Soon after taking office, Pope Francis complained that his church had become obsessed with sex. His criticism could equally have described American evangelical Protestants, who spent much of the twentieth century loudly opposing birth control, “unchaste” entertainment, pornography, the Kinsey studies, sex education, abortion rights, and same-sex marriage. For half a century, these positions often united right-wing Catholic and Protestant groups. Their crusades, even when they failed, have been costly to liberals and leftists, particularly feminists, forcing them to concentrate on defending sex and reproductive rights at the expense of other causes.
But these crusades never involved all religious leaders. Some American liberals today—especially the secular, who are often ignorant of intra-religious conflicts—have a tendency to see the Christian right as typical of all politically active Christian denominations. To this misconception R. Marie Griffith, a professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis, offers an important corrective. Her new book, Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians & Fractured American Politics, draws attention to the stubborn and often courageous resistance to the sex-and-gender right by many liberal Christian leaders from “mainline” Protestant denominations, who were joined at times by a small minority of liberal Catholic clergy. (Griffith includes some discussion of Jewish participants in these battles but focuses on the more intense intra-Christian conflicts.)
Griffith also shows that sex-repressive politics have long been closely bound up with racism. Much of the Christian right grew out of the movement to avoid school integration: As public schools were desegregated in the 1950s, whites, especially in the South, set up Christian schools that could choose which students to admit, thereby creating what became known as “segregation academies.” A major part of the schools’ objective was to prevent black-white dating and so defend white women’s “purity.” Because lynching was often justified by allegations that black men had assaulted white women, a Tennessee congressman could remark in 1921 that an anti-lynching bill should be retitled “a bill to encourage rape.” So extreme was this anxiety about black male sexuality that lynchings often included sexually mutilating the victims.
At the same time, anti-communism imbued the religious resistance to civil rights and women’s and sexual rights. White supremacists in the South were not wrong to associate communism with anti-racism: When the Communist Party campaigned against lynching in the 1930s, it was the only white-dominated organization to do so. When Ruth Benedict repudiated the very notion of racial purity in The Races of Mankind (1943), right-wing evangelicals charged that not only was the book ungodly but it was also Communist propaganda—allegations that led the USO, the U.S. Army, and some schools to ban the book. And redbaiting characterized campaigns against sexual rights, from the charge that the Bolsheviks made women public property to the claim that American Communists promoted licentiousness in order to undermine the nation’s moral values.