In his latest cri de organes genitaux, Rod Dreher1 cites approvingly a 1967 passage from Philip Rieff on the central role that sexual restraint has (supposedly) always played in Christianity:
[Rieff wrote] that what was distinctive about Christianity from the beginning is a spirit of asceticism, especially sexual asceticism. As Rieff makes clear, Christianity did not prescribe “crude” sexual renunciation (i.e., total denial of the sexual instinct), but rather controlling it, reining it in to make it serve higher spiritual purposes. If you can master your sex drive, the theory went, then you can master any other passions that, unreined, will destroy you and the possibility of community.
It is simply not the case that Christianity placed such central emphasis on mastering the sex drive.* Christianity, like the Jewish tradition from which it sprang, emphasized the mastery of all sorts of worldly passions: lust, to be sure, but also greed, envy, ambition, pride, etc. Jesus, while having plenty to say about wealth, injustice, and arrogance, never once mentioned sexual restraint as the linchpin of his teachings or the cornerstone of the Kingdom.2 Any such focus on sexuality would also have found scant support from St. Paul, who mostly (not entirely, I grant you) treated the topic as irrelevant given his belief that the world was about to end; sexuality to Paul was merely another distraction—along with family obligations, among other things—from the coming transformation of the world. **
There are, if I recall correctly, Ten Commandments.3 Of those ten, one concerns sex: Thou shalt not commit adultery, which we can reasonably take to proscribe sexual immorality in general. What else do the commandments proscribe? They proscribe idolatry (which takes many forms), familial dishonor, failing to keep the Sabbath, murder, lying, stealing, and covetousness. Biblically, all of those behaviors and the passions underlying them are to be mastered and/or renounced, not just sexuality; controlling any one passion may make controlling the others that much easier, but there is no reason, either scriptural or psychological, that sexual desire must be tamed first. Rod Dreher may think that the Christian world revolves around sex, but that is not the Biblical view and it’s not what early Christians believed or taught.4
Dreher is quite explicit regarding his belief that sexual restraint is the key to Christianity. In this same article, he mentions a conversation he had with a “priest friend” who, like Dreher, thinks “sex [is] at the center of the Christian symbolic that has not held.” What he gets from the priest by way of explanation is a standard recapitulation of Genesis, Adam and Eve, male and female He created them, and so forth. Of course, the Genesis narrative of the Fall (which follows an entirely different creation story) does not portray unruly sexual desire as the cause of humanity’s primal disobedience but as a consequence5; a priest should know that, but then, why would anyone expect a committed celibate to offer a disinterested perspective on the centrality of sex?
As Dreher notes, “Rieff’s prophetic point is that Western culture has renounced renunciation, has cast off the ascetic spirit, and therefore has deconverted from Christianity whether it knows it or not.” There is some truth in that, but the ascetic spirit of Christianity was cast off long before the latest skirmishes of the Sexual Revolution. What is surprising to many observers, in fact, is that the traditional Christian teachings about sex have lasted this far into Modernity while all sorts of other ascetic restraints (economic, cultural, social, and political) have long since been abandoned. While Dreher, citing Rieff, seems to think that the loss of sexual restraint now jeopardizes all other passional disciplines, it has actually been the other way around: the loss of other disciplines has culminated in relaxation of sexual mores.
The battle against sexual license (however that is defined) may be one worth fighting, both from a Christian and a non-Christian perspective; for that matter, it may be the only battle left to fight for traditional Christians, all the previous battles in defense of tradition having been lost. But it is simply inaccurate to portray sex as having always been at “the center of the Christian symbolic”; that place, I’m pretty sure, has always been reserved for Jesus.
*It may have been the case that many non-Christian observers were most struck by distinctive sexual mores on the part of Christians; but even if it were, that is a different claim than what Dreher, via Rieff, is making.
2 If I have read the gospels aright, Jesus focused almost entirely on what his followers should do rather than with things from which they were supposed to abstain: e.g. they were to love God and one another, take care of the poor and the sick, minister to those in prison, forgive even their enemies, go the extra mile and turn the other cheek, to name just a few. That doesn’t mean Jesus had no opinions about sexual promiscuity or about homosexuality; it means that such matters were not central to his teachings—or else he’d have said rather more about them. One hesitates, for more than one reason, to invoke here Jesus’ saying about “It is not what goes into a man that defiles him but what comes out of him,” but it’s worth considering.
**I've always thought it would be interesting if Christian wedding ceremonies included Paul's famous line, It is better to marry than to burn. That line, by the way, could also be employed as a pithy defense of same-sex marriage.
3 Actually, there are far more than Ten Commandments in the Bible; the traditional Jewish count is 613. I don’t know how many of those were about sex, but a fair number had to do with food restrictions and not a few were about the evils of mixing two kinds of fabric.
4 Augustine, not surprisingly, did make sexual desire the preeminent example of humankind's disastrous and sinful predicament. I believe I have previously made clear my feelings about Augustine.
5 Actually, it is only the woman's sexual desire for her husband that is mentioned in Genesis as one of the curses that followed the Fall. Man's sexual desires seem to be taken for granted; even God knew the futility of trying to do anything about them.