Recent allegations against the aspiring Alabama senator fit a long and complicated history of religious debates about sex.
Before this month, Roy Moore was best known nationally for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama state supreme-court building. Now, the aspiring senator is accused of hitting on teens at an Alabama mall and inappropriately touching a 14-year-old girl.
These allegations may be the end of Moore. Congressional Republicans have started disowning him, and he’s tentatively dropping in state polls. But it’s possible that the reputation of evangelical Christians will also suffer. Despite condemnations from a number of nationally prominent Christian leaders and a few in Alabama, many of the state’s faithful continue to back the controversial candidate.
To outsiders, the support might seem like a stark contradiction in values. Even to insiders, it can seem that way. “I’m … bothered,” wrote William S. Brewbaker III, a law professor at the University of Alabama, in The New York Times, “by what Mr. Moore’s popularity says about the sorry state of evangelical Christianity.”
The Moore scandal is part of a long history of complicated sexual politics in the Christian world. In her new book, Moral Combat, the Washington University in St. Louis professor Marie Griffith writes about American Christians’ battles over sexual harassment, birth control, and gender roles. This fall’s wave of sexual-assault accusations has often seemed to echo the past, bringing to mind Anita Hill’s accusations about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Paula Jones’s allegations against former President Bill Clinton. Incidents like these, Griffith writes, all get tied up in the distinctive sexual politics of the Christian world.
The book—which covers much more than sexual-harassment scandals, including everything from Margaret Sanger’s legacy at Planned Parenthood to Alfred Kinsey’s obsession with clergy—comes out in December. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Emma Green: What is up with evangelicals justifying Roy Moore assaulting a 14-year-old as a 30-something?
Marie Griffith: I think what we’re seeing is an extreme politicization of Christianity. It almost does not feel like the evangelical tradition of a generation ago. I don’t want to overstate that, of course—there’s plenty that’s still evangelicalism. But it has become so focused on power.
It looks like hypocrisy to the outside world. I’m not sure I quite see it as hypocrisy, but I do see it as a real politicization of the tradition.
Green: Sexual harassment has long been used as a political tool—just take the cases of Paula Jones and Anita Hill. How did harassment become so weaponized?
Griffith: Conservative Christians rallied around Clarence Thomas and suggested there was nothing believable about Anita Hill’s charges. But with Paula Jones, they came to her defense, legally and financially. Even without judging the truth or falsity of either claim, you can see that a political reaction was at work.
Green: I’ve been thinking a lot about which women’s stories are considered legitimate. Anita Hill was part of the Christian world—she was on faculty at Oral Roberts University. And yet there was a wholesale effort to delegitimize what she was saying.
Griffith: Maybe it really does come down, even unconsciously, to politics. I hate to make people sound so calculating, but in some ways, that is what it seems.
Those who were already supportive of Clarence Thomas were primed not to believe in any sort of moral failing. By the time Hill’s story became public and widely known, there had already been great controversy over his nomination and very strong support coming from the conservative Christian world. There wasn’t a frame in that world except to disbelieve the story she told.
On the other hand, with Paula Jones, when her story came to light, there was already tremendous hatred of Bill Clinton, and of Hillary Clinton, too, in those same conservative Christian circles. So they’re primed to believe a story from their hatred of him.
In some ways, we forget how primed we are, politically, to believe or disbelieve a story depending on who is telling it.
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SOURCE: The Atlantic