If we want to understand the challenge of disintegrating sexual norms and the culture wars surrounding them, one of the most important things we need is history. This crisis did not just explode out of nowhere in the 1990s or even the 1960s. In Moral Combat, R. Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, reviews a century’s worth of American cultural conflict over sexuality, fueled by a growing divide between religious subcultures. Her account is subtly biased, but readers will benefit from her clear presentation of the longer history and larger significance of our sexual conflicts.
Griffith picks up the story in the aftermath of the conflict over the 19th Amendment. With women’s suffrage enshrined in the Constitution, the nation had hardly caught its breath before it was embroiled in a series of political conflicts over sexuality. Suffrage was followed by a series of what we would now call “culture wars” over birth control laws, censorship of pornography, marriage across ethnic lines, Alfred Kinsey’s sex research, and sex education in schools. These led straight into the battles over abortion, sexual harassment, gay rights, and transgenderism that are still raging today.
The first and most important takeaway from Moral Combat, then, is that the culture wars are at least a century old. Since the women’s suffrage movement began, there has never been a time when political conflict over sex was not an important presence in American public life.
The second takeaway is the centrality of sex to the culture wars. Other issues have been involved, of course. But there is a reason the controversy over abortion shot right to the center of public attention and stayed there, while the controversy over euthanasia remains at the margins. The moral question at stake—the sanctity of human life versus the freedom of human choice—is the same in both cases. Abortion, however, is about sex in a way euthanasia is not.
Sex is at the center of the culture wars because sex is essential to religion and also (as the basis of the family) to politics. Conflicting approaches to sexuality, caused by different religious views, create political conflict because they produce different understandings of the family. The family is the institution that connects individuals to the wider social world, so any major change in the life of families implies some kind of major political change as a result—and vice versa. We see this today in debates about the definition of marriage, but it was just as true in debates about birth control laws in the 1920s or sex education in schools in the 1960s.
At bottom, then, our political conflicts over sexuality are really religious conflicts. And for most of the century, they were not primarily conflicts between religion and irreligion, but between different kinds of religion. That is the third takeaway from Moral Combat. The growing political divide over sexuality is inseparable from a growing religious divide, one that began in the 19th century as a division between those who followed historic Christian teaching and those who followed “modernist” theologies.
The religious nature of the conflict was less obvious in the 1920s. But Griffith shows how even at that time, public moral controversies revealed important differences in religious outlook. Battles over birth control were often, just underneath the surface, battles over Roman Catholicism. Later, modernist religious leaders criticized D. H. Lawrence’s pornographic novels but also found some redeeming merits in them. And they were embarrassed by the uncouth populism of Lawrence’s opponents. Meanwhile, Christian leaders grounded in historic and traditional theological commitments saw Lawrence simply as a purveyor of wickedness. The seeds of the 20th-century culture wars had been sown.
The religious nature of the conflict became clearer over the course of the century. And this increased clarity hardened and exacerbated the differences. The more that people grasped that religious values were at stake, the more polarization began feeding on itself.
Griffith’s telling of this story is well-organized and thoroughly researched without being dry or pedantic. I enjoyed reading the book and learned a good deal.
I especially appreciated her decision to devote significant attention to the central role of sexual anxiety in America’s congenital racism. Panic and horror at the specter of “miscegenation” (usually described in much less printable language) have been ever-present factors in America’s resistance to civil rights. Here, as elsewhere, politics and sexuality are inextricably linked because they both shape and are shaped by the institutions of marriage and family.
I did find Griffith’s account subtly but consistently biased in favor of the modernizers. To take a few examples: She bends over backward to rescue Margaret Sanger and her movement from their creepy enthusiasm for eugenics; Griffith delicately remarks that they were “caught up in the eugenic ideas then common among the white middle and upper classes,” which is a little like saying Al Capone was caught up in the glamorization of organized crime then common in Chicago. She mentions criticisms of Kinsey’s research methods without dwelling on them in great detail, producing a narrative in which Kinsey stands for honest and unbiased science against hysterical critics who want to cover up facts. Her history of abortion before the late 20th century is also lopsided, creating the impression that abortion wasn’t really controversial until the upheaval of sex roles in modernity made it so. And her account of the same-sex-marriage debate downplays theological and philosophical differences, instead portraying a battle between one group conceiving of “freedom” as “submission to clerical authority” and another group espousing the “freedom to love and behave ethically without fixating on gender roles.”
Perhaps the clearest instance of this bias is in the introduction’s summary of what motivated the traditional side of the cultural and religious divide. She argues that the primary motive was fear, and indeed, there is a reasonable case to be made for that view. But she says that what the traditionalists were afraid of was “increasing women’s freedom,” “encroaching religious or ethnic ‘others,’” and America’s displacement as a “great nation.” To suggest that no other fears were involved is remarkably unfair. In light of the deep unhappiness of America after the sexual revolution—the alienation and loneliness, the exploitation and human trafficking, the sexual impotence and frustration, the millions of betrayed children in broken homes—it’s long past time to admit that if the traditionalists were wrong to panic and give way to their fears, they were not wrong in thinking we had much to be afraid of.
I also thought Griffith neglected to follow up on one important aspect of her thesis. She tells us repeatedly that what began as a divide over particular moral issues gradually became a divide over the nature of modernity itself. The conflict, she argues, involved “the authority to define the boundaries of Christianity” and the relationship between that authority and America’s constitutional order. (In this regard, I found Griffith’s treatment of Lawrence’s religious interest in sex particularly insightful. As she makes clear, Lawrence was no mere peddler of cheap smut but the avant-garde of a new religious veneration of sexual freedom—one that would strongly influence modernist Christianity.)
But this thesis is undeveloped in Moral Combat, and that was a missed opportunity. I find it remarkable that Griffith tells us the conflict over the 19th Amendment was the critical opening battle of our century of culture war, but she devotes no space to describing it. She begins her story after that fateful conflict was already over. An exploration of the long, rancorous, and polarizing debate over women’s suffrage would have made more clear all that was at stake in the history that followed.
Fighting for Basic Principles
We have culture wars in part because we have religious freedom, and in our religious diversity, we disagree about what is good. But we also have them because we have changed the role of the family in the political order. In some ways, our culture-war divide goes back to a deep fissure that was present from the beginning in our national foundations. Both sides of the debate over women’s suffrage felt they were fighting for basic principles of the American political order. And in a sense, both were right.
The American founders thought freedom would be dangerous if the political community was made up only of isolated individuals. A polity of deeply and organically connected people required making the family unit, not the individual, the basic building block of society. In the founders’ view, extending equal voting rights to women would make the autonomous individual the basis of social order. This would atomize the complex structure of the community, leaving only a sort of social dust bowl—millions of isolated individuals, capable of forming temporary attachments but never permanently bonded to one another.
Subsequent history has shown us the dangers of atomization and social breakdown. Yet the classic American arguments for the freedom and equality of all people obviously apply to women as well as men. They are rational moral agents just as men are, so under the principles of the American order, it is—as it always was—unjust to deny them equal rights.
Thankfully, we are no longer willing to deny women the equal political rights to which they are entitled. But we no longer know how to build our social order on the family rather than on autonomous individuals, and that is a potentially fatal flaw.
If we do not yet have a solution, our first job is to understand the nature of the problem. This requires serious attention to history, and in this, Griffith’s volume will be a helpful resource.
Greg Forster is director of the Oikonomia Network and a visiting assistant professor of faith and culture at Trinity International University.
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