American Christians are both enamored with and enslaved by sex. In her book Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics, R. Marie Griffith shows how sex has been used as an effective tool to arouse political conflict and struggle for power in recent American history.
In eight chapters spanning the course of a century, Griffith tells a story filled with ruptures and fractures along the fault line of American politics. She persuasively argues that minor divisions grew to shatter the old consensus on sex and explains why it failed to remain united on nearly every cultural front from women’s suffrage to birth control, interracial marriage, sex education, abortion, sex scandal, sexual harassment, and marriage equality. Catholics disagreed with Protestants, sure, but the schisms went deeper still—Catholics turned on Catholics and Protestants on Protestants. And the country’s united consensus over sexual morality split apart dividing each group into either “traditionalists” or “progressives.”
The result? Everyone is religiously sexual and sexually religious. Traditionalists retain some measure of the old sexual mores, though even those have shifted as evidenced by the man evangelicals helped elect president in 2016. Progressives, however, have loosed all sexual mores, endorsing sexual liberty for everyone. This battle line has less to do with separating the religiously devout from those who want sexual freedom and more to do with diverse sexual expression emerging from varying religious traditions and expressions.
Our nation is not one that is united, but divided by a century-long battle over sex.
We were never united.
Griffith makes skillful use of key historical figures to connect each chapter and wind the clock forward. She begins with Margaret Sanger and the debates of the 1920s over birth control. She then moves on to D. H. Lawrence and the censorship wars followed by interracial sex and Ruth Benedict, Alfred Kinsey’s sexual revolution, sex education in the 1960s, Roe v. Wade in the 1970s and 1980s, the sexual harassment allegations of the 1990s, and finally same-sex marriage debates and LGBT rights in the new millennium.
What becomes clear is that our nation’s polarized struggle over sex did not drop out of the sky. We’ve been fighting this battle for a very long time without any sign of surrender, victory, or a truce.
Griffith offers a nuanced and insightful look at the progressivist loosening of sexual morality. And what emerges throughout the progressivist camp is a commitment to women’s rights no matter what. This commitment has led to sexual exploration and freedom, legalizing abortion, and promoting same-sex union and marriage.
Her telling of the traditionalist tightening on sexual morality, however, appears inexact and shortsighted. While sexual progressives are fairly treated overall (Margaret Sanger was both a hero and anti-hero—for women, and yet, against women of color and migrants with her invocation of eugenics), the same can hardly be said for sexual traditionalists. Is it really the case, as she asserts, that all traditionalists who opposed the sexual revolution were motivated by patriarchy? Or were there perhaps other reasons they may have opposed such a change? Considering the sexual revolution’s unfriendliness to women—with recent news headlines showcasing Silicon Valley boys taking advantage of women—it would seem that the oppression of women can happen with or without more sexual freedom.
We’ve always been divided.
Moral Combat stands out in how clearly it exposes the failure of American Christianity’s most visible leaders to teach and value neighbor love over policing sexual activity outside of marriage. Some of the most outspoken Christian leaders have targeted sexual vices, while neglecting the other virtues that shape and support sexuality. Not to mention, the evangelical Christian movement as a whole has failed to practice the morals it has so vehemently sought to guard, protect, and keep. Ironically, the same people who have fought for purity and sexual integrity in the culture wars have often failed to practice such in their own homes, offices, and churches.
But for all of its strengths, Moral Combat has a number of shortcomings, one being its failure to convincingly demonstrate that a strong Christian consensus over sex has ever existed. Griffith argues that Christians clung to a consensus on sex around traditional gender roles (men worked and provided, while women bore children and cared for the home), and that the Nineteenth Amendment—with the women’s suffrage movement—ripped it apart at the seams. This cultural moment has trickled down into every other area of life, affecting family planning, sexual freedom, and gender roles.
It’s unclear whether there was ever a strong, organized, and unified Christian consensus and Griffith doesn’t offer one prior to the 1930s. The first chapter begins with the assumption of consensus, but it left me wondering if technology (new birth control methods, for example) simply surfaced differences in debates that were already present rather than entirely new. Notions about sex between Catholics and Protestants have hardly been unified over the past five centuries, let alone the previous two millennia of church history.
Was the American church ever united about sex, and was its obsession with sex singularly responsible for the present rupture? Or could it be that American Christians were never really united to begin with? Reckoning with this question could weaken the argument of the book as a whole, and it might show that the history of the past one hundred years is less of a “best of times, worst of times” scenario and more of a “best and worst of times.” Sex has always seemed to divide Christians. One need look no further than Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth.
Toward a More Powerful Union
Another weakness of the book, perhaps the greatest, is its failure to critique or commend anything other than a progressivist or traditionalist Christianity. What is needed, then and now, is a robust biblical Christianity. It is true, as Griffith notes, that Jesus did not have much to say about sex in comparison to his teachings on money and neighborly love, but that does not mean he was silent on the subject.
Christians should be neither sex-obsessed nor sex-blinded. Jesus calls us to view sex and our sexuality not as a master, but as a servant—a gift rather than a functional savior. As sinners, we substitute idols for the one true God who made us and alone has the ability to redeem us. Picking between the liberal Jesus and the conservative Jesus does nothing to mend the polarization within our churches and across our nation. It merely perpetuates a battle of dishonesty and denial.
Christianity is not a list of dos and don’ts. Both conservatism and liberalism fail to confess the whole Jesus, each grasping for political power and social influence. When we turn what Jesus said into power plays about sex, or power plays about being kind and loving toward others, we actually empty the gospel of its power. The gospel itself is the “power of God unto salvation for all who believe” (Romans 1:17), and when we trust in him and are united to his church, it is this gospel power that makes us more moral and more loving people in the end.
Aside from this caveat, I would recommend Moral Combat to a wide audience. Griffith’s prose is excellent and accessible, full of figures, movements, events, and references that just about every American citizen should find worthy of study.
Cover image by Brianna Santellan.