Why There is so Much Sex in Christian Conservatism, and why Jerry Falwell is in Bed with Milton Friedman

Paul Harvey

Earlier on the blog we posted several entries about Jon Shields, Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right and Jason Bivins, Religion of Fear. I found the contrast between the two fascinating -- a persuasive and statistically detailed political science study showing the skillful, civil, and persuasive ways certain Christian conservative groups have made their arguments in the public square on the one hand, and a searching cultural examination of the ultimately anti-democratic and anti-pluralist products consumed by some of these same folks, on the other.

Jason's book came out before the Obama "birther movement" hit the news -- he'll have to add another chapter in the next edition. While you're waiting for that, the blog post "
Bircher/Truther/Birther" gives an excellent historical analysis placing this canard within the paranoid style of American politics traced brilliantly by Richard Hofstadter, a theme developed further by David Brion Davis's "Some Themes of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature." Both showed how "American diversity creates American paranoia"; how, we might say, Randolph Bourne (the great progressive-era thinker known for his essays "Trans-National America" and "War is the Health of the State") is related to Glenn Beck.

I've been thinking over this recently watching the cacophonously unenlightened health care "debate," and wondering where all the flowers of civility have gone as the religion of fear, paranoia, and just plain lunacy takes center place in the public square. And hell, I wasn't going to do this, but while we're on the subject of boundless paranoia and before we get to the more scholarly matters of this post (and please, Professor David Brion Davis, can you write an article on Glenn Beck? -- pretty please?):

Ok, now on to the matters at hand. In
Freedom's Coming, I briefly speculated on how and why gender had supplanted race as a central organizing force for southern Christian conservatives. I made no attempt to mount a full argument on this point, but merely threw it out as a suggestion. Much to my surprise, nearly every review of the book addressed this point as if it were central (rather than tangential) to the entire project. Since then, it's been nice to see other scholars (including our own Seth Dowland on this blog) take up this issue and give it a serious analysis, way more than I did.

In that spirit, a must read (and a fun read) for you scholars out there: Bethany Moreton, "Why is There So Much Sex in Christian Conservatism, and why Do So Few Historians Care About It," Journal of Southern History, August 2009, 717-739. Yeah, you have to be a member of the Southern Historical Association to get the journal.

The piece, of course, takes its title from Leo Ribuffo's well-known article of 1994, "
Why Is There So Much Conservatism in the United States, And Why Do So Few Historians Know Anything About It," from the American Historical Review.

We know a lot more now about the history of conservatism in America than we did when that 1994 article was published -- indeed, you can't heave an egg out of a Pullman car window these days without hitting a scholar who is working on the history of conservatism in America, or a book on the subject (with apologies to H. L. Mencken --and while you're heaving that egg, try at least to laser target one of those wingnuts carrying around the Obama with Hitler mustache signs, screaming incoherently at town hall meetings in some grotesque parody of one of FDR's Four Freedoms, and reading Sarah Palin's fact-free hysterics about Obama's plan to mandate killing grandma not to mention her own child) -- but most of this work addresses political, social, and religious conservatism.

One shortcoming of some cultural history is a tendency to be disconnected from hard issues of economics. Which raises the question: what's the economy got to do with sexuality and religious conservatism? This is related to the larger question of how libertarians can mount alliances with religous conservatives despite their obvious philosophical differences. Bethany Moreton (author of To Serve God and Wal-Mart, reviewed here in the NY Times) introduces the issue this way: "How did the self-styled 'values voters' behind deregulation, privatization, and globalization come to see nonreproductive sex as the central threat to America's soul? In short, how did Milton Friedman wind up in bed with Jerry Falwell?" Moreton goes on to link developments in political economy with a particular sexual economy in ways that help answer the question, "What could white women . . . have found so appealing about a hierarchy in which they lost out?" I'm not persuaded by everything in this piece, but so what. There's not an uninteresting sentence in the whole article, and it moves the conversation forward wonderfully.

To that Milton Friedman/Jerry Falwell tryst, you better add a third (at least): Catholic conservatives. Marian Ronan's Tracing the Sign of the Cross: Sexuality, Mourning, and the Future of American Catholicism, investigates some similar issues with post-Vatican II Catholicism (albeit without Moreton's emphasis on political economy; this is a literary/cultural study). In this interview from the Columbia University press website, the author (who keeps her own blog here) explains how sexual prohibition took the place once occupied by doctrine in Catholicism:

. . . at the beginning of the 1960s, white American Catholics were poised to achieve the idealized way of life our immigrant forebears had struggled to attain. Many of us were also convinced that with Vatican II the democratic vision of the church we had long favored was going to become dominant. Yet by the end of the decade, the "American dream" had exploded into social conflict and the Vatican was fighting our much anticipated liberalization of the church with increasing ferocity. Then came the economic downturn of the 1970s and the refusal of women's ordination. Our losses were enormous. Yet for reasons that I explore in Tracing, many American Catholics did not engage and work through those losses. Instead, we—conservatives and liberals alike—threw ourselves into the Catholic culture wars. Central to this development was the decision on the part of the episcopacy and the Vatican to shift the center of the Catholic faith from doctrine to sex and gender prohibition, a shift that contradicted what many of us had come to believe about the church. In truth, the Vatican had been focusing more and more on abortion and contraception since its massive losses in the liberal democratic revolutions of the nineteenth century. But after Vatican II, the gloves came off. Sexual prohibition replaced doctrine as the heart of the Catholic faith, and although the governance structure after Vatican II remained monarchical, so that we still have little or no impact on what the bishops and the Vatican do, many of us have spent much of our lives fighting against it. And let me be clear, I include myself in this "we." We believed this was the right thing to do, but it also protected us from mourning our enormous losses.

