Impure: #ChurchToo & US Politics

(This post is not so much a political statement as it is a comparison of responses from evangelical leaders, both pastoral and political, in the U.S. towards sexual violence. Additionally, the term “evangelical” has become political in recent years. Evangelical Christianity is a broad category with many different perspectives and is not monolithic. Simply because someone self-identifies as an evangelical does not mean they necessarily hold to the basic definition of evangelicalism or agree with more popular voices.)

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photo: mother jones

#ChurchToo

Evangelical purity culture perpetuates rape culture — which is the foundation for #ChurchToo, a follow up to the #MeToo movement.

#ChurchToo reveals the ways in which the church has dehumanized survivors and objectified their bodies, blaming them for the violence perpetuated by pastors, seminary presidents, and prominent evangelical organizations that once sought to keep sex “pure.”

I will allow these examples to speak for themselves:

Sadly, there are even more examples to list. While a minority of cases involve positive steps to repair the damage, generally, the church has not appropriately handled the prevention or response to sexual violence. Instead, survivors have been ignored or silenced in order to protect those in power, namely influential male leaders.

Read the #SilenceIsNotSpiritual statement and consider adding your name.

American Evangelicals & Political Power

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photo: cnn.com

Politically, some American evangelicals are still inconsistent in what they teach and what they do. There is a vast difference between President Bill Clinton’s scandal and the way the church has recognized Roy Moore, Brett Kavanaugh, and of course, President Trump.

If we narrow our scope to the words of Dr. James Dobson, a voice for many evangelicals and large force behind purity culture, we’ll find he seems to have changed his mind about moral character or sexual immorality within the presidential office over the years. In his September 1998 newsletter, Dobson writes about the scandal between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. (The full letter is archived in this book beginning on page 303 but you may also be able to find it online.) Here are a few excerpts with emphasis added:

“How did our beloved nation find itself in this sorry mess? I believe it began not with the Lewinsky affair, but many years earlier. There was plenty of evidence during the first Presidential election that Bill Clinton had a moral problem. His affair with Gennifer Flowers, which he now admits to having lied about, was rationalized by the American people…”

“There were other indications that Bill Clinton was untruthful and immoral. Why, then, did the American people ignore so many red flags? Because, and I want to give the greatest emphasis to this point, the mainstream media became enamored with Bill Clinton in 1992 and sought to convince the American people that “character doesn’t matter…”

“Are moms and dads not embarrassed by what is occurring? At any given time, 40 percent of the nation’s children list the President of the United States as the person they most admire. What are they learning from Mr. Clinton? What have we taught our boys about respecting women? What have our little girls learned about men? How can we estimate the impact of this scandal on future generations? How in the world can 7 out of 10 Americans continue to say that nothing matters except a robust economy?

Dr. James Dobson, September 1998 newsletter

In this letter Dobson is adamant that character matters. Personal history matters. He questions the nation’s ability to discern the “red flags.”

As candidates appeared in the race for office in 2015-2016, researcher George Barna reportedEvangelicals are seeking something in a candidate that very few other voters are searching for: strong moral character.

Strong moral character quickly went up for debate. While Hilary Clinton’s campaign promoted questions of integrity, Donald Trump’s personal life and political campaign also caused significant controversy.

Within in this context, Dobson appeared to affirm Trump’s recent Christian faith (which he later denies) and joined the evangelical executive advisory board, which does not require members to endorse the President but is significant. This interview just prior to the election is also interesting.

Also on the advisory board, friend of Dobson’s via his late father, and president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr. stated in an interview with the Washington Post that there was nothing Trump could do to lose his support. Falwell believed Trump’s “personal behavior”, or sexual immorality, was irrelevant when compared to his business acumen.

Interesting.

Why this shift in support among Dr. Dobson and others? What part has fear or nationalism played in this?

How can many American evangelicals teach sexual “purity” or “pro-life” values and protect (and elect) perpetrators of sexual violence at the same time?

Food for thought:

Read more in this series:

Impure: In Defense of the American Family

Nothing is created in a vacuum. Purity culture is quite the mix of misguided pastoral care and political concepts. The rise of a sexual purity doctrine isn’t exactly a new phenomenon in church history, nor do I believe the church is done wrestling with their attempt at counter-cultural sexual ethics. Here I want to focus on just a couple key elements in purity culture’s recent history.

