The politics of spirituality:

Religion, spirituality, and the sexual scandal

posted by Katherine Pratt Ewing

The assertion of sexual rights and the opening of the closet have liberated many sexualities and freed the secular subject to pursue its desires and claim alternative sexual identities without shame. The young, unmarried woman can now openly and proudly display her pregnancy. The gay man and other LGBTQI’s need not hide their desires and orientations. Yet the sex scandal, marked by media frenzy and public shaming, has not disappeared. Protestant churches have been rocked by revelations of church leaders’ illicit activities. A young woman has recently gone on national TV to speak of an Independent Baptist church cover-up of her seduction and pregnancy by an elder of her church when she was only 16. The Catholic Church has been seriously undermined by the snowballing public exposure of the sexual activities of many of its priests, a scandal that has led to revelations of wide-spread cover-ups that threaten even the Pope, and that has generated legal confrontations between the Catholic Church and numerous governments. European countries have been scandalized by the proliferation of honor crimes in their midst, as Muslim families who retain traditional notions of honor seek to control the sexuality of their daughters or are shamed by a son’s announcement that he is gay. Publics in India disagree over which is the bigger scandal: having a child who marries outside of his or her caste or a family that murders such a child.

The sex scandal still allows us to assert our own righteousness as we gossip over the transgressions of others. Religion and the sex scandal are still closely linked, though the targets of public outrage have morphed: it is often religious authorities and bearers of traditional morality whose sexual desires and actions are publicized and condemned. With so many religious institutions and their authorities rocked by sex scandals in a litany of abuse and victimhood, it behooves us to ask what, precisely, is being exposed and denounced, and, conversely, what is being protected and perhaps even obscured. What aspects of “religion” are under fire in these scandals? What role does “spirituality” play in this discursive reconfiguration of sexuality and religion?

The scandal is a public act of abjection, a procedure of expulsion through which we safely distance ourselves from scandal’s targets. The intensity of public interest simultaneously reveals a hot spot in our collective sense of self, suggesting the discursive polarities and fault lines that establish and challenge the everyday order of our lives, exposing the contours of power through which this order is maintained. Today’s scandals articulate the sexual “orthodoxies” of modern secularism and its discursive operations by locating specific structures of sexual desire, activity, and prohibition (such as the religious functionary who has sex with underage members of the church) and judgment (such as the religious functionary who condemns a homosexual, or a father who commits an honor killing because of a child’s sexual transgression) beyond the secular pale. The condemned acts are presumed to be acts that are unthinkable for the liberal, secular subject. Yet these are also acts that may be readily, and even eagerly, attributable to those who are committed to traditional or “conservative” religion.

The liberation of some sexualities is thus linked with the new condemnation of other sexualities, which, while never fully legitimate within older moral orders, were often not “seen” publicly at all, as the public rather turned its eyes away. These newly scandalous behaviors take a limited range of forms. One involves sexual activity with young people who are at an age that is now defined as childhood, a definition that has been delinked from any obvious manifestations of physical maturity. Another involves the mixing of sexual behavior with compulsion in private settings in which sexual activity might otherwise be normal and expected, as when a husband “rapes” his wife. Yet another involves privately meted, often extreme punishment for manifestations of sex outside of marriage, or marriage across group boundaries. These newly scandalous behaviors all have the same character: they involve private exertions of power over someone presumed to have less power (elder over junior, male over female) by controlling the other’s sexual activity.

Today we live in a world that pits tolerance (often associated with liberalism, secularism, and even spirituality) against religious conservatism or fundamentalism in ways that cross-cut traditional religious boundaries. As a website focused on “religious tolerance” and Islam puts it:

A person’s beliefs about homosexuality tend to be determined less by their specific religion, and more by where their beliefs lie on the liberal-conservative divide. For this reason, conservative Christians and Muslims tend to have similar beliefs about the nature and origin(s) of homosexuality, as well as God’s attitude towards homosexuals.

This approach also finds liberal spirituality and sexuality within Islam, often associated with Sufism. On the “religious tolerance” website, the liberal position is associated with reason, personal experience, and the acceptance of homosexuality as normal for some individuals, while conservatives are characterized in the following terms: “Their beliefs are anchored to the past [. . .] They generally regard homosexuality as a deviate and disordered behavior, which is immoral, changeable, chosen, abnormal and unnatural.” Within this conceptual framework, “spirituality” is deployed to authorize a secular political self in ways that transcend boundaries between religions such as “Islam” and “Christianity.”

Within modern sexual politics, spirituality also marks an interior terrain parallel to and linked with sexuality. Both are immanent sources of self within the liberal agentive subject, who engages in sex only with other consenting adults.

Despite the apparent iconoclasm associated with the politics of queerness, spokespersons for queer politics—especially queer spirituality—stress that spirituality is a source, not only for personal discipline, as in twelve-step groups and retreat centers, but also for social justice. In her advocacy of queer spirituality, for example, Mona West draws a series of contrasts between popular stereotypes that see spirituality as meaning that “anything goes,” or as being mere individualistic naval gazing, with various spiritualities (queer, feminist, Native American, and other groups) that are concerned with real world problems and are sources for social justice for groups with “common histories, cultures, experiences and ethnicities.” West draws an implicit contrast between the negative idea of “naval gazing” and her assertion that “a queer spirituality exists today because we are learning to drink from our own wells!” The spiritual subject looks within to find, not only a true self and authentic sexuality, but also social justice for those oppressed by traditional social hierarchies.

