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In Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Elaine Pagels discusses the tribulations of the early Christian church, when its members were tom by the effort to satisfy simultaneously two arguably inconsistent strands of teaching. The first strand taught that it was wrong to engage in homosexuality, promiscuity, abortion, infanticide, and contraception—in short, that it was wrong to enter into sexual relationships not intended to lead to children and family. The second demanded that true believers cast off the traditions of family responsibility and follow God without reservation. The church's first solution was to establish the virtues of chastity and the value of virginity; the second was to proclaim the utter corruption of the body. The result in either case was cataclysmic upheaval.

Contemporary liberalism, as a theory of legal and political obligation, is undergoing an upheaval of its own. On the one hand, liberalism teaches the importance of the rule of law. On the other, it teaches the primacy of individual conscience. Like the early church, liberalism at once demands that individuals remain within the confines of a set of given institutions and insists that the individuals are free to follow their own moral judgments. Unresolved tension results when the commands of conscience are inconsistent with a particular rule of law. The traditional liberal solution has been a doctrine of civil disobedience, but the doctrine has had so many incarnations that it is difficult to tell whether two theorists who think they disagree are even arguing about the same thing.

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