So, it's not a Protestant thing. The move from race, doctrine and whatever else to gender as a central defining point of proper order seems to be the point where someone combining adroit skills in the history of political economy with the tools of religious studies analysis could make her mark. Anyone ya'll know out there doing that?


Interesting post...I will check out these books and the most recent issue of the JSH.

I do have one question though: the paranoid style was really pioneered by Richard Hofstadter, so did Davis publish his own take on Hofstadter's work? That sentence had me puzzled.
Paul Harvey said…
Hofstadter, yes, that's what I meant -- now corrected. Davis wrote about antebellum conspiracy movements (anti-Mormon, anti-Masonic, etc) -- related but different.
I didn't mean to be nitpicky; I was just afraid that I had missed some important scholarship because I didn't immediately see the connection.

P.S. Not sure if I had commented here prior to today, but I'm an ABD history student, focusing on 19th century America. I've been reading you via RSS for a year now, I think.
Seth Dowland said…
Fascinating post, Paul. I'm no expert in political economy, but I do think that evangelicals' sense of being culturally embattled enabled them to forge a bond with libertarians & other political conservatives who saw the government as enemy rather than friend. Even as conservatism gained political power in the 1980s, there was still a sense that popular culture was growing more and more crass, and that enabled conservative evangelicals to maintain a sense of embattlement during the Reagan/Bush I era. Christian Smith's 1997 book American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving does a nice job showing how evangelicals maintained this seeming paradox.
Paul Harvey said…
History Enthusiast: Thanks for following, hope you'll continue and comment here more often. What is your diss. about?

Seth: Thanks for the ref., wasn't familiar with that book.
deg said…
Great post, Paul. That question about non-Protestant versions of this stuff is a really important one. Got my noggin joggin', to be sure...

I agree with Seth and, of course, Bethany's take on these matters. She is on my commitee...soooo....

BUT I'd push back the dates much further than the 1970s and 1980s. Plenty of evangelicals on the conservative side of the fence found solidarity with freer market economists and economics way back in the 1930s and 1940s as well. The sense of embattlement that Christian Smith studies certainly defined the pre-war and early post-war evangelicals' sense of place in the economic world and why they thought like-minded intellectuals, business leaders, and constituents would line up with their hyper-individualist religious ethos. If I remember correctly, doesn't Leo Ribuffo deal with this in his book on the early Christian Right? I know Darren Dochuk's work does, but it's not out yet.
Kelly Baker said…
Yes, Ribuffo deals with Christian conservatism in the 1930s.

But Deg, I call and raise your emphasis back even farther. I would but the embattled mentality back to the 1920s. The Klan, who coincides with Christian conservatism in its 1920s incarnation, already envisioned an embattled white, Protestant majority. The order's rhetorical style even pops up in the current age. Moreover, gender and race both mobilized them. They were deeply worried about the place of women in nation, especially in regard to marriage, sexuality and the beloved American home.
deg said…

I'll call and raise. I'm not sure the Klan is the best early example of the Christian conservatism that emerges in the Depression and post-war era, primarily because of their worries over the gender implications of market capitalism. Didn't it create that sense of embattlement for the Klan in the 1920s, right? Chain stores, mass culture, the feminization of men, the sexualization of women - that's a big part of what spurred on Klan activism and membership (if you accept Nancy MacLean's take on these matters). Given that, I wouldn't classify them as the Falwell-Friedman hybrids of the 1930s and afterwards either. Then again, you've delved into the Klan more than I, so let me know if I'm off base.
deg said…
Happy Birthday, by the way!
Kelly Baker said…
Actually, I would argue that the Klan's sense of embattlement stemmed from their concern over the decline of Protestantism in American culture, and their concerns over gender, race and nationalism (among others) had religious motivations. MacLean primarily focuses on gender as a motivator for the order, but my research suggests the anxiety over Catholics, women, and race was because the order feared the decline of the nation's morality. The Klan hoped that the white Protestant mainstream was still dominant, but the members feared that homogeneous culture was already dissipating.

And Deg, you are correct that most wouldn't place the Klan in this trajectory, which is what I am trying to do. We will see how successful that argument proves.

Thanks for the birthday wish and the good commentary.
deg said…
Thanks, Kelly. Looking forward to reading your book!