Evangelical Sexuality: From Margin to Center

The following is the first entry of a three-day series on Amy DeRogatis’s new book, Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2014).  See also Amy's website for several reviews, including her interview in Emma Green's Atlantic article, "The Warrior Wives of Christianity," which Seth Dowland wrote about a week ago.  Lynne Gerber is a Visiting Researcher at the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Seeking the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). Tomorrow, RIAH's own Samira Mehta interviews Amy about the writing of her book.  On Monday, Heather R. White situates Saving Sex among other new work in the history of religion and sexuality.

Lynne Gerber

Like many American subcultures, evangelicals are stuck in an identity dilemma. On the one hand they identify deeply with American culture, its history and its perceived mission. On the other they are deeply critical of the turns that culture has taken, particularly since the socio-cultural changes of the 1960s. As a result they often seem unable to decide if they represent culture or counter-culture, center or margin. Sexuality is one arena where this dilemma is most vividly felt. Not wanting to be perceived as prudes, evangelicals participate vigorously in American discourse about sex and sexuality, but wanting to take a stand for distinctive Christian beliefs such contributions are also frequently framed as critiques of that discourse. Are Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar of 19 Kids and Counting, for example, counter-cultural for their conservative beliefs and resultant large family? Or does their celebrity, and their willingness to court and profit from such celebrity, make them quintessential Americans?

This tension pervades many of the fascinating sexual projects discussed in Amy DeRogatis’s Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism. The book is a tour of sorts through a carefully selected set of sites in evangelical sexual culture. It begins and ends with two ostensibly similar but critically different versions of purity culture, one prevalent among white evangelicals and the other among African American Christians. In between the book takes us through the explosive market for Christian sex manuals that promise daring novelty while offering standard therapeutic fare, the world of deliverance ministries that use modern biology, as they understand it, to argue for the literal presence of demons in sexual fluids, and many variations on the theme of celebrating reproduction, which seems to frequently be paired with celebrating female submission in marriage, sexual and otherwise. It considers sites that fit squarely within the evangelical mainstream carefully explicating, for example, the range of purity literature aimed at children of different ages, while also attending to those which criticize that mainstream in the hopes of creating a purer Christian culture. DeRogatis is an able guide, making the distinctions between margin and center clear while pointing to some of the continuities between each.

The book exemplifies two related efforts in contemporary academic writing and writing about sexuality and American religion in general. The first is the effort to gear academic books toward a wider audience of more general readers. We academics are encouraged to do so in order to have a better chance of our work actually shaping public discourse on these issues, and to hopefully sell more books. As an academic writer who has been known to wish that her writing had just a modicum of the exposure, discussion, or, let’s be honest, financial remuneration of, say, Mark and Grace Driscoll’s Real Marriage, I understand the impulse. Saving Sex’s topic lends itself to that approach and largely succeeds in telling vibrant, interesting stories about a wide range of evangelical sexual culture. It is a compelling book and I have no doubt that many an undergraduate will find this a favorite read of the semester.

The second is the desire on the part of many in the study of religion to find ways of talking about American Christianity and sexuality that get us out of the tired categories of the culture war which has dominated the discussion for the last few decades. Those categories are old, indeed, and the story of American sexual politics and religion has moved on from them in new and interesting ways. But in the process, Saving Sex brackets many of the political struggles that deeply inform evangelical sex culture and the many cases the book so ably describes. The book does so explicitly at the beginning by stating that it does not intend to include any discussion of homosexuality, that culture war topic par excellence which, admittedly, tends to take up a lot of room, overshadowing many of the under-discussed issues raised here. And it does so implicitly by underplaying the political contexts of these movements and cultures, the political work of their characters, and the real issues of power that underlie when and where evangelicals identify themselves as marginal or center. Many of the figures discussed in the book are figural in culture war battles old and new. Along with being authors of a popular sex manual, Beverly LaHaye is the founder and director of the nation’s largest anti-feminist organization and Tim LaHaye was, among many other things, a founding board member of the Moral Majority. In more recent examples, Purity Ball founder Randy Wilson works for Focus on the Family while the Duggar’s oldest son is the newly appointed director of FRC Action, the lobbying arm of the conservative Family Research Council.

I feel a little old school for raising the perennial feminist question: what about the politics? I know full well that the way we talk about the politics needs to be rethought and that writers should be able to talk about topics independently of the political concerns that underlie their significance. Sometimes a cigar should be allowed to just be a cigar. And in-depth discussion of political context may direct us away from the kind of writing deemed more accessible to a wider audience. But in a week when Tennessee voted to amend its constitution to un-protect the right to an abortion and when I had to explain to yet another undergraduate who Jerry Falwell was and why she should care, I wanted it made clearer that Edith Schaeffer’s husband was not only sexually demanding but was also the architect of the modern pro-life movement, that the first link on the Duggar’s family website takes people to contemporary pro-life websites, and that the pro-natalist positions of each are deeply rooted in a worldview that may be on the margins but is fighting daily for greater access to the center of American law and politics. And I longed for a more complete discussion of how political commitments interconnected with all of these sexual projects.

Which brings me back to the problem of margin and center in American evangelicalism and evangelicals’ use sexuality to position themselves on that spectrum. Sometimes it seems to me that evangelical writers and cultural leaders want it all: the kind cultural cachet generated from the margin combined with the level of political and economic capital needed to be at the center of power. Saving Sex shows us, among many other important things, how they use sexuality to achieve those ends and some of the promises and perils of doing so. Irony abounds in the many Christian sex manuals that titillate with the promise of transgression while toeing the line of Christian orthodoxy. In the flooded marketplace of American sexuality the cultural distinctiveness of these products seem more like variation than innovation. Far more serious is the effort of pro-natalists like the Quiverfull movement to populate God’s army on earth. They may be marginal but are aiming directly at the center. Saving Sex is a book that should be read widely so we have a better sense of what exactly that might mean.