We’re not going to gain a consensus on whether or how to teach sex education in America’s public schools. That’s the conclusion of University of California at Berkeley sociologist and law professor Kristin Luker in her new book, When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex, and Sex Education, Since the Sixties (Norton).

Luker summarizes her thesis in this way:

“I suspect that sexual liberals and conservatives, like their counterparts in the larger political world, will never agree because each side gives priority to something different. It’s a cliche, but as other researchers have found, political conservatives tend to value stability and liberty while political liberals tend to value equality, and this finding applies to the sexual realm as well.”

Luker, rightly I think, points out that divergent views of sexual liberals and sexual conservatives when it comes to sex education are about more than sexual morality, and about more than the rights of parents to protect their children from the sexual revolution. Instead, the two sides inevitably view the purpose of the public school system differently, because they have differing views of hierarchy and the social order. Luker explains it this way:

“Sexual liberals, who view society as a web of relationships rather than a well-organized hierarchy, and who have a preference for porous boundaries, are deeply offended when conservatives say bad things about teachers. They too believe in a division of labor between school and home, but for them the differences are not so much about substance as about expertise. They mentioned over and over that teachers are trained professionals and parents must take their lead from teachers, who know what they are doing when it comes to children.”

I think Luker is on to something here, something that may help us to understand why this argument is so heated. It may also help us to understand something about American Christianity which, even (increasingly) in its most conservative wings, trumpets an egalitarian, non-patriarchal social order. Is it really all that surprising that, when it comes to the same sorts of issues, some of our denominational assemblies are as divided as our local school boards?