After the Wrath of God: An Interview with Anthony M. Petro

Samira K. Mehta

Anthony M. Petro. After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion. (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2015)

On July 1, Oxford University Press will release Anthony Petro's After the Wrath of God. Having read many drafts of this project over the years, I am particularly excited to interview him here on the blog.

SKM: After the Wrath of God deals with very recent history. Can you talk a bit about how you approached this topic?

AMP: The book looks at the history of Christian responses to the AIDS crisis in the United States. The CDC first reported cases of what would eventually be called AIDS in 1981. In 1996, the “AIDS cocktail” became available, rendering HIV a manageable disease for most people with access to health care. I focus on this decade and half, calling it (a bit playfully) the “long 1980s.” We could come up with other ways to periodize the Eighties or the initial years of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., but this span worked well for my research.

I consider this history pretty recent, but when you think about it, it was already a generation ago! Let me put it this way: most of our first and second year undergrads today were born after 1996 -- years after Ryan White died and after Magic Johnson revealed his HIV diagnosis. For most of our students, this is just plain history.

SKM: Yet the Eighties still feel close to us.

AMP: Maybe this is because we can’t quite let that decade go, but I don’t think it’s simply because so many of us lived through it. We are, in many ways, still living with the major political, economic, and cultural changes that erupted then--the culture wars, the decline of the welfare state, and the way that we increasingly think about every aspect of our lives in terms of economization (just look at debates in higher education today).

This was also the decade that introduced most Americans to the intimate lives of gays and lesbians -- and this was done very much through news coverage of the AIDS crisis. Of course, genealogies of the culture wars and of neoliberalism go much further back than the Eighties. Likewise with the way many Americans thought about gay sexuality and AIDS. Following Mark Jordan’s lead, I trace the languages that many Christians have used to describe AIDS as a sexual epidemic to much earlier theological rhetoric about sodomy.

I’m glad to see that historians and religious studies scholars have become more attentive to this period, though -- a number of amazing books now abound on the history of religion and politics in the 1970s and 1980s.

SKM: What methods did you use and what conversations in the field do you see your work involved in?

AMP: The book brings American religious history into conversation with cultural studies and the history of sexuality and public health. It enters these discussions in a few ways. My account moves beyond the politics of the culture wars and the focus on the Christian Right in order to track how mainstream Christian understandings of sexual morality and AIDS have shaped national public health approaches to prevention and care. Methodologically, I use the AIDS crisis as a case study through which we can think about the history of American Christianity since the 1980s. Rather than focusing on a particular community or denomination, I survey a variety of Christian responses to a single issue -- the AIDS epidemic – which meant paying close attention to official and lay Catholic responses, mainline Protestant and evangelical reactions, and even the rhetoric of lesbian and gay AIDS activists, many of whom would see themselves as staunchly anti-religious.

Of course, when we get into the thick of this history, we see that the AIDS crisis was never a single issue. Christians across the political and theological spectrum understood it as an apocalyptic event or a wake-up call for the church to engage with the world. Many gay men -- the population most closely associated with the disease in the 1980s -- understood it variously as a government conspiracy, a sign of moral punishment, or a call to grow up into monogamous sexual adulthood. AIDS was a medical event, to be sure, but it was also a deeply moral epidemic. The medical and moral often overlapped. The chapters of my book take up different sites of moral engagement to unravel the ways Christian rhetoric gained traction, not merely by declaring AIDS a divine punishment, but more importantly by offering a moral prescription for sex.

SKM: So what do we get from seeing AIDS as a moral crisis?

AMP: I make two bigger claims, one about religion and secularism and the other about what I call “moral citizenship.” The AIDS epidemic sparked a number of public debates that reveal how porous the boundaries were between Christian language about sexual morality and what we often think of as the secular logic of public health and medicine. Christian rhetoric has shaped not only how Americans think about public health in regard to AIDS but also how normative assumptions about sexual morality drew boundaries around national citizenship in this period. In the 1980s, gay men and lesbians found themselves on the margins of moral citizenship. Yet the AIDS crisis also changed this – or at least initiated a shift. While leaders of the Religious Right blamed gay men for causing AIDS, many Christians took the crisis up as a moral call to arms. They spoke out, not necessarily against homosexuality, but for what they sometimes called biblical or traditional forms of sexual morality emphasizing abstinence and (heterosexual) monogamy. That focus was enshrined in public health approaches to AIDS and sex education, especially in U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s national AIDS campaign.

