In her typically illuminating First Things article on the decline of mainline Protestantism, Mary Eberstadt made one point that I thought needed a little prodding. Eberstadt blames the Anglican Church’s retreat on traditional sexual ethics to a misguided compassion: “Exactly as had happened with divorce, the Anglican okaying of contraception was born largely of compassion for human frailty…”
Though Eberstadt does not say as much, this formulation seems to lay the blame for the change squarely at the feet of liberals, who, as David Schaengold once noted, are perhaps most distinguished by their rhetorical emphasis on compassion. (Conservatives, meanwhile, are distinguished by a rhetoric of toughness.) But is compassionate goo-gooing really the main cause of the transformation in sexual morals?
Eberstadt’s own article suggests that compassion wasn’t the only emotion behind the change. Seeming stalwarts like Billy Graham okayed the pill to counter the “terrifying and tragic” problem of overpopulation. Indeed, many people were simply motivated by fear of overpopulation, poverty, and the menace of “less desirable” races out-reproducing whites. What was more significant, ultimately, than the emotions behind the decision was a typically modern faith in technical control, here applied to the body through the mechanism of the pill. The impulse to tame and battle nature turned inward as man aspired to regulate his own (or, in the case of contraception, her own) bodily functions.
It might make more sense to describe the reaction to the pill as progressive rather than liberal, since it combined dissatisfaction about present conditions with a faith in technical control and “solutions” to social “problems.” The fact that this reaction was shared by very nearly everyone indicates to what an extent the “progressive” reaction was, simply, the modern one. A belief in technical control, not a tendency to compassion, is Eberstadt’s real culprit.