Soon after taking office, Pope Francis complained that his church had become obsessed with sex. His criticism could equally have described American evangelical Protestants, who spent much of the twentieth century loudly opposing birth control, “unchaste” entertainment, pornography, the Kinsey studies, sex education, abortion rights, and same-sex marriage. For half a century, these positions often united right-wing Catholic and Protestant groups. Their crusades, even when they failed, have been costly to liberals and leftists, particularly feminists, forcing them to concentrate on defending sex and reproductive rights at the expense of other causes.
But these crusades never involved all religious leaders. Some American liberals today—especially the secular, who are often ignorant of intra-religious conflicts—have a tendency to see the Christian right as typical of all politically active Christian denominations. To this misconception R. Marie Griffith, a professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis, offers an important corrective. Her new book, Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians & Fractured American Politics, draws attention to the stubborn and often courageous resistance to the sex-and-gender right by many liberal Christian leaders from “mainline” Protestant denominations, who were joined at times by a small minority of liberal Catholic clergy. (Griffith includes some discussion of Jewish participants in these battles but focuses on the more intense intra-Christian conflicts.)
Griffith also shows that sex-repressive politics have long been closely bound up with racism. Much of the Christian right grew out of the movement to avoid school integration: As public schools were desegregated in the 1950s, whites, especially in the South, set up Christian schools that could choose which students to admit, thereby creating what became known as “segregation academies.” A major part of the schools’ objective was to prevent black-white dating and so defend white women’s “purity.” Because lynching was often justified by allegations that black men had assaulted white women, a Tennessee congressman could remark in 1921 that an anti-lynching bill should be retitled “a bill to encourage rape.” So extreme was this anxiety about black male sexuality that lynchings often included sexually mutilating the victims.
At the same time, anti-communism imbued the religious resistance to civil rights and women’s and sexual rights. White supremacists in the South were not wrong to associate communism with anti-racism: When the Communist Party campaigned against lynching in the 1930s, it was the only white-dominated organization to do so. When Ruth Benedict repudiated the very notion of racial purity in The Races of Mankind (1943), right-wing evangelicals charged that not only was the book ungodly but it was also Communist propaganda—allegations that led the USO, the U.S. Army, and some schools to ban the book. And redbaiting characterized campaigns against sexual rights, from the charge that the Bolsheviks made women public property to the claim that American Communists promoted licentiousness in order to undermine the nation’s moral values.
By revising this one-sided history of religion and sex to include liberal Protestants, Griffith gives us some compelling heroes, from the widely celebrated (Margaret Sanger, Ruth Benedict, Alfred Kinsey, and Anita Hill) to the little known (Mary Calderone, Lawrence Lader, and the Reverend Howard Moody). She also highlights a few surprising villains, among them Reinhold Niebuhr. Covering 100 years of disputes, from the 1920s up to the election of Trump, she shows that in every controversy there were not only two sides but two religious sides.
Griffith begins her narrative with the campaign to legalize birth control in the 1920s. While opponents charged that contraception—which at that time consisted mainly of condoms and vaginal diaphragms—eroded women’s chastity, many Protestant ministers defended it. By the early 1930s, Unitarians, Reform Jews, and the Federal Council of Churches had endorsed birth control. Among the prominent African American clergy who approved, even promoted, birth control were Shelton Hale, Bishop of Harlem’s St. Philip’s Episcopal Church; Adam Clayton Powell of Abyssinian Baptist; and Willard Monroe of Memorial Baptist. They were joined by many lay black leaders, organizations, and publications, including W.E.B. Du Bois; the social workers of Harlem; and The Afro-American and Amsterdam News, the two most influential black newspapers of the period.
This support may seem surprising, because the early birth-control movement often cooperated with the eugenics movement, whose leaders were archracists. Sanger’s Birth Control Review joined eugenicists in arguing for immigration restriction on a racial basis and lamenting “THE COST TO THE STATE OF THE SOCIALLY UNFIT.” True, this cooperation was partly opportunistic on the part of birth-control-movement leaders, who took their allies wherever they could find them. But the outcome was, in any case, to extend to the poor and to women of color a privilege enjoyed by affluent whites, who could obtain contraception from private physicians or on trips to Europe.
Controversy about censorship of sexual material peaked in the 1930s, in response to Americans’ growing consumption of erotic publications, racy burlesque, pinups, and, above all, movies—transgressive both because of their content and because you watched them in the dark. Evangelicals, aided by the rapidly growing Ku Klux Klan, whipped up hysteria about obscenity through their sermons, publications, and radio shows. The KKK detested Hollywood and tried, quite unsuccessfully, to promote a boycott of its films. They condemned it not only because its risqué content undermined women’s chastity, but also because so many studio bosses and directors were Jewish—anti-Semitism almost rivaled anti-black racism in the 1920s Klan. They argued not only that immodest material encouraged immoral behavior, but also that its purveyors sold it in order to undermine “American” values—in short, it was a conspiracy. Censorship was, in their view, the only way to protect the public.
