The Judeo-Christian view of human nature is not a positive one. The Hebrew Bible states, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17: 9). From the New Testament: “For from within, of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21).
The biblical “heart” is the metaphorical repository of human drives and desires. The catalog of sins in Mark’s gospel is a list of unbridled expressions of sexuality and aggression.
Expressing, controlling, and regulating aggression and sexuality are intensely problematic for both individuals and groups. Human history is a chronicle of aggression among states and nations, and conflicts about sexuality and its expression have perpetually roiled human society. They are basic forces driving human behavior, rather than mere expressions of the emotions of anger and lust.
Individuals and groups largely succeed by mastering these drives. Ungoverned, these forces are selfish and impulsive. Mastered, aggression and sexuality can be fulfilling and productive. Every psychiatrist can testify that helping people deal with their aggression and sexuality is a major focus in psychotherapy.
Directing Aggression and Sexuality Is Key
Aggression’s continuum includes rage and destructiveness, the pursuit of power, and useful assertiveness. Its management may be problematic at any point on this continuum. It is an energizing force that can be dissipated in anger or channeled as a motivational drive underlying gratifying life accomplishments.
Sexuality also has a range of expression. How people regard those to whom they are sexually attracted influences their capacity for intimacy. The sexuality continuum includes rape, unfeeling sexual encounters, and loving relationships. As with aggression, people can be “stuck” at any of these levels of sexual maturity.
People often seek psychotherapy because they are unable to achieve and sustain intimate, empathic, and reciprocal sexual relationships. Sigmund Freud, when asked to define normality, was reputed to have replied, “The ability to work and to love”—that is, to express aggression and sexuality in their highest, most productive forms.
Look to contemporary America to see what happens to a culture when these basic human drives are poorly expressed. Postmodern relativism denies the darker aspects of human nature, especially its great capacity for evil. Denying the tension between good and evil in everyone (original sin, in the Christian narrative) repudiates our humanity and history. Relativism rejects the idea that history has taught us anything.
It is absurd to think that there is no historical repository of wisdom governing human behavior—that each generation must reinvent the wheel. But we have turned our back on institutions that historically have transmitted our nation’s values, and on the religious institutions that have transmitted morality.
The Important Effects of Family and Religion
Our society has rejected two great truths about human nature that have aided us in controlling the passions of aggression and sexuality. The first is that the accumulated wisdom of generations of families, as well as the rich knowledge we have about human emotional and mental development, guide us in structuring families and rearing children. Similarly, several millennia of Judeo-Christian values have given us fundamental and transcendent truth about morality. Family and religion have been the civilizing influences that have shaped Western culture.
Family is the developmental civilizing force. Children identify with their parents by assimilating their attitudes, behaviors, and values. Children’s personalities are in many ways amalgams of their parents’ personalities.
As part of what Erik Erikson, who brilliantly chronicled the human life cycle, called an “identity crisis,” adolescents and young adults may temporarily repudiate some of their parents’ values. But what sons learn from their dads about how men behave, and how they treat women, tends to be enduring.
Learning how to control unruly sexual drives begins long before drives intensify in adolescence. Sons very early identify with how their fathers handle emotions, control their impulses, manage their anger, and express their sexuality.
Similarly, daughters identify with their mothers’ behavior and observe how they treat their fathers. Channeling aggression is usually much less problematic for girls, who do not undergo the pubertal influx of testosterone that boys do.
The Development of a Conscience
The process of identification culminates in conscience formation, whereby children incorporate their parents’ values and moral standards. Our conscience governs behavior and holds us accountable. That is, it produces guilt. It is the taskmaster that defines personal identity and character. Shaped by family and religion, the conscience civilizes and channels aggression and sexuality in fulfilling and productive ways.
Religion is the moral civilizing force. Even the unchurched once generally shared the conviction that universal and transcendent truths, tested over millennia, govern human behavior. What came to be called the “Protestant ethic,” a term reflecting the historically profound influence of mainstream Protestantism, became a non-denominational designation for a moral system that was passed from generation to generation.
It emphasized individual industry and hard work (mature channeling of the aggressive drive), as well as sexual continence and the sanctity of marriage (mature channeling of the sexual drive). This ethic was inculcated in children, becoming foundational to their sense of self and personal identity.
