What Kind of Ethic Is Beyoncé Preaching?

With a tone that borders on idolatry, Aaron Hicklin, editor-in-chief of Out Magazine, oozes with veneration in his most recent cover story of Beyoncé. “The world’s most powerful brand,” Hicklin writes in reference to the pop star, “is, quite literally, flawless.” One would think that if the ancient Greeks had only heard of Beyoncé, they would have had no need to conjure up the image of Aphrodite.

Elevating her to a level so stratospheric you would think she dined nightly with St. Peter and had afternoon tea with Mary Magdelene, Hicklin unabashedly repeats an anecdote delivered by Beyoncé’s visual director, who said that, after scaling a pyramid with Beyoncé, he looked over at her and noticed she bore a striking resemblance to Mother Teresa.

By describing Beyoncé as a role model, writers from OutThink Progress, and Time have simply echoed a refrain begun by First Lady Michelle Obama, who famously tweeted, “@Beyonce Thank you for … being a role model who kids everywhere can look up to.” President Obama has also praised Beyoncé, saying she “could not be a better role model for my girls.” But is Beyoncé, who sang at the inaugural ball in 2013 and for Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday party later that year, a proper role model for the Obamas’ 12- and 14-year-old daughters, who, like their parents, are devoted fans of the racy “sex bomb”?

In her interview with Out Magazine, Beyoncé says that while working on her eponymous album, which broke an iTunes record by selling 823,773 copies in the first three days, she freed herself from all restraints, trusting only her instincts. This uninhibited reliance on her grittiest, most visceral instincts produced, in the words of Hicklin, an album infused with “a raw, earthy sexuality,” which he equates with the word splashed in bold letters over Beyoncé’s black and white, Marilyn Monroe-inspired photo: “Power.”

“There is unbelievable power in ownership, and women should own their sexuality,” Beyoncé says. “There is a double standard when it comes to sexuality that still persists. Men are free and women are not. That is crazy. The old lessons of submissiveness and fragility made us victims.”

Unsurprisingly, Beyoncé’s philosophy of sexual indulgence was widely lauded in the Twitterverse. In response to her sermonic remarks, E! Online tweeted, “Beyoncé poses topless for Out’s Power Issue and tells the magazine ‘women should own their sexuality.’ PREACH!”

According to Beyoncé, newly elected rector of The Church of Our Lady of Sexual Liberation, the best way for women to empower themselves is to cast off all barriers that prevent the full expression of sexuality. Although the argument has been made that Christians should applaud Beyoncé for respecting marriage by directing her sex-laden lyrics toward her husband, rap star Jay-Z, Beyoncé, by calling herself a modern-day feminist and supporting the redefinition of marriage, has revealed that her priorities lie not with promoting the benefits of matrimony but with furthering the goals of the sexual liberation movement. That’s precisely Hicklin’s point when he praises Beyoncé’s newest album as her most sexually liberated yet. [RELATED: Do Jay-Z and Beyoncé Have a Perfect Marriage?]

Beyoncé’s approach to producing her album — to crush barriers and fuel her instincts — is symbolic of the album’s primary motif. The path to empowerment, and presumably the path to genuine womanhood, consists of indulging desires — not controlling them and directing them toward reasonable ends, but freeing them from the shackles of traditional gender roles and the traditional family. Discussing the influence of her “feminist mentality” and her concern for LGBT equality on her music, Beyoncé comments, “We are all the same and we all want the same things: the right to be happy, to be just who we want to be, and to love who we want to love.”

Biblical Insights

Is Beyoncé’s ethic in accord with our spiritual nature or our sinful nature?

“Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God. But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you” (Romans 8:5-9).

“So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions. … Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives” (Galatians 5:16-17, 24-25).

Beyoncé, like so many others in our culture, has linked identity with sexuality. According to this perspective, you can’t possibly “be who you are” without acting on your sexual inclinations, whatever they might be. Who you are sexually is who you are in reality. And, as a result, you are not truly free or empowered unless the barriers to sexual liberation are razed.

