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How Battles Over Sex, Gender And Sexual Orientation 'Fractured American Politics'

Dec 19, 2017
Originally published on January 11, 2018 10:44 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Of all the moral subjects and ethical rules elaborated throughout the Bible and the history of Christianity, why have so many American Christians seemed disproportionately obsessed with sex? And how has that obsession divided America? These are the questions that led my guest, R. Marie Griffith, to write her new book, "Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians And Fractured American Politics."

She writes about the battles over women's suffrage, birth control, interracial marriage, sex education, abortion, sexual harassment and marriage equality. The book ends with the Women's March following Trump's inauguration. Griffith grew up in a Baptist family during the rise of the religious right. She's a professor of religion and politics at Washington University in St. Louis, where she directs the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics.

Marie Griffith, welcome to FRESH AIR. What are some of the issues involving religion and sex that make your point about how sex divided American Christians and also fractured American politics?

R MARIE GRIFFITH: Thank you so much for having me, Terry. There are so many issues, as it turns out. I could've written three books about this topic, it seems like. It's birth control, which has long been an issue fraught by religion and religious controversies that have seeped into our politics in a variety of ways. There's concerns about female chastity, and marriage and how women are behaving inside or before marriage.

There are issues pertaining to abortion, which is not only a sexuality issue, of course, but it is an issue that is, in part, about sex, and sexuality and gender; interracial marriage and sex, which was a very, very live issue in - around World War II at the middle decades of the century, especially; sexual harassment, which is an issue, of course, that's floating around us, you know, even now and long has; same-sex marriage. You name it. It's so, so many issues that have really been very, very fraught by our long history of religious controversies.

GROSS: Let me ask you about sexual harassment, since that's at the center of so many people's minds right now. You're write that until recently - relatively recently - courts excluded women from protective labor laws, while also deeming sexual coercion a private-sphere matter. Would you explain that?

GRIFFITH: Oh, sure, yeah. Well, you know, women have experienced sexual harassment for eons. And Gloria Steinem, I think, once said, it used to just be called life for women. Women expected to experience all sorts of comments and, you know, butt squeezes, and touching, and sexual jokes and all sorts of things. So it was really only in the 1970s when a movement and legal sort of doctrine began to be developed to protect women in the workplace, and frankly, to protect men, as well. Men have also been victims of sexual harassment, of course.

But in many ways, those laws have not always been abided by. There's been all kinds of things that perpetrators have gotten away with over the years, as we know. So one of the big problems has been encouraging women to speak out and giving them the leeway, the knowledge that they could speak out and really be heard and find redress. So this is an ongoing issue, as we see today. There are many, many cases in the news right now that suggest we have a moment of getting more woke, as it were, around the issue. But it's been a perpetual problem for centuries, really.

GROSS: Let's talk about how sexual harassment was a politically divisive issue in the early '80s. During the Reagan administration, Reagan wanted to review and I think loosen new federal guidelines about sexual harassment. And one of the people who testified before a Senate committee reviewing new federal guidelines was Phyllis Schlafly. And she was one of the leaders of the movement against the Equal Rights Amendment. She was a leader of the religious right. And she suggested that men only harassed women who were asking for it.

GRIFFITH: Yes, that's absolutely right. Phyllis Schlafly - and she represented a voice of other women and men who really blamed women for their own harassment. I mean, as shocking as it may sound to many of us now, that was not an uncommon view. Somehow, women must be dressing in such a way as to encourage men to talk to them in that way or they're behaving in such a way that men assume it's an invitation. So yes, in that early '80s context, there really was a push almost to deregulate and make it harder for women's claims of sexual harassment to find any kind of redress in the courts.

GROSS: She was Catholic, and she wanted the religious right to unite around certain issues like opposition to abortion, opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. Do you see her as a kind of turning - her presence as a turning point in the fracturing of American politics around religion?

GRIFFITH: Oh, yes. The importance of Phyllis Schlafly can hardly be overestimated. She was very, very smart, and very, very important and effective at mobilizing all kinds of women to her sort of way of thinking across Catholic and Protestant divides. You know, don't forget that, of course, there's been a long history of Catholic-Protestant tension throughout American history. And when Schlafly first became active in the 1960s, Catholics and Protestants were still quite suspicious of one another.

