There must be many people both inside and outside the church who wonder about the current obsession among some Christians over issues of sexuality. Why is it that Christians in some circles seem to define themselves by the position they take on abortion or same-sex marriage? A recent book entitled: Moral Combat: How Sex divided American Christians and fractured American Politics helps to answer this question. More importantly it shows how the issues around sex have divided Christians for at least the past 100 years. The actual topics that were under discussion in this period varied enormously.
The forces of conservative Christianity, particularly the Catholic variety, were rallied against new thinking about contraception during the 1920s. The battles fought by the pioneer Margaret Sanger in America to promote the cause of women beaten down by excessive childbearing were bitter at times. But in the 20 years between 1910 and 1930 public opinion shifted decisively in favour of planned parenthood. By the time of the Anglican Lambeth conference in 1930, it was regarded as acceptable to many liberal Christians that married women should have access to means of birth control. In noting this we pass over quickly the fact that some Christians then and now cannot imagine the sexual act being anything other than a means of procreation. It was not just the Catholic Church that took this line but also some other branches of conservative Protestant Christianity.
Another area of human life that caused division among Christians throughout the 20th century was the degree to which censorship was required to control the portrayal of sex in literature and in other entertainment. The writings of DH Lawrence especially were deemed to be morally dangerous. Some Christian leaders both Protestant and Catholic demanded that the strictest rules be applied to protect the public from displays of indecency. The problem for the censors was knowing where the boundary between art and gratuitous pornography should be drawn. Conservative Christians were normally on the side of complete suppression of any representation of the sexual act, whether in words or simulation. What these early 20th-century Christians seem to have found so difficult was the thought that the sexual act might enrich life and have a purpose beyond the creation of new life. Good living Christian people were never to be corrupted with the idea that sex could be something to be enjoyed.
A further issue, of more relevance to the American situation at the beginning of the 20th-century than our own, was that of race. The motivation for many of the lynchings committed by white males against black American men was a widespread belief that white women were always in danger of being raped by black males. Any idea that a black man should be allowed to have sexual relations with a white woman filled the conservative Christian imagination with horror. Passages from the Bible about the different races and the way they had been geographically separated were read. These suggested to white conservative churches that God approved of the races living apart, with one subservient to the other. These same Bible passages had been used to justify slavery in the previous century. Equally the offspring of any black/white union was treated with distaste and shunning. Much of the segregation that was practised right up to the middle of the 20th century and beyond was tied in with ideas connected with sexuality. The word ‘miscegenation’, or mixing of race, was a word which filled white Christian people with a particular frisson of horror. The white race of America was designed to be kept pure and not ‘polluted’ by black or Negro blood.
Bringing the story of sex obsessions more up-to-date, conservatives and liberals in the Churches clashed over their response to the issue of sex education. Christians of a conservative bent only wanted to hear a narrative of sexual behaviour strictly within a patriarchal model of family life. Sexual education threatened to give women ideas of autonomy and even independence from the wishes and demands of their menfolk. The publication of the Kinsey reports in the late 40s and early 50s showed to the reading public that the fantasy of a controlled ordered sexuality among women was in fact a myth. The model of subservience and obedience by women to men proved to be existing more in the male imagination than in fact. It is not surprising that the idea that women might have choices in their sexual lives was regarded as the result of the influence of Communism into American society. The demand for sex education was seen as a communist plot to subvert Western civilisation and its values.
Communism was also seen to be undergirding the debate about abortion which took hold in America in the 1950s. Conservative Christians and Roman Catholics once again combined to challenge the demand of women to make decisions about their bodies. In America the debate reached some sort of conclusion in 1973 with the Supreme Court (Roe-Wade) coming down in favour of abortion in certain situations. That decision has been challenged ever since by conservative Christians. The debate is still strongly contested within political/religious circles in Trump’s America.
In the light of all these debates that have gone on over the past 100 years it is not surprising that many points of difference between liberals and conservatives should still centre on sexuality. It is of course an area of life that touches everyone deeply and can rouse enormous passion. When we look at the history of debates about sexuality in the churches, we see how many of these could be said to be about men controlling women’s sexuality. Thankfully conservative Christians have quietly abandoned their opposition to interracial marriage, birth control and the promotion of sex education in schools. Censorship is still an issue with the rapid spread of pornography on the Internet but few people would regard the writings of DH Lawrence as corrupting today.
The pattern of the past hundred years would suggest that there is a pattern in the way that Christians and society have approached questions relating to sexuality. On the one side there are liberal Christians whose approach to sexual topics is not largely different from the rest of society. In some cases, liberals take a forward prophetic view on sexual matters as they did with the gay issue in the 1960s. On the other side are conservative Christians who only learn to catch up with the overriding consensus long after the rest of society. The Catholic Church is still against contraception officially but it spends very little time in speaking on the topic. It knows it has decisively lost the argument in the court of public opinion and among its own followers. Public opinion has learnt to accept the existence of gay relationships and it would seem only a matter of time before the conservative churches discover that they do better not to keep speaking about the subject. A younger generation who think quite differently in matters of sexuality will eventually silence the aggressive Christian homophobic condemnations uttered by their elders.
The lesson of the past hundred years is that Christian ‘truth’ is the area of sexuality is fairly fragile and porous. It is especially weak when dictated by primal fears. How much better would Christians do if they focused their energy on promoting reconciliation, love and justice in the world?