SKM: The late Surgeon General Koop had a particularly rich archive, did he not?

AMP: Absolutely. Koop was a fascinating figure in this period. He described himself as a member of
the Christian Right, but he refused to follow in line with other conservatives by castigating gay men and shying away from discussions about sex ed and condom use. His archive at the National Library of Medicine includes a number of his public lectures, given during his tenure as Surgeon General. What I found interesting about the lectures was that Koop delivered many of them in the late 1980s about AIDS to Christian audiences, including one at Falwell’s Liberty University. He saw it as his special duty as an evangelical to reach out to religious groups, to get them talking about AIDS and sex education, even if, as he presumed, it might seem uncomfortable for them to do so.

Much of Koop’s archive is now viewable digitally. Of course, some great stuff in the physical collections didn’t make it online -- including a photo of Koop taken by the queer artist Robert Mapplethorpe for one of the last jobs he did before he died from AIDS complications. In addition to the usual archival material, Koop also has a published memoir, several oral histories, and he even wrote short “reminiscences” for many of the things in his collection! So part of reading his archive was about reading against all his efforts to shape how it should be read. And there’s so much. Probably too much. Of course, this is the problem with writing recent American history, as you know all too well. We have too many sources!

SKM: What other source material did you use?

AMP: One of the things I enjoyed about doing this research was using a number of archives -- like Koop’s -- that we don’t often include in histories of American religion. Likewise, I used several lesbian/gay and AIDS collections housed in various LGBT archives and at the New York Public Library. I should also mention the ACT UP Oral History Project, coordinated by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman, which is another rich collection that I hope future scholars of religion or AIDS activism will use.

Of course, I also amassed my own archive of sorts, as many of us do. In addition to surveying a number of religious periodicals, I bought enough Christian books on AIDS to furnish a small library -- they range from moral jeremiads decrying AIDS as God’s punishment and pastoral care manuals to AIDS memoirs and queer theological readings of the crisis. When I started this project, I didn’t realize there would be so much material. It turns out, though, that once Christians began to write about AIDS in the mid to late 1980s, they had a lot to say.

SKM: I think of this primarily as a history of medicine and American religion, but you pay very close attention to aspects of visual culture and popular culture as well. How did an expanded source base shape your argument?

AMP: The Koop archive and the ACT UP/NY archive at the NYPL each have an amazing collection of images, and I was pleased to be able to include a number of them in the book. The ACT UP images in particular pushed me to think about the role of religious symbolism in AIDS activism. In 1989, ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) co-organized with the feminist group WHAM! a protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Mainstream and Catholic media quickly slammed the demonstration an anti-religious, if not also anti-Catholic. But that’s not the whole picture, and the visual records suggest a more complicated story. Many AIDS activists readily drew upon religious imagery not to mock it, but to claim it -- sometimes even drafting Jesus to their cause as a member of ACT UP and as a sex educator.

SKM: Having watched you work on this project over many years (and from having had you edit my own work), I know how carefully you think about language. What kind of attention did you give to your prose? I remember you commenting that, other than the dedication, you were really striving to avoid sentimentality.

AMP: AIDS activists and writers have long insisted on the power of language. It’s worth remembering that the crisis emerged as poststructuralist thought ascended in the American academy and in pop culture -- perhaps one could even say that AIDS was our first postmodern epidemic. I’m indebted to cultural studies scholars like Paula Treichler, Cindy Patton, and Douglas Crimp for their brilliant analyses of the languages used to discuss AIDS.

