The Moore scandal is part of a long history of complicated sexual politics in the Christian world. In her new book, Moral Combat, the Washington University in St. Louis professor Marie Griffith writes about American Christians' battles over sexual ...
Before this month, Roy Moore was best known nationally for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama state supreme-court building. Now, the aspiring senator is accused of hitting on teens at an Alabama mall and inappropriately touching a 14-year-old girl.
These allegations may be the end of Moore. Congressional Republicans have started disowning him, and he’s tentatively dropping in state polls. But it’s possible that the reputation of evangelical Christians will also suffer. Despite condemnations from a number of nationally prominent Christian leaders and a few in Alabama, many of the state’s faithful continue to back the controversial candidate.
To outsiders, the support might seem like a stark contradiction in values. Even to insiders, it can seem that way. “I’m … bothered,” wrote William S. Brewbaker III, a law professor at the University of Alabama, in The New York Times, “by what Mr. Moore’s popularity says about the sorry state of evangelical Christianity.”
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The Moore scandal is part of a long history of complicated sexual politics in the Christian world. In her new book, Moral Combat, the Washington University in St. Louis professor Marie Griffith writes about American Christians’ battles over sexual harassment, birth control, and gender roles. This fall’s wave of sexual-assault accusations has often seemed to echo the past, bringing to mind Anita Hill’s accusations about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Paula Jones’s allegations against former President Bill Clinton. Incidents like these, Griffith writes, all get tied up in the distinctive sexual politics of the Christian world.
The book—which covers much more than sexual-harassment scandals, including everything from Margaret Sanger’s legacy at Planned Parenthood to Alfred Kinsey’s obsession with clergy—comes out in December. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Emma Green: What is up with evangelicals justifying Roy Moore assaulting a 14-year-old as a 30-something?
Marie Griffith: I think what we’re seeing is an extreme politicization of Christianity. It almost does not feel like the evangelical tradition of a generation ago. I don’t want to overstate that, of course—there’s plenty that’s still evangelicalism. But it has become so focused on power.
It looks like hypocrisy to the outside world. I’m not sure I quite see it as hypocrisy, but I do see it as a real politicization of the tradition.
Green: Sexual harassment has long been used as a political tool—just take the cases of Paula Jones and Anita Hill. How did harassment become so weaponized?
Griffith: Conservative Christians rallied around Clarence Thomas and suggested there was nothing believable about Anita Hill’s charges. But with Paula Jones, they came to her defense, legally and financially. Even without judging the truth or falsity of either claim, you can see that a political reaction was at work.
Green: I’ve been thinking a lot about which women’s stories are considered legitimate. Anita Hill was part of the Christian world—she was on faculty at Oral Roberts University. And yet there was a wholesale effort to delegitimize what she was saying.
“We forget how primed we are to believe or disbelieve a story depending on who is telling it.”
The women in Alabama who have accused Roy Moore are probably also fairly conservative, and might be Christians. Why are some claims doubted and systematically undermined by conservatives, even when they’re made by Christian women?
Griffith: Maybe it really does come down, even unconsciously, to politics. I hate to make people sound so calculating, but in some ways, that is what it seems.
Those who were already supportive of Clarence Thomas were primed not to believe in any sort of moral failing. By the time Hill’s story became public and widely known, there had already been great controversy over his nomination and very strong support coming from the conservative Christian world. There wasn’t a frame in that world except to disbelieve the story she told.
On the other hand, with Paula Jones, when her story came to light, there was already tremendous hatred of Bill Clinton, and of Hillary Clinton, too, in those same conservative Christian circles. So they’re primed to believe a story from their hatred of him.
In some ways, we forget how primed we are, politically, to believe or disbelieve a story depending on who is telling it.
Green: How did sexual politics become so central to religious discourse in the United States? Why do we have such an obsession with sexual morality?
Griffith: That’s the question that stirred me to write this book. Why sex?
The Bible has things to say about sex. But for Jesus, in the New Testament, it’s not a major thing at all. He’s far more concerned with feeding the poor and caring for those in need. When you look back over the last century of Christian argumentation and political concern, however, it’s had a lot more to do with sex than with caring for the poor.
That’s not to say that Christians don’t care for the poor—they do in all sorts of ways. But the motivating concerns are sex, birth control, obscenity and censorship laws, sex education in public schools, and even abortion, which has a lot to do with sex and sexual morality.
I think it’s a lot about women and gender roles, and wanting to hold onto traditional gender norms. These battles have been fought over and over again on that territory, about conserving the home and traditional family values.
Green: The standard narrative on the left is that conservative Christian sexual politics are all about keeping women from having power. For example: Linda Greenhouse recently wrote a New York Times column arguing that the Trump administration has pushed back on the birth-control mandate in the Affordable Care Act because they don’t want to normalize women’s empowerment.
Your research seems to lead to a slightly more nuanced conclusion. How would you address this pervasive claim that conservative Christians just hate women?
Griffith: Oh, I don’t think it is about Christians hating women, at all. I do think it’s about power relations. But I also think it’s about a specific vision of America as a nation. There’s still this sense that God has an exceptional destiny for the United States—it’s different and higher than any other nation’s destiny on earth. And there is something about changing moral norms and sexual practices, and women’s empowerment, that seems to threaten that.
“In some ways, we seem farther apart in agreeing on sexual rules than we ever have before.”
Green: What are the deeper notions about sex, sexuality, gender, and body at work here?
Griffith: Notions of purity have been very important for Christians throughout history, including sexual purity and virginity.
Men’s virginity has never been a deep subject of reflection. It comes up, kind of like, “Yeah, yeah, men should be sexually pure, too.” But female virginity and purity has been such a strong theme, and a source of attraction in some way. There’s this desire for the sexually pure, girlish model of womanhood.
When you think about the charges against Roy Moore, and instances of pedophilia in different contexts—not just Christian contexts by any stretch—I wonder how that desire for this kind of virginal girl gets twisted.
Green: Conservative sexual politics aren’t just about men pushing an agenda and women acting as passive victims. Many women over time have stood up for traditional sexual norms and gender roles, and have faced off against one another on either side of the debate.
Griffith: Yes. Thousands upon thousands of women opposed women’s suffrage. Many women in conservative Christian settings have celebrated notions of purity and male authority.
After the 1960s, you have the rise not just of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, but of Phyllis Schlafly, who was every bit as powerful and persuasive as Falwell. She had a huge female audience.
You had Beverly LaHaye. You had Anita Bryant. These women were extremely beloved; they were Christian celebrities in the 1970s. They all preached very directly about sexual morality and women needing to fulfill their godly roles as women, which meant needing to be submissive to their husbands. That’s a powerful message.
Green: Issues of sex and sexuality are still so charged and divisive—we’re talking about these topics just as much as we ever have. Do you think this will continue?
Griffith: None of the issues I write about are resolved. Even issues we once thought were settled, such as birth-control access, are back in the public conversation. In some ways, we seem farther apart in agreeing on sexual rules than we ever have before.
We are still trying to steer around these issues. Some things are changing: Attitudes around homosexuality have shifted so dramatically in just a generation, which is really quite astonishing. But there is something about sex and gender rules and gender norms that remains right at the center of our political debates, I think, and probably will for some time to come.
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