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Marry Me, Bristol: Christian Hypocri-sex, Pt. II

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Marry me, Bristol Palin. Your defenders have ripped me and the Huffington Post for daring to insult your reputation and for daring to insult their notions of Christian purity.

But I'm actually willing to make you an honorable woman, by Palin standards. I'll marry you, sight unseen, without putting you through any hippie-liberal conjugal apprenticeship that may violate your moral standards du jour. All you have to do in return is promise that we won't spend Thanksgiving, Christmas or Eid with your gun-totin' and tweetin' family.

But in case that you were as offended by my article as were many other well-meaning and decent Christians, let me explain my position more clearly.

I'm not against healthy sexual boundaries or against the concept of restraint. I find that most great religious figures, from the Buddha to Lao Tzu to Charlton Heston, have taken restraint quite seriously. My beef has been not with restraint but with that peculiar notion of legalism, which squeezes the moral juice out of any commandment in order to gnaw instead on a dry husk. This legalism was the primary target of Jesus' earthly ministry, and the great irony is that it is the hallmark of the many fundamentalists who claim that his is the only true path.

"Woe to you, you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give back a tenth of your spices -- mint, dill and cumin. But you neglected the most important matters of the law -- justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter without neglecting the former. You blind curators! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel." (Matthew 23)

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, "Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath" ... If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent. (Matthew 12)

I find that the most defensive and hostile responders to my criticisms of contemporary Christian sexual mores are much like the Pharisees, who were continually scandalized by Jesus' own apparent laxness. They say they love the Lord but seem to hate the spirit he stood for.

I readily concede that moral boundaries and restraint are crucial to good living. But I am suspicious of the Pharisaic distortions, namely an irrational rigidity, or the sorts of bizarre loopholes and rationalizations common to those who take abstinence vows.

You learn a lot from studying which forms of chaos a culture will tolerate and which forms it won't. Most people in my native Pakistan have a high tolerance for chaotic urban living, with noise and bribery and really bad driving -- but most of them have little public tolerance for sexual chaos. They frown not just on Palinesque pregnancies but even on dating and premarital hand-holding. The premarital romantic boundaries that are acceptable to most American evangelicals and even fundamentalists in 2010 are seen as quite reckless by a hundred million Pakistanis. So if you are a Christian fundamentalist who claims to champion premarital boundaries, how exactly did you decide that yours are right and decent, while those of the conservative Pakistanis (or those of your own American elders) are excessively rigid? While you judge some for being tramps, still others are sure that you're a tramp. So why not show a little humility?

Some have claimed that I'm deceptive in how I don't acknowledge the risks involved in anything but abstinence.

Granted, I choose to live with a certain extra risk by riding a motorcycle, because I think that's the only way to live and I'll accept the risk and consequences. Others won't accept that risk or reward, choosing instead to drive. But they still face risks. The only way to never get hurt is to stay home, but even then a car may drive through your backyard and kill you in your living room. (You may also decide that hiding in your living room is no way to live.)

I would also argue that abstinence is not as "safe" as its champions claim. Abstinence, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University reported in late 2008 that teens who vow to save themselves for marriage end up being as likely as anyone else to engage in premarital sexual activity -- and are less likely to use sensible forms of protection.

Yet modern Christian fundamentalists, like most devout wings of any religion or ideology, have flashed a certain narcissism when such realities are pointed out. Rather than policing and correcting their own membership, they act like wounded, cornered animals, lashing out at critics from the outside.

"What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?" Paul asked in 1 Corinthians. "Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside." But fundamentalist Christians responding to my arguments were readier to whine about how persecuted they are by outsiders than to have an honest discussion about the silliness of their insiders.

Sometimes progress really does happen, especially when it comes to understanding our world. For instance, modern psychology seems to have shown us that the Biblical writers may have not yet fully grasped human nature when they claimed that some people become prostitutes because they just enjoy horse-sized genitalia.

In the same way, a little psychology helps us understand more how to apply the timeless wisdom of Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Jesus without "straining out gnats and swallowing camels." A good grasp of human nature helps figure out what constitutes the nutritious meat of ancient guidelines and what constitutes the mere shell.

Once I began my own recovery from the stricter forms of evangelicalism to which I held for 15 years, I found myself listening anew to Dr. Drew Pinsky's Loveline show, which I'd dismissed in the past as a celebration of wanton sexuality. And I came to realize that many outside the church grasped the concept of healthy boundaries.

Dr. Drew in fact seemed a tad strict on some issues, calling out listeners who seemed to be "acting out" in irresponsible ways or who couldn't honor commitments. But Pinsky also wasn't going to become unglued over, say, masturbation the way my former church group did when a psychologist-theologian dared suggest that a practitioner may not go blind. And Pinsky would have rolled his eyes at the way so many fundamentalist couples spend the night with each other while stopping just short of intercourse -- all while pretending to be holy in the eyes of God and man, and while condemning gays for violating God's chastity guidelines. In short, some churchmates modeled an unhealthy Pharisaistic rigidity, while others modeled the Pharisaistic rationalizing of loopholes. Emotional healthiness seemed to involve something beyond such neurotic extremes.

"People don't realize how much they're co-opted by the culture," evangelical pastor Greg Boyd recently mentioned to me.

Indeed. Divorce is suddenly relatively acceptable to evangelicals just as it is to everyone else, and this makes it all the more inevitable that the idea of rushing into marriage for the sex will be a bad idea. And, dear Bristol, attempting to rush into marriage with Levi to salvage your pregnancy and your mom's honor doesn't work out well either, as you found. But if your family hadn't been so conflicted about sex, you would have used sensible protection and you wouldn't now be a single mom who put a child into a confusing situation.

I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.
-- Billy Joel

The Pharisee impulse is one that seeks to win divine favor by performing deeds that are more arrogant than noble. It seeks to justify oneself before God and man. It seeks to boast about how one is following the rules better than others, even when living a secret lie or cutting corners. Jesus and Paul saw through that. Evangelicals who get hopping mad about being criticized don't. In that light, laughing with the sinners seems like a reasonable enough option.

So marry me, Bristol, and we can both have a laugh.