Nancy Pearcey and Jonathan Merritt spar on the hottest of hot topics

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Countless evangelical men have achieved more acclaim than Pearcey with less acuity. (Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons -

If Nancy Pearcey were a man, she’d probably be a household name among conservative Christians.

The first time I remember seeing her name, it was in tiny print beneath a mammoth “Charles Colson” on the cover of the iconic book, “How Now Shall We Live.” While Colson received the lion’s share of credit for the book, it’s widely believed that Pearcey carried the intellectual freight. In the subsequent years, Pearcey has published many books including “Total Truth,” a hefty defense of traditional Christian theology that won the Gold Medallion award.

Pearcey’s razor-sharp scholar’s mind combined with a compelling personal story–a former agnostic who converted to Christianity–makes her a powerful, if undervalued, champion for conservative believers. She has lectured at prestigious forums around the world from Hollywood to the White House, and The Economist once labeled her, “America’s pre-eminent evangelical Protestant female intellectual.” Countless evangelical men have achieved more acclaim with less acuity.

In her newest book, “Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions About Life and Sexuality,” Pearcey pulls no punches. She confronts all the tricky topics du jour: abortion, LGBT issues, assisted suicide, secularism, and the so-called hook-up culture. So I decided to spar with her over some of these topics; my questions were direct and pointed. Though Pearcey is traditional in her theology and we clearly disagree about much, her defense of conservative positions is eloquent and impressive. Here is our lively exchange:

Image courtesy of Baker Books

RNS: I’m pro-life like you, and you write extensively on abortion in this book. What do you say to pro-choice advocates who argue that anti-abortion legislation steals a woman’s control over her own body?

NP: Bioethicists defend abortion by saying the fetus is biologically human but not a person—which means it can be killed for any reason or no reason. It can be used for research, tinkered with genetically, harvested for organs, then disposed of with the other medical waste.

The point is that the sheer fact of being biologically human no longer guarantees the most fundamental right—the right not to be killed. That’s a drastic devaluation of human life and it affects everyone, including women.

In addition, an abortion culture does not treat women’s biologically ability to gestate and bear children as a wondrous capacity to be cherished, but as a liability, a disadvantage, a disability to be suppressed with toxic chemicals and deadly devices. Even in my younger years when I was an agnostic, I sensed that this was demeaning to women.

RNS: An issue I’ve wrestled with over the years is physician-assisted suicide. How does your theology of the body address this matter?

NP: Think of it as the abortion argument in reverse: Bioethicists defend abortion by saying anyone who has not achieved a prescribed level of cognitive awareness is not a person. They defend euthanasia by saying if you lose certain cognitive abilities, you are no longer a person—even though you are obviously still human. At that point, you can be unplugged, your treatment withheld, your food and water discontinued, your organs harvested.

Note again that being human is not enough to qualify for human rights. You have to earn the right to legal protection by exhibiting an arbitrary level of cortical functioning. This is not compassionate, it is exclusive. It says that some people don’t measure up. They don’t make the cut.

By contrast, the pro-life position is inclusive. If you are a member of the human race, you’re “in.” You have the dignity and status of a full member of the moral community.

RNS: You say that the pro-life view is “inclusive.” That is, if you are a member of the human race, you should not be killed. It seems to me that you’re describing the “pro-life view” generously. Aren’t many pro-lifers also the first in line to support waging an unjust war, defending torture, and even fighting to support government-sponsored execution of prisoners despite troubling evidence about our justice system’s ability to accurately litigate capital punishment cases. Can you tell me why what you call the “pro-life view” so often manifests as something not at all inclusive and why many people–Muslims, prisoners, and others–often end up excluded?

NP: In Love Thy Body, I am not asking if people are consistent with their views—most of us are not entirely consistent. I am unpacking the logic of those views, showing especially the dehumanizing impact of the secular ethic.

For example, the book includes a chapter on the hookup culture. Young adults know the rules of the game all too well: no love, no relationship, no commitment.

Some think the hookup scene gives sex too much importance, but in reality it gives sex too little importance. One young man told Rolling Stone, sex is just “a piece of body touching another piece of body”; it is “existentially meaningless.”

