Fifty years ago, the conservative Christian writer C.S. Lewis devoted a couple of chapters of his autobiography to describing the exclusive English public (meaning private) school he attended as a teenager. “Wyvern,” as Lewis calls it, is portrayed as a cesspool of worldly ambition, where the struggle to get ahead all but overwhelms ordinary human decency, let alone any serious ethical standards.
“Spiritually speaking,” Lewis writes, “the deadly thing was that school life was a life almost wholly dominated by the social struggle; to get on, to arrive, or, having reached the top, to remain there, was the absorbing preoccupation. And from it, at school as in the world, all sorts of meanness flow; the sycophancy that courts those higher in the scale, the cultivation of those whom it is well to know, the speedy abandonment of friendships that will not help on the upward path, the readiness to join the cry against the unpopular, the secret motive in almost every action.”
Lewis also describes, largely in passing, the English public school tradition by which socially powerful older boys enter into sexual liaisons with younger boys, who thereby acquire a status similar to that of courtesans. At one point, Lewis addresses why he has so little to say about this practice, and indeed why he doesn’t even bother to condemn it: “What Christian, in a society so worldly and cruel as that of Wyvern, would pick out the carnal sins for special reprobation? Cruelty is surely more evil than lust and the World at least as dangerous as the Flesh. The real reason for all the pother (about homosexuality) is, in my opinion, neither Christian nor ethical. We attack this vice not because it is the worst but because it is, by adult standards, the most disreputable and unmentionable, and happens also to be a crime in English law. The World will lead you only to Hell; but sodomy may lead you to jail and create a scandal, and lose you your job. The World, to do it justice, seldom does that.”
Much has changed since Lewis wrote; but one thing that has not is the veritable obsession many Christian conservatives seem to have with homosexuality. As Lewis points out, this obsession has no sound basis in Christian ethics or theology. It is true that Christian morality has traditionally condemned homosexual behavior. But it is, on this view, no different from fornication, or promiscuity, which are also considered perversions of sexual passion, and which draw relatively little attention from contemporary moralists.
Furthermore, as Lewis notes, Christian theology considers lust to be a less dangerous vice than worldly ambition or (especially) spiritual pride. So why are so many Christian conservatives focused on the putative threat that the widespread acceptance of homosexuality presents to the spiritual health of society, as opposed to, say, the threat posed by the widespread acceptance of materialism, or the fanning of nationalistic passions?
It has been pointed out that it is more difficult for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. And surely few vices could be more dangerous to a Christian’s soul than to indulge in the delusion that his nation is morally superior to other countries (contemporary nationalism is little more than spiritual pride on a grand political scale). For heterosexual Christians in particular, it is easier and far more pleasant to condemn homosexuality than to consider whether the lust for fame and fortune, or for the destruction of one’s enemies, might be more fruitful topics on which to focus one’s attentions.
To preen oneself on having resisted temptations one has never felt is no different than taking credit for victories over enemies one has never faced. It is the squawk of the chicken hawk raised to the status of a theological principle.
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)