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Why so many Christians blame pornography for other sins like adultery

In his apology for cheating on his wife, Josh Duggar blamed pornography for causing him to stray.
In his apology for cheating on his wife, Josh Duggar blamed pornography for causing him to stray.
Kris Connor/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When Josh Duggar, the former reality show star who has spent most of the summer dealing with the fallout from the revelation of the sexual abuse he committed as a teenager, was implicated in the Ashley Madison hack as having pursued extramarital affairs, he issued a public apology that very day.

The very next week, in the midst of protests by incoming freshman Brian Grasso and others about the presence of Alison Bechdel's comic book memoir, Fun Home (which deals with her coming out as a lesbian and features depictions of women having sex with each other) on Duke's recommended summer reading list, Grasso explained his position in the Washington Post.

Perhaps strangely to many, both men blamed a similar culprit for why they did what they did: pornography. (Duggar later edited the mention of pornography out of his apology.) This prompted some degree of snark and amusement on the part of both the secular left and gossip blogs, particularly in the case of Duggar. Porn was so bad that it made him cheat on his wife? How did that make any sense?

Yet pornography addiction remains one of the foremost villains in many Christian circles, to the degree that there's a whole Kirk Cameron movie about avoiding its allure, one that made a surprising amount of money at the box office. Pornography, to many Christians, is a gateway drug that leads to all sorts of other sexual peccadillos and immoralities.

And, believe it or not, they actually have the backing of something Jesus himself said to support this argument.

For many Christians, feeling lust is tantamount to committing adultery

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The opposition to pornography many Christians feel stems directly from something Jesus said.

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In Matthew 5:28, Jesus tells his followers:

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

(That's the New International Version.)

Now, as with all things Jesus said, there's some degree of wiggle room here. Is thinking a woman is beautiful looking at her lustfully? What about when women look at men lustfully? What about non-pornographic images of naked women? (We'll get to this last one in a second.)

But what seems clear is that looking at pornography falls under the category of looking at a woman lustfully. And this isn't one of those things where if you squint, it kind of sounds like Jesus is condemning abortion or something. This is quite clearly the founder of a major world religion saying not to lust after women you're not married to, lest you be guilty of adultery. You know who else advanced this argument, in a Playboy interview no less? President Jimmy Carter.

Obviously, people who aren't Christians — as well as many Christians themselves — will feel as little bound by this declaration as they are by the many, many other things the Bible says are wrong that don't seem to apply in a modern world. But for some Christians, particularly fundamentalists, this is a pretty clear call to do their best to avoid such inner lust — a call that has also provoked many arguments over masturbation.

Briefly, before we continue: We're going to define "fundamentalist" Christians as those who attempt to follow the Bible as literally as possible. They tend to hold socially conservative political positions and have a strong overlap with evangelical Christianity and the Baptist Church, though there are plenty of fundamentalists in other denominations, like blogger Matt Walsh, who is Catholic. And, obviously, not every Christian believes everything their church teaches. There are as many doctrinal differences as there are Christians.

This belief suggests the mere presence of a naked woman can turn something into pornography

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In his Washington Post essay, Grasso quotes the Matthew verse above, before going on to explain that seeing naked women or women performing sex acts on each other — as he might see if he read Fun Home — would open the door to lust in his heart. Grasso goes even further.

I think there is an important distinction between images and written words. If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it. But viewing pictures of sexual acts, regardless of the genders of the people involved, conflict with the inherent sacredness of sex. My beliefs extend to pop culture and even Renaissance art depicting sex.

At first blush, the thought of famous Renaissance art featuring nudity being somehow pornographic is ridiculous. How on earth could seeing a painting of a woman from centuries ago somehow inspire lustful feelings? It sounds tantamount to that old (probably made-up) story of Victorians covering up table legs, lest they think about women's legs instead.

The answer lies in the difference between how fundamentalist Christians think of the world and how many of the rest of us do. Christians are commanded to be in the world but not of it, to rise above and lead by example. To do this requires shutting the door to as much temptation as possible, in most cases, which means a general prohibition of anything that might prompt impure thoughts. So while that would clearly include pornography, it also includes things that are pornography-adjacent, like, say, Renaissance paintings.

Couple that with the idea of sex being sacred, something that exists solely between one man and one woman, and you have the makings of a worldview where leaving the door open even a crack allows in terrible demons. (Yes, it's a slippery slope argument. We'll get to this in a moment.)

For many of the rest of us — and, it should be said, many, many, many Christian teenagers — adolescence is a time when our natural curiosity about sex is satisfied in hopefully safe ways, whether that's looking at pornography or hooking up with a curious and willing partner. There are good and bad ways to go about this — but to the fundamentalist Christian practicing total prohibition, there are only bad ways.

