Sexual Healing? Race, Religion, and Purity in the 20th Century

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gender and Sexuality; Race; Religion


The concept of purity has been central to the language of religious piety and to discourses about race and sexuality. In addition to connoting sinless perfection and complete goodness, purity has served as an aim and justification for systems of white supremacy and heterosexual patriarchy. Both racial and sexual purity rely on the notion that something (e.g. whiteness, chastity) requires vigilant protection against imminent threats. The meanings of purity have shifted over time, and historical actors have variously reinforced, reframed, and resisted these different purity discourses.

This panel traces how American religious groups developed different meanings and uses for the notion of sexual purity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Because purity is both a racialized and sexualized concept, this panel demonstrates the intersections between race and sex within religious rhetoric and practices. The panel puts into dialogue three presentations that examine the role of purity in religious discourse, community practices, and activism.

Samira Mehta analyzes how liberal Protestant clergy marshalled a definition of purity for marital sex to justify contraception for married couples in the decades after World War II. Mehta tracks how liberal Protestants rejected earlier eugenics justifications for contraception and instead argued that married couples had a purity of intent when they expressed sexual love and decided whether and when to produce children. She illustrates how these notions of pure responsible parenthood furthered the idea of familial privacy from state power while also reinforcing middle- and upper-class white norms.

Hannah Waits outlines the global work of evangelical missionaries during the AIDS crisis. Waits shows how missionaries altered US evangelicals’ views about the AIDS epidemic, and how missionaries used resources from the US purity movement to spread abstinence-only education programs throughout the Global South in the 1980s-2000s. She demonstrates that missionaries shifted evangelicals’ understanding of AIDS by reframing the epidemic within the racial othering of mission work, thereby rousing white evangelicals’ sympathy for and desire to save black and brown suffering bodies across the world.

Kera Street explores the digital and in-person practices of black Protestant women in a national women’s group called Pinky Promise, and she reveals how these women utilized purity as a governing principle for their daily practices and embodiments of piety. Street traces the ways that digital media platforms and face-to-face chapter meetings facilitated members’ shared efforts to discipline their hearts, minds, bodies, and desires to align with what members believed that God required of them. She demonstrates how these practices constructed a broad notion of purity that functioned as a set of everyday commitments, motivations, and behaviors that shaped individuals’ religious identities, online and offline.

Together, these presentations point to the ways that actors and groups have engaged purity discourses both to challenge and reinforce social hierarchies. By examining how conceptions of sex and race have functioned within contraception campaigns, global AIDS programs, and women’s online communities, this panel expands our understanding of how the notion of purity has been a powerful tool for white and black religious communities over the last century.

Papers Presented

Living Right: Black Women’s Pursuits of Purity in a Digital Age

From the turn of the century to the present, evangelicals have placed cultural and theological value on purity and sexuality. This paper tackles how concerns for purity continue to surface in the contemporary moment—one marked by emerging media, the proliferation of digital technologies, and increased attention and anxiety around racial difference. It considers how purity is taken up in a national evangelical women’s group, Pinky Promise, and how new media influences pursuits of purity for its predominately black membership. Founded in 2012 by blogger Heather Lindsey, Pinky Promise is a global nondenominational parachurch movement that promotes traditional gender roles and defines proper sexual activity as heterosexual, marital, and monogamous. Framed as a promise to honor God in daily decisions and through embodied action, the organization offers sites, both digital and face-to-face, for members to connect around the everyday experiences that color a sustained commitment to a pious life. Digitally, the organization uses social networking platforms to encourage members to connect and share their stories and insights on how to effectively “live for Jesus.” Offline, the movement counts more than 1000 chapters in close to 30 countries worldwide, where women meet monthly for prayer and study, and to build relationships that reinforce a shared vow to purity. Notwithstanding the sociocultural processes that have coded purity as a sexual term over the course of history, and despite the ways it trends toward sexual concerns alone in the national organization, local members of Pinky Promise paint purity with much broader strokes. Rather than simply instructive of what, when, with whom, and for what purpose sex acts are permissible, purity for these women is about disciplining the mind, heart, body, senses, and desires to align with theologically conservative ideas of what is pleasing to God and what God requires of women who are committed to living according to His commandments. Purity captures the range of techniques and considerations, practices and motives—both “religious” and mundane—that map onto their understandings of their “walk with Christ,” how to “honor God with their life and body,” and what it means to “present themselves as holy and acceptable unto God.” Paying attention to the ways that Pinky Promise members construct purity as an everyday practice, this paper seeks to demonstrate how members’ religious lives, online and offline, reflect their larger pursuit of piety and self-coherence. By framing purity as a spiritual ideal, or proxy of what it means to live a good (i.e., correct) Christian life, it highlights how purity functions as a governing principle for Pinky Promise members, producing life-ways that are racially, sexually, and gender-specific. The paper wrestles with larger questions of how religious lives are imagined and presented online, how new media affects the way people believe, and how social constructs such as race, gender, and sexuality—and the religious commitments tied to them—take on everyday meaning and are lived out in a digital age.

