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Our porn problem has a true Christian solution

When we fall from grace, in our collective gardens of Eden, it’s grace itself that draws us back.

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Editor’s note: This commentary by Hal Boyd is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought. The author’s views are his own.

Ideals lift; they inspire. But, when we don’t measure up — when we stumble — ideals can vex us.

The Judeo-Christian tradition has long offered a solution to this predicament; but, amidst these laical times, it’s an open question whether society will have the wisdom to embrace it.

A recent Religious News Service column cast a critical eye at what the author characterized as conservative Christianity’s porn “problem.” The “problem,” according to the column, wasn’t the well-worn canard that religious individuals view more pornography than the nonreligious. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. Observant Christians, it turns out, consume less pornography than the population at large, according to University of Oklahoma sociologist Samuel L. Perry’s new book “Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants.”

So what, then, is the issue? Well, as Perry points out, Christians feel a heightened sense of guilt when they do view porn. A consequence of high moral standards is the attendant disquietude that comes when living at odds with them. For the religious, this will hardly come as a novel observation — see, for example, the Garden of Eden.

So, on the one hand, strong moral prohibitions against pornography seem to curb consumption (notably, the highly religious are also less likely to commit adultery); but, on the other hand, when believers do view pornography — when they fall short of their ideals — they feel greater guilt. As one 20th-century religious leader observed: “No man can compare himself with his ideals and be proud or haughty.”

To be fair, Perry and others don’t take issue with feelings of regret for wrongdoing. Few would disagree that reasonable doses of contrition are markers of a self-reflective soul, and they often serve as the impetus for positive personal progress. But, for the excessively scrupulous, guilt that comes with sin may result in gnawing, perhaps even debilitating unease.

This is a concern.

But, in the face of such pain, some are tempted to simply blame the ideal. Indeed, in our efforts to ease suffering of all kinds, including the anxieties that comes with living at odds with high moral standards, society is occasionally tempted to diminish moral virtue. The thinking goes something like this: If violating sexual strictures results in anguish, then just snap the strictures, or, at a minimum, rethink, reform or re-prioritize them.

In an interview about his book in the New Yorker, Perry laments that, within certain religious circles, there’s “too much isolation, and a lot of hiding, and a lot of shame,” surrounding pornography. He states: “I’m not trying to say conservative Christians should just get with the program, and not be such prudes, and become OK with pornography, because for them that’s a complete non-starter.”

Certainly, the assessment of prudent professionals regarding the optimal path to promote mental health is a welcomed contribution. And, in instances where individuals are experiencing debilitating forms of self-loathing, professional intervention is vital. But one cannot help but suspect that subtle efforts to “normalize” porn usage, will only result in increased porn consumption. And there’s scant research suggesting that porn consumption on its own is a social good.

To the contrary, there’s a robust body of literature detailing a correlation between male porn consumption and negative relationship outcomes. It’s not just conservative religious types who recognize the societal drag of pornography. In Great Britain, where only 17 percent of the population considers religion “very important,” the government passed the Digital Economy Act, which seeks to block pornographic web content to individuals under the age of 18.

Within religious cultures, meanwhile, upholding high sexual standards while also navigating attendant guilt is at the heart of many established religious traditions. The holiest day of the Jewish calendar is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, a day during which God forgives sin against his law. While God’s law is fixed; set in stone, when humans transgress it the penitent are met with God’s mercy.

Ruptures are made right.

In Islam, the Koran teaches: “God forgives all sins: He is truly the Most Forgiving, the Most Merciful.” And, the central message of Christianity is that Christ died to atone for the sins of each soul.

By codifying morality and creating covenants, great religions help solidify the shared ideals of faith communities. Social enforcement and internal personal controls work to ensure that ideals are lived out. In other words, religious communities aid people in their efforts to reduce or eliminate porn consumption.

But what of the guilt and shame when the faithful falter? Within pro-social faiths, provision is made to address human failure in a way that replaces guilt and shame with renewed hope and resolve to strive toward the ideal.

“Come now, and let us reason together,” Isaiah reads, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”

The great religious traditions don’t just uphold ideals, they communalize and ritualize them. They bind believers to virtue. The individual and group are pulled upward. When we fall from grace, in our collective gardens of Eden, it’s grace itself that draws us back.

So contrary to conventional wisdom, when guilt and sin burden the soul, the solution isn’t to run from religion or to chip away at divine ideals; no, the solution is to embrace them more deeply.

The solution is not to abolish moral standards, but rather to embrace the kind of moral systems that balance justice and mercy; sin and salvation. There’s no question that guilt presents a daunting problem for believers of all creeds. But, at least for Christians, it’s important to note that it’s this very dilemma that Jesus Christ himself died solving.

Hal Boyd is a fellow of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University. His views are his own.