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Moral Combat:
How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics
by r. marie griffith
basic books, 416 pages, $32

Ever since Havelock Ellis—one of the first sexologists, who wrote more than a hundred years ago—we have treated sexuality as a subject worthy of detached scientific study. So we have studied sex. Is it too much to ask that we also think about it?

This complaint came to mind as I read R. Marie Griffith’s well researched but conceptually thin historical work, Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics. Griffith seeks to demonstrate that questions of sexuality affected American religion and politics during the twentieth century in a variety of areas, such as contraception, race and eugenics, censorship, education, the workplace, and same-sex marriage. In this she mostly succeeds. But the conceptual framework on which her analysis hangs is surprisingly thoughtless.

According to Griffith, the protagonists of the sexual revolution were “inclusive,” expanding the circle of “power and influence” to those outside it. (It is not clear what sexual expressionism has to do with expanding power and influence, but let it pass.) Those who resisted such change were driven by fear. Griffith helpfully summarizes three kinds of conservative fear: fear of increasing female freedom, fear of the “other” (ethnically, religiously, or otherwise conceived), and fear of the decline of the nation.

She begins a chapter on Alfred Kinsey by explaining, “The national anxiety of this postwar period fortified a tendency to hold fast to familiar social and cultural norms, including traditional assumptions about sex roles, gender, and the family.” Why do I dislike the Kinsey Report’s relativistic sexual reductionism? My national anxiety made me do it.

It is easy to poke fun at such a flat-footed caricature of principled positions, just as it is easy for Griffith to find examples of genuine fear-mongering. One of my favorites is from the Catholic editor John Chapple, whose telegram to Kinsey lacked only a request to meet with pistols at dawn: “As for you, Dr. Kinsey, I as one American editor consider you as one of the most loathsome wretches ever produced in human form, or else an individual utterly bewitched by the forces of evil and darkness.” Of course, both sides were capable of invective. At a National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws press conference, the Rev. Howard Moody harangued the Catholic Church for being “an institution whose history is replete with the killing of innocent people in the name of God”—the point being, presumably, that if you have done it, we can too.

No doubt all three forms of Griffith’s conservative fear existed and still exist. The chapter on segregation and miscegenation is especially strong (though it is also the chapter whose protagonists are the least interested in sexual permissiveness). But saying that human beings are motivated by fear is a little like saying that water is wet. It’s true, but what of it?

More puzzling is that Griffith seems to detect no fear on the pro-revolution side of the culture divide. The following statement, concerning religious support for abortion in the 1970s and 1980s, is typical:

The chief impetus … was the idea that sex was good, in and of itself, and that it ought to be separated from mere procreation. God intended sex to be a source of joy, not a source of fear and shame. … The moralizers attempting to restrict it for heterosexual, monogamous, eternal marriage were inflicting misery and terror on far too many people.

Here are the lines of battle neatly drawn up: the conservatives who are pro-fear-and-shame-and-infliction-of-misery-and-terror vs. the progressives who are pro-joy. Don’t blame me, gentle reader; it’s just what the historical documents show. You know, in that archive in which it is proven that monogamy equals terror.

A more thoughtful engagement with the history and reality of sexuality might allow for the awareness that fear often impels people to grasp at foolish solutions. What we in fact see through the history of twentieth-century sexuality is that people often ask certain questions, a good answer to which cannot possibly be sex. Yet people persist in thinking that it is.

When Margaret Sanger (one of Griffith’s subjects) asked, “How can I prove to myself and the world that I am a fascinating, important person?” she settled on “sex” as the answer. Likewise with questions such as: “How can I be sure that I am lovable?”; “How can I deal with my father issues?”; “How can I avoid becoming my mother?”; and so forth. Though all of these questions surely affected Sanger’s sexuality, they cannot be answered sexually. That did not stop her from trying.

These questions put paid to the idea that only one side of the culture war is driven by fear. It does not take much probing of Sanger’s personal life and correspondence to see that, despite her exuberant personality and devil-may-care exterior, she was motivated by fear. As Griffith sees, fear may lead a person to reject change. Or it may lead a person to try something, anything, different from the reality she has been living. For Sanger and so many other sexual revolutionaries, this meant making sex the answer to many of their most important questions.

Previous ages did not tend to ask so much of sex. (Could it be that what we take for sexual repression in past days was simply the disinclination to ask so much of, and obsess so much about, sex?) To be fair, they asked too much of other things. This merely proves that idolatry is an age-old temptation.

We might benefit from defining idolatry as the tendency to ask realities to be the answers to questions that are beyond their purview. A statuette can never be the answer to questions such as “How can I defeat my enemies and ensure that my crops succeed?” But is that kind of idolatry really more foolish than the idolatry that expects sex to be the answer to the lack of meaning in a life?

The mother of all existential questions is “How can I be happy?” It is here that the lessons of the twentieth century and beyond, including our #MeToo era, have the power to resonate, if they are properly understood. The mystical pan-sexuality of D. H. Lawrence (treated in the chapter on censorship) can begin to be plausible only because sex is so primally connected to genuine human exigencies. It is not only that the species would like to continue and so bends our desires in that direction, as an evolutionary biologist might observe. This account is not wrong, but neither is it complete. Human persons are also impelled toward relationship, intimacy, and vulnerability with and before other persons, and those desires are tied to a longing to give of oneself and make a future with another.

When Margaret Sanger wanted to make her mark on the world, she sensed that sex was the way to do it. She too wasn’t wrong, given that the much-derided procreative potential of sexuality had served that purpose for all of human history. What is new in the last hundred years are the convictions that sexual pleasure alone (and not other, now-detachable aspects of sex) could serve this purpose, and that only sex could serve this purpose.

Sex is the answer to some questions. As a Catholic theologian, I would propose that it is an answer to questions concerning marital unity and fruitfulness. But it is not the answer to every question. The role sex plays in human happiness can only ever be a subordinate one. Otherwise, what does one make of the young, the sick, the elderly, and all those others who do not or cannot engage in sexual relationships? Sadly, the answer is too often simply to expand the circle of sexual experience beyond the traditional boundaries. This goes a long way toward explaining both the drive for sex education and (more disturbingly) the pedophilic predations of Kinsey and others. Sanger herself tasted the bitter fruit of her ideology when she was an elderly woman, trying to seduce just a few more men while slipping into a lonely, drug-addicted old age. Lawrence was lucky to die young. What can answer our questions when sex is off the table?

The idolizing of sexuality in the last century could be examined fruitfully alongside a historical study of religion, given that the latter has a thing or two to say about idolatry and the question of meaning. For that history, we are still waiting.

Angela Franks is professor of theology at the Theological Institute at St. John’s Seminary and author of Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy.

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