THE YEAR WAS 1921, and the United States’s religious leaders were girding for battle. The conflict, as usual, centered on sex. The birth control advocate Margaret Sanger was scheduled to deliver a speech at the First American Birth Control Conference that would call for the decriminalization of contraceptive devices and information. No sooner had Sanger mounted the stage at New York City’s Town Hall, however, than she was arrested by a police captain who had been tipped off by the city’s Roman Catholic archbishop about the “obscene” address. Sanger would eventually be released for lack of evidence — she had not actually delivered her lecture, after all — but only after spending the night in jail.
The Town Hall Raid, as it came to be known, also provoked an intense reaction from the city’s Protestant leaders. But instead of joining Catholics in condemning Sanger, many (though not all) Protestants rallied to her defense. Indeed, a number of Protestant clergymen had been slated to appear with Sanger at the conference, and they soon turned the raid into a cause célèbre — a shocking example of the Catholic hierarchy’s open disregard for basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech. By the mid-1920s, Harry Emerson Fosdick and other prominent ministers were openly advocating birth control as an essential component of a healthy marriage; and by the end of the decade, the Federal Council of Churches — an umbrella group that issued pronouncements on behalf of the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denominations — had formally declared that birth control within marriage was both “valid and moral.”
Although the United States’s perpetual culture war is often characterized as a struggle between prudish Christians and secular libertines, the Town Hall Raid serves as a reminder that many of the most important battles have pitted believer against believer. Two new books, both by respected historians of religion, map the resulting fissures and document their profound impact on American culture and public policy. R. Marie Griffith’s Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics examines the work of religious activists on both sides of the major flash points, from the Jazz Age birth control debate to the more recent clashes over workplace sexual harassment and same-sex marriage. In Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, Adam Laats shows that even the most reactionary branch of American Protestantism has been less monolithic on matters of sex and reproduction than conventional wisdom suggests.
The major theme running through Griffith’s history of the culture wars is that Christianity is not, despite much commentary to the contrary, the eternal ally of patriarchal authority. She bolsters her argument with insightful biographical sketches of several activists who are largely forgotten today, but whose impact on the nation’s statute books seems undeniable. She tells the story of Howard Moody, a Baptist minister based in Greenwich Village who launched the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion after a shocking firsthand encounter with the shadowy world of underground abortions. By the late 1960s, the group had chapters in multiple states and more than 2,000 clergy were aiding its efforts to steer desperate women to qualified abortion providers. She recounts how Frances Kissling, the longtime head of Catholics for a Free Choice, turned to pro-choice activism after spending nine months in a convent. Kissling’s time as a postulant came to an end in part because the mother superior discovered that she had been born out of wedlock, and it was then that she realized she could no longer abide the Church’s “rigid views on female sexuality and the corrupt sinfulness of women.” Another chapter is devoted to Mary Steichen Calderone, the devout Quaker who, together with a network of liberal clergymen and lay activists, introduced sex education to the nation’s public schools.
Griffith also discusses the more colorful opponents of reform, including the fundamentalist preacher Billy James Hargis, who was convinced that the Soviets were directing the course of the sexual revolution from Moscow. As Griffith painstakingly shows, however, Hargis and his allies in the Christian Crusade, the nation’s foremost anti-sex-education group, were battling a straw man. The sex reformers were (obviously) not foreign agents; but, more to the point, they were not unconcerned about the demise of a common framework for thinking about matters of sex and reproduction. Their aim in promoting discussion of subjects such as abortion and birth control was not to liberate Americans from any and all moral strictures; it was to bring these traditionally taboo topics into the open where their religious and ethical implications could be carefully weighed and debated. As Calderone put the point, in an address delivered at the height of the Cold War, the advent of non-procreative sex, like nuclear energy, was bound to change American society in profound ways, regardless of how fundamentalists felt about the matter. The critical task facing the nation’s (non-fundamentalist) Christians was to somehow channel the new sexuality in “constructive” directions that would strengthen the social fabric instead of destroying it.
That one can find devout Christians on both sides of these controversies is, of course, no great insight; the same could be said of most social significant cleavages in American history, from the debate over slavery to the debate over gun control. What many readers may find surprising is that the Protestant sex reformers — though certainly not the Catholics — often enjoyed the full backing of their respective church hierarchies. In an era when the policy pronouncements of the National Council of Churches (the successor to the Federal Council) were front-page news, the NCC sponsored a series of conferences that helped pave the way for public acceptance of sex education curricula and the decriminalization of contraception. Perhaps even more important, though they appear only fleetingly in Griffith’s account, were the nation’s 300 or so state and local councils of churches. Designed to facilitate collective action across denominational lines, the church councils, together with offshoots like Moody’s consultation service, were in many cities among the most reliable sources of information for women seeking information about birth control options.
Griffith has undoubtedly performed a great service in documenting the influence of these largely forgotten reformers and ecumenical bodies. Her book is deeply researched, nuanced in its portrayals of activists on both sides, and thoroughly entertaining to boot. But her account also begs raises a critical question: How did the Billy James Hargises of the world, who were everywhere in retreat in the 1970s, end up in the driver’s seat? How, in other words, did the most conservative representatives of the Christian faith succeed in erasing their opponents’ very different take on Christian social responsibility from the nation’s collective memory?
