Christmas to toy with the idea of Christianity while badmouthing believers whom he disagrees with politically. And despite some questions about miracles, in the end it all comes down to sex. As Kristof put it to Moore, “Two of the main moral issues that evangelicals have been associated with in the last few decades are hostility to abortion and to gay people. Jesus never spoke directly about either. … So why hijack faith to obsess about abortion and same-sex lovers?”
Kristof has posed these questions before, but he apparently refuses to listen to the answers. To begin with, Christians do not, and should not, focus on Jesus’ words to the exclusion of the rest of Scripture and common sense. Unenumerated sins are still sins. For example, orthodox Christians have rightly opposed the evils of eugenics, even though Jesus never specifically denounced them, and even when eugenics was seen as the scientifically proven wave of the future.
Similarly, if human beings developing in the womb are included among those whom Christ called “the least of these, my brothers,” then the regime of elective abortion Kristof champions is a monstrous evil, and defeating it must be one of the top goals of Christians in politics. And, thanks be to God, we have won some victories against the violence of abortion, despite the efforts of Kristof to defend it.
Furthermore, it is left-liberal, not conservative, obsessions that drive the culture wars. On LGBT issues, for instance, it is the left that has always found new territory to conquer after each victory, to the point where it is now fulfilling some of the most alarmist predictions of its evangelical antagonists — putting a drag queen in every school and a male in every girls’ locker room. What Kristof really seems to be complaining about is that conservative Christians continue to resist parts of the cultural and sexual revolutions — sometimes even, as in the case of abortion, mounting some successful counterattacks.
Chastity Is Loving One’s Neighbor
Kristof’s demand is that Christians surrender to the sexual revolution so he can admire our charitable work with an untroubled conscience. What he cannot or will not see is that Christian sexual morality has the same source as the Christian charity and service to the poor and downtrodden that he praises.
The Christian virtue of chastity is bound up with the Christian virtue of charity, which encompasses much more than giving money to the poor. The heart of each is love and respect for other people. Christianity insists that the other must be understood as a person, not as a means of gratification. The eternal importance of each person means that our relationships, including our sexual relationships, have eternal significance.
Human flourishing depends on rightly ordered sexuality just as much as it does on rightly ordered economics. Thus, Christian sexual ethics are not idiosyncratic habits or rituals relevant only to believers. Rather, they are based on human nature, and so they apply to everyone. The rules provided by Christian sexual teaching protect the weak and vulnerable from the selfishness of the strong and, by promoting and protecting the natural family, provide for fulfillment and joy that is not available from a life of selfish indulgence.
Consequently, following Christian sexual ethics, whether in fidelity within Christian marriage or in celibacy outside it, is not just privately virtuous, any more than a businessman who restrains his greed is merely privately virtuous. In both cases, virtue (or vice) has extensive public effects. Thus, loving one’s neighbor means regulating and controlling sexual desire just as loving one’s neighbor means controlling one’s temper and one’s avarice. The unselfishness of following Christian sexual ethics would, if broadly practiced, ameliorate a host of social ills, from child poverty to elective abortion.
In contrast, the ethos of sexual liberation presumes that we are atomized individuals, which is why liberals and even self-styled socialists tend to talk like Ayn Rand heroes when it comes to sex and related issues, such as abortion. But this selfishness tends toward self-destruction. The effects of the sexual revolution have been devastating to individuals and society, despite our culture’s unprecedented prosperity and technological prowess.
The sexual restraint Christianity demands is an essential part of loving one’s neighbor. The loneliness, exploitation, and fatherlessness that increasingly define our sexual culture and family life are evidence of this, and no amount of technological progress or enlightened liberal selfishness will remedy them.
Christian sexual ethics are challenging to the point of being all but impossible to follow perfectly. And the burdens they lay are not equally distributed. But this does not negate them, any more than our incapacity for perfection negates the moral demand to be less greedy or spiteful. Even imperfectly practiced, they are far better than the selfish alternatives offered by sexual liberation. And a renewed culture of marriage and fidelity would be more beneficial for the poor than the material charity provided by conservative evangelical Christians. Kristof admires the latter but denounces the former — even when his reporting on the porn industry brought Big Porn’s evils of rape and child abuse to mainstream attention, he insisted on defending porn qua porn.
Clearly, Kristof’s objections to Christian sexual ethics are not just about what some televangelists said about homosexuality decades ago. But if Kristof wishes to become a follower of Jesus, he will have to surrender everything to the rule of Christ, including the sexual revolution.
Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has included work on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Kirk and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is currently working on a study of Kierkegaard and labor. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.