How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics: An Interview with R. Marie Griffith

By The Editors | December 12, 2017


Sexuality and religion lie at the heart of so many culture-war issues, from abortion and contraception to LGBT rights and same-sex marriage. In her latest book, Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics, out this month from Basic Books, R. Marie Griffith offers a sweeping history of how American Christians debated sex over the last century. Often, those debates turned into political battles—intractable ones that remain a critical part of American politics today. Griffith’s research takes us through shifting understandings of sex education, birth control, obscenity, gender roles, and sexual harassment, as well as through the Civil Rights Era, Roe v. Wade, and the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Griffith, the John C. Danforth Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis, is the director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics and the editor of Religion & Politics. Her previous books are God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission and Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity.

Griffith discussed her latest book with Religion & Politics’ managing editor, Tiffany Stanley. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

TS: I’m going to start with a question you pose at the beginning of the book. Why do American Christians seem so obsessed with sex?

MG: Well, that’s the question that really motivated the whole book because I have wondered about this for a very long time. You know Jesus talked a lot more about feeding the hungry, and caring for the poor, and doing good works in the world, than he ever did about any kind of sexual morality. And yet, when you look proportionately at the kinds of concerns aired in public by many Christian leaders, it’s sort of the opposite. It seems to be all about sex and sexuality sometimes, and there’s far less emphasis given, at least in public and in politics, to caring for the poor.

One of the concerns that many American Christians have had for a long time is the state of the nation. There’s this long belief in America having a kind of divine destiny from God, a holy purpose. In some ways, you can see this in some colonial documents, from colonists coming over from other countries. It’s deep in our collective memory, a feeling like America is exceptional and has an important destiny. And yet, there’s also this perennial fear that we’re not living up to all that we should be and that somehow the nation is in decline. What I see just over the last century is often sexual behavior or misbehavior has been seen as the sign of Americans’ decline. So, women’s sexual freedom or sexual activity before or outside of marriage, same-sex sexual activity and so forth, are often coded as a sign of decadence and proof that we’ve gone away or gone astray from God’s plan. Essential to God’s plan, for many Christians, has been this idea of the family and of marriage and of gender hierarchy—husbands being in charge of the family and wives submitting to their husbands. Anything outside of that, a sort of loosening of those hierarchies and those moral codes, has been seen as a sign of decline of the nation. And that’s a very, very powerful idea.

TS: This past election season was animated by so many issues around sex—around abortion, women’s rights, sexual abuse, same-sex marriage. A year later, what stands out to you?

MG: A year later, of course, I think those issues continue to be very present and certainly, as you say, played a crucial role in voting patterns, whether it was voters’ concerns with abortion and the next president appointing a pro-life Supreme Court justice, or whether it was these fears that have been motivated by the so-called “bathroom bills,” and what it means if we become more accepting of transgender people and so forth. All of those to me still feel like very live issues. I don’t see that they’ve declined at all. But of course, equally live are the fears of non-white peoples, immigrants and refugees, especially from Muslim countries. There’s so much racial animosity that’s been unleashed by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, who have felt empowered over the past year or more by Trump’s election. So, the gender and the sexuality fears are very, very strong, as are the racial and racially motivated fears and fears of foreigners. These are not entirely separate issues, of course. I find them to be quite deeply entwined fears.

TS: Fear remains a theme that weaves through a lot of the issues that you write about in the book. As you point out, we’re having more public national conversations right now around white supremacy. And you write about the white animus toward the mixing of races and miscegenation. All of that was reinforced with this racialized Christian theology. Can you tell me more about that from a historian’s point of view?

MG: Absolutely. The place where I write about that the most is around World War II, and the heightened concerns that got raised, even in the U.S. Senate and in both houses of Congress, around new ideas that were coming out of anthropology, intellectual circles, and the academy that were suggesting an equality of the races—and even a kind of nascent idea that race itself does not really exist; it’s something that human beings have created as categories that aren’t really, in some sense, genetically even real. They fall apart as soon as you look at them. That idea was coming out of anthropology in the 1920s and 1930s, and by World War II, it’s a pretty powerful idea.

Congress would get wind of this through anthropologist Ruth Benedict and a pamphlet that she and Gene Weltfish co-authored, and that got distributed to part of the armed forces and was very popular, The Races of Mankind. The idea was that races have always mixed in human history. Across divides, people have intermarried. There’s no “pure” white race. There’s no “pure” black race. And there’s no reason why people today can’t love one another and marry and bear children across so-called racial lines. Especially in the Jim Crow South, white Southerners like the politician Theodore Bilbo, most notoriously, just erupted in rage at this kind of idea that you could mix the races. That kind of fury around racial mixing, coming from ideas about sex itself, and about reproduction, go very deep in our history—much longer than the World War II era, of course, because of slavery and that legacy.

TS: Around the same time, you write about Alfred Kinsey and his reports. How did Kinsey revolutionize religious thinking about sexuality?

MG: Alfred Kinsey is so fascinating because, though he was raised in a very strict Christian home, he was devoutly secular by the time he was a young man, and an atheist for pretty much all of his adult life. But he recognized that there were Christian thinkers who were really willing to grapple with the implications of his research on the sexual behavior of both men and women.

