The Playboy Philosophy and the Church

Lately I have been reading a draft of a biography of Hugh Hefner by a colleague of mine, Steve Watts. You may have seen an interview with Steve about the book on the front page of the Columbia Tribune earlier this month. Steve’s biography is brilliant at locating Hefner in American popular culture from the 1950s to the present (some of you watch the reality show, “The Girls Next Door,” I know you do).

Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy,” which he began formulating in the 1950s, consists of two main threads: sexual liberation, as Hefner calls it, and avid consumerism. From the start, his goal has been to challenge “the two greatest guilts our society has: materialism and sex,” he told an interviewer in the 1960s. Hefner became, in the words of journalist Tom Wolfe, the “Consumer King.” Beginning with its first issue his magazine counseled young men on how to choose sports cars, imported liquor, fine clothes, fancy hi-fi stereos and cool apartments. The good life was all about affluence, leisure and self-fulfillment. The sexual revolution was just part of the package.

Critics outside the church saw the connection between sex and conspicuous consumption clearly, often accusing Hefner of “promoting a shallow, retrograde consumerism,” as Watts writes. They denounced Hefner for stripping life of love, honor, compassion and sacrifice in favor of “a dilettante’s passing acquaintance with the superficialities of good literature, music, food, and romance,” writes Watts. The good life was really nothing more than a vacuous and empty form of “consumerism run amok” in which “glossy sex” was only the “teaser.”

Hefner has consistently maintained that his main enemy is religious Puritanism, which he believes has long dominated American society. Early on he “decided the whole idea of God, heaven, and hell was pure fancy.” In response, he created a substitute religion centered on pleasure seeking. “Thou shalt not wear double-breasted suits, Thou shalt not drive a Dodge, Thou shalt not eat Velveeta Cheese,” became his new commandments, quipped one observer.

In this light the church’s response to Hefner is curious. While a relatively small number of Unitarians and theology professors welcomed the Playboy Philosophy beginning in the 1950s, evangelicals almost universally condemned it, but only in part. Their criticism of Hefner focused almost exclusively on his promotion of the sexual revolution, while more or less agreeing with his consumerism. What they bought differed, but this was largely a matter of taste. Instead of sports cars evangelicals bought station wagons, frost free refrigerators instead of imported scotch. I have talked with Steve at some length about this and the pattern seems quite clear. Evangelicals criticized Hefner’s sexual revolution as shallow, vain and ultimately destructive, but refrained from applying the same analysis to his consumerism. Like Hefner, evangelicals have almost uniformly celebrated post World War II American affluence with little reservation. In the end, the only difference between the good life and the godly life seems to be the sex. Is that right?

John Wesley, the 18th century founder of the Methodist movement had a saying he often repeated to his followers: Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can. He almost as frequently lamented that while Methodists were pretty good at the first, they were not so good at the second and downright terrible at the third. Hefner would not be disappointed.

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