Perhaps more surprising is how the controversy surrounding D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover divided religious leaders. Its portrayal of adulterous sex and a woman’s sexual awakening disturbed both evangelicals and some respected literary figures, too. T.S. Eliot wrote that Lawrence’s characters lacked “the amenities, refinements, and graces which many centuries have built up in order to make love-making tolerable” and that the novel advocated a “hideous coition of protoplasm.” But other Protestant intellectuals broke with the censorious mind-set. One conservative Lutheran theologian thought that “pastors involved in marital counseling ... will be stimulated by Lawrence’s holistic principle to search the Biblical Word anew.” Some even adopted Lawrence’s uncompromising and cloying self-defense: that the “sensual passions and mysteries are equally sacred with the spiritual mysteries and passions.” There was a bit of class snobbery here. The fact that this erotica appeared in a work labeled “literary” no doubt made it easier to defend.
The Kinsey reports generated even more outrage than Lady Chatterley’s Lover, particularly 1953’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Nearly 50 percent of the women surveyed reported having engaged in premarital sex. Worse, 41 percent of devout women admitted engaging in masturbation. The data showed precisely the female “awakening” that so horrified conservative evangelicals. That this study and the first issue of Playboy came out in the same year signified, moreover, a decreasing public acceptance of censorship. Delighting in provocation, the report’s author Alfred Kinsey revved up the controversy, arguing that sexual shame was neither natural nor holy. His treatment of celibacy as “abnormal” particularly incensed the Catholic hierarchy. Even the much-honored Reinhold Niebuhr sided with the sexual conservatives, denouncing Kinsey’s “modern naturalism,” which aimed, he charged, “to solve the problem of man’s sexual life by treating him as an animal.”
But Kinsey drew considerable support from mainline Protestant leaders, Griffith shows. He successfully built a relationship with the National Council of Churches, and this connection gave rise to new, exploratory religious conversations about sex, marriage, and family life. In 1961 the Canadian and American NCCs organized a conference on “Church and Family,” at which “much of Kinsey’s urgent, broad-minded spirit” informed the proceedings. The conference inspired religious liberals, including Jews, to address “hitherto forbidden sexual topics,” adding further religious authority to sex-positive attitudes.
That conference gave birth to the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States. SIECUS’s founding leader, the brave and daring Mary Steichen Calderone, should be better known. The daughter of renowned photographer Edward Steichen, she grew up among artists and cultural dissidents. A physician, in 1953 she had become medical director of Planned Parenthood. There she initiated discussion of abortion, which the organization had been carefully avoiding. She also criticized the abysmal state of sex education in the United States. Where it existed at all, teachers delivered the Victorian message that improper sexual activity produced horrific consequences, from warts and constipation to insanity and infertility. So in 1964, Calderone left Planned Parenthood and organized SIECUS. “The conviction came to me that responsible parenthood,” she wrote,
is but a small segment of something much larger—responsible sexuality—which is itself but a segment of the all-encompassing concept of total responsibility in all human relationships.
Calderone became the protagonist of high drama through her conflict with Billy James Hargis, a southern evangelist whose preaching aired on some 500 radio and 250 television stations, earning his ministry, Christian Crusade, $1 million a year (equivalent to over $8 million today) in his heyday in the 1960s. Uniting defense of segregation, denunciations of sexual permissiveness, and hysterical anti-communism, Hargis’s unrelenting attacks on religious liberals positioned him to the right of Billy Graham. Not only did Hargis redbait sex education advocates, but he also stimulated obscene and threatening attacks on Calderone, who was called “scrofulous, vile, wicked,” a “misfit prostitute of hell.” “They should not call it Venereal Herpes,” one particularly vicious letter declared, “but Calderone Herpes.”
Head of the department of education at Christian Crusade, Hargis’s employee Gordon V. Drake reported that liberal educators and religious leaders were secretly hosting events at which children and teens were instructed to touch each other sexually. Christian Crusade aimed its venom particularly at African American authors such as Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. Dick Gregory sent Hargis’s people into a frenzy. In their view, James Baldwin was nothing more than a “purveyor of perverted, pornographic smut.” As always, fear of sexual depravity was saturated with fear of threats to segregation.
SIECUS drew extensive support from liberal religious figures, however, and thereby contributed to a new openness about sex among many Protestants. Calderone even secured some Catholic support, notably from university professors at Georgetown, Notre Dame, and Catholic University. Griffith suggests that she accomplished this somewhat opportunistically, by emphasizing her commitment to “happy monogamous families,” but it brought results. In 1968, both the NCC and the Synagogue Council of America endorsed SIECUS’s “Interfaith Statement on Sex Education.”
