After the Wrath of God

AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion

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Anthony M. Petro
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Most historical accounts of religion and the AIDS epidemic focus on voices from the Christian Right declaring AIDS an expression of God’s wrath, divine punishment for sexual immorality. In his debut book, After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion, American religious historian Anthony Petro troubles this singular emphasis, arguing that it overlooks what he sees as religion’s more productive discursive function during the epidemic. While some Christians did describe AIDS as the wrath of God, many more claimed the epidemic was evidence of God’s plan for sexual morality.

Illuminating a broad set of moral responses to AIDS, Petro shows how Americans produced a moral discourse around AIDS that went beyond interpreting the epidemic as punishment to using it to define what constitutes proper, moral sex. Christian responses to the epidemic sought “not merely to stop the flow of microbes but to spread religious and moral conduct” (6). Petro argues that “religious constructions of disease, sex, and morality” developed during the AIDS epidemic, exerted broad “cultural and political influence” on the secular—impacting public policy, sex education, global affairs, and debates about religious freedom (4). American Christians constructed AIDS as a moral epidemic and tied transmission of the disease directly to sexuality, producing a moral discourse that defined certain kinds of sex as both moral and American, a notion Petro refers to as “sexual citizenship.”

After the Wrath of God joins an ever-growing number of works that address sexuality in American religious history. Like several recent works on sexuality and religion in American history, Petro departs from lived religious histories to narrate cultural, discursive, and structural phenomena. As he tells the history of the discourse generated during the AIDS epidemic, Petro engages with critical theorists such as Michel Foucault, Lauren Berlant, and Talal Asad. Cautioning recourse to lived religion, Petro underscores again and again the structural and rhetorical power of the normative. Comparing, for example, Catholic bishops’ “official” speech acts with lay efforts to resist ecclesial positions, Petro suggests in a footnote “we must avoid exaggerating the potential agency of such [personal] negotiations or understating the very real forms of institutional power against which they are often wrought” (231). Petro contends that the normative moral discourses around sexual citizenship and morality have the power to structure individual emotions, castigate counterpublics, and deteriorate antinormative ethics.

Petro turns to genealogy to historicize this discursive power. The book offers a genealogy of how the AIDS epidemic resulted in the creation of a “national sexuality” where “some forms of sex—namely abstinence until marriage and monogamy in marriage—[are] not merely respectable, but fundamental to the health of the American public” (9). Each of the book’s four chapters excavates how this national sexuality was produced during the AIDS epidemic—respectively charting religious leaders’ moral prescriptions, the moralization of public health policy, the exercise of ecclesial authority, and AIDS activists’ embattled attempts to enact alternative rituals and ethics through public protest.

Petro offers a particularly convincing reading of moral presuppositions embedded within public health policy and discourse. Examining the rhetoric and policies of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, Petro shows how Christian sexual mores were codified in public policy and discourse. The nation’s highest public health official consistently spoke at Christian churches and used Christian rhetoric. Despite public advocacy for condom use and comprehensive sex education, he ultimately saw his beliefs on sexual morality as the most trustworthy medicine against AIDS. “If Koop differed from other conservative Christians,” Petro writes, “it was less on the question of when to have sex or how to do it, than of who would continue, pragmatically speaking, to have sex with whom” (87). Petro shows how Koop projected Christian views of sexual morality into public health policy and discourse, emphasizing the medical importances of committed monogamous relationships despite contrary scientific evidence and competing sexual ethics.

In the book’s final and most compelling chapter, Petro broadens the range of religious discourses considered to include the moral perspectives of gay and lesbian AIDS activists. In a chapter that centers on an AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) protest inside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Petro carefully considers how the protest constituted a religious act and offered “an alternative ethics of sexuality, one that promoted safe sex, the right to sexual self-determination, and the political value of sexual pleasure” (140). Detailing the debates that ensued after the protest, Petro demonstrates how the religious freedom of the Catholic Church was upheld at the expense of “the activists’ moral vision for sexual freedom” (185). This chapter offers rich insights into the moral vision of AIDS activists and culture war debates on religious freedom.

Although the book considers how both Protestantism and Catholicism contributed to the production of sexual citizenship during the AIDS crisis, it does not offer a thorough account of how one relates to the other. Despite arguing that the political realignments of the 1980 election “helped melt divisions among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews” (59), Protestantism and Catholicism receive almost entirely separate treatment in the book, with little account of how they coexisted or to what extent they co-constituted the secular. Petro gestures toward Catholic difference in relation to the secular and to the laity but does not provide thorough analysis of that difference, despite its potential implications for understanding the contours of sexual citizenship, the nature of the secular, or resistance to AIDS activism.

This notwithstanding, After the Wrath of God offers original historical analysis and reinterprets central moments in the American AIDS epidemic with theoretical and methodological sophistication. Steeped in critical theory and recent debates about secularism, Petro pays particular attention to how the moral and religious rhetoric around AIDS exerted broad influence on cultural ideas about sexuality, disease, health, and citizenship. He complicates existing religious histories of the AIDS epidemic and adds to these narratives rich depictions of religious and moral rhetoric coming from public health officials, mainline Christianity, Catholicism, and AIDS activists. After the Wrath of God is an incredibly well-researched book and exemplifies historical scholarship deeply engaged with critical theory.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Drake Konow is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anthony Petro is Assistant Professor of Religion at Boston University.



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