Given this history, and since the AIDS crisis is far from over, it is especially important that we consider the kind of language we use when we write about it. That includes paying attention to the words we employ to tell a story, like referring to “people with AIDS” rather than AIDS “patients” (unless people are literally patients in a hospital) or AIDS “victims.” I write in my introduction about the political consequences of how journalists, scientists, religious writers, and historians have narrated gay sexuality and HIV/AIDS. There was in the 1980s (and remains today) a tendency to slide into moralistic language about sexual promiscuity and blame, one we’ve also seen in writing about female sex workers in previous periods. You can see parallels in writing about intravenous drug use, too, such as when a text refers to “drug abuse.” Of course, some writers are content to hold onto this moralizing rhetoric. I’m trying to push against it.

SKM: Why is a distinction like “people with AIDS” versus “AIDS patients or victims” so important?

AMP: Using “people with AIDS” respects the political vision of early AIDS activists who refused to
be reduced to their status as patients or victims. It reminds us, as historians, that people with HIV or AIDS are also agents in this history, not merely objects of medical or religious attention.

SKM: Is this logic also why you insisted on not having images of people with AIDS on the cover?

AMP: There were definitely a few things I did not want on the cover -- no images of Jerry Falwell and no one dying from AIDS. I think the aesthetic and political reasons should be fairly obvious. I would have loved a Keith Haring image on the cover -- he has a great painting from 1981 depicting one of his signature guys with a hole in his chest surrounded by four crosses, which could also read as “poz” signs.

But I was thrilled with the direction the press went. I think the cover is simple but powerful. A friend said it looks like a poster for a queer horror film, which seems fitting.

SKM: Did you think about language beyond the political? Whose writing do you use as models?

AMP: Not that we can separate politics from style, but yes. Writing, like reading, has never come easily to me. I have to work hard at it and am always reminding myself to pay more careful attention to style. I look to diverse models -- from novelists like Marilynne Robinson and James Baldwin and poets like Mark Doty to historians like Mark Jordan and Linda Gordon -- partly because I’m indiscriminate and promiscuous and partly because I don’t want to write just one way. My editor at Oxford, Theo Calderara, was a huge help, too. He line-edited my introduction -- which I had thought was in pretty good shape! I tried to make the book readable for a general, educated audience and even at turns a little campy, at least for the perceptive, nerdy reader.

SKM: Can you give me an example of your “camp for nerds?”

AMP: First rule of camp: you can’t give it away, because then it stops being camp (or becomes crappier camp), no matter how nerdy it is. It’s not exactly camp, but I’ll admit there are lots of double entendres as well -- too many. I’ll be embarrassed to look back at this book in five years.

SKM: You make very striking use of epigraphs in your work. Were they chosen as part of this process? How do you hope they will shape the reader’s experience of your text and argument?

AMP: I was struck by how powerful the epigraphs are in Lynne Gerber’s Seeking the Straight and Narrow and knew that I wanted to choose quotations that would deepen the book’s argument -- that would both frame the narrative parts of the book and also offer their own argument across chapters, one that reaches beyond the specific case of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. into broader conversations about sexuality and nationhood, religion and bodies.

SKM: In light of all of that, are you afraid that rushed readers will skip them?

AMP: Well, I’m happy to have any readers, rushed or otherwise. I’m not concerned with policing how people read or with creating a book that can only be read one way. So skip, skip away.

SKM: I want to return to the question of sentimentality and how you did (or more importantly, did not) want it to play into your analysis. What problems does sentimentality pose to history, particularly history of trauma? 

AMP: It’s not that I dislike sentimentality (come on, I named my dog after a character from Steel Magnolias).

But I worried from the beginning about how sometimes when we write about painful histories, we
allow a kind of methodological sentimentalism to take over. This book could easily have become a sad story about how AIDS “victims” suffered at the hands of the Christian Right. Or it could have become a triumphalist narrative about how religion gave strength to people with AIDS and allowed them to overcome. I didn’t want to write a “good religion” book or a “bad religion” book. Such narratives might make for good reading and good movies, but I wanted to avoid these options, which are too simple. We can’t dispose of narratives, but one great thing about academic writing -- despite our often turgid prose -- is that we can resist oversimplified narratives like these.

This doesn’t mean that I passed up emotional attachment for rational detachment -- I want to be clear about that. This book was born from my own intense attachments to the history of AIDS, to queer history, to Catholicism -- and much of it was very difficult to write about. And there’s not a little anger, to be sure. But there is also humor here, playfulness. I laughed a lot researching this book and had as many moments of fun writing it as I did times of real pain and frustration. I didn’t want to reduce this range of affect to a sentimental gloss, and I hope I’ve not done that. But I also don’t want to deny the power of sentimentality, or even its political usefulness. As the evangelical AIDS workers I write about well know, it moves hearts, after all …

SKM: I know that your work gets classified as “queer studies,” but it seems to me that you are often talking about how heterosexuals (usually heterosexual men) policed their own sexual bodies, largely on the bodies of dying gay men. Does that seem like a fair assessment of your work?

AMP: I would be happy if this book were recognized as rising to the level of queer studies. I do hope it helps bring nuanced discussions of religion into the history of AIDS and of sexuality, including queer history. But it is also true, as you note here, that work on sexuality, gender, race, and a number of other topics often becomes ghettoized. What I mean is that we sometimes misread these works as speaking only to a minority group, rather than to broader issues.

Writing After the Wrath of God was a funny experience, because although the book is very much about homosexuality and AIDS, it is as much -- if not more so -- about nongay Christian writers coming to terms with the need to speak publicly about sex, including gay sex, in ways they had not before. Even more, the sexual morality that I trace through this period becomes attached to questions about public health and national citizenship -- a scope that far exceeds any particular community of gay men or of Christians, for that matter.

SKM: Speaking of sexual morality, public health, and citizenship, you comment in an endnote that PrEP [Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or preventative medicine for people at high risk of contracting HIV] does for gay men what the birth control pill does for women. Do you really see them as comparable?

AMP: The histories of the birth control pill and of PrEP are quite different, of course. I see the question as being less about whether they are comparable than about how the history of one might help us think about the other. Comparing the medicalization of birth control and of HIV prevention seems like a good starting point for a conversation about the regulation of bodies and the formation of new ideas about sexual practice, especially if we consider the ways that medicalization, in the form of pills, has granted what we have perhaps too easily come to think of as sexual freedom (from unwanted pregnancy, unwanted infection). One lesson from the history of AIDS activism is that medical interventions are also political and moral ones. Feminist health activists made this argument a generation earlier. Yet it’s one we seem to have forgotten today, whether we’re debating birth control or HIV treatment and prevention.

SKM: If I may ask, what is your next project?

AMP: I have an essay on the history of Catholic sexual abuse coming out in a special issue of Radical History Review on “queer archives” any day now. It grew out of a workshop that Kathryn Lofton and Robert Orsi organized at Yale that gathered religious studies scholars and historians to think about the archive. Orsi and Brian Clites are doing important work on this history now that I would love to build on in the future.

But my immediate attention has turned to the history of American Christian engagements with public health and disability policy. One of the key arguments that I offer in After the Wrath of God concerns the form that religious power takes in a modern, secular nation like the United States—the power to shape our understanding of morality and especially what I call “moral citizenship.” My new project expands this scope to ask how American Christians have shaped the ways we think about health, morality, and American citizenship since the 1950s.

I’m visiting archives this summer and fall to look into several cases that I think call for more attention in American religion, including Christian work on alcoholism, euthanasia, the rights of disabled children, and needle exchange programs. Of course, AIDS could easily be another case, as could debates about abortion. No doubt both will become part of the final project. I hope to use these cases as a gateway to track shifting ideas about personhood and moral citizenship in this period, to understand how Protestants and Catholics have thought about bodies, health, and rehabilitation and how they have shaped American culture more broadly along the way.

SKM: Professor Anthony Petro, thank you for taking the time to talk with me and the blog. I look forward to reading your future work and to teaching from After the Wrath of God this coming fall! 

Anthony M. Petro is Assistant Professor of Religion at Boston University, where he is also affiliated faculty in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and the Graduate Division of Religious Studies. His research and teaching interests include the history and politics of religion in the United States; gender and sexuality studies; the history of the HIV/AIDS crisis; and religion, medicine, and public health. Check out a quiz he wrote for the Oxford University Press blog on American religion in the 1980s here.


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Unknown said…
By the way, if you want to test your knowledge of 80s religious history trivia, check out this little quiz over on the OUP Blog:

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