Of course, just as good and evil coexist in this world, they coexist within ourselves, and the earthly part of our beings, that which we share with the animals, is in a constant battle with the divine part of our beings, that part of us that reflects the image of God. “These two forces are constantly fighting each other,” Paul says, “and your choices are never free from this conflict” (Galatians 5:17).

While Beyoncé advocates the pursuit of “who we want to be,” Paul would advise that we engage in the pursuit of “who we ought to be,” namely, “those who belong to Christ Jesus, [who] have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there” (Galatians 5:24). If we are naturally sinful beings, who have to make an effort to achieve virtue, then Beyoncé’s recommendation that we unleash our instinctual selves is simply a sanction for license that is inimical to a godly lifestyle. After all, by focusing on the cultivation of our instinctual selves, we slight the cultivation of our best selves.

Which self will we develop — the higher, elevated self that rules the body and bears the image of God or the lower, visceral self that in its earthiness has more in common with the animals than with the divine? By pursuing the latter, we do not find liberation but enslavement to those very desires that Beyoncé exalts.

As J. Budziszewski writes in his article “Designed for Sex,” “[T]hose ways of living that flout the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of our design ruin us and empty life of meaning.” And Beyoncé’s focus on sexuality is at the expense of the other essential parts of our human nature.

The sexual liberation that Beyoncé is preaching is being tried on college campuses around the country. A New York Times investigation of the sexual philosophy of Ivy League women that was released last year revealed the lifelessness that results when we attempt to separate emotion from sexuality, and it includes loneliness, the absence of meaningful attachment, the abuse of alcohol, and an increasing number of sexual assault cases. In these instances, the free rein of the sexual impulse has enslaved, not empowered, the practitioner.

Sadly, the same ethic touted by Beyoncé seems to have influenced the Duke University student who resorted to starring in adult films in order to pay for her education. She describes her foray into pornography as “a political act in line with a sex-positive feminist perspective,” adding “we need somebody who can advocate for women while standing up for our right to sexual autonomy.” These words, which easily could have been extracted from Beyoncé’s interview with Out Magazine, represent the fruit of sexual liberation.

Sexuality, like everything else God has created, is good when it is used according to its design — not when it is recklessly flaunted or used as a marketing tool to sell records, but when it is practiced within marriage, in the context of complete and total self-giving.

Again, Dr. Budziszewski remarks: “The fact is that we aren’t designed for hooking up. Our hearts and bodies are designed to work together. … For us, procreation requires an enduring partnership between two beings, the man and the woman, who are different but in complementary ways. … [T]he union of the spouses’ bodies has a more-than-bodily significance; the body emblematizes the person, and the joining of bodies emblematizes the joining of the persons. It is a symbol that participates in, and duplicates the pattern of, the very thing that it symbolizes; one-flesh unity is the body’s language for one-life unity.”

Beyoncé’s ethic is one-dimensional, and although she intends to free people from oppression, she is guiding them directly under the thumb of another brutal tyrant — the unbounded sexual impulse. Perhaps, in Beyoncé’s world, lyrics like, “He Monica Lewinsky-ed all on my gown,” are dignified, uplifting, and empowering. But our already sex-crazed culture does not need another sex-crazed role model.

What our culture requires is an infusion of virtue and the reminder that we are more than our sexual selves. We are divine image-bearers, rational, creative, loving, free, and dignified, filled with inherent worth because we are filled with the breath of the Creator. When our identity is defined by our divine selves, we are led by our spiritual nature, rather than our sinful nature, and this, Paul says, is the path to fulfillment. Paul writes, “[L]etting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace” (Romans 8:6).

Our sexual nature is not sinful. But when our sexual nature becomes the defining feature of our lives, we are directed by our sexual impulses rather than God’s eternal law. This deification of sexuality is sinful, and it is the cornerstone of the sexual-liberation movement.

When our sexuality is expressed as God intended it to be, it is a tremendous blessing. But when we run afoul of that design, the rampant sexual inclination has the potential to significantly detract from the well-being of individuals, families, and communities. Consequently, Beyoncé’s ethic of disordered sexuality is doing a disservice to every young person who considers her a role model.