The mystery only deepens when one considers that Hargis’s forerunners in the fundamentalist movement did not set out with the aim of accruing cultural influence. Rather, their stated objective, as Laats points out in Fundamentalist U, was to separate themselves from a secular society they viewed as irredeemably corrupt. Convinced that the nation was firmly in Satan’s grip, they began in the 1920s to construct a loose network of educational institutions that would shelter the faithful as they prepared for Christ’s imminent return.
As Laats shows, however, the entire project of fundamentalist higher education was, from its inception, shaped by an intriguing paradox. For most believers, the mark of a true fundamentalist school had less to do with theology than with the rigorous supervision of student conduct. To be sure, fundamentalist colleges were frequently roiled by arcane doctrinal disputes, but what paid the bills was the ability to provide rank-and-file churchgoers with an ironclad guarantee that their children would be shielded from such worldly temptations as drinking, “necking,” card playing, and movie-going. To make good on this promise, schools like Wheaton College, Bob Jones University, and Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute (MBI) devised elaborate student conduct codes, posted spies outside local movie theaters, prohibited public displays of affection, and in some cases even required men and women to dine on separate sides of the cafeteria.
The problem was that many parents also wanted something else for their children: they wanted them to become professionals and join the middle class (as the wife of one fundamentalist school founder put it, they wanted their sons and daughters to know how to act in “a hotel with elevators and all that”). Much of Fundamentalist U examines the contortions of university administrators who were asked to carry out the dual mandate of simultaneously sheltering students from modernity and preparing them to climb the socioeconomic ladder. If their graduates were to have any chance of gaining admission to reputable graduate and professional schools, for example, fundamentalist schools had no choice but to seek accreditation. But gaining accreditation meant papering over fundamentalism’s many points of disagreement with modern science, which in turn meant a deluge of angry letters from parents and alumni. Finding qualified faculty members willing to pledge unwavering loyalty to conservative theological orthodoxy also proved difficult. In an effort to weed out professors suspected of heresy, many schools carried out major faculty purges every decade or so — and in the process greatly exacerbated their faculty recruitment problems.
Laats argues that most fundamentalist colleges managed to pull off this delicate balancing act, albeit with various degrees of success, through the middle decades of the 20th century. But things became vastly more complicated in the 1960s, when traditional sexual mores, as well as longstanding rules governing gender and race relations, suddenly collapsed. Broadly speaking, fundamentalist educators responded to the social and political upheaval of the 1960s in one of two ways. One group of schools, including Bob Jones University (BJU) and Jerry Falwell’s up-and-coming Lynchburg Baptist College (soon to be renamed Liberty University), doubled down on orthodoxy. BJU famously went to war with the IRS to preserve its ban on interracial dating, for example, and Falwell attained national prominence with his televised warnings about the dangers of homosexuality and “abortion on demand.”
In contrast, schools like Wheaton College opted for critical engagement with modernity. Though still firmly committed to theological conservatism, Wheaton’s administrators — who now preferred to call themselves “evangelicals” rather than “fundamentalists” — undertook the difficult work of distinguishing Biblical truth from mere secular prejudice. Students and faculty were still required to sign a statement of belief (or “community covenant”), but debate about contentious issues was increasingly encouraged, and some longstanding fundamentalist tenets — such as the theologically dubious prohibition against interracial dating — were jettisoned altogether. Needless to say, Wheaton’s erstwhile allies in the fundamentalist camp were not impressed. As BJU president Bob Jones III complained in 1974, in a vast exaggeration, Wheaton allowed its faculty to “teach evolution as a fact in their classes; their rules are not enforced; their campus is a hippie colony; and they are no longer even thought of as a Christian school among Fundamentalists in this country.”
The irony, of course, is that the uncompromising rejection of modernity offered Jones (and Falwell) a ticket to political and cultural relevance. Beginning in the late 1970s, millions of Americans experienced nostalgia for a simpler time when the legitimacy of patriarchal authority and racial subordination went largely unquestioned, and fundamentalist schools, who were everywhere playing David to the federal government’s Goliath, became a magnet for politicians looking to demonstrate their disdain for the egalitarian values of the 1960s. Candidate Ronald Reagan made a pilgrimage to BJU in 1980 at the height of the interracial dating controversy; George W. Bush and a host of other presidential hopefuls would do visit in the early 2000s. Liberty University, meanwhile, hosted most of the Republican candidates (as well as Bernie Sanders) during the most recent presidential election season, and its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., remains among President Trump’s most vocal religious supporters.
Although some readers may be turned off by Laats’s fascination with long-forgotten rivalries involving long-dead university administrators, his book nonetheless offers an invaluable introduction to the esoteric world of Christian higher education. Few existing studies offer this level of insight into the inner workings of schools like BJU and Liberty. Still, it is unfortunate that he ends his story in the early 1980s, well before the younger Falwell and other leading fundamentalists made common cause with a profane, thrice-married casino impresario with a fondness for the company of porn stars. One wonders what the straight-laced founders of modern fundamentalism would make of this turn of events. Would they view it as a betrayal of the faith? Or would they applaud it as the natural culmination of a movement that was, in fact, in search of power all along? Whatever the answer, their theological heirs seem to have succeeded in cementing the alliance between patriarchy and Christianity that Griffith’s progressive activists devoted their careers to upending.