Like other dichotomizing terms, such as “cosmopolitanism,” this understanding of the secular subject reconfigures the world in a way that appears to transcend Orientalism but nevertheless divides an “us” from a “them,” the spiritual liberal from the religious conservative. Within this discourse, the prominence of sex scandals associated with religious institutions makes conservative views of alternative sexualities and sex outside of marriage as sinful and/or pathological seem especially hypocritical. How could the churches be involved in such cover-ups? How could these priests, ministers, and church elders have been child molesters while preaching family values? Do they utterly lack inner control? How could Muslim fathers murder their daughters? The secular, liberal answer in each case is “traditional patriarchy”: Perhaps these beacons of religious tradition lack “spirituality” because of their embeddedness in traditional structures of power and authority that distort the self. In contrast, the liberal, secular subject is attuned to an inner source of sexuality and immanent spirituality that radiates as a benign natural force that is manifested as a spontaneous yet egalitarian self.  Spirituality and sexuality are manifestations of the true self undistorted by hierarchies of power.

However, the phenomenon of the sex scandal suggests another source of the spiritual discipline of the liberal sexual subject: the far from reasonable process of abjection and stigmatization that reinforces the boundaries and polarizations between “us” and the religiously conservative “other.” Bethany Moreton has asked “Why Is There So Much Sex in Christian Conservatism and Why Do So Few Historians Care Anything about It?” Secular, spiritual liberals and religious conservatives appear to be locked in an unresolvable battle centered on sexuality. Foucault identified the rise of “sexuality” as an essential aspect of governmentality in the modern nation-state. Charles Taylor has noted the recasting of the secular subject as a sexual subject. Michael Warner has pointed out that the creation of the Religious Right out of diverse Christian groups in the U.S. depended on sex (in the form of resistance to birth control, abortion, and homosexuality) for its very existence as a political movement. In the same forum, Beth Povinelli challenged the naturalization of sexuality as identity by posing a conceptual alternative that is powerful precisely because of its offhandedness and absurdity: she suggested that sexual activities of any sort should be seen as “a minor form of spitting,” rather than as a basis for identity formation.

By focusing on sex scandals as something that did not disappear with sexual “liberation” and the success of the gay rights movement, I not only affirm the extent to which our discursive world has been sexualized, but also identify one mechanism by which sexualization reproduces a globalized bifurcation of us and them that is often marked and reinforced by contrasting spirituality and religious traditionalism. Furthermore, the self-evident “truth” of these sex scandals also obscures any possibility of questioning the pieties by which “patriarchal” sexuality and other forms of secret sex are condemned or pathologized. Sex with anyone under a certain age (ranging from 14 to 18, depending on the state and the age of the offender) has become illegal and is defined as sex with a powerless child whose rights have been violated. Despite Freud’s “discovery” of the sexuality of children (and the fact that a “child” who commits a violent crime may be tried as an “adult”), children are sexually innocent before the law, adults are sexual predators, and children have been sexually assaulted.  Could it be that some of the trauma associated with such sexual experiences comes from a sense of guilt that as a child one might not really have experienced oneself as so innocent or powerless? How do the discursive battles over sexuality and scandal both empower and traumatize those who are defined as victims? Conversely, we now live with a myth of “consenting adults,” as if it were possible to live in a world in which power could be extracted from sexuality or from spiritual organizations.

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2 Responses to “Religion, spirituality, and the sexual scandal”

  1. avatar Joshua Paddison says:

    Thanks for this wonderfully thought-provoking post! I’m currently working on a book about the religious dimensions of sex scandals in the late-nineteenth-century U.S., and what’s of particular interest to me here is your observation that today’s scandals “involve private exertions of power over someone presumed to have less power.” That is also what I’m finding in the 1880s and 1890s—sex scandals centering on perceptions of the coercive misuse of power against the vulnerable. So this element is not as new as you suggest.

  2. avatar Thomas Strong says:

    This post seems to suggest that the sex scandals (e.g., those in the Catholic church) are largely created by and for secular (“spiritual” as opposed to religious) publics. The author doesn’t seem to consider that the abuse committed by priests may be just as scandalous to religious conservatives and members of the church as it is to those outside it, for whom it may be seen as a sign of hypocrisy. Indeed, much commentary from within the Church, and on the right, locates the blame for the crisis in the Church precisely in the forces of secularism, gay rights, feminism, and so on. This was unmistakably the case in the Pope’s letter to the Irish flock. The scandals in this view are not a sign of hypocrisy, but of backsliding or moral laxity.

    Conversely, many sex scandals in recent years have not been marked as ‘religious’ in any particular way. There was of course the Clinton sex scandal in the United States (and before that Clarence Thomas. . . and before that. . .)—but there have been subsequent political scandals (David Vitter, Larry Craig, Elliot Spitzer, etc., etc.).

    I’m not sure that these eruptions of prurient fascination can be fully understood or reasoned in terms of some key contradiction underlying the cultural logic of a (putatively) secular age, though that logic would be *part* of the story. I think you’d also simply have to think about: contemporary media and tabloid journalism and the economics thereof, the transmission of affect (titillation, disgust) within publics, people’s boredom with their own sex lives, shifts in gender norms, and so on.

    In other words, I’m not sure that the post is on the mark in the way that it maps ‘scandal’ and ‘sex’ on the terrain of religion, spirituality, and secularism.

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