Moral Combat

The numbers don’t lie: in November 2016, 81 percent of self-identified evangelical voters chose a thrice-married, self-confessed sexual assaulter over a highly experienced public servant who happened to be the first female nominee for president. This surge of support helps to explain why Donald Trump thrashed Hillary Clinton among her own demographic, white women. A similar pattern, but with a consequentially different outcome, occurred a year later in the special Alabama Senate election: Roy Moore matched Trump’s percentage among white evangelicals, although high turnout among African Americans saved the day for Doug Jones, Moore’s Democratic opponent.

A mere two decades ago, “values voters” were frothing at the mouth to drum Bill Clinton out of office for a consensual affair. What gives? Are they shallow cynics and hypocrites, mindless acolytes who worship the golden calf of today’s Republican Party?

R. Marie Griffith probes the answers to these questions, and so much more, in Moral Combat, that rare academic work that weaves incisive research into a spellbinding tale of American piety and its restless twin, sex. The John C. Danforth Distinguished Professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of God’s Daughters, Griffith is a leading scholar on evangelical women and the myriad ways they shape our culture and politics. She comes by her arguments honestly — she and I share a Southern Baptist background, a Tennessee hometown, and a university — and spins her story with skill and grit. As with Frances FitzGerald’s magisterial The Evangelicals, Griffith breathes spirit into dry history, fashioning sinew and muscle onto brittle bones.

Prior to the Nineteenth Amendment, Griffith argues, Americans had maintained a consensus on sex, with men fulfilling the roles of paterfamilias and provider while women tended hearth and home. The explosion of the suffragette movement ripped apart that consensus and spilled into personal territory, such as family planning and sexual freedom. Margaret Sanger looms large early in Moral Combat, a pioneer of civil disobedience; as Griffith notes, “Sanger’s arrest helped her to make not just a moral argument for contraception but also a political argument for contraception — or at least for the right to talk about it. With this argument, she recast contraception advocacy from something radical into an all-American pursuit, and opposition to birth control as fundamentally anti-American.”

Initially, Protestants embraced contraception because Catholics rejected it, falling into ancient battle positions. But that would change. From Sanger, Griffith builds a compelling tale of sex and censoriousness, love and literature, with beautiful set pieces on the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who clenched a fist against racial hierarchy, and the writer D. H. Lawrence, who sought the spiritual in the sensual: “His 1915 novel The Rainbow was labeled obscene. It contained scenes of lesbianism, nakedness, and exuberant sex, all depicted in graphic detail . . . to Lawrence, the most dangerous critics were the censors, and he refused to concede any ground. His work was in no way smut, he argued, for it focused not on the dirtiness but the very holiness of sex.” Griffith taps a wealth of stories that we’ve forgotten, such as the uproar over The Races of Mankind, Benedict’s tract that dared to argue for equality, stirring the old ghosts among unreconstructed Southerners. A breach was coming.

Moral Combat hews to a simple argument — those who seek plurality and change will wrestle unto death with those invested in tradition and order — making its case with vivid anecdotes. In the postwar years, Alfred Kinsey, the “biologist-tuned-sexologist,” galvanized American Christendom, earning the ire of a young Billy Graham; a prominent Catholic editor published a letter: “As for you, Dr. Kinsey, I . . . consider you as one of the most loathsome wretches ever produced in human form.” With a growing acceptance of birth control, and findings such as Kinsey’s, women — including Christian women — were beginning to acquire a new level of control over their own sexuality.

Griffith brilliantly unpacks the racial bigotries and pompous blowhards of the Civil Rights Era, when white churches clashed with congregations of color. She’s particularly deft at charting the rise of the Southern Baptist Convention, or SBC, the flagship of the evangelical right, capturing the insidious influence of such arch-conservatives as W. A. Criswell, pastor of Dallas’s First Baptist. But even as the lines over sexual mores hardened, progressive Christians flowed into the gap. Griffith paints lush miniatures of unfamiliar but crucial figures who emerged during the struggles before and after Roe v. Wade. Howard R. Moody, the Southern Baptist turned liberal New Yorker; Frances Kissling, a blue-collar Catholic from Queens; Gene Robinson, an Episcopal priest who tried to pray away the gay only to find his voice as an advocate for LGBTQ Christians — these figures served as counterweights to strident conservatives, further wedging apart God’s children.

Mortal Combat lags as Griffith moves into well-trod territory from the ’90s, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, Bill Clinton and Paula Jones. It’s difficult to add anything fresh here. The book picks up its pace again, though, as Griffith dissects how and why Donald Trump — professional louchebag of “Two Corinthians” fame — captivated evangelicals of both sexes: “Among Trump’s most loyal base, men and women alike cheered his putdowns of Clinton . . . For many, Trump, the avatar of a patriarchal and largely white Christian right, was distinctly preferable to Clinton, the so-called elitist pseudo-Christian feminist who could appear to be, as one evangelical periodical made explicitly clear two months before the election, the Grim Reaper, à la her pro-choice stance on abortion.”

Patriarchy, abortion, a holy war waged against elites who sneer at them. Griffith’s diagnosis is dark but spot-on: Christianity has ruptured over the political weaponization of gender. Similar to class warfare and the legacy of slavery, reactionary puritanism is an enduring strand in our national DNA. We may lament the absence of our better angels, but they may be gone for good — as Griffith knows well, plumbing in her book discords as old as the Mayflower and as young as #MeToo, with perspicacity and grace.

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