Based on her examination of current religious debates and discussion of sexuality, author and scholar R. Marie Griffith sees a brighter future for Christian engagement on the topic than has been true in the past.
“I have come to believe that resources abound within the Christian tradition for a more hopeful history of Christian engagement with sexuality, including the looming sexual questions that face Americans today,” Dr. Griffith said during a talk at Samford University Thursday, March 4.
Those matters, she said, include rights for men and women of all kinds; what children will be taught about sexual ethics, morality and health; and how to prioritize legislation on sexual issues amid other needful matters such as poverty, terrorism and war.
Griffith, a divinity professor at Harvard University, spoke as this year’s Ray Frank Robbins lecturer at Samford. She is the author of God's Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission and Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity.
Through her research as a leading scholar in the area of gender, sexuality and American evangelicalism, Griffith illuminates the subtle and sophisticated reflections made by Christian women and men, past and present, that will help progress beyond today’s rigid standoffs.
She has explored many of those standoffs in her forthcoming book, Christians, Sex and Politics: An American History, which explores the past century of religious wrangling over sex and sexuality in the U.S.
Catholic and Protestant Christians alike have thought deeply and diversely about sexuality morality, with more than trifling shifts in sexual teaching and emphasis occurring over time, she said.
“The accusations at the far extremes of today’s culture wars do not tell us anything of depth or substance about the ordinary people who have wrestled with these precepts and with the scriptural passages that mention sexuality,” she said.
Why has sex become such a battleground, with disparate parties arguing over marriage, homosexuality, contraception, pornography, abortion, sex education in public school settings and other topics?
“As sexual issues have grown in prominence over the past half-century, the dividing lines seem only to have become more deeply entrenched,” she said, suggesting a need for more reasonable and charitable discourse on the topic.
“I am convinced that thinking, listening people of diverse minds and specializations are needed to contribute to the discussion,” she said.
Griffith described the roles that figures such as Margaret Sanger, Alfred Kinsey and Billy James Hargis have played in American Christian debates about sex.
More than any other figure before or since, she said, birth control proponent Sanger drew lines that have defined America’s battle over sex.
“No person was savvier or more successful in generating dramatic change related to birth control than Margaret Sanger and her Protestant allies,” said Griffith, recalling how Sanger understood the importance of securing the support of Protestant clergy and church leaders for her cause.
Twentieth century sexologist Kinsey, known by admirers as a pioneering researcher in an age of moral hypocrisy and by critics as a dissolute pseudo-intellectual bent on shredding the moral fabric of the nation by wrecking the family, remains one of the most divisive American figures on the subject of sexuality, said Griffith.
There were, however, a number of Christian clergy who took a pastoral message from his work, she said. “They knew that couples in their congregations were struggling, and they were willing and eager to learn from him,” she said of Kinsey, best known for his books Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953).
Discussions spurred by religious leaders influenced by Kinsey spanned a broad spectrum of issues pertaining to sex, marriage and family life, and subjects that were once taboo increasingly received frank and open consideration, she said.
Representing an opposing angle was the colorful fundamentalist Hargis, an evangelistic and conservative crusader of the 1950 and 60s.
First known for his railings against communist infiltration in the churches, Hargis soon focused on his belief that Communists were trying to bring sex education to schools to destroy American morality.
Hargis, said Griffith, inaugurated the religious-political alliance that critics now call the Religious Right. His career ended in 1976 when his sexual improprieties with male and female students at an Oklahoma college were revealed.
While at Samford, Griffith participated in an undergraduate seminar on women and evangelicalism and met with clergy at a lunch organized by Samford’s Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence.
The annual Robbins lectureship, established in 2008 to honor the memory of former Samford religion professor Ray Frank Robbins, focuses on the intersection of scholarship and Christian living.