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The Religious Conflict at the Heart of Our Culture Wars

The Religious Conflict at the Heart of Our Culture Wars
How theological differences over sex have fueled some of the bitterest political fights of the past century and more

JANUARY 12, 2018

If we want to understand the challenge of disintegrating sexual norms and the culture wars surrounding them, one of the most important things we need is history. This crisis did not just explode out of nowhere in the 1990s or even the 1960s. In Moral Combat, R. Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, reviews a century's worth of American cultural conflict over sexuality, fueled by a growing divide between religious subcultures. Her account is subtly biased, but readers will benefit from her clear presentation of the longer history and larger significance of our sexual conflicts.

Griffith picks up the story in the aftermath of the conflict over the 19th Amendment. With women's suffrage enshrined in the Constitution, the nation had hardly caught its breath before it was embroiled in a series of political conflicts over sexuality. Suffrage was followed by a series of what we would now call "culture wars" over birth control laws, censorship of pornography, marriage across ethnic lines, Alfred Kinsey's sex research, and sex education in schools. These led straight into the battles over abortion, sexual harassment, gay rights, and transgenderism that are still raging today.

The first and most important takeaway from Moral Combat, then, is that the culture wars are at least a century old. Since the women's suffrage movement began, there has never been a time when political conflict over sex was not an important presence in American public life.

The second takeaway is the centrality of sex to the culture wars. Other issues have been involved, of course. But there is a reason the controversy over abortion shot right to the center of public attention and stayed there, while the controversy over euthanasia remains at the margins. The moral question at stake--the sanctity of human life versus the freedom of human choice--is the same in both cases. Abortion, however, is about sex in a way euthanasia is not.

Sex is at the center of the culture wars because sex is essential to religion and also (as the basis of the family) to politics. Conflicting approaches to sexuality, caused by different religious views, create political conflict because they produce different understandings of the family. The family is the institution that connects individuals to the wider social world, so any major change in the life of families implies some kind of major political change as a result--and vice versa. We see this today in debates about the definition of marriage, but it was just as true in debates about birth control laws in the 1920s or sex education in schools in the 1960s.

At bottom, then, our political conflicts over sexuality are really religious conflicts. And for most of the century, they were not primarily conflicts between religion and irreligion, but between different kinds of religion. That is the third takeaway from Moral Combat. The growing political divide over sexuality is inseparable from a growing religious divide, one that began in the 19th century as a division between those who followed historic Christian teaching and those who followed "modernist" theologies.

For the rest of the story click here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/january-web-only/religious-conflict-at-heart-of-our-culture-wars.html

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