Abusing Religion

Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals, and American Minority Religions

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Megan Goodwin
  • New Brunswick, NJ: 
    Rutgers University Press
    , July
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What is the relationship between religion and sex abuse? Why are Americans more likely to blame sex abuse on minority religious traditions than they are on Catholic or Protestant communities? Why do such narratives have widespread purchase in American society? And why have American religious historians largely ignored stories of abuse in their own works?  Such are the questions at the heart of Abusing Religion: Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals, and American Minority Religions. To answer them, author Megan Goodwin analyzes three popular accounts of abuse in three different American minority religions to showcase how Americans have been trained to associate minority religions with danger, sexual deviance and impropriety, and un-Americanness. These three case studies are centered around Satanism in Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith’s Michelle Remembers (St. Martin’s Press, 1980); Islam in Betty Mahmoody’s Not Without My Daughter (St. Martin’s Press, 1987); and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) in John Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven (Anchor Books, 2004). Each of these three works has sold millions of copies, topped bestseller lists, and helped to make sex abuse synonymous with minority religions in the 20th and 21st centuries.

In analyzing these works, Goodwin develops a methodological framework from which to understand these narratives that she calls “contraceptive nationalism,” which is described as a form of “gendered white supremacist Christian nativism that minoritizes certain American religious traditions, compromising their legal protections, political influence, cultural cachet, and/or social credibility” (3). Such narratives, as exemplified by Krakauer, Pazder and Smith, and Mahmoody “privilege heteropatriarchal norms, bolster white supremacy, and collapse space for benign religious and sexual difference in the United States—while doing very little to prevent systemic sex abuse” (4). In her creation and deployment of this category throughout the book, Goodwin persuasively argues that “narratives of contraceptive nationalism blame sexual abuse on religious difference, effectively minoritizing religious and sexual outsiders while claiming to uphold bodily and religious freedoms” (15).

Importantly, Goodwin shifts the narrative of religion and sex abuse away from religion qua religion. Instead, Goodwin wants to highlight sex abuse as an American problem rather than one that is relegated to the margins of either religion or culture. At its core, Goodwin asks the reader to wrestle with the implications of the overwhelming regularity of sex abuse in American culture and the disproportionate attention given to abuse narratives among minority religions in the United States. Through each of the case studies the author situates, why “Americans would sooner blame religion—would rather blame a global satanic conspiracy—for sexual abuse than confront our own relatives, partners, and acquaintances, than admit that sexual abuse is an American problem, not only a religious one” (40). A strength of this work is its ability to hold the tension between taking seriously allegations or cases of abuse while rejecting religious difference as the source of this abuse. In so doing, Goodwin reveals the complexity and deep entrenchment of contraceptive nationalism in the United States.

The work is separated into three parts with two chapters devoted to each case study. In each instance, the first chapter of the case study provides useful context and background information before the second gives a critical analysis and reception. The delineation of chapters in such a way, as well as the clarity, strength, and accessibility of its prose makes Abusing Religion ready made for teaching in an undergraduate classroom regardless of prior course experience in American history or religious studies.

Part 1, “Sex, Abuse, and the Satanic Panic” details the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and early 1990s by centering Pazder and Smith’s 1980 memoir, Michelle Remembers, which is credited to having sparked the global outcry based on Smith’s “recovered” memories of Satanic Abuse through hypnosis under Pazder’s guidance. Part 2, “Sex, Abuse, and American Islamophobia” is based around Mahmoody’s 1987 book turned 1990 feature film, Not Without My Daughter, which details Mahmoody’s ex-husband’s devolution into Islamic extremism after moving their family from the United States to Iran following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Not Without My Daughter chronicles the abuse Mahmoody and her daughter suffered at the hands of her husband, Islam, and Iranian society writ large before her eventual escape from the country. Part 3 “Sex, Abuse, and Mormon Fundamentalism” centers Krakauer’s 2003 exposé Under the Banner of Heaven. Krakauer’s work weaves together a history of the FLDS by centering the 1984 Lafferty murders and by chronicling the continued practice of polygyny amongst FLDS communities.

While Goodwin’s use of “contraceptive nationalism” holds these three case studies together, the category seems to have a wide and immediate applicability to scholars of American religion. Goodwin notes throughout the body of the work and its endnotes that narrative constructs of contraceptive nationalism did not arise ex nihilo in the mid-20th century and can, in fact, trace its origins to the European colonial narratives about Indigenous peoples. Such conceptions have been present in adaptive forms throughout American history and continue to shape how Americans view non-dominant religions and cultural outsiders. Despite the historical longevity of these conceptions, scholars of American religion have not tended to forefront sex abuse in their histories. This fact underscores Goodwin’s argument insofar as the absence of sex abuse in the historiography belies its regularity and significance. This leaves a great deal of room for new works to build from what Goodwin has begun. One can imagine how this methodological overhaul might be fruitfully applied to events such as the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, but also to 19th-century sources such temperance literature, conceptions of slave religion, or the language of manifest destiny and westward expansion to name but a few.

I hope that this work will serve as a launching pad for other similar projects by the author and as a methodological framework to guide further research in American religious history from both established and rising scholars alike.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor W. Dean is a doctoral candidate at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
October 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Megan Goodwin is the program director for Sacred Writes: Public Scholarship on Religion, a Henry R. Luce-funded project hosted by Northeastern University, and a visiting lecturer with Northeastern University’s Philosophy and Religion Department.


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