12/01/2010 03:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sexual Obsession and the Fall of the Religious Right

I agree with the theory that people who are sexually repressed are those most likely to repress others. This has happened with predictable regularity in the modern era. It applies to the English in the Victorian era, the Boers in South Africa and in equal measure to the Religious Right in America. To take one example, I can find no other explanation for the fury of the fundamentalist attacks on gays and lesbians in this country. Not only are gays out of the closet but sex is out of the closet, and now that gays are an assertive public presence, some Americans are profoundly uncomfortable.

There is, of course, a Biblical case to be made against gay rights. I understand this case, even if I do not agree with it; my own view is that that our comprehension of Biblical verses -- and of all sacred texts -- develops and grows over time. Still, even if we recognize the point made by fundamentalists, the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian, has far more to say about caring for the poor, loving one's neighbor, and justice in the world than about eradicating sexual sin. Sexual obsession is the only explanation that I have for their focus on a range of sexual issues -- homosexuality, pre-marital sex and abortion -- to the exclusion of virtually everything else.

The encouraging news is that Americans are no longer buying this truncated version of religious belief. We have known for some time that fundamentalist religion is not growing in America. Indeed, it reached its peak membership in the early 1990s and has been slowly declining for almost two decades.

A primary reason for this decline is that Americans, who remain a deeply religious people, have set aside the sexual obsessions of the Religious Right. While they see personal morality as an important religious concern and respect those with sexual mores of a more traditional kind, most of them have simply lost patience with efforts to turn the moral clock back to the 1950s. This is especially true for younger Americans, who have cast off the repression of an earlier era. (Aging baby boomers often agree with them, even if they are more conservative in other ways.) Worried about their jobs and struggling in a depressed economy, they have been forced to delay marriage and find absurd the idea that pre-marital sex is unacceptable for adults. Furthermore, they are committed to diversity, and most have friends of all sexual orientations; the last thing they are interested in is passing judgment on gays and lesbians.

Younger Americans are also appalled by what they see as the hypocrisy of conservative religious leaders who demand a certain moral standard for others but not for themselves. All of the major religious traditions -- Jewish, Catholic and Protestant -- have been shaken by sexual scandal in the last decade, and none has responded with moral distinction. In addition, most Americans, buffeted by hard times and looking for comfort and support, crave religious teaching that is richer, deeper, more spiritual and more embracing than what they have been hearing. They feel, instinctively and correctly, that religion has a broader mandate, and that if it is narrowly focused on sexual restrictions, it is distorting authentic religious values.

Does this mean that the only alternative is a moral free-for-all? Hardly. In these difficult days, Americans need a religious teaching that begins with the premise that sexuality is linked to blessing, commandment and God; that focuses on holiness and self-respect; and that sends the message that each of them is a person of irreducible worth, made in the image of God. And if they will not get this message from the preachers of the fundamentalist world, it is up to liberal religious voices to fill the void.

But the 1950s are over, never to return. As the Religious Right has discovered, a "just say no" approach will not work and will leave Americans alienated and alone. It is time for others both to expand religion's horizons and to offer thoughtful and sophisticated thinking on matters of sex.