Moral Combat: How the Sexual Revolution Infiltrated the Church

The most interesting part of the story for many conservative evangelical Reformed Christians may be the least familiar—the story of why liberal Protestants moved within 50 years from supporting traditional sexual morals to endorsing sex outside of marriage as a positive good.

 

At a moment when sexual harassment scandals have given both the church and society reason to re-examine their assumptions about sexual misconduct, R. Marie Griffith’s historical study of the religious origins of the sexual revolution may be a timely contribution to the conversation. In Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics, Griffith argues the sexual revolution was closely tied to religion and divided American Christianity into competing camps she calls “progressives” and “traditionalists.”

The most interesting part of the story for many conservative evangelical Reformed Christians may be the least familiar—the story of why liberal Protestants moved within 50 years from supporting traditional sexual morals to endorsing sex outside of marriage as a positive good. According to Griffith, the main reason was a sensitivity to women’s rights that the traditionalists lacked.

Progressive Christians’ Evolution on Sex

Griffith begins her story with Margaret Sanger and the debate over contraception in the early 1920s. At the time, the distribution of information about contraception was still illegal under the Comstock Laws, and no Protestant church had yet endorsed birth control. Sanger, the nation’s leading disseminator of contraceptive information, was a political radical antipathetic toward Christianity, but she recognized the political value of securing the endorsement of Protestant clergy for her birth-control campaign. Although Protestant ministers were initially ambivalent, many of them quickly joined because they saw it as a campaign for women’s health, democracy, and science in opposition to Catholic traditionalism, authoritarianism, and poverty.

Subsequent chapters of Moral Combat trace a similar story: mainline Protestants might’ve been initially skeptical about each new stage in the loosening of traditional sexual strictures, but they embraced such changes when they decided they were conducive to gender egalitarianism, healthy relationships, and scientific progress. In the 1930s, a number of liberal Protestants overcame their doubts about D. H. Lawrence’s sexually explicit novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, even though it celebrated adultery, because they decided its portrayal of extramarital sex as “spiritual” promoted a more authentic view of sexuality than traditional Christian prudery.

In the 1950s, liberal Protestants likewise decided, after reading Alfred Kinsey’s studies of human sexuality, that greater sexual experimentation before marriage allowed both men and women to enter into marriage with healthier views of sex. In the 1960s, mainline Protestants played a leading role in shaping non-judgmental, scientifically based national sex-education curricula—framed around the idea that mutually supportive sexual relationships were naturally good, and that traditional sexual standards that produced feelings of guilt were not. Liberal Protestants’ commitment to women’s rights likewise led them to endorse abortion legalization in the late 1960s, and shortly thereafter, same-sex unions as well.

Less Nuanced Portrait of Traditionalists

Griffith intended Moral Combat to serve as a guide to both sides of the religious divide over sex. But the book gives a more nuanced, informative portrait of liberal Protestant sexual progressives than of their opponents, the sexual traditionalists. The book applies the label “traditionalist” to diverse groups who had little in common, such as northern Catholics who objected to contraception (but sometimes accepted interracial marriage) and southern fundamentalists who opposed interracial marriage (but sometimes accepted contraception).

Theologically conservative Christians are likely to disagree with Griffith’s argument that the liberalization of sexual mores was linked to advances in women’s rights, and that traditionalists who opposed the sexual revolution were motivated at least in part by a desire to restrict women’s freedom and maintain hierarchical gender roles. In reality, of course, the sexual revolution has been far from liberating for many women, as many women who have been hurt in sexual relationships outside of marriage have discovered. Today more than half of all single mothers live below the poverty line, and approximately 25 percent of women have been raped.

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