Moral Combat

How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics

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R. Marie Griffith
  • New York, NY: 
    Basic Books
    , December
     416 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics, Marie Griffith exposes fault lines in complicated 20thcentury American debates where sex, Christianity, and politics intersect. “The very meaning of sex, gender, and sexuality” were at the heart of these contentions, she wagers, and a key orienting concern would be whether tradition or change should be embraced on questions of gender, marriage, and sexual norms (xiii). Beginning with the 1920s, a decade of provocative change fueled by the women’s rights movement, Griffith follows a loose pattern of attending closely to one central debate and one or two significant figures per decade. She begins by highlighting Margaret Sanger’s role in the birth control movement of the 1920s and the resulting dissension between Protestants and Catholics over contraception. Griffith details the racialized rhetorics underlying Protestant anti-Catholicism, Sanger’s battles with Catholic leadership, and the pivotal role that Sanger’s embrace of traditional marriage played in shoring up faith-based support for contraceptives. 

Griffith then traces the history of American anti-vice laws and censorship, from early Puritan efforts restricting books to Catholic bishops’ organization of the Legion of Decency promoting self-censorship rather than federal policy to fight salacious Hollywood films (64). Examining early vitriolic Christian reactions to D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), Griffith explains that concerns were not just over explicit sex scenes, but rather over female sexual awakening and pleasure, stoked in an unapologetically extramarital context (75). 

Focusing on debates surrounding interracial relationships in the 1940s, she deftly exposes white southern Christians’ theologically framed beliefs (nurtured by “racialized readings of the Bible,” 87) in the divinely-ordained division of races, the supremacy of whiteness as part of “God’s racially ordered plan” (85), and the purported necessity of maintaining white purity through legal segregation and horrific extralegal racial terror lynchings. Tracking the denunciation of anthropological literature debunking the idea of racial superiority, Griffith details the resistance of southern white Protestant politicians and pastors to interracial intimate relationships, including accusing supporters of integration of Communist allegiances. 

In the 1950s, Protestants and Catholics would forge alliances to celebrate and condemn revelations that high percentages of Americans were sexually active outside of marriage, just one revelation in the wake of sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s reports. While conservative leaders would blame the trifecta of “feminism, Freud, and foreigners” (139) for the dangerous threat they perceived was wrought by women’s sexual freedom, other liberal leaders like Seward Hiltner viewed these discoveries as positive developments and useful insights for ethical and pastoral reflection rather than signs of cultural destruction (150). 

While there is significant scholarship on the activism of conservative Catholics and the Protestant “Religious Right” in securing abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education as the sole federally-funded approach, Griffith’s documentation of Quaker Mary Calderone’s founding of SIECUS, the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, sheds important light on the initial progressive and Christian commitments of sex educators in the 1960s. Detailing the theological frameworks utilized by both Calderone and her opponents, Griffith gives evidence of tensions surfacing in the 1960s as rapidly changing ideas of family, marriage, and ecclesial authority were all at play in contentions over how, what, and when adolescents should learn about sex. 

The now-entrenched battles over abortion can give the impression that pro-life and pro-choice sides were always framed as such, and that Christians have always adamantly opposed abortion under all circumstances. Griffith demonstrates, however, that Christians have occupied diverse positions on sides not always so clearly demarcated. While conservative Catholic and Protestant voices are present in her analysis, the faith-inspired commitments of figures like Baptist Reverend Howard Moody and Catholic Frances Kissling disclose dynamic rather than staid approaches to legal interventions on women’s health care decisions, religious hierarchies, and the goodness and purpose of sex. 

 In a chapter with new resonance in light of the #MeToo movement, theologically-imbued responses to sexual harassment charges brought against political figures in the 1990s cut strikingly close. Centered here are Anita Hill’s testimony against Justice Clarence Thomas in his Supreme Court confirmation hearing and the impeachment vote against President Bill Clinton following Paula Jones’s allegations. Griffith highlights ways that chasms grew more permanent between Christians as feminism, race, and the necessity of sexual morality for civic leaders become fluid categories and priorities are dependent on the accuser and the accused. 

In her final chapter, Griffith narrates two events: the culmination of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision legislating marriage equality in the United States and the election of openly gay Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson. As in previous chapters, she articulates the history of Christian perspectives on the debate at hand—this time same-sex marriage—that are much more ambiguous than straightforward or strictly partisan. Particularly insightful in this chapter are the ways that this debate elucidates transformations in approaches to gender, sexuality, and sex over the century. Robinson’s sexuality might have been problematic, but his divorce was not, for example (301).

Moral Combat is significant for its breadth and depth, and through Griffith’s capacious and critical analysis, intractable debates are complicated in generative ways. She helpfully disrupts any notion that a good Christian or a good American are objective or universal distinctions. Readers familiar with and appreciative of Griffith’s previous work will find another astute diagnosis of the unfaltering Christian concern with what women can, should, or must not do. Another contribution is Griffith’s robust attention to persons and theological frameworks  often elided in scholarship. For example, her attention to the pernicious, sustained presence of racialized discourse in debates makes clear that racist theologies were a part of determining who could be pure or protected. Likewise, her focus on Hiltner, Calderone, Moody, and Robinson expands an understanding of Christian identity and faith as enlivening for progressive Christians rather than only conservative Christians. The 2016 election revealed stark truths about Americans’ perspectives on women, trust, race, authority, and power, Griffith contends. Moral Combat is a crucial resource for interpreting the stakes of debates over sex, gender, and sexuality in a country often more fragmented than united.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kathryn House is a doctoral candidate in Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

R. Marie Griffith is the John C. Danforth distinguished professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where she directs the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri.


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