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General News    H4'ed 5/16/18

R. Marie Griffith Surveys a Century of Moral Combat Involving Christians (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) May 16, 2018: R. Marie Griffith's aptly titled new book Moral Combat: How Sex Divided Christians and Fractured American Politics (Basic Books, 2017) is important, timely, accessible, and well-illustrated with photographs of certain people she discusses, some of whom are not well-known today. Her new book is readable and well researched.

Griffith (born in 1967; Ph.D. in American religious history, Harvard University, 1995) is the John C. Danforth distinguished professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where she directs its Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. Her previous book-length studies include God's Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (University of California Press, 1997) and Born-Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity (University of California Press, 2004). She has also edited or co-edited and contributed to other books.

John C. Danforth (born in 1936), an ordained Episcopal priest, served three terms as a Republican U.S. Senator from Missouri. Among other things, then-Senator Danforth supported the nomination of Clarence Thomas to become a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. The hearings included Anita Hill's famous testimony about how Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her -- a topic that Griffith discusses in her new book.

For understandable reasons, Griffith does not happen to advert to Marjorie Spruill's book Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women's Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics (Bloomsbury, 2017), which I reviewed at OEN:

Nevertheless, both Spruill and Griffith accentuate the roles women played in certain specific political debates.

To establish the baseline for her book Moral Combat, Griffith says, "Up through the end of the nineteenth century, whatever else Americans disagreed about -- slavery, states' rights, urbanization, immigration, labor laws -- most accepted and took for granted as natural, a sexual order in which men were the heads of households, wives were to submit to husbands' authority, and monogamous heterosexual marriage was the only sanctioned site for sexual relations" (pages ix-x). From this baseline for her study, Griffith then says, "The modern women's rights movement -- above all, the push for women's right to vote -- prompted a crisis for those shared assumptions" (page x). She ably surveys key highlights in the gradual fracturing of the old assumptions.

In chapter one, "The Battle over Birth Control in the Roaring Twenties" (pages 1-47), Griffith begins her survey with Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) and the battle over birth control in the 1920s.

To this day, the Roman Catholic Church does not approve of the use of artificial contraceptives as a legitimate form of birth control for practicing Catholics to use, the position that Pope Paul VI reiterated in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (see Griffith, page 195). But many practicing Catholics nevertheless use artificial birth control.

In chapter two, "Censorship of Literature and Popular Entertainments" (pages 49-81), Griffith discusses censorship in literature and in popular entertainments in the 20th century. In my estimate, her discussion of the British novelist D. H. Lawrence's controversial novel Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928) is perceptive. For understandable reasons, Lawrence (1885-1930) is famous for Lady Chatterley's Lover. However, his novels Sons and Lovers (1913) and Women in Love (1920) are still widely read today.

As Griffith notes, it was not until the summer of 1959 that "a federal district court overturned the postmaster general's refusal to transmit the infamous Lady Chatterley's Lover through the mails and thus freed it from US censorship" (page 80). Griffith also mentions Lawrence's extraordinary claims about erotic sex as a religious sacrament. In my estimate, if we want to understand Lawrence's claims about erotic sex as a religious sacrament, we should consider the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible.

But what are we to make of the heterosexual porn industry today? But heterosexual porn today is NOT about erotic sex as a religious sacrament. Instead, heterosexual porn today is about exploring the sexuality and pleasure of exhibitionistic porn actresses such as Stormy Daniels. No doubt pleasure is a part of erotic sex as a religious sacrament. But pleasure for pleasure's sake is what heterosexual porn today is about -- the giving and receiving of pleasure for pleasure's sake.

Now, in my estimate, there is nothing inherently wrong about experiencing pleasure for pleasure's sake. But this is not the position taken in the Christian tradition of thought. I hasten to add here that I am articulating these extrapolations from Lawrence's thought -- not Griffith's extrapolations from Lawrence's thought. She does not discuss heterosexual porn today -- perhaps because it does not appear to be a "hot-button" political issue. Certain sex-phobic feminists inveigh against heterosexual porn today, but even they do not advocate censorship laws to ban porn.

In chapter three, "Segregation and Race Mixing in the Early Civil rights Era" (pages 83-120), Griffith highlights the work of the American anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887-1948).

In chapter four, "The Kinsey Revolution and Challenges to Female Chastity" (pages 121-154), Griffith highlights the work of the sexologist Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956) of Indiana University, especially his books Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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