Abusing Religion
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Abusing Religion

Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals, and American Minority Religions

Megan Goodwin

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eBook - ePub

Abusing Religion

Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals, and American Minority Religions

Megan Goodwin

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Sex abuse happens in all communities, but American minority religions often face disproportionate allegations of sexual abuse. Why, in a country that consistently fails to acknowledge—much less address—the sexual abuse of women and children, do American religious outsiders so often face allegations of sexual misconduct? Why does the American public presume to know "what's really going on" in minority religious communities? Why are sex abuse allegations such an effective way to discredit people on America's religious margins? What makes Americans so willing, so eager to identify religion as the cause of sex abuse? Abusing Religion argues that sex abuse in minority religious communities is an American problem, not (merely) a religious one.

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Catholic Co-belligerence and the New Christian Right
The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.
Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey
With respect to free exercise claims no less than free speech claims, “[y]our right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”
—Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (dissenting)
For a book focused on American minority religions to dwell on Catholicism—even in the lower case—might seem an odd digression. Roman Catholics, after all, comprise the largest single faction among American religions.1 But Catholicism’s role in collapsing national values into christian sexual ethics scaffolds Abusing Religion and the book’s understanding of how American religions are minoritized—that is, politically, legally, or culturally marginalized by elites.2 Catholic theology has helped construct public morality from the late 1970s onward, a contribution American religious studies has undertheorized.3
Roman Catholic sexual ethics inform the way Americans understand moral sexuality, even if those Americans are not themselves Catholic or Christian. I call this diffusion of Catholic theology into national values the catholicization of public morality. This phrase marks how Roman Catholic sexual ethics came to inform a universalized and demonstrably christian understanding of “American values,” especially during and after the emergence of the so-called New Christian Right in the late 1970s.4 As I noted in the introduction, small-c christian denotes the incorporation of white conservative Christian understandings of morality—especially but not exclusively sexual morality—into American values, investments, and expressions of public interest. Small-c catholicization plays on the dual operation of c/Catholic: referring to the disciplines of the Roman Catholic Church in the uppercase, and denoting their universal—that is, catholic—influence in the lowercase. Discerning the catholicization of American public morality requires tracing the ways a specific brand of christian sexual ethics came to present itself as national values.
There might be no clearer example of Catholic sexual morality informing national public policy than the increasingly conservative legislation and regulation of Americans’ access to contraception. This chapter provides a brief timeline for how Roman Catholic sexual ethics came to shape a presumably secular arena, public reproductive health, providing a literal contraceptive framework for my theory of contraceptive nationalism. Catholic sexual morality directly informs the New Christian Right’s weaponization of concepts like “the family” and “normal” sex—making contraceptive nationalism an effective way to minoritize religions that do (or are accused of doing) sex “wrong.”
Despite comprising a numerical majority among religious traditions for much of the nation’s history, American Catholics were themselves minoritized until the mid-twentieth century. By the late twentieth century, however, Catholicism was actively helping minoritize other religious traditions, employing many of the same terms used in previous years to minoritize Catholics.5 Allegations of sexual licentiousness, coercion, and corruption had made for particularly effective anti-Catholic rhetoric in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But by 1980, Roman Catholicism was co-constructing a notion of American values that painted religious outsiders as sexual threats to American families and domestic sovereignty, and transgressive sexuality as a threat to the soul of our nation. The catholicization of public morality—particularly the construction of sexual immorality as endangering American families and national integrity—is especially observable in the legislative trajectory for women’s reproductive autonomy (including their access to contraception).


By the late 1960s, conservative white evangelicals in the South and the Sunbelt had consolidated power in mutual opposition to Protestant liberalism within Christian communities.6 Nixon’s “law and order” platform secured him the presidency in 1968, lamenting America’s supposed moral decline and appealing to a “great silent majority” opposed to racial, gender, and sexual agitation for change—a platform that mobilized white conservative Christians historically reticent to engage in presidential politicking to unprecedented political action.7 White evangelical support elected Southern Baptist (and Democrat!) Jimmy Carter in 1976 and swiftly rebuked him in 1980, as conservative “values” voters grew impatient with a president too progressive for his conservative constituency.8 This religiopolitical climate gave birth to the New Christian Right.
The so-called New Christian Right was a loose confederacy of white conservative Christian political advocacy groups formed in the late 1970s, including James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, Robert Grant’s Christian Voice, Robert J. Billing’s National Christian Action Coalition, Edward McAteer’s Religious Roundtable, and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority (the largest and most influential of these groups, and a key contributor to the catholicization of public morality). This unprecedented consolidation of white conservative Christian efforts followed a breakdown of denominationalism and a reorganization of religious communities along political and moral lines, ones that coded American values as christian sexual ethics. Couched as an ethical defense of “the family,” this political coalition opposed homosexuality, divorce, abortion, pornography, premarital sex, and too readily available birth control.9
This Christian alliance emerged in response to a cluster of sexual sea changes in American culture, including religiosexual innovation in new religious movements; demands for women’s sexual autonomy from second-wave feminists; and gay liberation activists’ insistence on the visibility and legitimacy of sexual difference. The New Christian Right formed around—indeed, required—a conservative sexual consensus that condemned sexual symptoms of “moral decline.”10 “These Christians needed sex to exist as a movement,” cultural theorist Michael Warner insists.11 Conservative white evangelicals proposed that real American family values required not a renunciation but a resignification of sex—a resignification on their own theological terms.12 These religiopolitical action groups countered the sexual revolution by condemning practices and identities beyond the pale of white Christian sexual ethics as attacks on the American family, couching the movement’s message in broadly nationalist rather than specifically religious terms.13
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Christian right wed the Republican Party, forming an alliance sworn to defend the American family from attempts to undermine conservative sexual ethics and American sovereignty.14 “By linking sexual discipline to the idea of the America nation,” American religious historian Anthony Petro asserts, “religious leaders promulgated no less than a national sexuality. This national sexuality has proclaimed some forms of sex [i.e., those in line with white conservative Christian sexual mores] not merely respectable, but fundamental to the health of the American public.”15 Conservative preachers warned that illicit sex would make the nation vulnerable to communist infiltration, weakening the American home, that “citadel of American life,” and the American state from within.16 In a white conservative evangelical worldview, sexual misconduct imperils the individual sinner, their community, and the world in which they live; the religiopolitical rhetoric of the 1970s and 1980s reflects this threatscape.17 Reagan-era conservatism pinned the safety and survival of the nation-state on christian sexual ethics expressed as American values.18


