Beliefs Columns Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion Politics

For Christian conservatives, it’s all about sex . . . and it’s been that way for a long time

This week’s stunning news about the Alabama election brought certain issues into sharp relief — namely, that conservative Christians had to choose between a candidate who allegedly molested teenage girls (very bad) and a candidate who does not want abortion to be outlawed (also very bad).

But Christians have a long history in this country of debating — occasionally politely — every possible issue surrounding sex. That’s the story of the new book Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics, out this week from Basic Books.

As you can see from the interview below, author Marie Griffith thoughtfully answers the question of why conservative Christians have focused so heavily on sex, reaching back a hundred years into American history. (Remember when Christians were as terrified by birth control and interracial marriage as they are today about gay rights? No? Read on.) — JKR

RNS: What’s the book about?

Griffith: Sex and power! The question I started out with was why so many Christian leaders have seemed so fixated on sexual morality and sexual rules—especially when, for instance, Jesus didn’t talk much about sex at all. It’s not part of the Sermon on the Mount or put forward by him as something Christians are supposed to care about first and foremost, over helping the poor and needy.

It’s also a question that came to me from my own childhood, and the Baptist church setting that I was raised in. I started thinking about how we got to this place, after a century of some conservative Christian groups being very consumed with sexual morality and rules. The book starts with the birth control movement and moves to the present through a range of issues that Christians have helped to politicize, all having to do with sex and gender roles.

RNS: What have some of those fights been?

Griffith: Obscenity and censorship laws are some, so I looked at books and films that have been censored over time, and some of the activism that Catholic and Protestant groups have engaged in to restrict certain books and movies that they deemed obscene.

Another issue is interracial sex and marriage, so I look at that particularly in the Jim Crow South in the 1930s and 1940s, where race had been so important in these struggles. Also sex education controversies, abortion politics, and gay rights and same-sex marriage. These issues are not only about sex of course, but they are also about sex, whatever else they’re about. And I write about sexual harassment, which of course is in the news right now.

Historian and author Marie Griffith. Photo credit: Randall Kahn.

RNS: What surprised you?

Griffith: I suppose it is perennially surprising that so many women have fought in favor of gender hierarchy and sexual restrictions. It’s not just men, or simple misogyny. Women themselves have often participated in upholding patriarchy and “traditional” gender values.

The other surprise, I would say, is how deeply entwined I came to realize these ideas are with patriotism and American nationalism. The folks I’m studying on the conservative side really believed that God gave America a destiny: America is exceptional, and it’s divinely ordained to lead the world. That’s a deeply ingrained idea that has permeated our nation’s history. And they also see loosening sexual morals as deeply threatening to that divine place. There’s something about changing gender roles and sexual behavior that feels like it’s deeply against God, and those changes make God gravely displeased with the nation. So sex kind of stands in for so much else about national destiny, and that’s why those issues get so much attention and have so much political weight.

RNS: When you put same-sex marriage up against these other issues from the last century, is it surprising that acceptance of same-sex marriage is happening relatively fast?

Griffith: If you compare changing attitudes toward homosexuality with attitudes toward traditional gender roles, it is astonishing how fast attitudes have changed on the first compared to how stagnant they’ve often been on the second. It was very strategic for some LGBT leaders to focus on marriage, and to really present the queer community as wanting to live in stable families and to be parents. That eased some of the fear that non-queer Americans had towards LGBT people. And of course, some LGBT folks think that that marriage was the wrong issue to focus on, that it has kind of domesticated the queer community in an unfortunate way. I’m not advocating one or the other, but I think that the marriage focus helps explain the rapidity of that acceptance.

RNS: What will surprise readers?

Griffith: The ferociousness with which some conservative Christians have long fought against feminism may surprise some readers. This isn’t something that started in the 1960s; it has been a century-long battle against women’s freedom and equality. You can see that battle play out pretty clearly in the book. Feminism has been perceived as so evil, and so undermining of God’s plan for the nation, and it’s really amazing how much money and time and energy have been put into that fight against it. All the hungry people who could have been fed with that money . . . that animus is really something.

RNS: Protestants used to totally oppose contraception but did a 180-degree turn. How did that shift?

Griffith: There’s a very specific reason why Protestants became friendly toward contraception, and that was because Catholics so strongly opposed it. Margaret Sanger skillfully utilized Protestants’ anti-Catholicism to promote her cause, which she presented as increasing happiness in marriage.

It’s also true that Protestants had no real religious or theological objection to it. Their objection was to sex outside of marriage, but if you could restrict contraception to married couples that was OK. Opening it up to non-married people took a couple of decades.

So Protestants shifted, and ordinary Catholics, we know, have since the mid-1960s practiced birth control at the same rates as non-Catholics. But some members of the Catholic hierarchy have continued to speak strongly against birth control, and they have been joined recently by very conservative Protestants like the Green family of Hobby Lobby. The debate over the so-called contraceptive mandate in Obamacare is about money, of course, but it’s also about sex. There’s an unspoken but real attitude in some conservative quarters that people should pay the consequences for their sins, and so if you have sex outside of marriage or before marriage, and you get pregnant, you have to accept that consequence. That’s part of the reasoning against birth control as well as abortion, the idea that women shouldn’t escape punishments for their sin.

That’s another surprise of the book—that issues we once thought were settled turn out not to be settled when it comes to sex and gender. The fights continue. I don’t think the attackers will win all of these battles, but only time will tell.

 


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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