Sexual Purity and American Adolescence
Published by: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 1stJuly, 2015
Price: $29.95 (USD)
First taking hold of the American cultural imagination in the 1990s, the sexual purity movement of contemporary evangelicalism has since received considerable attention from a wide range of media outlets, religious leaders, and feminist critics. Virgin Nation offers a history of this movement that goes beyond the Religious Right, demonstrating a link between sexual purity rhetoric and fears of national decline that has shaped American ideas about morality since the nineteenth century.
Concentrating on two of today’s best known purity organizations, True Loves Waits and Silver Ring Thing, Sara Moslener’s investigation reveals that purity work over the last two centuries has developed in concert with widespread fears of changing traditional gender roles and sexual norms, national decline, and global apocalypse. Moslener highlights a number of points in U.S. history when evangelical beliefs and values have seemed to provide viable explanations for and solutions to widespread cultural crises, resulting in the growth of their cultural and political influence. By asserting a causal relationship between sexual immorality, national decline, and apocalyptic anticipation, leaders have shaped a purity rhetoric that positions Protestant evangelicalism as the salvation of American civilization.
From the purity reformers of the nineteenth century to fundamentalist leaders such as Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry, Moslener illuminates the evolution of a strain of purity rhetoric that runs throughout Protestant evangelicalism.
I think I requested this book because the blogosphere has been exercising itself recently about a family who buy into purity culture harbouring a child molester, and I wanted to understand why fundamentalist and evangelical US Protestant Christians are so obsessed with ‘purity’. Frankly, I find the idea of middle-aged preachers desperately trying to control the sex lives of adolescents disturbing, but also ludicrously arrogant.
I was fascinated to find that the ‘sexual purity’ movement has its origins in the nineteenth century social purity movement, and first wave feminist thought. Women used their ‘moral authority’ as supposedly sexless, more civilized beings to assert their right to social, political and religious equality with men. There was also a strong strain of racism and class snobbery – white middle class protestant women were the moral exemplars everyone should emulate – in the argument. The main arguments of purity pushers, then as now, are that America is declining because people have more sexual freedoms, and that in order to ‘get right with God’ and not go to Hell for being a normal human being (because apparently we’re all born evil and need discipline to make us less evil), adolescents need to remain chaste until marriage. Only one, lifelong, exclusive, heterosexual marriage of course.
Seriously though, the history was interesting, but the reasoning of purity advocates is quite ridiculous. Sara Moslener could have been very cruel in her observations of the modern purity movement, instead she writes with understanding and compassion about a subculture that influences many hundreds of thousands of Americans.
These sincerely held beliefs are a part of American evangelical/fundamentalist religious traditions. The author describes the evangelical method of recruiting from the 1940’s onwards, wherein preachers such as Billy Graham mix fears of national decline with religious impulses, and secular entertainment with the pulpit. The organization ‘Silver Ring Thing’ is a prime modern example of this strategy; they put on two and a half hour shows utilising modern media and cultural references to convince children that safe sex before marriage is evil and will cause all sorts of problems, then relieve the tension with their sales pitch: make a pledge, buy a special bible and ring and you’ll be saved!
As well as writing with compassion, the author writes clearly and intelligently focusing on her main themes and showing the different and complex layers of the purity movement, its origins and historical trajectory.
This is a very useful book for the curious about different religions (as I am) and those interested in the history of modern US Protestantism.
If I seem harsh towards fundamentalist/evangelical traditions it’s because, having read the stories of those brought up in these traditions and the fairly regular abuse some suffered, I can’t help but find the excuses of religion weak. Also, the same rubbish – gender essentialism, racism, classicism, homophobia – that is a feature of these religious denominations is the same as those used by anti-feminists etc. to insist that nothing must ever change. I generally try to maintain an attitude of acceptance and a rule of ‘believe what you want, just don’t push it on me’, but as the book shows, these traditions, to which purity culture is deeply indebted, are toxic as the sea around Fukashima.
I had better go: books to read, novels to write. Dogs to calm down – there’s aircraft going over, the dogs don’t like the rumbling noises.