Dr. James Dobson

The purity culture you may have been raised in was shaped by many different political movements and people throughout the 20th century but one figure in particular kept appearing in the research I read: Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. (Adventures in Odyssey, anyone?)

photo from latimes.com

In the 1970s through the early 2000s, Dobson’s career grew from psychology to pastoral care, and yet again to politics. His books and radio show on children and parenting became popular amongst Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals. During this time society was exploring a sexual revolution, rights to abortion and contraception, the equal status of women and those included in the LGBTQ+ community — things Dobson argues will destroy the American family.

In defense of the family unit, Dobson believes and advocates for the following:

  • Families, and associated values, should return to “the ‘Happy Days’ of the 1950s” with traditional gender roles. (Dobson and Bauer, Children at Risk, 1990.)
  • Sexual immorality is a “threat to survival” for healthy families, who are to be a reflection of the created order, (i.e. the conservative understanding of gender hierarchy as believed to be found in the Adam and Eve’s relationship.) Sexual sin has the power to “destroy the institution of the family.” (Emotions: Can You Trust Them? and The New Dare to Discipline, both published in 1992.)
  • Sexual liberation, as seen in the 1960s-1970s, was a “social, spiritual, and physiological disaster.” To save a nation, Dobson believed you must save the family. (The New Dare to Discipline, 1992)
  • Secular sex education “breaks down the natural barriers between the sexes and makes familiarity and casual sexual experimentation much more likely to occur. It also strips kids — especially girls — of their modesty to have every detail of anatomy, physiology and condom usage made explicit in co-ed situations.” (Dobson advocates against comprehensive sex education.) (The New Dare to Discipline, 1992)

Now let it be known, Dobson is not solely responsible for the sexual purity movement. There were many other authors, pastors, public figures or groups alike who echoed his concerns and carried influence. Elisabeth Elliott, Paige Patterson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, among others in groups like Promise Keepers, the Moral Majority, or Christian Coalition pushed similar messages. Dobson’s success lies in his ability to creatively articulate the perceived problem and solution from his widely known platform. Despite denying his involvement with politics, his voice captured the attention of millions, even the ear of politicians and presidents who would support conservative legislation on abstinence-only sex education.

photo from religionnews.com

The Significance of Abstinence-Only Sex Education in the US

Purity culture is founded upon the practice of abstinence before marriage. This practice is not inherently damaging, but the methodologies used to teach and sustain it have been controversial. Since the 1980s, the federal government has spent over 2 billion dollars on abstinence-only focused programs, yet even with good intentions these programs may not have been helpful to youth. Setting the theological background aside for now, here are a few (very, very brief) historical points on sex education in the states:

  • Federal government funds abstinence-only sex education in 1981 through the Adolescent Family Life Act.
  • Through the welfare reform this funding expands in 1996 and provides resources to public and faith-based programs, now known as Title V Abstinence Only Until Marriage (AOUM) programs.
  • In 2004 it was found that 11 out of 13 AOUM programs were not teaching scientifically accurate information on reproductive health and contraception and instead emphasizing traditional gender roles and religious beliefs. (Read more.)
  • Critics have argued AOUM programs are focus on “character and morality,” while comprehensive sex education focus on “health behaviors and outcomes.” (Read more.)
  • Researchers have found the results of abstinence-only education are not necessarily different than the results of comprehensive sex education. In fact, those who participated in abstinence focused spaces had an increased risk for STIs/STDs based on decreased condom use. (Read more.)

Without accurate information, developing an informed sexual ethic is extremely challenging. Abstinence before marriage is in no way a bad thing, yet if this all-or-nothing approach is the only tool in someone’s back pocket, they will be extremely unprepared (emotionally/physically/spiritually) if/when something does happen to them or a friend.

If you are interested in more details on these programs, here are a few resources to dig into:

I found this information helpful so I hope it proves helpful to you as well. As I continue to unpack purity culture here, we’ll soon see how Dobson’s intentions to protect became weapons in the church arsenal to be used against the vulnerable and those suffering at the hands of sexual violence.

Read more in this series: