Liberal Christians in the Making of Sex Education

In the 1960s conservative Christian leaders like Billy James Hargis and his “Christian Crusade” defined the culture wars over sex education as a battle between secular liberals who wanted to teach comprehensive sex ed in the public schools, and religious conservatives who demanded silence on the subject.[1] That framing has stuck in the cultural imagination. But as Kristy Slominski shows in Teaching Moral Sex: A History of Religion and Sex Education in the United States, it is a profoundly misleading representation of the role of religious leaders in the development of sex education for young people. It erases the crucial role of liberal mainline Protestant leadership and theology in the creation of sex education in the United States. It also obscures the strategic secularization of conservative arguments about sex in the form of “abstinence only” sex education in the late twentieth century.

Slominski’s detailed history of the religious shaping of American sex education offers a new narrative, one in which forward-looking progressive Christians created a discourse of openness about sex and individual sexual expression as the basis for, ultimately, a relatively conservative vision of the role of sex in supporting heterosexual marriage and family stability. Christian conservatives lashed back by adopting the language of science to undergird a sex ed curriculum intended to instill traditional Christian repression. Slominski’s focus on the role of religion and religious leaders’ activism helpfully broadens the history of sex ed in American beyond the parameters of Jeff Moran’s excellent Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the Twentieth Century. The book also holds clear lessons for how to think about other aspects of “culture war” history, in particular the history of abortion.

Black background with a green apple in the front right corner, with the title written in a white chalk font.
Cover of Teaching Moral Sex. (©Oxford University Press)

Slominksi anchors her history with a look at how late nineteenth-century moral reformers taking aim at prostitution via the “social purity” movement came to team up with the physician-led social hygiene movement of the early twentieth century. These Christian reformers were progressive in their belief that society could be reformed and reshaped for the better, but their views on sex are hardly recognizable as liberal to modern ears. Like Linda Gordon, who showed that the origins of birth control activism were in the movement for “voluntary motherhood” (i.e., wives deciding when they were willing to have sex and their husbands graciously going along), Slominski demonstrates that early religious efforts to promote education about sex were quite repressive, aimed at convincing men to abstain from sex with prostitutes. For their part, social hygienists were focused on reducing the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases, and did not necessarily care whether they achieved this by means of moral uplift or jailing prostitutes.

Social purity reformers and social hygienists found their relationship mutually beneficial, even as they played out tug-of-wars over leadership and direction in the movement for sex education. They came together in the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA), founded in 1914. Ultimately, the physicians “won” leadership of the association, and considered themselves the voices of progressive modernity, compared with the old-fashioned moralism of the social purity reformers. But the Christian moralists had put their stamp on the organization, and had provided a crucial moral cover for speaking about previously taboo topics.

Examining the World War I era, Slominksi turns to the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and the military. In these settings, medical authorities called upon religious lay leaders and chaplains to fortify lectures of medical facts about sex and sexually transmitted diseases with moral lessons based in “muscular Christianity,” urging young men to forge healthy, strong bodies and reserve their sexual energies for future marriages.

Moving into the 1920s, Slominski again shows that sex education developed sooner and under a more religious guise than most of us commonly imagine. Historian Susan Freeman illuminated the important role of “family life” education in the 1940s and 1950s as the predecessor of what we think of as “modern” sex education, but Slominski takes this back even further, to the work of minister Anna Garlin Spencer beginning in the 1920s. Spencer facilitated a relationship between ASHA and the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America (FCC), an interdenominational umbrella organization. As Slominski rightly notes, Spencer’s efforts to turn sex education into a positive message about the role of sex in family life, rather than a negative message about avoiding sexually transmitted disease, was radical at the time. In retrospect, of course, it solidified a narrow vision of heterosexual marriage as the only morally and scientifically acceptable mode of family life.

