The Countercultural Language of Original Sin

by David French

Sorry for the excessive religion-blogging, but I can’t resist highlighting the ten-part (yes, ten-part) Slate exchange between Ross Douthat and William Saletan over Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion. I’d urge you to read the whole thing (it’s not as daunting as ten parts would imply), but one aspect of the dialogue stood out. While discussing homosexuality, Douthat brings up the little-discussed but often-dispositive reason why secular Left and Christian Right frequently see the world through fundamentally different lenses:

Homosexuality may be innate, but recall that one of the core doctrines of Christianity is that sin itself is innate—that our innermost being is in some sense broken and fallen and turned from God’s desires for us. What a traditional Christian morality asks of gay people seems impossibly difficult, but the Jesus of the New Testament asks the near impossible of people quite frequently.

Douthat is referring, of course, to the effects of original sin — to what a Calvinist like me thinks of as our total depravity. So when Lady Gaga celebrates being “born this way” (not to equate Saletan and Gaga, of course) the orthodox Christian responds, “Yes, and that’s the problem.” Putting aside homosexuality for the moment, a foundational principle of orthodox Christianity is the concept that we are shot through with sin and that even the best of us is in desperate need of forgiveness and redemption. We’re so far from the holiness of God that the very phrase “the best of us” is a sad joke. As my former pastor once said, a prerequisite to understanding the good news of the Gospel is knowing the bad news — that we are evil.

That’s why, as a matter of religious argument, whether variations in sexual desire are innate, learned, chosen, or some combination thereof is largely irrelevant to the morality of sexual behavior within orthodoxy but almost entirely dispositive within secularism. The two world views are simply ships passing in the night when it comes to the core question of our human nature. Or, to put it another way: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him.”  

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this philosophical difference, with bleed-through effects all over our social and foreign policies. How do men and women react to incentives? What about the inevitability of war versus the possibility of peace? It’s tough to deny that the more optimistic view of human nature doesn’t have certain appeals. After all, even an evangelical like George W. Bush seemed to view the people of the Middle East through “yearning to be free” rose-colored glasses (a view that should not have survived first contact) — and our lives would be infinitely easier if we were better people — but good for Douthat to note a stubborn (and very inconvenient) truth. We are most certainly “broken and fallen.”