Augustine & Newt: A Response to Linda Hirshman

Linda Hirshman has a piece in Salon today vis-a-vis Newt’s less than stellar marital track record. Her main point is laudable: she’s rightly concerned that all the attention paid to politicians’ sex lives distracts voters from the more crucial issue of whether the polices they’re proposing will actually be good for the country. Fair enough, a point well made and definitely something we ought to be talking more about. So I’m glad she wrote about it.

But! She ended up relying on the age-old Augustine bashing to drive her point home. And its here that I have to complain, but just a bit (um, Update: I actually end up complaining a whole lot. Sorry!) She makes two assertions that I think are faulty and poisonous to the whole discourse. First, she claims that the whole obsession with sexuality is a peculiarly Judeo-Christian thing, and seems to imply that if we could get over that cultural baggage, we’d be much better for it. Second, she says that “[m]ost of the fault for this misallocation of our moral indignation lies, of course, in the unruly sexuality of fourth-century Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo.” Ouch! This is both wildly untrue and a gross over-simplification of Augustine’s life and thought. But let’s talk a bit about that first claim before we get to good old Augie.

The idea that sexual hang-ups are the primary and exclusive legacy of Judeo-Christian culture is as common as it is untrue. First off, sexuality is generally treated as an important, emotionally-charged, and taboo issue in almost every human society. Sure, it takes different forms, and certainly some cultures are more prudish than others. And in that regard, you could certainly target Christianity as more on the prudish side of the spectrum than some other faiths. But Buddhism, for example, is at least as concerned with the control of the libido as Christianity. Siddhartha made it clear that sexual desire had to be completely abandoned on the path towards realizing Nirvana. Confucian philosophy, which is more social and political than it is spiritual, nonetheless felt that female modesty was crucial in order to protect the lineage of a woman’s father and husband. Islam (which is arguably in the Judeo-Christian orbit, but nonetheless clearly has unique cultural and spiritual aspects as well) is well-known for being highly protective/oppressive/prudish about womens’ bodies and often stresses the need for sexual control. Concern over sexuality is not a Judeo-Christian thing. It’s a human thing. Certainly, there’s plenty to criticize in Christianity’s impact on sexual mores in the West, but to take the whole vast burden of sexual hangups that we humans feel and lay it on just one religio-cultural tradition is absurd.

But Hirshman goes even farther, actually claiming that almost all of the blame actually lies not just with one religion, but with one man–Augustine of Hippo. Augustine is certainly famous for asking God for “chastity–just not now.” And Augustine was quite honest about his years of fornication and his inability, for years, to cease it, despite the fact that he thought it was wrong. But instead of seeing this as evidence of Augustine’s sexual hangups, it could just easily be seen as his being very honest, both with his readers and with himself.

As I just mentioned above, the idea that being unable to rein in one’s sexual urges is a spiritual deficiency is hardly limited to Christianity. In fact, even utterly non-spiritual people might well reflect on the fact that being unable to control one’s libido at all could lead to all sorts of problems, and that giving oneself totally to lust can easily distract us from other important facets of our lives. Seeing an unrestrained libido as less than a good thing is hardly automatically or obviously stupid, retrograde, or repressive.

That said, again, I’m not defending Christianity’s whole record on sexuality–there’s a lot to criticize! But certainly we can engage in that criticism in a more sophisticated way, pointing out specifics and building a strong case, instead of just dismissing an entire 2000-year old religion. A bit of research into the issue could have given Hirshman a much more nuanced view on the issue, and also allowed her to make her point more clearly and forcefully, I think. One obvious detail–almost trivial I’ll admit, but hey! fact-checking is important!–Hippo, Augustine’s home is not in Italy, as Hirshman seems to think; it was located in Africa, near modern Tunisia.

But the problems with Hirshman’s article aren’t limited to problems of historical research and interpretation. She goes on to basically ask, hey, what’s the big deal about adultery? and compares cheating on one’s spouse to any other breach of contract–she compares it to ” wearing a dress to the party and then taking it back to the store”. While I appreciate that she’s pointing out that people who cheat on their partners aren’t necessarily awful human beings, I think her comparisons here are way off the mark. She herself essentially admits as much a few lines later, admitting that, for example, Hilary Clinton was clearly deeply hurt by Bill’s philandering. But immediately after, she suggests that it all worked out, because Hilary almost become the President. Huh?

The idea that our broken relationships, our failures to care and love for each other, are no big deal as long as we do well in politics or business is incredibly cold and mercenary. And at the end of the piece, I’m left wondering what exactly Hirshman is getting at. She begins the whole whole piece by warning us that “[w]hen all morality collapses into sexual morality, the voters will become so fixated on whom the candidates are screwing they don’t notice …  it’s them.” Yes! This is, like I said at the outset of this post, a really good and important point! But by the end of the piece she seems to be living in a world where only politics matters, where our personal lives not only shouldn’t be discussed in public, but really shouldn’t be a big deal, even to us. After noting how Newt Gingrich’s second wife has gone through so much and been treated poorly, she concludes the piece by noting that “it’s so gratifying at least to see him bleed a little.” But seeing him bleed a little isn’t going to help us build a more progressive society, and she seems to be getting derailed by the very personal aspect of politics that she seemed to want to discard at the beginning.

In short, this is a piece I would love to see written…again…by Linda Hirshman. Her main point is right on target, but she tries to pull in so many threads and tie it all together with an over-arching worldview that just doesn’t knot well. I think if she had stuck to the details of the issue at hand, she could have wound up with a much better take-down of the Republicans’ (well, and Democrats’) hypocritical public attitude towards sex. On the other hand, if she really wants to write about how this all ties into Christianity, Augustine, and English Common Law, fine! But she needs to do a lot more research first.

This post appeared on both my main blog as well as my Open Salon blog.

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