"As citizens and as Christians, we have got to stop compulsively setting ourselves apart." — Sarah E. Hinlicky

"Criticizing immorality is not tantamount to repression. Churches should provide a refuge from what fellow citizens find licentious, degrading and, in its own way, repressive." — Lauren F. Winner

Read part one of this dialogue, which appeared yesterday in ChristianityToday.com, here.

From:Sarah E. Hinlicky
To:Lauren Winner
Date:November 10, 1999, 09:49:31 AM EST

Ach, Lauren, another "city on the hill" is the absolute last thing I want. How many times have Americans tried that before? How many times have we been led on by the utopian ideal, only to see it crash down like the Tower of Babel? What in fact was the Gary Bauer campaign but an attempted city on the hill itself? Nothing wrong was done and it STILL met with embarrassing failure, and there is no reason to think that his campaign is any more "pathetically unimaginative" or "ham-handed" as any other attempt will be.

As citizens and as Christians, we have got to stop compulsively setting ourselves apart, assuming that as long as we are all pure Christians together we'll get it right. (What an ironic attitude for Christians to have anyway, people who are so acutely aware of their own sinfulness and inability to do the good that they desire!) Such is not only a false view of ourselves but an irresponsible lack of concern for the rest of our society. Indeed, as long as we remove ourselves from it, we can expect our society to get worse and our own desire to batten down the hatches to intensify.

No, to use a perhaps insidious choice of word, I would much rather see us infiltrate the culture than set ourselves over and above it. If Christians should be the ones to take to lead in re-establishing a mannerly and moral society, great, but let us do it IN the world, in the uncomfortable and highly fallible world that everyone else lives in. Let others see that our high standards and carefully chosen lives are directly linked to our faith, and then let those others draw their own conclusions. I dislike the liberal solution of imposing law because it is so coercive, but I would dislike even more to see Christians with a conservative moral outlook become effectively coercive from the other direction. Such a tactic will not work with our people. Let us suggest rather than require.

I am reasonably hopeful that we are on the brink of a cultural shift anyway. The level of dissatisfaction with sexual harassment policy and the general breakdown in male-female relationships of all kinds is so high that something HAS to give. In the publishing world alone you can see the direction we're moving in. If things change in this country, it will be because all of us, as a group, as Americans, want them to change, and not for any other reason. As writers and publishers and thinkers we have the responsibility for giving the people the tools to make the change with, but it has to start from the bottom and work its way up. That's the American way, after all!

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From:Lauren Winner
To:Sarah E. Hinlicky
Date:November 10, 1999, 1:50:38 PM EST

Dear Sarah,

I am not suggesting the church issue a dogmatic statement so much as I am suggesting that the church involve itself in debates about sexuality and gender in the workplace in a that differentiates the church from the entertainment industry or the liberal state. You seem to fear the church's imposing something on society. But if we conceive of the church (or individual churches) as bastions of countercultural witness, criticism, protest, then we can understand Christians as prophets rather than as police. You seem to be concerned that the church will act oppressively in loco civitas? or else be laughed off the stage by supposing a kind of cultural authority no one will recognize. If the first, we can rest assured that there is no danger. Not only are we a long way from an established church, but the Bauer campaign shows that the Christian Right can't even field a candidate who can make a convincing gesture of moral authority on a topic like intra-office sex. In the second case, like it or not, the church is being asked for this type of moral guidance. It will be taken seriously as soon as it starts making serious statements about moral questions of real import (resourceful, imaginative responses to the new realities of sex and power, for example). Remember Glenn Tinder's question, can we be good without God? Yes, sort of. But the church needs to demonstrate that we can be better with God. And since I take it for granted that much of our society hungers for a better moral life, then sooner or later it will recognize the Christian life as an example in that direction.

You say you want to infiltrate. But infiltrating has had consequences just as disastrous if not more disastrous than withdrawal. Look where we are: Christians went along with the liberal/materialist capitalist culture. We keep trying to burrow from within, and we just wind up getting homogenized. We are trying to ride the mad elephant (Randolph Bourne's phrase when he saw his friends resign themselves to the reality of war and then flatter themselves that they could use war for progressive purposes).

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Of course I am not advocating complete separatism. A city on a hill is a place where all are welcome. And it is precisely because I agree with you that a shift is already underway that the level of dissatisfaction with sexual policy and the breakdown of male-female roles is so high, etc. that Christians need to provide people with a place to go. And that place has to be distinguishable from the National Organization of Women, from Plato's Retreat, from C-Span. Ours is God, after all, who urged us to remember that salt doesn't do much good once it is no longer salty.

This all raises fundamental questions: what does it mean to be a Christian? Yes, we are supposed to be aware of our own sinfulness. But perhaps not resigned to it. Nor does it mean pretending all sin is individual (a critical issue that hasn't come up so far in this discussion). Remember, there are sins of omission. We commit a kind of moral misprision by letting the culture go wherever it will. Criticizing immorality is not tantamount to repression. Churches should provide a refuge from what fellow citizens find licentious, degrading and, in its own way (by sheer weight of airwave and billboard saturation) repressive. Not that churches are to be escapist but to restore us so that we can go back out into the sin-saturated world. Turning the other cheek doesn't mean turning a blind eye at the very least, we must be witnesses.

Is there no place in your vision for a community set apart? A place where Christians, to use Edmund Morgan's phrase about the Puritans, sought to be in this world but not of it? You seem only to recognize the danger of putting too much emphasis on the "not of it" I think we need to steer between that danger and the danger of being too much in it.

But I fear that we have gotten rather far afield from the original questions at hand sex and gender in the workplace, questions I think are important. I suggest we return to them. Although you seem to think the questions in the Bauer campaign are primarily "political," it seems to me real issues about sex and work are raised. Perhaps you find it easier to shut off your libido than I do, but I think to say, simply, crushes and such will happen at work, we don't always need to act on our feelings, is insufficient. At least, the rate of workplace affairs happening just among people I know, Christian and non-Christian, seems to indicate it's insufficient. It seems to me all this grows out of a fundamental stuntedness in Christian conversations about sex. We say, don't do it till you're married, you'll come to our Christian colleges and we'll put you in a sex-segregated dorm, and, oh, by the way, on your wedding night flip a switch and begin thinking sex is a great good. But remember to think it's only a great good when you're in bed with your husband, not when you're at work late with Joe Bob three nights in a row.

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I will say this for the former Bauer campaign staff, whom I generally believe completely overreacted to a harmless situation. At least they acknowledged that sex is a community issue. Americans think it's private. It's not anyone else's business. But it's not private when you are part of the body of God.


See Day Three of this conversation.