"Sexual purity,” a young Christian virgin once told me, is the most radical commitment a soul can make. He called it a rebellion: against materialism, consumerism, and “the idea that anything can be bought and sold.” By purity he meant chastity: not just abstinence but a belief in sex as something apart from the world, even as sex literally creates our world.
In American life it is the ethos of evangelicalism, the largest and most enthusiastic religious movement in the United States, that has most influenced our conception of sex as sacred. Sacred, that is, in a very particular sense: as a deeply democratic form of communion, transcendental communication for the common folk. Not everybody can be a mystic, after all. American Christianity offers a humbler alternative, the love of Christ sentimentalized into sacred relations between a lawfully married man and woman. It restricts this bliss to those willing to conform to its romantic imagination, of course, but there is another, more startling consequence: the eroticization of the world, as every encounter with any frisson of sexual tension becomes suspect, a potential desecration of that which is most holy. Such sentiments are sometimes explained away as evidence of our Puritan roots. I prefer to think of them as the evangelical essence of American eroticism, the thrilling and terrifying conviction that sex really matters.
To be an evangelical is to believe in high stakes: at risk, every day, is eternity. At the same time, each new dawn brings with it the promise of salvation. Or, if one is already saved, the potential for the fabulous spectacle of another’s redemption; the possibility, even, of playing some small part in that greatest of dramas. This is a spiritual reality for believers, and it’s also a sexual reality, since sex is a more constant presence than the Holy Spirit itself. Not the act, of course, but the desire, bred into us by Eve’s original sin. The apple is always before us. But this constant temptation is also its own reward. By resisting it—by rebelling against the world as it is—the believer steps into a relationship with the divine, most satisfyingly embodied by one’s God-appointed and legally married soulmate. Visiting my young Christian virgin friend’s church one Sunday—a youthful congregation that meets in rented theater space on Broadway to share mainstream Christian pop and mild evangelicalism—I learned that those who stay pure would experience orgasms scientifically proven to be “600 percent” more intense than those experienced by secular lovers. I asked how this was tested. My friend told me I was missing the point.
In search of the point, I spent a week at the Battlecry Honor Academy in the tiny town of Garden Valley, Texas. I’d been sent by a magazine on assignment to learn about the political implications of the Academy and its founder, an evangelist named Ron Luce, a young rising star in the movement. Luce specializes in whipping up massive rallies of teenagers—he produces sensational, three-day affairs for five thousand people at a time throughout the year and around the country, and more events, for as many as seventy thousand, a few times annually—into a “wartime mentality” against what he describes as a secular conspiracy of advertising executives, clothing designers, film directors, and musicians. “Techno-terrorists” of mass media, he declares, are doing to the morality of a generation what Osama bin Laden did to the Twin Towers. “This is a real war,” Luce preaches. “This is not a metaphor!” But at the Honor Academy, a fundamentalist finishing school where Luce trains around eight hundred culture warriors a year, it is, of course: a metaphor for sex. The day-to-day battle at the coed campus is fought not against ad execs, but against one’s own desires.