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The parable of monkeypox

Moral insanity in a cloud of medical confusion


Patients line up at a monkeypox vaccination site in Encino, Calif. Associated Press/Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez

The parable of monkeypox

The World Health Organization has now declared monkeypox to be a “public health emergency of international concern.” In the United States, politicians and public health officials warn of a possible new pandemic. Those same officials warn that the case count could rise to 10,000 or more in the United States by fall. But monkeypox is not just a disease; it is a parable of today’s moral confusion. For reasons both moral and medical, we need to take a closer look. We need to be candid and honest, and that will require that we consider some rather awkward but morally urgent issues.

The name of the virus tells much of the story. Monkeypox is believed to have existed for some time among monkeys in Africa. Viruses are opportunistic and they mutate, and medical authorities worried about a breakout of the virus if transmitted from monkeys to humans. Dr. Dimie Ogoina, director of medicine and infectious diseases at Niger Delta University in Nigeria, has traced the current spread of the virus to an 11-year-old boy who is believed to have been playing with monkeys. But, even as Dr. Ogoina warned international authorities of the danger of mass contagion, he began to learn of new patients. They were not young boys playing with monkeys. They were healthy young men in their 20s and 30s, and the painful and unmistakable blisters were, to put it delicately, in their most private regions. A sexual history of the patients indicated that the virus had spread by “intimate” contact.

The New England Journal of Medicine recently estimated that 95 percent of all cases can be traced to sexual contact. As was easily determined, most of that sexual contact is among “men who have sex with men.” The high risk of transmission was clear among those men who had sex with men and even higher among men with several homosexual partners.

This pattern is sadly familiar to anyone old enough to remember the emergence of HIV and the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Then, as now with monkeypox, the medical and moral issues were quickly confused. Then, and even more so now, medical authorities and the major media seem unable to say out loud what is horrifyingly obvious—men should not have sex with men.

Representative of the tragic moral confusion of our day is a recent report by Juliana Kim for National Public Radio. The entire purpose of her article is to describe how to talk about monkeypox, citing “experts” who “offer ways to reduce stigma.” She cites one professor of public health and promotion who warned that focusing the message “on how the virus impacts different populations can be unproductive and unhelpful.” Seriously? When the population most at risk accounts for 95 percent of all cases? This is not medical advice; this is moral evasion, plain and simple.

Another public health official warned against “overstressing sex” and advised avoiding any mention of homosexuality. And yet, the NPR report then turned to efforts to communicate this message at a recent “leather and fetish street fair” in San Francisco, complete with questions about “bondage performances.” Folks, I told you this would be awkward, but this is important.

Meanwhile, the New York Times tells us that in the nation’s largest city, “Some public health experts say that many gay men are likely to push back against any advice that could be seen as discouraging or stigmatizing gay sex.” The city’s public health commissioner said his department would remain “sex positive,” adding: “We want in no way to stigmatize sex at all.”

Media reports often mention that the overwhelming majority of cases and most traceable transmissions are found among (as authorities now define) “men who have sex with men.” Virtually all of the reports then pivot to the danger that some moral stigma might somehow be involved.

But moral stigma is involved. The Bible defines the very sexual practices that are now identified as leading to viral transmission as sodomy. There is no moral evasion there. Furthermore, as awkward as it might be, even to Christians, the medical reality is that the sex acts at stake here involve parts of human bodies that were never meant to come together. The tissues involved are easily damaged, leading to the transmission of disease. Christians understand that the natural law and Scripture underline the difference between natural and unnatural sexual relations. The natural law points also to the necessity, moral and medical, of understanding the difference between reproductive and digestive systems. Let’s leave it at that.

We often observe that the moral rebellion of our day comes with deadly consequences. HIV and AIDS made that perfectly clear, but “public health” officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci were determined to submerge the moral facts in a cloud of homosexual affirmation. Here we are again, thankfully with a far less deadly virus, at least for now. We certainly hope for the sick to be made well.

Monkeypox is a dangerous disease, but it is also a moral parable. The most obvious way for mass transmission to stop is for men to stop having sex with men. But the new moral orthodoxy dismisses that fact as evidence of “stigma.” This is evidence, not only of a public health crisis, but of moral insanity.


R. Albert Mohler Jr.

Albert Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College and editor of WORLD Opinions. He is also president of the Evangelical Theological Society and host of The Briefing and Thinking in Public. He is the author of several books, including The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church. He is the seminary’s Centennial Professor of Christian Thought and a minister, having served as pastor and staff minister of several Southern Baptist churches.


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