It also represented a repeated phenomenon in this history: in order to rally an interdenominational religious community, leaders needed to appeal to some conservative values as they pursued others that were more progressive. In many ways it reminds me of a central finding in my book The Modern Period: while feminist historians often decry the conservatism of menstrual education pamphlets that failed to deliver meaningful sex education, those pamphlets were a progressive breakthrough when they first appeared in the 1920s, and their sexual conservatism was the very reason mothers across the country were so willing to break the taboo of communicating about menstruation with their daughters, and teachers with their students. Sometimes compromises with conservatism permit progressive breakthroughs.

Moving into the 1960s, Slominski gives an illuminating history of the Sex Information Council of the United States (SIECUS), its Quaker founder Mary Calderone, and the new theological concepts of situation ethics and the “new morality.” “Situation ethics” is the idea that moral rules are not absolute, and context always matters in judging the rightness or wrongness of an action. That way of thinking about morality probably seems intuitive to twenty-first century liberals, but it was theologically novel in the mid-twentieth century, and shocking to conservative (especially Catholic) sensibilities. I have heard derisive conservative commentary about “situation ethics,” but had not understood its history, and Slominski demonstrates how debates about sex were crucially shaped by debates about situation ethics versus absolute rules, and vice versa. Between this basic conflict about how to reason theologically, and the increasingly confident liberal stance that many kinds of sex could be good so long as they did not injure someone and promoted individual self-realization, the possibility of a new Christian consensus about sex seemed to disintegrate into liberal-conservative polarization.

For the last chapter of the book, Slominski turns her focus to conservative efforts to commandeer sex education for conservative Christian purposes. In the 1980s, Evangelicals stopped fighting sex ed and instead performed some culture wars jujitsu, learning to advocate for conservative sexual attitudes and practices in terms of science and psychology rather than religion. Abstinence-only education made tremendous inroads, displacing much of the comprehensive sex education that SIECUS and others had so successfully disseminated in the previous two decades.

And that has left us where we seem to be today: sex education in blue states grows more comprehensive by the year, notably incorporating LGBTQ sexuality to a much greater extent, and appears entirely secular on its face. Politicians in red states oppose all sex education except the kind that looks like transparently Christian anti-sex lectures, covered with a tiny fig leaf of the ostensibly secular language of “abstinence.”

Why has the extensive liberal religious influence on sex education documented by Slominski been so hard to remember and to recognize in contemporary sex education curricula? Partly, it is because of a phenomenon that falls outside the scope of Slominski’s book: the dramatic decline of mainline Protestant churches since the 1960s. The “question everything” counterculture put Christianity in its crosshairs, and membership in mainline churches steeply declined.[2] As Slominski describes, congregations such as the Unitarian Universalists offer a model of in-depth, comprehensive sex education in their programming for their congregants, but the growing number of Americans who do not attend church are unlikely to connect liberal religion with sex education.

Meanwhile, Evangelical churches surged beginning in the 1960s, many of them taking a Fundamentalist perspective that only their version of Christianity “counts” as religion. Fundamentalists have spent a lot of energy insisting that liberal Christian views are not, in fact, Christian. I am appalled to say that until I read Slominski’s book, their argumentative strategy had worked on me. The Fundamentalists had insisted that everyone pick a side – religious or secular – and I had: I believed that I embraced secular sex education and that religious sex education was a useless oxymoron.

Teaching Moral Sex is an inspiration for thinking deeply about the role of religion in the development of contemporary liberal sexual values. Readers can look forward to more excellent work forthcoming on this theme: Ellen More’s The Transformation of American Sex Education: Mary Calderone and the Fight for Sexual Health and Gillian Frank’s book on religion and abortion coming from UNC Press. As organizations such as Catholics for Choice and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice attest, conservatives don’t “own” religion’s moral authority, and knowing the history bolsters liberal hopes for the future.

Notes

  1. R. Marie Griffith, Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics (Basic Books, 1917), 169–182.
  2. Robert Jones, The End of White Christian America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017), 35.

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