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Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics Hardcover – December 12, 2017
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
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"Magisterial...Griffith's observations are eerily prescient...Moral Combat is an impressive history of a massive fault line running through American history and politics: namely, sex."―Washington Post
"Moral Combat is a vivid illustration of a principle that liberals understand well and that religious conservatives usually do not: Culture precedes politics."―Wall Street Journal
"Marie Griffith...reviews a century's worth of American cultural conflict over sexuality, fueled by a growing divide between religious subcultures. Readers will benefit from her clear presentation of the longer history and larger significance of our sexual conflicts."―Christianity Today
"Highly informative."―The Gospel Coalition
"[An] exceptional cultural history...Griffith's remarkably comprehensive book will be of interest to scholars and lay readers alike."―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Griffith offers a carefully reasoned examination of the century-long political and religious controversies over sexuality that color our national character. Given the passions engendered by these controversies on both sides--conservative and liberal--she demonstrates that comity and compromise are perennially elusive, while consensus seems to be a word in an incomprehensible language. Happily Griffith brings welcome clarity and light to what otherwise might have been impenetrable murkiness."―Booklist
"Thoughtful study of the great schism between religious conservatives and progressives about women's control over their own bodies."―Kirkus Reviews
"With grace and insight, Marie Griffith has taken on one of the most intractable and enduring issues in American life and faith: that of the role sexuality plays in our religion and in our politics. A force of division and of fascination since Eden, sex is a perennial theme in the human story, and Griffith's intelligent, sober, and illuminating book offers us new ways to think about the most ancient--yet urgent--of questions."―Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Destiny and Power
"For those of us wondering how the United States got to be the way it is today--religiously, sexually, and politically--Moral Combat is essential reading. R. Marie Griffith, a distinguished historian of American religion, shows that the fierce and bitter contests among Christians in the twentieth century over good religion vs. bad religion, good sex vs. bad sex, have been and remain at the core of the most explosive issues of American public life. Women's health, African American civil rights, marriage, the cruel fantasy of white supremacy, workplace behavior, the public reputation of science, and more--God and sex are implicated in all of them. The United States is not a God-obsessed nation, as some would have it; it is a God-and-sex-obsessed nation. And the stakes are high: at the heart of this brilliant work of religious and political history is the question of the future of American democracy itself."―Robert A. Orsi, author of History and Presence
"Moral Combat is a momentous book about the deep, irreparable divisions that the politicization of sex has inflicted on our society for the past century. Loaded with memorable characters and keen insights, Marie Griffith's elegantly written account of the culture wars' most heated flashpoint is both absorbing and sobering. And it is required reading for anyone trying to understand the fiercest political agitations of our day."―Darren Dochuk, author of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism
About the Author
R. Marie Griffith is the John C. Danforth Distinguished Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where she directs the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri.
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I fully agree that we cannot undo the damaging impact of long-term patriarchy and gender hierarchy "without first committing to a full and thorough reckoning of precisely how and why our divisions got so deep." (p 321) I too have researched, studied and written at length about the effects of patriarchy on the LGBTQ community. Misogyny, homophobia and racism are intimately connected and need to be looked at together.
I learned quite a bit from the chapter on birth control. It is a common tactic currently to dismiss Margaret Sanger by depicting her as favorable toward eugenics and missing the bulk of the impetus behind her life' work.
The chapter to chapter flow is well done. I really could not put the book down; I stayed up very late and got up way too early to finish the book. It was worth every minute invested. My book is heavily highlighted for all the new information or re-affirmation of what I already knew.
It is important to note that I am not an uninterested bystander observing the politics of sex in the conservative American church. I am a straight evangelical Christian (mother of two adult straight children) running a non-profit whose mission it is to educate within church environments for the full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians. I listened to Griffith's interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross (fangirl, here) and immediately ordered the book.
One cannot have informed conversations about discrimination against LGB and in particular T persons in the US without understanding the undeniable link to patriarchy and gender hierarchy. To be able to trace the connection well, one must understand the plight of women and the efforts by conservative Christians to control them and keep male dominance and subjugation intact.
I particularly appreciated Griffith's research on the influence of the Catholic church on birth control, censorship, female sexuality, sex education and abortion. I was raised Roman Catholic, but mostly operate in evangelical/Protestant environments now. Her insights enable me to have conversations of greater depth. Thank you!
