Evangelicals think pornography is art.
In taking the single “sort of” art history class my partially retrograde Christian liberal arts school offers, it is abundantly clear, if it wasn’t so already, that evangelicalism has a troubled relationship with art. It must be noted that the class itself was very interesting and more than competently taught, but it was evident in the reactions of several of my fellow students. Any time nudes were shown or discussed, there was always a minor uproar.
The evangelical fear and loathing of pornography is in many ways understandable. Though the general acceptance of pornography as a fact of life is relatively recent, evangelicals and other strands of Christianity, fundamentalist or not, seem to be the only ones consistent in saying that it wasn’t a benign force: porn affects us. Their downfall, though, is that when pushed to the limits, their ideology cannot sustain their critique.
Evangelicalism as a movement in Christianity represents a turn inward; a sharp rebuke of the liberal theology so popular at the turn of the 20th century. The focus moved from the social to the personal, the primary question no longer being “what can I do for others?” but “how do I keep myself pure?”. Though this does not totally preclude any social action, it fostered a deep suspicion of the humanist, populist movements that liberal theology aligned itself with, causing the evangelicalism of the late 20th century to pair its politics of personal piety with capital and neoliberalism.
This alignment is the fundamental contradiction that ultimately robs evangelicalism of any robust critique of pornography: promoting a strict, legalistic mode of piety while refusing to recognize the role of capitalism in the things this motive of piety aims to suppress. This contradiction itself denotes a complicity. It has been pointed out before that evangelical sexual piety is part-and-parcel with modern/neoliberal class structure; much of evangelical/middle-class identity is derived from a policing of sexuality. This quest for purity is rendered Sisyphean when placed in the thrall of capital: the pornography industry in aggregate generates billions more than mainstream entertainments. Capital simply has no interest in destroying that which contributes to its growth.
Further undercutting evangelicalism’s campaign against pornography is an ingrained distrust of images. Images deceive and distract. This has its roots in the proud tradition of iconoclasm, and it extends the austere aesthetic of the evangelical sanctuary to society at large. While this could serve as a valid critical stance, it has more often than not manifested as a repressive legalism, especially when it comes to depictions of sexuality and the naked human form. In the effort to avoid and censor pornography, images and portrayals that are not designed to evoke lust and desire are cast as such. Effectively, there is no difference between Blue Valentine and Big Wet Butts 6. If art is pornography, pornography is art. Evangelicalism inadvertently affirms what it so desperately wishes to destroy.
If my last post is any indication, the excesses of pornography can and should be engaged on aesthetic grounds. Evangelicalism, by and large, has opted out of this conversation, finding itself aligned with the very forces that proliferate the desires it seeks to quell.