Sexual Politics and Walking the Line

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
Because you’re mine, I walk the line

There’s a new theory about the reason for cultural disintegration in America — political preoccupation with sexual boundaries has smothered other ethical formation. Here is the argument: Debating values in sexual relationships shortchanges training about right and wrong in business and politics. Recently, this dichotomy was presented in the Wall Street Journal buttressed by other opinions claiming that the nation’s political focus on abortion and gay rights is detrimental to the formation of other, presumably more essential, ethical and religious principles.

Daniel Henninger’s opinion editorial, "There’s more to morality than the politics of sex," takes a look at the erosion of ethics in business and politics and comes to a very flawed conclusion. He says:

The problem . . . is a generalized weakening of the codes used at least since Moses to keep societies intact, to suppress the virus of rampant lying, cheating and chiseling. People used to learn this stuff; now many don’t. Where’d it go? How about this answer: Politics killed ethical formation.

Henninger cites Pew Research to the effect that "all moral life in America [collapses] down to abortion and gay rights because the political class believes those issues move votes. And the result is that anything else important . . . is ignored." Henninger’s clincher is: "Our political culture’s preoccupation with sexual boundaries has smothered the more important ability of religious or ethical formation to function in the U.S."

What should we make of Henninger’s insinuation, i.e., if the weak-minded rubes who think abortion and homosexuality are such a big deal would get over it, we could concentrate on more important stuff? Apparently in his view, ethics and morality can be truncated so as to leave out troublesome areas like sex and still serve a salutary function in society.

Which raises the question: Are moral values a unified whole or are they a smorgasbord from which you can pick and choose?

The foundation of Judeo-Christian ethics is, of course, the Ten Commandments, a list of enjoined or prohibited behaviors; these rest upon a fundamental premise that there is more to reality than subjective perceptions and individual choices, that this objective reality is something that each of us must come to terms with and respect. First and foremost, there is the command to love and respect the Creator — referred to by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address as the One who is the author of our rights and freedom, the One who is concerned with liberty and justice for all. This Creator is also concerned with our obligations toward the good and toward those things that are consonant with and respectful of the structure of His creation. Since I am not the only individual He has created, then what seems good to me must be balanced by my having respect for what is good for others.

We are commanded to show respect for life, to do no murder. In this way we recognize the sanctity of the God-breathed life that is His gift to us, to those special creatures whom He made in His own image. Moreover we are to respect the sexual activity that leads to the creation of life. This entails respect for the boundaries of the marriage relationship that is designed to be the cradle within which life is brought forth and nurtured.

Morality is a unified package based on the principle of respect for the Creator and what has been created, rather than merely what I want or desire. This draws me out of my subjective perceptions of reality — my internally created reality — toward an objective external reality whose created structure and boundaries I must acknowledge and to which I must conform. And yes, sex and procreation are central to that order — Henninger’s objections not withstanding — and I, and all the rest of humanity, am not free to invent my own schemes of acceptable sexual behavior.

If I fail to reverence the truth imbedded by the Creator into the fabric of His creation, I let go of the only possible ties I have to reality and drift in the sea of my own fantasies, lost without an anchor in a delusional state that ultimately will prove deadly.

Several scenes in the movie "Walk the Line" intrigued me. They indicated that Johnny Cash’s path crossed with that of another music legend, Elvis Presley. Despite their similar religious backgrounds and love of gospel music, Elvis Presley didn’t rediscover the moral boundaries necessary to escape the temptations of drugs that he shared with Johnny Cash. Cash, on the other hand, with the assistance of June Carter, regained his faith and his mental bearings, which enabled him to find a way out of the unreal world of drug addiction.

When Elvis and Johnny stepped over the boundaries on sex and drugs, they entered into a world of their own making. They didn’t, however, change reality and its limits; they simply lost hold of them. June Carter, though her own track record was something less than saintly, reached back into her religious upbringing to recover the need for boundaries, and used truth and boundaries as keys to help rebuild Johnny’s life. Cash immortalized this fact in the line, "Because you’re mine, I walk the line."

Contrary to Henninger’s view, it seems to me that the whole of truth and morality aren’t divisible . . . and that adherence to both is not just a luxury either, but is essential to sanity and life. Reality and the moral order inherent in it are not ours to rearrange selectively to suit ourselves. Like a strong stone arch, we cannot neglect any of the elements of morality if it is to bear the weight of ordering our lives as we live together in community. Tragically, when we weaken the persuasive force of morality to guide our free choices, we then turn more and more to the unwieldy, brute force of law and government control to coercively regulate. This is not the route to freedom, but to Götterdämmerung.