Schlafly was one of the people who really managed to coalesce conservatives on the Catholic as well as the Protestant side and she did it on these issues of gender and sexuality - you know, a real anti-feminist push. Feminism is destroying the country. It's destroying the family. Abortion is murder.

She was one of the people who really helped persuade a lot of conservative Protestants of that when at one time, they didn't see abortion as murder at all. Homosexuality is this evil, evil force. So Schlafly along with, you know, others like Beverly LaHaye, and Jerry Falwell, and eventually Pat Robertson and others was extremely important in these recent decades of politicization around gender and sexuality.

GROSS: So she unites the religious right or helps to unite the religious right, but she also deepens the fracture between the religious right and more liberal religious groups?

GRIFFITH: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, so she really hated liberals and progressives, of course, and the hatred was returned. She said all kinds of very nasty things about feminism, about feminist leaders. And, of course, feminism had drawn in many progressive religious people. We think of feminism sometimes now as a secular movement. It's often cast that way, as being something that's sort of against religion, that is trying to move beyond religion or sees religion as the oppressive force.

And there's some truth to that in some segments, certainly. But there have also always been large swaths of very progressive religious women and men who have participated actively in the feminist movement. So Schlafly was one of those folks who really cast those people as anti-religious or anti-Christian. You know, she wanted to exclude them from this sort of religious label in a way, and she did that quite effectively for the conservatives on her side.

GROSS: You grew up during the rise of the new Christian right. Tell us why the subject of religion and politics is personally important to you?

GRIFFITH: Oh, sure, yes. So I'm from Chattanooga, Tenn., and I was raised Southern Baptist, actually, in a moment in the 1970s when Baptists were themselves becoming deeply divided over issues of sex and gender. The fundamentalists were sort of taking over the Southern Baptist Convention at that time, and I knew that. And my parents were very active. They spoke about that. They talked about that. They were very much on the anti-fundamentalist side of that controversy. And the way this all was sort of happening as the new right arose was really stoking fear around these issues of sex and gender - again, this kind of fear of feminism destroying the nation, destroying the family, destroying babies - this fear of homosexuality.

As the gay rights movement was sort of gathering steam and becoming visible, there was sort of a sense in some conservative religious circles that that was a sign of degeneracy and God was going to withdraw his blessing from the nation if we allowed homosexuality to become normalized. So that era - that 1970s, 1980s era in which I grew up was a very, very powerful one for seeing these divisions and these fracturings taking place in, really, congregations across the country, Catholic and Protestant alike.

GROSS: Were you confused about why sex and gender were becoming such major issues in the church?

GRIFFITH: Well, maybe that's why I had to write this book, Terry, that - I've been thinking about this my whole life, in some ways. Yes. You know, the question that I always had was, of all the things that Jesus talked about, sex really was not one of them. You know, Jesus talked about caring for the poor, and loving the neighbor, and really living a life of self-sacrifice to help others and, you know, not worrying about riches or wealth. In fact, those things were dangers to your salvation. And that really was the message that I had preached a lot in the church I grew up in.

So it was a puzzle to me to look in the outside world - the Baptist world that I was in and the external Christian world - and see so much attention being paid, instead, to sex, so much attention being paid to women in ministry, also. You know, I mean, this question of, could women be ministers? I mean, who cared? Why couldn't women be ministers? It was - it just seemed like such a strange obsession to me, to worry about gender differences, and sexuality and sexual practices. So yeah, in some ways, I think I've been thinking about this my whole life.

GROSS: So let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is R. Marie Griffith, and she is the author of the new book "Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians And Fractured American Politics." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIO ADNET'S "EXCERTO NO. 1")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is R. Marie Griffith, author of the new book "Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians And Fractured American Politics," and she directs the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

Your book really begins with the women's suffrage movement.

GRIFFITH: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: And why did the politics of sex take on a new urgency when women wanted the right to vote? Because the right to vote really has nothing to do with the sex. It has to do with gender, but not with sex.

GRIFFITH: That's right. Well, and yes. So, you know, a lot of folks who've written about our culture wars today have kind of started in the '60s, you know, and sort of seen them as stemming from controversies that arose there. And, yes, what I want to say is, actually, what we really ought to be doing is looking back to the early 20th century and the conflicts that really began - or certainly were exacerbated by - women's suffrage and the right to vote.