The conservative collapse of American values into christian sexual ethics was the catholicization of public morality’s moment of conception, a watershed in American religious history: white conservative American Christians started consulting the Catholic magisterium when speaking for America, at least when it came to sex.19 It is not merely that the Roman Catholic Church makes and has made universalist pronouncements on moral sex and gender; the Church grounds such pronouncements in natural law and holds that Catholic morality binds the faithful and nonfaithful alike.20 But since the early 1980s, Roman Catholic sexual ethics have shaped not only American Catholic doctrine but also national domestic and foreign policy. With the election of Ronald Reagan, an unprecedently powerful white conservative Christian political machine meaningfully incorporated Catholic thinking about sex into a publicly proclaimed vision of what it means to be truly American for the first time in the nation’s history.
This kind of conservative Protestant/Catholic political alliance would have been unthinkable only decades before, when prominent evangelical leaders openly and aggressively opposed Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy’s bid for the presidency. Among them was L. Nelson Bell, a prominent Presbyterian minister and Billy Graham’s father-in-law, who gave a vehement anti-Kennedy address in August 1960. Bell explicitly condemned Roman Catholicism as a “temporal state” engaged in secular politicking, calling the Catholic Church “a political system that like an octopus covers the entire world and threatens those basic freedoms and those constitutional rights for which our forefathers died.”21
Weeks later, Kennedy addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, reassuring the Protestant ministers there assembled that he was “not the Catholic candidate for president.”22 “I am wholly opposed to the state being used by any religious group, Catholic or Protestant, to compel, prohibit, or persecute the free exercise of any other religion,” Kennedy clarified.
He continued: “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”23 Kennedy won his election, but it would take another twenty years—and a massive media campaign by Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority—to shift the broader American public’s mindset about Catholicism and its place in articulating national values.24
There is perhaps no clearer evidence of Christians’ shift away from denominationalism and toward political affinity clusters than the New Christian Right’s deliberate (previously inconceivable) alliances with Roman Catholics.25 And no prominent movement leader aligned himself with Catholics more than Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority. Indeed, a Catholic gave Falwell’s movement its name: Paul Weyrich, cofoun...


  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright
  4. Dedication
  5. Contents
  6. Introduction: Contraceptive Nationalism
  7. 1. America’s Contraceptive Mentality: Catholic Co-belligerence and the New Christian Right
  8. Part I: Sex, Abuse, and The Satanic Panic
  9. Part II: Sex, Abuse, and American Islamophobia
  10. Part III: Sex, Abuse, and Mormon Fundamentalism
  11. Conclusion: Religion, Sex, Abuse
  12. Epilogue: Religion Trains Us Like Roses
  13. Acknowledgments
  14. Notes
  15. Selected Bibliography
  16. Index
  17. About the Author
Estilos de citas para Abusing Religion

APA 6 Citation

Goodwin, M. (2020). Abusing Religion ([edition unavailable]). Rutgers University Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1583752/abusing-religion-literary-persecution-sex-scandals-and-american-minority-religions-pdf (Original work published 2020)

Chicago Citation

Goodwin, Megan. (2020) 2020. Abusing Religion. [Edition unavailable]. Rutgers University Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/1583752/abusing-religion-literary-persecution-sex-scandals-and-american-minority-religions-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Goodwin, M. (2020) Abusing Religion. [edition unavailable]. Rutgers University Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1583752/abusing-religion-literary-persecution-sex-scandals-and-american-minority-religions-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Goodwin, Megan. Abusing Religion. [edition unavailable]. Rutgers University Press, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.