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The Phallic Pulpit

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture of America

by Randall Balmer
Oxford University Press, 246 pp., $19.95

Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry

by Charles E. Shepard
Atlantic Monthly Press, 635 pp., $22.95

Of all the men running for President in 1988, only two were forced, by the birth dates of their children, to admit to having had sex with their wives before marriage—and those two, Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson, were the only preachers in the race. To some, that might seem odd; but not to those who know preachers. The pulpit has always been a libidinous zone. Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker are not likely to surprise people familiar with the sexual exploits of Paul Tillich or Martin Luther King. Or of Henry Ward Beecher. Or, for that matter, of Peter Abelard, the twelfth-century theologian who was castrated for his affair with Eloise, the niece of his ecclesiastical superior. The ranks of the ministry would be considerably thinned if Abelard’s punishment followed regularly on Abelard’s sin.

Believers, in time, become inured to pastoral lust, less shocked than outsiders when Jimmy Swaggart has to wash his sins away in copious tears. It is the outsider who cannot understand why so many forgive and forget these offenses, or why it does not seem hypocritical for preachers to keep denouncing the very sins they succumb to. Thus Michael d’Antonio, after an intelligent survey of modern evangelicals’ activities, concludes that recent scandals are leading to “the inevitable collapse of the Christian Right.” But Randall Balmer, after an equally intelligent look at much the same material, finds it amusing that journalists repeat the error of thinking the downfall of a famous preacher means the end of religion. Balmer, brought up an evangelical, knows from experience that “faith is shaped by many forces.” Outsiders see only the salient preacher or two on television, not the dense religious undergrowth that produces leaders and influences generation after generation.

It was the secular press that made a great fuss over Jimmy Carter’s 1976 confession that he had lusted in his heart. Lust is not in the vocabulary of modern politicians, any more than sin is. Richard Nixon and Gary Hart do not even commit mistakes, much less sins; “mistakes are made” around them. Carter was using scriptural language (Matthew 5:28), which is not Dr. Bowdler’s language. Baptists are used to hearing about the weakness of the corrupt flesh—that all flesh is grass, friable, a decaying thing. Such terms break the decorum of Playboy, which is innocent of sin. Playmates do not have flesh of grass. More like polyurethane.

In the nineteenth century, Thomas Bowdler and others created the impression that religious people avoid even the mention of sex, except in the most oblique and delicate way, that they observe what D. H. Lawrence called “the puritan hush! hush!”1 But the Puritans of the seventeenth century were rather too blunt for modern tastes. They not only called a spade a spade, but counted the clumps of dirt on it. 2 Roger Williams would not have called so many enemies “whores” if he did not have an idea that whores were a lively threat. Loath as he was to use secular coercion, Williams never doubted that it should check “lasciviousness,” a term whose categories he could spell out in great detail, with some help from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Here is William Bradford’s description of a scandal at Duxbury in the Massachusetts of 1642:

He was this year detected of buggery, and indicted for the same, with a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey. Horrible it is to mention, but the truth of the history requires it. He was first discovered by one that accidentally saw his lewd practice toward the mare. (I forbear particulars.) Being upon it examined and committed, in the end he not only confessed the fact with that beast at that time, but sundry times before and at several times with all the rest of the forenamed in his indictment. And this his free confession was not only in private to the magistrates (though at first he strived to deny it) but to sundry, both ministers and others; and afterwards, upon his indictment to the whole Court and jury; and confirmed it at his execution. And whereas some of the sheep could not so well be known by his description of them, others with them were brought before him and he declared which were they and which were not. And accordingly he was cast by the jury and condemned, and after executed about the 8th of September, 1642. A very sad spectacle it was. For first the mare and then the cow and the rest of the lesser cattle were killed before his face, according to the law, Leviticus XX. 15; and then he himself was executed. The cattle were all cast into a great and large pit that was digged of purpose for them, and no use made of any part of them.3

This is what Bradford calls “forbearing particulars.”

His words seem to confirm the modern contention that religious people are obsessed with sex. Coming from some hedonists, this may sound like a monopolist’s complaint about a Mom-and-Pop store still left on the corner; but in fact the two groups are not dealing in the same item. The hedonist is concerned with pleasures—including the pleasure of hurting and being hurt. Religion deals in guilt. The style of hedonism is euphemistic, because celebratory. The style of religion is grotesque, because denunciatory.

The more preachers attack sex, the more they seem to fall under its spell. Whence this intimate hostility? In the Christian world, Saint Augustine took a famously “unhealthy” view of sex. Though he did not invent the concept of original sin, he connected it psychologically with a close observation of sexual drives. Naturally, he knew that the fall of Adam entailed greater evils—death, disease, ignorance, and war. But these are episodic occurrences in most people’s life. In fact, the main consequence of the fall, death, is literally a once-in-a-lifetime thing. But sex is always with us.

The belief that the human race is “fallen” expresses the widespread conviction that this is an “odd world,” though we know no other. Human beings in general resemble Diderot’s description of Rameau’s nephew: “Nothing was less like himself than himself.”4 We all yearn back to some “good old days” that are not in recorded history, some time of integrated selves. The “good old days” are Eden, before the fall.

The two sexes are especially at odds with each other, needing and using and suffering each other—so that Plato makes Aristophanes imagine they are the broken halves of an originally whole human being, just as Diderot made his Mademoiselle de l’Epinasse say “Man is just a freak woman, and woman just a freak man.”5 The attraction between the two is also what drives them apart. The tragedy of human dividedness is played out in terms of sexual compulsion.

