Reforming Sodom, or Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster
For those of you who missed the preorder parade, get your copy now of Heather R. White’s new book, Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights (UNC). I’m sure there will be a lot to say about White’s work in the upcoming months here at RIAH. What follows is less a review than a brief historiographical meditation upon this exceptional piece of scholarship.
Put simply, Reforming Sodom reveals the surprising history of Protestant contributions to the creation as well as destruction of the post-World War II “straight state.” As White explains:
The broad common sense about the Bible’s specifically same-sex meaning was an invention of the twentieth century. Today’s antihomosexual animus is not the singular residue of an ancient damnation. Rather, it is the product of a more complex modern synthesis. To find the influential generators of that synthesis, moreover, we should look not to fundamentalist preachers but to their counterparts (pp. 3-4).
SPOILER ALERT: By “counterparts,” White means the liberal Protestants who coopted, formed, and spread the therapeutic sciences after 1920. Her work is in keeping with recent arguments by David Hollinger, Matt Hedstrom, Gene Zubovich, and others regarding the central—if often “quiet”—impact of liberal Protestantism within American culture. Countering secularist narratives of the liberatory power of the social sciences, White advances a (thankfully) plain-man’s Foucaultian account of how liberal Protestant pastors, Bible scholars, and others generated a “new sexual binary” between heterosexuality and homosexuality. Much like Dr. Frankenstein gazing upon his monster, however, liberal Protestants quickly recoiled in horror at what they had fashioned. They revolted against—and generally forgot—their own handiwork, becoming early supporters during the 1950s and 1960s of a pro-gay politics. Evangelical conservatives, nearly a decade later, turned to the same “therapeutic orthodoxy” in their resistance to gay rights. Thus, as White concludes, “a liberal Protestant legacy has shaped all sides of the oppositional politics over gay rights” (p. 5).
Reforming Sodom can be read as an essential compliment to at least two recent syntheses of post-World War II America.
White’s challenge to contemporary culture war stories necessarily brings her into conversation with Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America. Hartman’s book, discussed here at RIAH, posits an existential divide between a “normative” and a “liberated” America. In contrast, White writes:
The oppositional forces of the emerging culture wars had more in common than it seemed. The certainties about religious orthodoxy and sexual identity defended on on the Right and Left carried forward assumptions already influenced by liberal Protestants. Both the emancipatory aims of queer activists and the anchors for conservatives anti-gay Bible traditions drew from modern therapeutic understandings of sexuality that leaned against an invented religious past. . . . Nowhere is Protestantism more pervasive or more invisible than in what seems to be the quintessentially secular quest of finding and expressing liberated sexual self, a practice critical to the politics on all sides of the late twentieth-century culture wars (p. 5, 185).
Of course, Reforming Sodom does not negate Hartman’s own binary, as Hartman could readily concede White’s point about a common liberal-conservative ancestry while still maintaining that the culture wars were real. In any case, I can’t stop thinking about either of these books apart from the other.
Similarly, White’s study is a great companion to Robert O. Self’s All in the Family. Self is interested in storifying the culture wars much like Hartman. At the same time, he shares White’s concern to understand how conservatives have taken over liberal ideals—in Self’s case, the New Deal “breadwinner” family. Or vice-versa, since Self's book was published first. As White observes (borrowing from Amy DeRogatis’s Saving Sex):
Conservative religious practitioners, no less than their liberal and secular counterparts, also navigated new mandates to practice sex religiously . . . Amid the worries about fragile marriages and imperiled families, a couple’s sex life bore the imperative of holding things together. Thus, even as many Christians—conservative and liberal—lamented sexual permissiveness and moral decline that they feared might threaten the stability of the family, they also championed views about healthy sexuality that rested on the same therapeutic foundations. Protestant practitioners, even when they positioned themselves in a reactionary role to a changing culture, broadly shared an ideal about sexuality as core to identity and fundamental to human well-being (p. 10).
It is important to note as well how the Christian right drew upon psychological “research” to fight gay rights as well as promote happy heterosexuality. Can anyone else remember when Christian news radio almost daily ran segments equating homosexuality and pedophilia? The thrust of the Christian rights's anti-gay agenda was therapeutic, not merely or even primarily biblical. Ultimately, then, White adds significant weight to Self’s arguments about the liberal origins of family values.
Reforming Sodom is a fascinating and fantastic work. White’s greatest success might just be her enviable ability to develop a theoretically sophisticated argument within a clear and compelling story. I’m already looking forward to see what my students make of it.