Devotions and Desires

Histories of Sexuality and Religion in the Twentieth-Century United States

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Gillian Frank, Bethany Moreton, Heather Rachelle White
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , March
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For far too long, the culture wars framework that positions secular progressives against religious conservatives has shaped scholarly and popular accounts of religion and sexuality in the modern United States. This well-worn, but seemingly unshakeable, narrative posits sex as a profane force and defines those defending sexual freedom as secular, if not anti-religious. Religion in this narrative most often signifies conservative Christianity, usually Protestants in particular, who stand in for religion writ large. When it comes to thinking about sex, this narrative tells us, religious voices overwhelmingly make pronouncements against it: they regulate, if not repress, sexual pleasure and freedom. 

Scholars of religion and sexuality have been challenging this simplistic narrative for a couple of decades now. Devotions and Desires continues this work by focusing attention on histories of religion and sexuality in the modern US. This welcome volume includes thirteen original essays, in addition to an introduction by the editors, an afterword by the esteemed historian of sexuality John D’Emilio, and a recommended reading list offering a valuable guide to scholarship in this area. The introduction—“More than Missionary: Doing Histories of Religion and Sexuality Together”—is alone worth the price of admission. Editors Gillian Frank, Bethany Moreton, and Heather Rachelle White succinctly rehearse and then complicate historical narratives that reduce religion to a repressive, anti-sexual, and usually Christian force. They expand accounts of religion in 20th-century US history, drawing upon the theoretical insights of religious studies to ask what forms religion and sexuality take across a diverse set of cases. “What are we talking about when we call something religious?” they ask. “What acts, attitudes, or attributes are we describing as sexual?” (5). Resisting the temptation to “conflate religion with Protestantism and sexuality with heterosexuality” (9) allows for more textured and often surprising histories, narratives that show how religion and sexuality have at different times and in different ways even co-constituted one another. 

Devotions and Desires convincingly makes the case that the history of “sexual liberalism” (in which, over the 20th century, sexual pleasure and freedom became celebrated ideals, as least for heterosexuals) must confront the role of religion, which both reinforced and undermined this new dictum. To this end, James McCartin examines how Catholic educators developed sex education programs that put them at odds with the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the early 20th century, and Samira Mehta explores mainline Protestant support for the birth control pill in the 1960s. In separate essays, Whitney Strub and Neil Young demonstrate how politically conservative groups, like the Citizens for Decent Literature, a group with Catholic associations, and the Mormon organization Fascinating Womanhood, which focused on empowering women in the context of “traditional” heterosexual marriage, were far from anti-sex; rather, they articulated specific visions for good sex based on their own political and theological visions. 

Devotions and Desires nicely expands the range of religious actors and contexts in this history. Kathi Kern and Aiko Takeuchi-Demirci track transnational histories of religion and sexuality. Kern traces how Winnifred Wygal (1884-1972), a staff person with the Young Women’s Christian Association, experienced a conversion at Gandhi’s ashram while traveling in India that both strengthened her own Christian conviction and bolstered her understanding of same-sex desire. Takeuchi-Demirci demonstrates how US Catholics shaped the politics of birth control in postwar Japan. While conservative (white) Protestants appear throughout Devotions and Desires, they are not centered. Indeed, the contributors refreshingly open histories of religion and sexuality to include greater attention to Catholics, Mormons, mainline Protestants, Jews, and New Agers. Andrea Jain’s essay shows how yoga has been used both to subvert and conform to broader sexual and bodily norms. Judith Weisenfeld examines the letters of female members of Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement to a prospective recruit in order to recover an intriguing history of queer celibacy, race, and same-sex desire—a form of desire that was centrally shaped by the theology of Divine’s movement. Daniel Rivers’s essay tracks the experiences of gay men who escaped urban enclaves to form rural communities in the 1970s, illustrating how they drew from a range of religious and secular traditions to forge new visions of sex, sociality, and the sacred. And Lynne Gerber’s essay on Christmas celebrations at MCC San Francisco in 1989, at the height of the AIDS crisis, unfolds a powerful liturgical celebration that drew together Christian liberation theology, queer literature, and gay camp. This volume is especially successful in bringing the history of Judaism into these conversations. Essays by Rebecca Davis, Rachel Kranson, and Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub track Jewish approaches to the history of marriage, shifting debates about abortion, and the ordination of LGBT rabbis, respectively, across the history of the 20th century. 

Devotions and Desires is excellently suited for classroom use, especially for courses in US history, American religious history, and religion and sexuality. The essays are uniformly well-researched and finely-written case studies, and authors frequently reference common threads in other essays in the volume, helping readers to see shared insights across traditions and historical contexts. The essays are organized more or less chronologically, though this reader would have appreciated bolder and more creative subheadings throughout to give even more shape to the volume. 

The publication of Devotions and Desires provides a landmark moment in the historiography of religion and sexuality. The richness of these essays brings much needed contour to emerging conversations about religion and sexuality and helps to define these conversations as part of a critical new subfield in US history and American religious history. The study of religion and sexuality is no longer a niche topic, but rather a central area of concern if we want to understand US culture and politics. Devotions and Desires boldly enters ongoing debates and raises a number of important questions: how do we account for religious difference while still reckoning with the cultural and legal dominance of Protestant Christianity? How do we account for the overdetermined role of the nation state in our studies? How do we write these histories without losing the importance of other lines of difference, such as class, race, geography, ability, and gender (including trans) politics? How do scholars based in religious studies and in the history of sexuality approach these topics differently? 

If we do not reckon with histories of religion and sexuality, we will not understand US history and we will surely not begin to unpack the knotted forces driving so much of US and transnational politics in the current moment. We simplify these narratives at our own peril.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anthony M. Petro is Assistant Professor of Religion and Women & Gender Studies at Boston University.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gillian Frank is Visiting Fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.

Bethany Moreton is Professor of History at Dartmouth College.

Heather R. White is Visiting Assistant Professor in Religion and Queer Studies at the University of Puget Sound.


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