That movement had been around since 1848. It had gathered tremendous momentum at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, but it also had garnered a lot of opposition. There was a very active anti-suffrage movement that was filled with women as well as men - very conservative women who did not want women to have the right to vote. So in 1920, when women finally did get the right to vote across the country, there was a very active resistance to that.

And I think that resistance and how it began to be shaped over time is really key for our understanding of these later controversies. There was a lot of reluctance, a lot of fear of women's sexuality and a fear that if women got the right to vote, they would no longer want to marry, they would no longer want to reproduce. I mean, all of these kinds of ideas went along with that. That, you know, created a lot of fear in people's minds. So those themes have really carried across our history over the last century, in many ways.

GROSS: You write that some people said, if women got the right to vote, it would damage their reproductive organs. That's a good...

GRIFFITH: (Laughter).

GROSS: That's a good one.

(LAUGHTER)

GRIFFITH: That's right. Well - and, you know, there have been later versions of that too, this kind of sense that somehow, you know, just citizenship itself and the rights that we have as Americans would somehow undermine who women were biologically as well as who they are culturally. There's a real suspicion of women that you see over the past century and longer, the sense that if women get to choose how they live their lives, they're going to choose against marriage, childbearing, the family. They're just going to live these selfish, decadent lives. And it's really shocking to think about the implications of that - you know, that somehow - so you have to control women in order to keep them enclosed within the domestic sphere. It's really fascinating to trace that out.

GROSS: There is a grain of truth to all of this, though, because once women got the right to vote, and then entered the workplace and got other rights, it did kind of upend a lot about - a lot of the family structure and men in the family - in many families, anyways - lost their role as, like, you know, the lord of the house who made all the decisions and ruled the family.

GRIFFITH: Yup. Well, that's absolutely true, and that's been extremely threatening to an awful lot of people. On the other hand, an awful lot of other people have been just fine rearranging gender roles, seeing greater equality in the home, men doing more of the childcare and the housework, women being able to work in the workplace - just people having more options, you know, for how they want to organize their families and their lives. But you're absolutely right. There's a grain of truth to it. And it's been extremely threatening and still is today to an awful lot of people, I think.

GROSS: You also write about the fight for birth control in the early 1900s. What were the laws against birth control at the time?

GRIFFITH: Sure. Well, birth control - part of it had to do with censorship laws. So Anthony Comstock and the censors of the late 19th century had not allowed information about birth control to be distributed through the Postal Service and, you know, in other kinds of ways. So it had been restricted. And a lot of people had been arrested and persecuted, really, for trying to share information about birth control over the decades.

Margaret Sanger, among a few other leaders of the birth control movement, became very successful in the 19-teens (ph) and especially the 1920s persuading Americans that birth control actually had some positive value. It could improve marital happiness because couples would be able to space their children, and they'd be able to, you know, plan how many children they wanted to have. Sex could be a good - for marriage, not just for procreation, but, you know, a bonding experience for married couples. So there were all kinds of ways that birth control began to be accepted among certain swathes of Americans at that time. But there was also an extremely active resistance particularly at that point among the Catholic leaders in America.

GROSS: And what shape did that resistance take?

GRIFFITH: Well, one of the early, very historic things that happened in 1921 of November, Margaret Sanger planned the first American Birth Control Conference in New York. And when she arrived to speak at the culminating lecture that she was to give that November in the town hall, which was just brand-new building at the time, the doors were closed against her. And it turned out that the police had shut the meeting down. They would not permit birth control to be discussed publicly. And the archbishop of New York, Patrick Hayes, had played a role in that, it seemed.

And for the next decade, Sanger and the Catholic hierarchy battled it out in the media. The Catholic hierarchy was very critical of Sanger and had all kinds of negative things to say about her. And she really harnessed the anti-Catholicism of that period to make Protestants see this as a kind of curbing of her freedom. The Catholic Church was squashing her right to speech and her right to present birth control in a scientific way. So she was very successful in using anti-Catholicism to popularize birth control among American Protestants.

GROSS: So she kind of formed coalitions with Protestant groups while being opposed by Catholic groups.

GRIFFITH: She did, yes. So she worked very assiduously, sometimes behind the scenes, with Protestant clergy who - to really persuade them that birth control would help marriage. It would make marriage more stable. It would reduce the divorce rate, and it would also make sure that the babies that were born were wanted, and loved and could be properly cared for. So she really worked very closely with Protestant leaders in order to do that.

