The Moral Bankruptcy of Evangelical Ethics, Part 1: Sexual Purity

Content warnings: mentions of physical and sexual abuse

I was raised under strict a strict code of ethics defined by evangelicalism. I had to learn it from early childhood. It was not only something I spent many hundreds of hours memorizing details about, but the rules were reinforced with controlled violence. The violence was carefully managed in such a way that it seemed like organization and order, something with the express purpose of controlling my behavior. Most of my siblings wouldn’t even call it violence, using the words we were taught to use: “spanking,” “discipline,” and “training.”

I was a student of evangelical ethics for more than two decades. I am an expert on few things, but the ethical standards to which I was held from infancy are something I know a great deal about. If you were not raised by dedicated evangelicals, you cannot know what it is like to be held to their impossible standards from early childhood. Even now, I think of my upbringing as one that was moderate in some ways. My parents didn’t force my sisters and me to wear dresses. We weren’t Calvinists, believing that some people are predestined to damnation. They didn’t beat us randomly or relentlessly, the way some other parents were known to beat their kids. The punishments were usually measured out in small increments with clear correlations to what exactly we’d done “wrong” to “earn” this treatment. Compared to our friends and neighbors, it seemed like we were right in the middle of mainstream homeschool Christian culture. Not too extreme, not too fundamentalist – the number of kids was just, well, what god intended.

I am writing an entire book about my indoctrination, but I want to stop and talk about the ethical system itself, because I feel that nobody is willing to directly address it, so I must state this as plainly as I possibly can.

The evangelical ethical code is bankrupt. It has no footing in the ethics discussion because it has utterly discredited itself on the matter. It has been without any credit for centuries, but at long last, evangelicals seem to be losing control of the narrative. Evangelical churches and organizations have proven themselves to be completely incapable of identifying, confronting, and addressing abuse. They fail to even acknowledge, much less address, what is wrong. This is because their ethical systems have no capacity to do so at all.

The ethical code of the evangelical Christian differs from person to person. However, there are some basics that can be summarized without oversimplification or misrepresentation. While evangelicals may pride themselves in having a complex ethical code, it boils down to a few key things: sexual purity, obedience, and proselytization.

I will explain these further to clarify my definitions, but right here is where a lot of Christians will insist that it certainly can’t be boiled down to such basics. What about the golden rule, the ten commandments, the greatest commandment, and the definition of true religion? What about all the parables of Jesus, and for that matter, the importance of the story of Jesus? All of these refer to distinct biblical passages that seem to lay out clear ethical standards. I will address them all and make the case that they all fall under these three subjects as I address them.

Sex is the first thing. It is the foundation of evangelical ethics that the institution of marriage – where only cishet couples in recognized unions are allowed to have sex and families – represents the relationship between Jesus and those who follow him. The “church” is referred to as the “bride of Christ” multiple times in the bible, and this is used to back up the modern conservative definition of marriage.

Cisheteronormative standards are placed upon the children of evangelicals from a time before we are born: when our assigned gender is revealed. This structures the expectations for our lives, and whether we will be allowed to join in specific activities that define our roles. My mother prayed over each of her children’s cribs for our future husbands or wives, respectively according to the designated opposite of our own assigned genders. Even as a taboo nonexistence in the minds of evangelicalism’s sheltered children, sex is so central to the dogma that it is invisibly loud. I listened to music as a toddler about saving myself for marriage. I knew that my husband would be approved by my father before I knew anything about sex itself. This is because sexual purity is forced upon all children of evangelicalism in some form, though some of us were more completely sheltered than others.

Toys are gendered. Tasks are gendered. Expectations are gendered. The roles defined by the gendered toys, tasks, and expectations presented to children in the evangelical world are explicitly clear and defined at great length. People defined as men are the leaders. People defined as women are the followers and supporters. There are no other options, just leading and following. Evangelical institutions are organized around authoritarian hierarchy, and the strongest distinction in that hierarchy is between “men” and “women.”

Evangelical sexual purity is not expected just of those who adhere to the religion, but to everyone in society and the world. This is vitally important to understand: evangelical Christians have no problem with holding everyone to their standards of sexual purity. We’ll discuss proselytizing last, but the evangelical mindset encapsulates both the indoctrination of children and the colonization of the world outside the family and church institutions. They have no problem whatsoever with forcing their religion on other people, especially their own children, who have no say in the matter.

There is a word that Christians use to define moral wrongdoing, and that is “sin.” It is not a very clearly defined word. There are great theological debates about what it is. “Original sin” means that we humans are born with a “sin nature,” that is, we are not only predisposed to sin, but we have all sinned merely by existing. I define this word to be used sparingly because I think it is entirely unhelpful to structuring reasoned ethics. Sin can be anything from cheating on your wife, to being gay, to murdering someone. It can also be the mere thought of stealing a piece of candy as a child. The rationale behind it is that if everyone sins, everyone needs to make amends with god for their sin.

It’s important to also note here that sin, as an incredibly vague concept, is open to interpretation across denominations and sects. According to the evangelical, we are all sinners in need of the redemption of the grace of god. Beyond this, opinions scatter. Some believe all sin falls into the same category, while others treat different actions as more or less sinful. Because it is so unspecific, evangelicals struggle when faced with questions about how to handle harmful behavior. They cannot identify what actions are harmful, and which are harmless. Sin is not a measurement of harm. It is an attempt to guess what may or may not be acceptable to a deity.

Anything that falls outside of marriage is sin, according to the evangelical. Adultery is sin, of course. Divorce is still considered a sin by some within evangelicalism. To be gay, and especially to have gay sex, is no doubt a horrible sin. Extramarital and premarital sex are very frowned upon. This is the most basic way I can describe the evangelical ethic of sexual purity. It permeates every aspect of evangelical living, especially in how children are taught to think about the world and themselves.

There is no evangelical defense for a consent-based sexual ethic. None. Because of this, evangelicals get really, really uncomfortable around the implications of ignoring consent: confusion about rape, abuse, and assault. Especially when the victims are children, because the other thing that evangelicals can’t decide on is the individual human rights of children.

For these reasons, sex is the last thing an evangelical has any right to claim ethical superiority about. This is getting long, so I’m leaving it here and will continue to discuss the other aspects of evangelical ethics in a follow-up post.