Kinsey’s studies showed that American men and women were really constantly “misbehaving” or going against the sexual codes of marriage. Men and women were both having sex before marriage. They were having some same-sex experiences, often times even as young as high school or college age. Many Christian pastors resisted these ideas and denied that these things were happening. But some of the more liberal Protestant ones really took his findings to heart and said we need to provide pastoral counseling for our people. They wrote to Kinsey. He started corresponding with some of them. He visited churches. He talked to groups of clergy, where he was invited to do so. And these conversations really, I think, opened the way to a sort of reimaging of morality. Maybe homosexuality wasn’t purely evil the way people had thought. Maybe it wasn’t even a source of illness, or a sign of illness. So his work was very important. His engagement of clergy was very important to opening or expanding the worldview of some of those pastors who were keen to help their parishioners and think about sexuality in new ways.

TS: There were some pastors, like Billy Graham, who preached against Kinsey.

MG: Yes. There were many sermons against Kinsey. Billy Graham gave a radio sermon that railed against Kinsey’s volume on women: Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. He was railing against what he considered to be the false allegation that women were not as sexually pure as they seemed, or as they wanted people to believe. Billy Graham treated this as an insult to the virtue of American women and essentially denied that any of this was true, and accused Kinsey of kind of prurient interests and salacious deception. And Graham was by no means alone. There were many other evangelical and Catholic leaders alike who denied Kinsey’s findings and cast aspersions on him as a false and deceptive researcher.

TS: It’s interesting hearing that about Billy Graham and ideas about women because we’ve heard a lot in the media about the “Billy Graham Rule” and how he didn’t meet alone with women. This idea of purity is a perennial topic among American Christians.

MG: Yes. And Graham is a great example of someone who often preached, from very early on, against sexual degradation. He was of course preaching throughout the 1960s and 1970s when sexual mores were dramatically shifting in America, and popular culture was celebrating sexual freedom as they saw it. Graham repeatedly denounced that, sometimes equating it with communism or a kind of communist plot. He seemed to see changing sexual norms as a terrifying sign of people denying God, and turning their backs on God. He warned about the consequences not just for individual damnation, but for the damnation of the entire nation.

TS: One of the chapters in your book is very timely, and it’s about sexual harassment. Right now, we’re having this widespread conversation about sexual violations in the workplace and beyond, from Harvey Weinstein to Roy Moore. You have a chapter about Anita Hill and Paula Jones, and you write about the long, entwined history of working women and forced sexual intimacy by those yielding economic power over them. So, my question is twofold: what’s changed and what’s stayed the same, and also how do these sexual violations in the workplace relate to religion?

MG: One of the key things that I write about in that chapter, and I think we are seeing it every day, as new allegations come out against both known conservatives and known liberals, is how politicized these charges become and how primed we are to believe the side that we want to believe, that we agree with or support politically. And how prone we tend to be to disbelieve a woman, or a man if it’s that case, who is making allegations against a figure whom we love and admire.

I think that what interested me about the Paula Jones allegations was just how quickly people turned to support her—often times the same people who had not even given a thought to Anita Hill, purely out of politics. And then so many women who had supported Hill, including women in the Senate, showed little to no interest in the quite damning charges raised by Jones and other women against Clinton. It shows how politically apt we are to respond in those cases. And we see the same thing today. It’s very, very difficult for us to move beyond our own politics. And, of course, writers like Michelle Goldberg and Caitlin Flanagan have recently argued, quite eloquently I think, that liberals need to rethink their own support for Bill Clinton, and the way they treated Paula Jones. Conservatives are responding, well, it’s too little, too late. And liberals are saying, look at these Roy Moore allegations and these women, many of them very conservative women, Trump-voting women, who have accused him of horrific behavior. And yet, so many conservatives, at least in Alabama, continue to support him. Some say they even support him more. So it’s really apparent how politicized our responses to these charges often seem to be and how difficult it is to break out of those patterns.

TS: Abortion remains a hugely polarizing issue, even though a majority of Americans favor keeping it legal. You cite some really startling statistics that I wanted to throw out there: In 1972, two out of three Americans supported legalizing abortion. More Republicans than Democrats agreed with that. The majority of Catholics even supported it. What changed?

MG: If you think about the context of the late 1960s, early 1970s, I think Americans were quite aware of the brutality that many women were experiencing when they experienced unwanted pregnancies and had to choose between community shame—and anger or even rejection from family—or the difficult choice to abort an unwanted pregnancy. When they did choose to abort, out of desperation many times, or out of dire economic straits, they had very few options for a safe abortion. Many, many women were injured, or died, from illegal, botched abortions. The statistics are just mind-boggling. I think people in the late 1960s and early 1970s were actually aware of that context, how dangerous abortion was and how fraught this issue was. So the vast majority of Americans, as you say, were in favor of some degree of legalization.