For a time, Calderone grew optimistic about getting the Catholic hierarchy to soften its position toward sex and women’s rights. Remarkably, a leader in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body responsible for repressing heresy and promulgating correct doctrine, initiated a cordial exchange of views with her. Any illusions she might have nurtured vanished, however, when, in 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the Humanae Vitae encyclical, which reiterated the church’s conservative dogma. At the same time, evangelical opposition to sex education caused many school systems to eliminate it altogether; ultimately, many of these schools taught abstinence instead.
Despite setbacks, in the 1960s and 1970s, SIECUS became a major force in introducing and improving sex education in schools. It helped legitimize frank and tolerant public discussion about sex, and its religious allies were vital in protecting it. Its guidelines for sex education remain the gold standard in many districts, a contribution that became even more valuable during the AIDS epidemic. More recently, the women’s liberation and gay rights movements have been credited—and blamed—for expanding sexual freedom, and SIECUS’s contribution has been somewhat veiled. In fact, it laid a base on which the later movements built.
Perhaps the most courageous action of a liberal religious leader was taken by Howard Moody, minister of New York’s Judson Memorial Church, who preached—and practiced—what might be understood as an American Protestant version of liberation theology. Growing up a Texas Baptist, Moody came from a background not very different from Hargis’s. But the civil rights movement changed him, in part because of its religious dimensions. Moving to New York City then exposed him to the avant-garde in the arts—the works of Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg, and dance performances by Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs. Moody became a staunch defender of artistic freedom, even of work labeled indecent. He also became a feminist and in many ways a radical on family values. He liked to ask couples in premarital counseling, “Why do you want to get married and spoil a beautiful friendship?”
In 1967, Moody pulled together 19 Protestant clergymen and two rabbis to create the Clergy Consultation Service, a collaborative project to help women get access to abortions, then illegal in most states. “We believe that it is our pastoral responsibility and religious duty,” the CCS declared, “to give aid and assistance to all women with problem pregnancies.” They were also motivated by a sense of injustice at the double standard in access to abortion: that the prosperous had access to physicians who would prescribe them “therapeutic” abortions, while poor women, and particularly women of color, had to rely on underground abortionists. “ ‘Therapeutic,’” the CCS argued, “was only a term to describe the difference between rich and poor, white and black, the privileged and the underprivileged, married and single.”
To the CCS, denying women access to abortion was an unchristian cruelty. Thus, by the time the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade in 1973, some 2,000 clergy across the country had helped an estimated several hundred thousand women access safe abortions. These clergy were openly defying laws against abortion, and two ministers were arrested; but in their view they were continuing an honored Christian tradition of civil disobedience.
On the subject of gay marriage, the intra-religious conflict has long been stark. Because some evangelical groups have been vocal about their views—such as the belief that disasters, including September 11, are God’s punishment for sexual indecency, and that requiring recognition of gay marriage violates their religious freedom—this part of Griffith’s story makes for fewer surprises. To show the evolving respect for homosexuality among liberal Protestants, she uses the story of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay and partnered Episcopal bishop. Like Moody, he grasped the importance of feminism in the struggle for greater freedom. As Robinson put it, “This battle over homosexuality is as much about the end of patriarchy as anything else.”
Moral Combat offers a concise and much-needed reminder of a liberal religious tradition with a distinguished record of defending women’s and sexual rights. Still, it would have been improved by a conclusion that could identify enduring themes in its case studies. A fuller discussion of funding would have complicated the story. The narratives she relates are shaped to some extent by the resources that each side can command. It is impossible to ignore the fact that groups that oppose sexual freedom have much more money than those that promote it. By the late 1990s, Focus on the Family’s annual budget exceeded $110 million, while SIECUS’s amounted to just $2 million.
The book also neglects to ask why progress toward sexual freedom has been so uneven: Why did liberals win victories on gay marriage and opposing censorship but lose ground on abortion rights and, recently, even access to contraception? My own sense is that women’s rights threaten male dominance in a way that gay rights may not. Griffith might also have discussed reported declines in overall numbers of evangelicals, in evangelical loyalty to the right, and in church attendance among evangelical as well as mainline Protestants. Doing this might have provided some clues about what the future holds.
But these complaints about what a book doesn’t cover should not diminish the importance of what it does. I suspect that I am not the only secular person who often assumed, however unconsciously, that politically active religious groups in America today are mainly illiberal. A sex-positive and woman-positive Christianity isn’t usually heard by Americans outside church communities. The story Griffith tells is crucial, particularly because America is such a religious country, and liberals need all the allies they can get. Her contribution is part of a much-needed sex education, and like all good teachers she presents it vividly.