The hookup culture rests on a materialist view of the human being as a physical organism driven by sheer physical drives, with no higher purpose. That is the underlying logic.

Researcher Donna Freitas interviewed hundreds of college students who admitted they are disappointed with their meaningless sexual encounters. They feel hurt and lonely. They wish they knew how to create a genuine relationship where they are known and loved. They are trying to live out a worldview that does not fit who they really are.

RNS: You say that LGBT people and the gay rights movement are denigrating biology. Many would counter that science overwhelmingly supports popular and progressive understandings of sexual orientation. How would you respond?

NP: There’s no conclusive evidence that sexual orientation is biologically determined. The American Psychological Association says, “No findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor.”

Then again, no one really denies that on the level of biology, physiology, and anatomy, males and females correspond to one another. That’s how the human sexual and reproductive system is designed. To embrace a same-sex identity, then, is implicitly to contradict that design—to say: Why should the structure of my body inform my identity? Why should my sexed body have any say in my moral choices?

This is a profoundly disrespectful view of the body. By pitting biological sex against psychological identity, it has a fragmentating, self-alienating impact on the human personality. Queer theorists themselves speak of a “mismatch” between sex and desire.

Those defending a biblical view of sexuality are not relying on a few scattered Bible verses. They hold a teleological worldview in which the structure of the universe—including the body—reflects a divine purpose. A biblical ethic overcomes the “mismatch” and leads to a wholistic integration of personality.

RNS: One of my transgender friends tells me that he feels liberated from embracing his gender identity–an identity he has known since kindergarten but only recently accepted. What do you say to a person like that?

NP: Listen to the transgender narrative itself: It dissociates gender from biological sex, insisting that the authentic self is strictly a matter of inner feelings. Kids down to kindergarten are being taught their bodies are irrelevant to their identity.

The implication is that the body does not matter. Matter does not matter. All that matters is a person’s internal sense of self.

In other words, if a person senses a disjunction between mind and body, the mind wins. But why? Why accept such a demeaning view of the body?

This is radically dehumanizing. For if our bodies do not have inherent value, then a key part of our human identity is devalued. The transgender narrative estranges people from their own body.

By contrast, a biblical worldview honors the body as an inseparable part of our identity. The body/person is an integrated psycho-physical unity. Matter does matter.

Image courtesy of Nancy Pearcey

RNS: You say that if a person senses a disjunction between mind and body, the mind wins, and you believe that is demeaning. But in your view if a person senses this disjunction, the body always “wins.” By your own logic, isn’t your view demeaning to the mind?

NP: My goal is to reintegrate body and mind—and since the body is what’s being disparaged, that’s what we must defend. In Love Thy BodyI tell stories of real people, like Sean Doherty who was sexually attracted to other men and decided to be celibate. Today he is married to a woman and has three children. What changed?

Sean began to reflect on the “tangible fact that I am a man. Thus God’s original intention for me in creation was to be able to relate sexually to a woman,” no matter what his desires were. “Indeed, I came to think my feelings were relatively superficial, in comparison to my physical identity.”

Over time, Sean noticed a subtle shift. “Without denying my sexual feelings, I stopped regarding them as who I was, sexually, and started regarding my physical body as who I was.” To his surprise, his desires gradually changed.

Though our emotions are important, they can fluctuate—and often do. The most reliable marker of who we are is our physically embodied identity as male and female.

Of course, humans are much more than biological beings, but Scripture presents the created differentiation of male and female as a good thing. The question is: Do we accept that created structure or do we reject it? Do we affirm the goodness of creation or deny it?

RNS: There is a political dimension to many of the issues you raise. Some might say, “It’s fine for you to believe these things, Nancy. But you can’t legislate your morality for everyone.” What would you say to that?

NP: The secular moral revolution is destroying pre-political rights and expanding the coercive power of the state—and that hurts everyone.

Take abortion. In the past, the law recognized the right to life as a pre-political right you have just because you’re human. The law did not create it, but merely recognized it. However, the only way the state could legalize abortion was to deny the relevance of biology and declare that some humans are not persons. The state claimed the authority to decide which humans have a right to live.