And, how timely is the chapter on sexual harassment! it's ugly head surfaced in the 1990s, only to be tolerated for another few decades. The author writes: "Suddenly, it seemed, the very Christians who had long guarded against sexual immorality had shucked that principle for the sake of gender hierarchy, or at least of putting this one particular woman (Hillary Clinton) in her place so as to elect a macho man." (p 316) It is quite stunning to watch white conservative Christians en masse lay aside the principles that seemingly were foundational to us to maintain conservative political power.
I registered as a Republican on my 18th birthday and became a born-again Christian at 30. I've spent my life trying to follow the teachings and actions of Jesus. The unholy marriage of conservative religion and politics, beginning in the 1980s is destroying both participants. I had to walk away from the GOP in the last election. I also had to leave a church home of 25 years to go to a more progressive evangelical church where I could more accurately reflect the life of Jesus in weekly service and worship.
Again, I LOVED this book. I am researching for my next book currently and I am sure pieces of Griffith's research will end up in my book and ongoing teaching (well footnoted, of course).
But that’s precisely why you should read this book.
This is a book of history written by a very capable and articulate historian. It is not a partisan manifesto. Even after reading the book I would be hard-pressed to define the author’s actual politics with any specificity. There is an occasional whiff here and there, particularly in the epilogue, but that is to be expected of any book written by an actual person. The author is, on balance, admirably successful in maintaining the political objectivity of the professional historian. (Although she would likely point out that those who hold the most extreme views on both sides of these issues are unlikely to agree with that assessment.)
The goal of an historian is to both present the facts and figures and to put them in context so that we might ultimately rise above them in the interest of true understanding. And while you will surely find some of the characters in this drama to be offensive and off-putting, I think it would be difficult to really contribute to the public dialogue today without an understanding of who they were and the influence they had in their time. Self-awareness, after all, is the necessary first step toward any attempt to change the world.
What is most amazing about this book and the topics it covers, from birth control to abortion and same sex marriage, is how much energy and effort has gone into our very public debates, to put it mildly, about sex over such a relatively short span of human history. To think that less than a century ago we were actively debating whether or not heterosexual marital sex for purposes other than procreation was moral or not, is really quite mind boggling when you think about it.
And that, it appears, is precisely why Griffith is interested in the topic. What she documents in incredible detail, without being dry, is a division among both Christians and Americans at large, which is beyond profoundly deep. It is a division that is almost inexplicable in any rational scientific or theological terms. While I can’t imagine any historian giving it a better effort, I’m not convinced Griffith herself believes that she has been entirely successful, in the end, in unraveling the full breadth and depth of the forces behind the facts. The history is just that bizarre.
I honestly can’t imagine an historian taking on a more challenging range of topics. And she is obviously astute enough to know that the target audience for a balanced, objective recounting of this history may ultimately prove to be small in numbers. She took on what might well prove to be a thankless job, nonetheless, both because I think she is just naturally fascinated with the subject matter and because it is a page of history that someone really has to write.
And that it is exactly why it is not a thankless read. Far from it. I found the book to be well worth my time and effort. It didn’t change my politics, but as a white, heterosexual, sexagenarian, non-Christian, male, I learned a lot, particularly about events that took place within my own lifetime and that I should have been paying more attention to at the time.
The writing is very accessible and easy to get through, but it is not a quick read. There is an awful lot of material here. And while the prose flows smoothly, there is enough attention paid to references and authentication to satisfy, I suspect, the most discerning academic. It does not, moreover, limit itself to the female perspective. This is a social, political, and religious history that all of us, whatever our gender, sexual identity, or religious affiliation, played a role in, as Griffith so aptly points out.
I normally reserve a five star rating for books that are truly transformative for me. I’m not sure that any history quite rises to that level for me, but the topic surely does. As a member of society and the father of two daughters I can’t think of a more relevant or important topic at the moment.
My only disappointment in the book is that in the epilogue, where she discusses the 2016 election, she seems to lose a little of what had been up until that point an ardent and irrepressible optimism that things always seem to work out in the end. She was hardly alone, however, in being knocked back on her heels by the election, if indeed she was, but she seems to have ultimately held her grip. She closes with, “Maybe we will get there one day […reckoning, engaging, and willfully empathizing with others in our common humanity, so as to rouse a fractured nation to build a bearable peace.], but not without first committing to a full and thorough reckoning of precisely how and why our divisions got so deep.”
And in that spirit, I dearly hope that you if you have taken the time to read this review, you will take the time to read this very important and engaging book.
And, no, I don’t know the author and have never encountered any of her prior work. I will, however, look for her in the future.