When the Roe v Wade decision came down in January of 1973, that offered starkly more freedom for abortion than most Americans had even thought possible. It really surprised people across the left and right, how wide-ranging that decision was. I think that’s one reason that you saw a real gathering of the forces of an anti-abortion movement, spearheaded initially very much by Catholics. They worked very closely with, and even in some cases I think won over, many conservative Protestants who maybe had not thought that abortion was murder in the early 1970s. That was really not on their minds. I note in the book that the president of the Southern Baptist Convention praised the Roe v Wade decision in 1973. We have other conservative Protestant leaders on record as being very supportive of abortion rights at that time. So, it took several years to get the Moral Majority, and then a mobilizing of conservative Protestants on the anti-abortion side. By the 1980s that had really come about, but it took eight to ten years to really solidify that support on that side.

So what changed? One thing that changed is that conservative Protestants began hearing a lot more that abortion was murder, period. And if you believe that an egg and a sperm united, that an embryo, is just as fully human as you or I are, there’s not a lot of wiggle room to say, “Oh, but you know, we should still say abortion is ok.” So more and more conservative Protestants really began to hold that position, that abortion is murder, period. And it became a much more black-and-white issue for many of them than it had been in the pre-Roe days.

TS: You note in the book that the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage didn’t end the legal fights over the issue. Now we have lawsuits from wedding service providers—cake bakers and photographers, and others that often base their arguments on religious liberty. Can you give a brief primer on this idea of religious liberty versus civil rights?

MG: Yes. Let me say first that I’m not a legal theorist, so I don’t talk about religious liberty from the perspective of a lawyer. But what I do see, as a historian, are the ways that religious liberty claims get used in different sorts of ways as strategies, political strategies for getting what one wants. I don’t think you have to be a lawyer—in fact, maybe you have to not be a lawyer—to be able to note frankly that these definitions of religious liberty are quite political. That’s one reason why we keep debating about them over and over again in our court cases.

For someone who deeply believes that homosexuality is wrong, that it’s against God and I should not have to support that, it’s a small step toward insisting that it’s a matter of his or her own religious liberty, not to have to do anything to be complicit with something that they view as a gross sin. For folks on the other side, progressive Christians, who believe that same-sex love is just as legitimate as opposite-sex love and marriage, they see that as a religious principle stemming from an idea of God’s creation, and how to interpret Jesus’s command to love and serve the neighbor. For them, that too can be a matter of religious liberty, defined very differently from the other side. So the religious liberty claims can be used on both sides, in different kinds of ways.

TS: Let’s talk about very recent history, with the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. In your epilogue, you situate her candidacy amid the ways that gender and sexual mores affected her run for office. Tell me more about that.

MG: I am by no means suggesting that gender was the only factor in peoples’ either tepid response to her, or their stronger dislike or hatred of her. There were policy issues. There were certainly issues around her welfare reform policies from long ago. There were lots of issues.

However, there is just no denying that gender and notions of appropriate gender roles and comportment played a huge role in the way that Hilary Clinton has been received in the media since 1992. In 1992, in Bill Clinton’s first campaign, Hillary Clinton uttered what became an infamous statement to a journalist, who was asking her about her career and she seemed to take slight umbrage. She said she could have stayed home and baked cookies, but instead followed her career, which she had before her husband ever went into politics. People seized upon this as proof that she felt condescending toward stay-at-home women, or that she was sort of a strident feminist—that word that always gets used about women who speak their minds. That depiction of her has persisted, and dogged her throughout her campaign.

In the epilogue, I detail the ways that the Trump campaign and Trump voters really mobilized misogyny, in service to voting for their candidate. The T-shirts that men and women wore at rallies often insulted Clinton on very gendered grounds—her body, her looks—and praised Trump for his anatomical parts and his manliness, if I can be euphemistic there. There are all kinds of ways that a very ugly form of misogyny was wielded against Clinton as a weapon, and I think it was quite effective in generating profound hostility toward her and a willingness to vote for Trump, even among people who, in a prior election, might not have.

TS: You end the book at the Women’s March in D.C., an event you call exhilarating, and for some, even sacred. But you also write, that a protracted moral combat seems nowhere near a truce. Do you see a way forward?

MG: That is a critical question. Fortunately, there are a lot of really smart, committed people who are writing books about this question, who are thinking hard about how to increase mutual understanding across ideological lines, both politically and religiously. It’s a theme we’re all hearing on radio programs and in interviews and among authors, across academic disciplines and in the public sphere and all over the place.

I think that the election has mobilized an awareness of the urgency that we need to do something, and really spurred a lot of good people to think about that. I’m no more profound than any of them, but I agree with those who say that we have got to be willing to talk to people we haven’t been talking with before, and they have to be willing to talk with us too. We need to be developing mechanisms and concrete strategies for facilitating conversations that can really help us at least understand the moral values that other people hold, and where we can express the moral values that we hold, so that folks on one side or the other don’t just see their political opponents as hateful, terrible people.

Moving forward is going to be very, very difficult in an extremely polarizing and polarized moment. I don’t want to give pat answers to that. Nothing about this is going to be easy. But, I hear a lot of commitment to fixing that, and I think that’s a very good sign.

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