In the past, the state recognized marriage as a pre-political right based on the fact that humans are a sexually reproducing species. But the only way the law can treat same-sex couples the same as opposite-sex couples is to deny the relevance of biology and declare marriage to be merely an emotional commitment. But there are endless varieties of emotional commitments, so the state has claimed the authority to decide arbitrarily which ones qualify as marriage.

The only way the law can treat a trans woman (born male) the same as a biological woman is to deny the relevance of biology and declare gender to a matter of inner feelings. The state has begun passing laws telling us whom we must call “he” or “she.”

Pre-political rights are being reduced to merely legal rights at the dispensation of the state. And what the state gives, it can take away. Human rights are no longer inalienable.

RNS: You claim that there is a “pervasive hostility toward the body and biology” in secular culture. But I’ve witnessed body shaming and body negative theology in evangelical churches across America. What am I missing?

NP: We all absorb aspects of secularism, even in the churches, often without realizing it.

Those living out a secular ethic may not consciously intend to disparage the body. But our actions can have logical implications we have not clearly thought through. Secularism sees nature as a cosmic accident, a product of blind material forces. It reduces the human body to a collection of atoms, cells, and tissues, no different from any other chance configuration of matter.

The implication is that our bodies have no inherent purpose, give no clue to our identity, convey no moral message. Camille Paglia, an outspoken lesbian, defends homosexuality by saying nature made humans heterosexual but why not “defy nature’? “Fate, not God, has given us this flesh. We have absolute claim to our bodies and may do with them as we see fit.”

In every choice we make, we are affirming a worldview. The fundamental question is: What kind of cosmos do we live in? Are we products of blind material forces? Or are we the handiwork of a personal God, reflecting his loving purpose?

RNS: My experience is that conservative Christians, generally, have an underdeveloped theology of the body and focuses on “eternal” or “immaterial” matters instead. Is this your experience?

Many Christians are out of touch with their own heritage. The early church was surrounded by world-denying philosophies like Platonism and Gnosticism, which saw the material world as a place of nothing but death, decay, and destruction. Gnosticism even taught that the word was created by a low-level, evil deity. No self-respecting god would get his hands dirty mucking about with matter.

In this context, Christianity was revolutionary. It taught that the highest God, the Supreme deity, created the material world and pronounced it “very good.”

An even greater scandal was the incarnation—that God himself took on a human body. The incarnation is the ultimate affirmation of the dignity of the body.

Finally, at the end of time God is not going to scrap the material world as if he made a mistake. He is going to renew and restore it—creating a new heaven and a new earth. The Apostle’s creed affirms the resurrection of the body.

This is an astonishingly high view of the physical world. There is nothing else like it in any other philosophy or religion. Love Thy Body gives tools to go beyond an incomplete negative message (“It’s wrong, it’s sinful, don’t do it”) to deploy positive arguments, showing that a biblical ethic is more appealing and more attractive than a secular ethic.

RNS: When a problem in the broader culture is presented, you blame secularism’s influence on society. When a problem in the church is presented, you blame the influence of secularism on the church. It sort of seems like the six degrees of secularism to me, as if you’re always finding a way to blame this boogeyman. What am I missing?

NP: It’s true that Christianity sometimes seems opposed to fun or pleasure. That’s because to some degree early church thinkers absorbed those Platonic and Gnostic ideas that were in the air at the time—something we’re all prone to do. These philosophies denounced the body as a “prison.” Thus the path to holiness was depriving the body through fasting, poverty, rejecting sex and marriage, and other forms of asceticism.

This explains why even today there are churches that teach a stern, tightlipped asceticism. They regard the body as shameful or worthless; they treat sexual sin as more wicked than other sins; they hold an escapist view of salvation, as though Jesus died to whisk us away to heaven.

As one of my students said, “I was raised thinking ‘spirit=good, body=bad.’’

Of course, spiritual disciplines such as fasting can be helpful. But Paul warns against an asceticism that says, “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” Such “harsh treatment of the body” does not lead to true holiness (Col. 2:21, 23).

Many readers say they picked up Love Thy Body hoping to find handy answers to current issues, but were surprised to discover that it transformed their own thinking. They did not realize how deeply they had absorbed the sacred/secular split.