GROSS: My guest is Marie Griffith, author of the new book "Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians And Fractured American Politics." We'll talk more after a break. Also, Dagoberto Gilb will tell us about fulfilling a dream to live in Mexico, when an earthquake struck. And Kevin Whitehead will remember some of the jazz musicians who died this year. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "SONG FOR SALLY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Marie Griffith, author of the new book "Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians And Fractured American Politics." She writes about the battles over women's suffrage, birth control, interracial marriage, sex education, abortion, sexual harassment and marriage equality. She directs the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

So you grew up in a Southern Baptist family in Tennessee. You made the choice to become a member of the Episcopal Church. You've kept religion in your life while studying it academically. So religion is a choice for you. And it's a choice for a lot of people. I mean, there have been times in the past when, you know, it was just assumed you were in one religion or another. But now I think for a lot of people, it's a choice to stay in a religion, to change religions or to have no religion at all. So as someone who's chosen to stay in religion but has changed their church, can I ask what place religion has in your life, why it's important to you to keep it in your life?

GRIFFITH: Well, I think I would have to say that I'm one of the millions of Americans who would say I have one foot in and one foot out, to be honest with you. I mean, I'm not a regular churchgoer, and yet, I really identify with the Christian tradition. And I think there are countless numbers of us out here who are pretty secular in many ways, and yet, deeply identify with the progressive side of our tradition.

Why are we not more regular churchgoers? There's a lot of social scientists out there asking that question. We're busy. We get involved in other activities. We work very hard during the week, and we want our Sunday mornings to sleep in - you know, all kinds of reasons that we may not be active, the way, you know, many Jews who very strongly self-identify as Jews may not be active in synagogues, right? I - so I think there's a large swath of us there.

But what I do carry with me very much are the values that I think I was raised with that have to do with caring for others, caring for the poor, living a life of compassion, de-emphasizing material things - you know, all sorts of values that I think matter deeply to me. And if that means I'm still a Christian, then I am. But some people would ask me, are you a Christian? And they would mean, are you born again and believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven? And I would have to say, no. So it's really a definitional question, in some way.

GROSS: When you were growing up in Tennessee and hearing messages from churches opposing gay rights, opposing feminism and saying that God would withdraw his blessing from the nation if these things went forward, how did you pick up that message? How was it conveyed to you? Did you hear that in church? Did you hear that from friends, from friends' parents?

GRIFFITH: The religious world I grew up in really didn't have a lot of that, I would say. I mean, it was very apolitical - my congregation. Now, sometimes, I would go to church camp outside the state. There was a camp in North Carolina called Ridgecrest that many of us would go to in the summers, and it was much more - had a much more kind of fundamentalist kind of politicized culture to it. So I suppose I heard some of that there, but for the most part, my world did not have that.

I didn't really know about all the sort of politicization of Christianity until I was somewhat older, and watching that in the news and seeing Jerry Falwell and these other Christian leaders. And quite frankly, it looked like a totally different Christianity to me. No one ever even mentioned homosexuality in my congregation growing up. There wasn't a debate about feminism. I mean, my mother was a feminist, and she was a Jimmy Carter Democrat who loved Gloria Steinem and really loved feminism.

So that sort of politicized version was sort of taking over there in the 1970s and '80s outside of the world that I was in. And that's important I think for me to remember because there - I wasn't unique. There were all kinds of other Baptist congregations and other congregations that were not sort of political at that time. Now, they cared about sex, so female chastity was very important - premarital chastity, very important. So we certainly heard a lot about that - you know, don't have sex until you're married and those kind of things. But that was about the extent of it, interestingly enough. So maybe one reason I've been interested to write about this is to really understand why my Baptist world looked so different from a lot of what was going on outside of it.

GROSS: Why do you think it looked so different?

GRIFFITH: Well, you know, my church really always had pastors who were, I mean, very highly educated, who came from theological seminaries that had very progressive professors, you know? And one thing that happened in the '70s and '80s is that the Baptist seminaries really purged a lot of their more progressive professors from their faculties, and the seminaries themselves became more conservative. But that was sort of after my time.

So I really had pastors who were, you know, very progressive in their own political views. And I think that really extended out into the corrugation. And that wasn't unusual. I mean, again, think of Jimmy Carter as a Southern Baptist. You know, now, of course, in recent years, he left the Southern Baptist denomination, as many other progressives have. But that's a very specific story about that denomination changing over time.