Religious values lead to the development of trust. Erikson wrote, “Whoever says he has religion must derive a faith from it which is transmitted to infants in the form of basic trust; whoever claims that he does not need religion must derive such basic faith from elsewhere.” America’s secularization is tied to lack of trust in others; in traditional institutions; and certainly, in politicians and the political process.
Today’s Youths Are Tomorrow’s Parents
Today’s college campuses reflect how the breakdown in traditional Judeo-Christian values impairs productively channeling the aggressive and sexual drives. Do the conditions on many of our colleges and universities presage America’s future in a relativistic culture devoid of traditional values?
Young people with no stable personal identity or moral compass are in trouble when they encounter postmodern relativism and militant secularism. The turmoil on college campuses indicates how ill-prepared for this many American youths are.
Normally, the aggressive and sexual drives of college-age youth are sufficiently controlled that they can channel their energy into mastering the important tasks of college—to develop the cognitive and interpersonal skills necessary to achieve their life goals. But today many college students have grown up with no religious affiliation. They approach the college experience without any conviction that God-given, transcendent absolutes govern such things as sexual morality and family structure.
With no firm sense of personal identity and no solid value system, they are easily indoctrinated with the secular and relativistic worldview held by the vast majority of educators in our most prestigious colleges and universities.
Aggression on College Campuses
College students today learn that only the hopelessly stupid, delusional, or malevolent would doubt the usefulness of identity politics, “social justice,” and multiculturalism. Consequently, rational discourse is useless. If modernity is to be preserved, silencing dissenters is the only remedy.
Young people with unformed identities and convictions readily identify with their mentors’ ideology and learn to apply the techniques of identity politics. Dissenting opinions are viciously demonized. Hillary Clinton’s list of the “deplorables” during her presidential campaign illustrated this, and her characterizing them as “irredeemable” makes it clear that there is no reasoning with such people.
On some campuses, reasoning has been abandoned in favor of shouting down “offensive” speakers and barring them from campus; angry marches; and even physical assaults. This is not simply the suppression of free speech, but primitive expression of aggression on the level of the taunts, name-calling, and bullying seen among pre-socialized young children.
Sexuality on College Campuses
On campuses, sexuality is as poorly controlled as aggression, as reflected in the accusations of sexual harassment and abuse reported on many campuses. In an era of sexual license, many adolescents have not incorporated standards of sexual morality as part of their personal identity. With any in loco parentis function of colleges now a distant memory, immature youths get no help in controlling their sexuality.
Instead, educators struggle with developing “consent” agreements in an effort to govern campus sex. This of course has the effect of licensing casual sex. The idea that casual sex is morally corrosive and damages human relationships is simply never considered. Advocating sexual continence before marriage has become laughable.
With no moral standard exalting a loving, empathic, and reciprocal relationship as the highest expression of human sexuality, it is not surprising that one of the issues roiling America and preoccupying the media, the Me Too phenomenon, is the use of aggression (i.e., power) in the service of sexuality (i.e., lust).
The Relation between Identity Politics and Passions
Identity politics requires two components: an oppressed group (the victims) and the group of oppressors (the victimizers). The oppressors are familiar ones in the cultural wars of identity politics. They are people of faith whose Judeo-Christian values have shaped Western culture for two millennia.
Complicit in trashing the accumulated wisdom of the past is the mainstream media, elite academia, and an entertainment industry that thrives on depicting casual sex and violence. In this debased culture the basic tenets of Christian faith are vilified and believers are denounced as bigots.
The split that followed Roe v. Wade 45 years ago gave birth to identity politics. Over the years the conflict between the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” (both politicized terms) factions has only hardened and become more vitriolic. In fact, the sociopolitical turmoil polarizing America has been superimposed on the sexual liberation movement’s agenda.
Its most recent judicial triumph, the Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing same-sex marriage, emboldened the movement’s transgender rights crusade. Its philosophical underpinnings—the magical creation of a new state of being human and the demonization of people of faith—may yet prove to be a bridge too far, but the passions attending sexual morality have been the most persistent, divisive, and corrosive of all of our identity politics.
Rather than channeling aggression and sexuality into productive achievement and rewarding relationships, we, as a society, are collectively dissipating them in angry vilifications and sexual license. For two generations now, the sexual liberation movement has not only been the prototype of identity politics, it also has inflamed racial divisions and even led to the delusion that a person can decide what sex he or she is.
All of this ought to administer a reductio ad absurdum end to the destructive force of gender identity politics, but we shall have to see if we can come to our senses.