The simple reason Christians see slippery slopes everywhere

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Another prominent Christian exposed in the Ashley Madison hack was vlogger Sam Rader, who is perhaps most famous for the video in which he surprises his wife, Nia, with her own pregnancy. (She later miscarried, and the video about that also went viral.)

In his own apology, issued with Nia by his side, Rader says the following:

I brought this to my church at the time, when I first started at the church that I’m at now; this has been brought to my discipleship partner. This was brought to my wife’s attention. She has forgiven me for this mistake that I made [in] opening the account. I’ve sought forgiveness to God, and he’s forgiven me. So I’ve been completely cleansed of this sin.

This, too, caused some degree of online mockery. How was this sin so easily absolved and forgiven?

The answer lies in a schism between how fundamentalist Christians perceive sin and how the slightly more liberal or secular denominations most Americans are familiar with do. In, say, the Catholic Church, sin is an action for which restitution must be made, usually stemming from confession. However, in most fundamentalist circles, the simple fact of asking Christ to make you "born again" immediately wipes out all sins you have committed before that point and all sins you commit after.

There are points of contention here — born-again Christians aren't supposed to use their status as a get-out-of-hell-free card, particularly since they're supposed to live as an example to the rest of the world — but the old idea of the deathbed conversion definitely applies in fundamentalist Christianity.

But there's a corollary to this idea, which is that all sins, no matter how minor or major in society's eyes, are exactly the same. Where the Catholic Church delineates between degrees of sin, fundamentalist churches usually suggest that telling a seemingly harmless lie is roughly the same as murder in the eyes of God. Yes, you're forgiven for both if you become born again, but they're still both sins, which increase the distance between the fallen nature of humanity and the divine nature of God.

This is why fundamentalist Christians often bring up slippery slope arguments when, say, protesting against the legalization of same-sex marriage. In this worldview, every action exists in a strict, stark world where it is either "sin" or "not sin." And if all of those sins are the same in severity, then it's less hard to imagine that simply condoning one sin would lead to condoning all of them.

As with so many things, this all comes back to the patriarchy

Let's go back to what Jesus said in the book of Matthew:

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

At first, it sure seems like the impetus here is being placed on men to be vigilant in their attitudes toward women, doing their best to keep their sexual attractions in line. It wouldn't be hard to perceive this in a way that many online progressives would find entirely agreeable — in which women are regarded not solely for their sexual natures but for the other things they have to contribute to society.

And to Grasso's credit, he really does seem to be trying to take the lead in protecting himself from his own lustful heart and/or human nature. Many of us might regard that goal as quixotic and self-defeating — or at the very least think he's keeping himself from some really, really great art — but Grasso is at least putting the onus on himself, not others.

But for so much of the history of the fundamentalist church, this has been read as a reason to force women to dress modestly or make sure their husbands are sexually satisfied. In other words, the agency of the verse has been flipped so that women are the ones at fault when men feel lustful, rather than the other way around. In that way, it's not so very far removed from arguments that a woman wearing revealing clothes was somehow "asking for it" if she is sexually assaulted.

To be sure, this isn't the only verse in the Bible or even the only thing Jesus said that drives an impression of women as beings who exist primarily to tempt men into sin or serve as quiet, submissive wives. But it's a big part of why so many churches can have so many problems with sexual abuse, as we saw in the summer's other Duggar scandal.

Being in the world but not of it is impossible. But it's becoming even more impossible with every passing year.

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The idea of being in the world but not of it is constructed deliberately as an impossible goal to achieve. How can you live in a place but not be a part of it? The idea is to hold that as an ideal, then acknowledge when you fall short of it.

But in 2015 America, the world has so many other ways to bring things you don't want to see to your door — a problem that is far from unique to fundamentalist Christians. (Just ask anyone who's ever been on Twitter.) Even 30 years ago, it wasn't so very hard for those with stringent belief systems to confine their social interactions largely to those who shared those belief systems and, thus, police each other.

In 2015, however, we have the internet and we have mass media everywhere we turn and we have a culture that places images of scantily clad human beings all over. To you and to me, most likely, this is the natural progression of humans learning to deal with an open and diverse species, wonderful in its wide variety.

But 30 years isn't all that long, really. And if you've been watching each and every encroachment of a more sex-positive America with fears for what it might mean for the state of your soul, your children's souls, or your nation's soul, it must seem all the scarier. This doesn't mean we need to coddle these people's feelings or make sure they feel properly cared for if they happen to glance a stray breast.

But it might be worth it to acknowledge these complaints and understand what they stem from — a pervasive, all-consuming fear that the door that once held back the devil has been permanently removed from its hinges. If you thought the struggle for the everlasting souls of your loved ones was hindered by that, wouldn't you be at least a little bit concerned?

These thoughts might seem backward to many of us, but they're still believed by human beings, who are struggling with many of the same things the rest of us do. And on that level, at least, a little understanding could go a long way.

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