Russell D. Moore on Christian Honesty About the Harm of Fornication
So David, did you do any fornicating this weekend?" This line, attributed to Richard Nixon, is fixed in American presidential lore as the former president's inquiry to talk-show host David Frost before their famous post-Watergate interview. The question is memorable because the word "fornicating" carries all the same connotations that many associate with Nixon himself. It seems awkward, out-of-date, censorious, and kind of Inquisitorial.
Therein is a parable. The word "fornication" is almost never used these days except among those who want to ridicule backward, Puritan sexual norms of the most Hawthornian sort. The word is sometimes used to ridicule Christian sexual counter-revolutionaries as prissy prigs who talk like a late 1980s Saturday Night Live version of the "Church Lady." Or, come to think of it, like Richard Nixon trying, and failing, to be one of the boys.
Losing More than a Word
But that's just it. The joke doesn't really work because Christians don't talk like that, in public or in private, at least not any more. And they haven't for a long time. "Fornication" sounds as creepy and out-of-place to a Christian's ears as it does to anyone else's. Sure, we talk about sexual morality and warn against sexual immorality, but those are the words we use, on our best days. More commonly, we teach our children and our single church members to "practice abstinence" or to avoid "premarital sex."
But could it be that the loss of the words "fornicate" and "fornication" is about something more than just updating our vocabulary to connect with the society around us? Could it be that we've lost something crucial about the grammar of the Christian faith? Moreover, could it be that, by using the language of "premarital sex," we've implicitly ceded the moral imagination to the sexual revolutionaries?
Language is important. Think of the difference it makes whether your child's elementary-school teacher refers to Washington and Adams and Jefferson as "founding fathers" or as "insurrectionists," or, conversely, of Osama Bin Laden as a "terrorist" or a "revolutionary." The words "chastity" and "abstinence" simply aren't univocal terms, and the words "fornication" and "premarital sex" aren't interchangeable.
In the term "premarital sex," the emphasis is on timing. The act itself is the same; the "sex" is unaltered linguistically. What changes "marital sex" to "premarital sex" is simply when one chooses to engage in it. This assumption, though, is right at the heart of the contemporary American Christian crisis of sexual ethics.
My own denomination, the Southern Baptists, maintains a consensus, with the rest of the Church in its Catholic, Orthodox, and historical Protestant forms, that sexual activity is biblically limited to the marriage union. My denomination has commendably sought to shore up this ethic with good denominational programs encouraging teenagers and young adults in our Southern Baptist churches to maintain this moral standard. While studies show that such initiatives have some effectiveness in at least delaying sexual intercourse among young singles, it is not at all clear that Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals have succeeded in creating a sexual counterculture.
Sexual Risk Management
Russell D. Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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