The Evangelical Short-Term Memory Problem

In fact, we’ve been having the same fight over sexual promiscuity like clockwork about every 40 years, going back at least a couple centuries.

In fact, we’ve been having the same fight over sexual promiscuity like clockwork about every forty years, going back at least a couple centuries. Hourglass via Shutterstock

There have been any number of think pieces and trending topics about how the Internet age has shortened our collective memory. In many ways, it has—there’s no ignoring that the advent of technology and 24-hour news has made it possible for gaffes to be forgotten by the time the next controversy rolls around. But a short cultural memory is not a facet unique to this generation.

The beginning of the current bout of the culture wars in the mid-1970s, ignited by evangelical author Tim LaHaye’s book about sex, co-written with his wife, tended to treat the sexual freedom of the 1960s as a new phenomenon, just as politicians and pundits today are treating the fight over birth control as a new entity. In fact, we’ve been having the same fight over sexual promiscuity like clockwork about every 40 years, going back at least a couple centuries.

The common narrative we see from conservative pundits and figures like Dr. James Dobson, Bill O’Reilly, and various politicians is that the United States lost its way sometime in the sexual revolution in the 1960s. Following World War II, men returned home, married, had kids, and took over their role as provider. Everything was fine—in the conservative mind—until the 1960s brought feminism and a sexual revolution and the increased visibility of LGBT people. It was here that most conservatives—evangelicals especially—pinpoint as the beginning of the downfall. The liberalization of laws and legislation specifically aimed at civil rights for racial minorities forever changed how the United States operates and has set us on the slippery slope toward doom and mayhem.

But, of course, this narrative doesn’t match up with reality, as reality is a lot messier. According to author Stephanie Coontz, writing in her important work, The Way We Never Were, the “’traditional’ family of the 1950s was a qualitatively new phenomenon. … For the first time in more than a hundred years, the age for marriage and motherhood fell, fertility increased, divorce rates declined, and women’s degree of educational parity with men dropped sharply.”

Indeed, in 1900, the average age of marriage for men was 25. By 1950, it had dropped to 22. For women, the drop was less stark, going from 22 to 20. It wasn’t until 2000 that the average age of marriage for women caught up with what it was for men in 1900.

A closer, long-term examination of history leads us to understand that the United States of the conservative religious memory is a United States that never actually existed. This view of the “traditional family” as the cornerstone of American society only goes back about 70 years. Massive social changes and upheavals (rural flight, the Great Migration, and the post-war Baby Boom) were the cause of this change—the “traditional family” became a way to demonstrate American values in the face of fascism and communism, but even then, traditional family was considered white, middle-class, and educated.

A longer view of the historical record also demonstrates that the culture wars over what family looks like and its place in society are not a new facet of the late 20th century, but are rather as historical and American as apple pie. In order to understand the scope here, we need to return to the 1920s.

According to sociologist Kristin Luker, author of When Sex Goes to School, the Fitzgeraldian image of the 1920s as a long, shallow, bacchanalian party is not all that exaggerated. Women were delaying marriage into their late 20s (if they married at all), pursuing careers instead of men, and choosing to have smaller families. White, middle-class America was shrinking, and religious authorities and educators from elite universities were concerned.

Luker tells us that divorce soared among the “well-to-do” in the beginning of the 20th century, causing the mainly white elite class to be concerned that they would be replaced by immigrants and poor, “lower-class” people. The concerns raised about sexual health have their roots in the anti-immigrant and anti-poor jingoism that characterized much of the early 20th century. In other words, the concern that characterized much of the culture wars in the first part of the 20th century was not over “traditional” family, but rather over the declining population of educated whites.

If any of these early concerns of the 1920s sound familiar, it’s because they are being repeated now, nearly 100 years later, in the culture wars of the 21st century. Age of first marriage is on the rise for both men and women, and divorce is on the rise in most social groups. Women, particularly, are beginning sexual activity before marriage, and women are entering into the workforce as much as, if not more than, men.

In the 1920s, groups of people referred to as social hygienists worked together to combat what they saw as devastating omens of the fall of society. These hygienists consisted of white, upper-class religious and educational authorities. One of the main hygienists in this movement was Anna Garlin Spencer, an American Unitarian minister, feminist, and educator.

The problem, as they saw it, was that upper-middle-class white society was neglecting their duties in terms of sexual activity within marriage. Delaying marriage and children resulted in smaller family sizes for the groups on the upper echelons of society. The decision of women from these classes to engage in sex outside of marriage and delay marriage in favor of parties and careers was a central part of the concern. In response, social hygienists set out to remind white upper-middle-class youth of their responsibilities in terms of marriage, family, and society. Thus, the first sexual health education classes were born.

The aim, particularly, according to Spencer, was not to bring women into the practice of men, but to bring men up to the practice of women. In other words, women were viewed as the protective gatekeepers of sexual activity, and sexual education sought to impart upon men the seriousness of the sexual act—this was a distinctly conservative religious view of sexual responsibility in a heterosexual relationship. Here, social hygienists overlapped with Christian ministers, and both saw an importance in restraining and reclaiming sexual activities and sexual identities of white elites for the good of God and country.

The white American evangelical consciousness is steeped in a history of racism and concern over the increased rates of procreation among the working poor and racial minorities. Social hygienists of the 1920s often perpetuated anti-immigrant xenophobia, and now, in the face of an increasing population of racial minorities, white evangelicals are once again harping on the importance of family, having children, and “traditional families.”

The culture wars of today are based in the stoking of fears over the ways the United States has changed. When Mike Huckabee laments Democrat women relying on “Uncle Sugar,” he is repeating the concerns of social hygienists of generations before. Evangelicals, particularly, lament that the United States is “no longer a Christian nation” and that we were better back before X event that happened when they were teenagers. This particular fear only works if the historical narrative is flattened out with a simple, rose-colored view. Back when “men were men,” and women were women,” and all of us knew our places.

This fear becomes considerably harder to maintain with a historical literacy that takes into account the messiness of sexual politics in the 20th century and the evangelical reactions throughout these cycles of history. In the 1930s, social hygienists saw it as important to discourage sex outside of a marital relationship and remind people of the pleasure of sex within the right conditions (namely, marriage). In the 1970s, evangelicals sought to reclaim the sexual narrative by, once again, reminding people of the pleasure of sex within the right, “godly” conditions. And a brief survey of Christian dating and relationship books today gives the same message—be “sex positive” by reminding people of the importance and pleasure of sex that happens under the right conditions and emphasizing the importance of the “consequences” of sex—namely children.

It is far more common than in the past for the average person to have access to more information and be more involved and active in national politics, making the culture wars seem more potent and more urgent. But this does not necessarily mean that people have access to the lengthy historical narrative that contextualizes the fear mongering of Fox News hosts and conservative pastors preaching from the pulpit.

The great mistake our generation seems to have made is in assuming that the struggles we face are unique to us. If anything, the breadth and depth of information that we have access to should inform us of the opposite—that we are, indeed, as our parents before us and their parents before them, working out the same struggles of justice and mercy, in much the same ways. The culture wars, should we hope to make any progress, must be seen as a cycle dependent on fear-mongering, rather than a declining America on the verge of collapse.