GROSS: And he was born again.

GRIFFITH: Oh, yes, yes, absolutely. And, of course, we did - yes. The world I grew up in very much believed in a born-again experience and conversion and all of that, but it was not a political conversion. It was very much about a relationship with Jesus of a certain kind.

GROSS: Were you ever born again? Did you ever have that experience?

GRIFFITH: Yes. I was baptized. I think when I was 7 or 8 years old, I had that kind of experience and, you know, believed very deeply in Jesus as my personal lord and savior. And that was very, very important to me well into my teen years. And I, you know, somewhat shifted, as I said, beyond. I sort of rebelled against all that in college. I read a lot of Nietzsche and, you know, philosophy and, you know, went through this sort of period of arrogance and thinking I was, you know, too good for all that or smarter than that. And it was really in graduate school, as I began to study religion, realizing how many different ways there were to be religious and to be Christian. And so I found my way to a much different sort of Christianity in the Episcopal Church.

GROSS: What does being born again mean when you're 8? And your comprehension of God and the meaning of life and, you know, is spirituality beyond our perception - what does that mean to an 8-year-old?

GRIFFITH: Yeah. I think that's a very good question. Did I understand what I was doing, in other words? I'm not sure how much you really understand. You know, at 8 years old, the world is still pretty simple, and so, you know, you don't have the intellectual tools to think deeply about what all of this means. You know, you've never heard of another way of life. You've just been steeped - or at least I was - in sort of a single way of life.

So I think that's a very good question, and a lot of people who have those born-again experiences in those early years do come to maybe think differently about them later on. You know, my field of religious studies is actually filled with ex-evangelicals, many of us who have remained very committed to the Christian tradition in some way, but who sort of adapted to a different version of it than the one we were raised with.

GROSS: Since you had a born-again experience when you were 8 but by the time you were in college you were rejecting that, did that for a while also mean rejecting your own identity, a major part of yourself?

GRIFFITH: Yeah. And, you know, that can be a very painful experience. The church I grew up in was very loving. The adults were very, very good to me and - you know, so was I rejecting the entire culture that I grew up in and the people, too? You know, that's very painful. I guess for myself I came to say, no, I'm not rejecting the people, but I don't necessarily believe the same things that they do. But I see them as good people who are, you know, trying to live good lives of caring for others and doing good things in the world. And, you know, maybe that's enough.

GROSS: So finally, I going to ask you about the whole happy holidays, Merry Christmas controversy (laughter)...

GRIFFITH: OK.

GROSS: ...Which has become such a thing in...

GRIFFITH: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: ...The world of religion and politics. So what do you think about when you hear President Trump promising that, no, we're going to say Merry Christmas?

GRIFFITH: Oh, gosh. Well, you know, we've been hearing this for a while. Was it Bill O'Reilly...

GROSS: Yes.

GRIFFITH: ...Who got this whole thing going a few years ago?

GROSS: Well, he was big in it. I don't know if he's the singular person, but he was a major champion of it's Merry Christmas, not happy holidays.

GRIFFITH: And, you know, you just want to say no one has ever said you can't say Merry Christmas. You know, the thought that people have been persecuted by being somehow forbidden from saying Merry Christmas is absolutely ludicrous. But somehow, I guess, this notion really strikes a chord in people. You know, Christians - there are many Christians who have come to feel themselves to be persecuted in the United States by secularists and by the law and by the government and these things. And I completely disagree with that interpretation. But it's been very effective politically in sort of garnering a real activist voice and, you know, in service to the Republican Party, frankly.

GROSS: Well, Marie Griffith, thank you so much for talking with us.

GRIFFITH: Thank you so much for having me, Terry. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: And I wish you happy holidays and a Merry Christmas...

GRIFFITH: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Whatever it is - whatever it is that you're doing, I want you to enjoy it.

GRIFFITH: (Laughter) And you, too.

GROSS: Thank you so much.

GRIFFITH: Whatever you do.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GRIFFITH: Thank you.

GROSS: Marie Griffith is the author of the new book, "Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians And Fractured American Politics." After we take a break, writer Dagoberto Gilb will talk about his much-anticipated trip to Mexico, where he was caught in an earthquake. This is FRESH AIR.

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