This was the view Augustine took of sex. It was only one desire (libido) among the many that toss human beings as in a storm. By striving to be godlike, Adam “lost the point of origin to which he should have adhered and became, or almost became, his own point of origin,” with the result that he is now “giddied and swerved round by reactions so multiple, of such scale, and so at odds with one another.”6

Assaulted by so many desires, the man who did not obey God now finds that he cannot even obey himself. After trying to seize the helm of the world, he finds his own body will not respond to his steering. In Eden, “he willed what he could not do, so that now he does what he has not willed.”7 He is tugged at by desires for revenge, for money, for triumphing over others, for boasting, for rule (libido dominandi). These are the great spiritual sins, the ones that resemble Adam’s aspiration toward divinity. But they are not the most embarrassing sins, since in them the soul is overcome by itself. If it is vanquished by desire for rule, still it is its own desire that triumphs. “It yields to itself.” But desire for sexual gratification is “especially embarrassing” (maxime pudet) because the soul yields to the body, often without even intending to, since desires come (or go) in the body when conscious intention would like to banish (or summon) them.

At times the urge arises, awkwardly, when not called for. At other times it ignores desperate appeals, so that conupiscence, burning in the soul, turns icy in the body.8

What intrigues Augustine is the sexual dramatization of the human being’s internal disjunctions. The other desires do not have such clear and uniform early symptoms as the body’s arousal by concupiscence—or its failure to be aroused. He dwells more on the body’s impotence than its importunacy, since the former shows a kind of ultimate rebellion, when the soul cannot get the body to go along even with its sinful plans. Here “desire will no longer serve desire” (libidini libido non servit).9 The great revolutionary of Eden, grasping at godhead, cannot even find a willing recruit to lesser little rebellions of the flesh.

It is the unpredictability of the organs’ response that makes the genitals embarrassing (pudenda). In Eden, where they were under control, they were not an embarrassment. But now human beings seek privacy for their trysts, even in brothels. They cover their genitals in public because they do not want them seen aroused—or limp—when that is inappropriate. Even the Cynic philosophers, who try to shock people by copulating in public, carry their traditional cloak and club so they can “fake it” if nervousness over their performance makes them impotent.10 Augustine would have understood perfectly the difference between live sex on a stage and sex enacted for a camera in comparative seclusion, where the photographers can wait to shoot the penetration scenes.

For Augustine, sex is an appropriately comic punishment for human pride. Since he is thinking primarily of the male, his deflationary view of the human plight makes of the penis a clown’s “bauble,” that clumsy slick-and-bladder getting in the way or collapsing in indecorous ways, as it does in Shakespeare’s plays: “For this drivelling love is like a great natural [idiot] that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole.”11 When Augustine talks about the integrity of desire and performance in Eden, he says traces of such control of the body can be found even in humanity’s fallen condition. Some people can wiggle their ears at will, so obedient are their bodies to their whims. Others are ventriloquists. And “some can from their bottom produce odorless notes so deliberately timed” (numerosos pro arbitrio sonitus) that they seem to be “singing from that end, of all places” (ex illa etiam parte).12 Jazz musicians used to say of the cornetist Bix Beiderbecke that “Bix even farted in tune.” Augustine would have found in that fact a memory of Paradise—and would have added, no doubt truthfully, that even men who can fart to a score cannot have repeated erections at will. Adam could.

  1. 1

    A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in D. H. Lawrence: Sex, Literature, and Christianity, edited by Harry T. Moore (Twayne, 1953), p. 94: “the puritan hush! hush! which produces the sexual moron.”

  2. 2

    On the myth of Puritan squeamishness, see Edmund Morgan, “The Puritans and Sex,” New England Quarterly, 15 (1942), pp. 591–607.

  3. 3

    William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647, edited by S. E. Morison (Knopf, 1966), pp. 320–321. Since the severe penalties for sexual misconduct in Puritan colonies made conviction depend on solid evidence and two eyewitnesses, trials went into what would now be considered prurient personal detail. In one case, which lacked a second eyewitness to the crime, a pig was counted as a witness of its own deflowering. Pigs did not have Fifth Amendment rights in the seventeenth century, so this one shared the gallows for the crime it “testified” to. Cf. John Murrin, “Trial By Jury in Seventeenth-Century New England,” in Saints and Revolutionaries: Essays on Early American History, edited by David D. Hall et al. (Norton, 1984), pp. 177–78.

  4. 4

    Le Neveu de Rameau (Editions de Plèiade), p. 396.

  5. 5

    Rêve de d’Alembert (Editions de Plèiade), p. 908.

  6. 6

    The City of God, 14.13, 14.12.

  7. 7

    The City of God, 14.15.

  8. 8

    The City of God, 14.16. On this Augustine agrees with the erotic Latin poet, Martial (Epigrammata, 3.70, 5.83, 6.23).

  9. 9

    The City of God, 14.16.

  10. 10

    The City of God, 14.20.

  11. 11

    Mercutio’s words, Romeo and Juliet, II, iv, 91–93 (cf. All’s Well, IV, v, 27). On the shape and sexual meaning of the bauble, cf. William Willeford, The Fool and His Sceptre (Northwestern University Press, 1969). Michelangelo gives the bauble comically heroic treatment on the Sistine ceiling (carried by Obeth in the fifth lunette on the right wall looking toward the altar).

  12. 12

    The City of God, 14.24. Elaine Pagels claims that rightful desire and performance never come together in sex for Augustine (“desire can never cooperate with will”), one of the many ways she misunderstands this part of The City of God. Her lack of humor is as much at fault as her scholarship. She should have pondered the significance of wiggled ears and tuneful farts. See her Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (Random House, 1988), p.112.

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