Ever since the emergence of the religious right as a political force in the late 1970s, scholars and commentators have sought to explain its origins, often by depicting it as a reaction to the sexual rebellion and social movements of the preceding decade.
But the true origins of our political and religious divides, argues Washington University in St. Louis religious historian R. Marie Griffith, lie in sharp disagreements that emerged among American Christians almost a century ago.
In her new book, “Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics” (Basic Books, 2017), Griffith offers a compelling history of the religious debates over sex and sexuality that came to dominate American public life.
“Sex is at the very heart of our nation’s bitter culture wars and our fractured politics,” said Griffith, the John C. Danforth Distinguished Professor and director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University.
“A century ago, Americans across religious and political lines believed male and female were divinely made types attached to clear gender roles,” Griffith said. “Over time, the link between biological sex and the social roles ascribed to men and women was contested and bitterly debated, pitting traditionalists against progressives. Today’s culture wars over issues like transgender rights, contraception and abortion are the result of the rising conflict between these points of view.”
Griffith’s book, released Dec. 12, tells a story of the steady breakdown, since the early 20th century, of a onetime Christian consensus about sexual morality and gender roles, and of the resulting battles over sex among self-professed Christians — and between some groups of Christians and non-Christians.
She traces the roots of America’s sexual divide to the 1920s, when — after women gained the right to vote nationwide — the longstanding religious consensus about sexual morality began to fray irreparably. The slow but steady unraveling of that consensus in the decades that followed has transformed America’s broader culture and public life, dividing our politics and pushing sex to the center of our public debate, she argues.
Today, conservative Christians are often the most vocal political opponents of abortion, gay rights and other sexual freedoms. But as Griffith shows, American Christians spent much of the 20th century sparring with one another over sexual matters. It is true that, in debates over contraception, obscenity, interracial marriage, sex education, abortion, sexual harassment and gay marriage, many Christians resisted new sexual norms. But many others advocated for greater openness.
Griffith introduces readers to remarkable individuals from both sides: Mary Steichen Calderone, the physician and deeply religious Quaker who pioneered science-based sexuality curricula in schools; Billy James Hargis, the anti-communist radio preacher who made sex a centerpiece of fundamentalist politics; and Francis Kissling, a Catholic feminist and abortion rights activist. It also reveals the surprising roles religion played in the careers of well-known figures like birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and Bill Clinton accuser Paula Jones.
Over time, Griffith argues, views regarding sex came to stand in for attitudes toward change and modern ideas in general; on the right, resistance to changing sexual norms often was driven by fears of women’s freedom, ethnic and racial minorities, and national decline. And whether resistant to or supportive of greater sexual freedoms, religious advocates were confident that God supported their cause, helping to explain why Americans’ public debates over sex and sexuality became particularly ferocious. For many, on both sides, conflicts over sex and sexuality were — and are — proxy struggles over the fate and virtue of the American nation itself.