Presented By
Kera Street, Harvard University

Missionary Positions: How American Evangelicals Learned to Love Global AIDS Relief

This paper shows how American evangelicals transformed from the most implacable foes of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) victims domestically to the face of AIDS relief internationally. Drawing on never-before-seen sources, this research examines missionary work in the 1980s-2000s period and traces the ways that missionaries reshaped U.S. evangelicals’ views on AIDS and expanded abstinence-only education programs across the world. The paper demonstrates that missionaries shifted evangelicals’ understanding of AIDS by recasting the epidemic within the racialized affective hierarchies of missions, thereby rousing white evangelicals’ sympathy for and desire to save black and brown suffering bodies across the world. In the late twentieth century, American evangelicals were the majority of the world’s missionaries and their organizations were the biggest nongovernmental organizations in the world. But in the late 1980s, evangelical missionaries faced a major public relations crisis in the US. After several medical missionaries in West Africa died from AIDS, outraged evangelical donors and churches in the United States pulled their financial support from the affiliated mission organizations, and a few of those organizations folded as a result. Other missionary organizations scrambled to figure out how they could avoid a similar fate. How could they address the medical emergency in the field and the public relations emergency back at home? The threat of financial and public relations disaster forced mission organizations to confront the moral discourses that U.S. evangelicals had promulgated about AIDS. Missionaries wrote and traveled back to the United States in the 1980s and 1990s and spoke to churches, colleges, and national conferences about the importance of compassion for AIDS victims around the world. Several mission organizations partnered with the U.S. surgeon general to create curriculum for churches and evangelical organizations that debunked myths about AIDS and encouraged evangelicals to exhibit sympathy and care for people with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS. Through these materials and speaking engagements, missionaries and their organizations used their platform to reframe American evangelicals’ understanding of AIDS, not as God’s judgement for sexual immorality, but as the poignant suffering of black and brown people around the world that white U.S. Christians could relieve. Missionaries’ efforts to shift the evangelical conversation about AIDS into the more acceptable and well-worn register of global missionary work increased evangelical support for international AIDS relief and humanitarian work in the 1990s and early 2000s. That shift is what made possible the considerable evangelical support for U.S. policies such as the 15 billion dollar global AIDS initiative, PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), first passed in 2003. This increasing evangelical support also refocused AIDS mission work from medical relief to prevention in the late 1990s. Missionaries promoted abstinence-only education by harnessing the resources of the U.S. purity movement and providing conservative moral lessons through health education that put medical science and biblical teachings on equal footing.

Presented By
Hannah R. Waits, Harvard University

Sacrality and Purity in the Mid-Century Push for Contraception

As Protestant clergy advocated for contraceptive access for married women in the years immediately following World War II, they found themselves navigating political waters complicated by two issues: eugenics and sexual morality. The early years of the birth control movement had been characterized by its growing connection with the eugenics movement, a relationship actively pursued by Margaret Sanger for political reasons. But in the aftermath of the Holocaust and during the nascent civil rights movement, these leaders were no longer comfortable with the eugenic implications of contraceptive campaigns. Simultaneously, they also found themselves needing to refute the claim that access to contraception would result in unmarried women having sex—opponents of contraception essentially claimed that fear of pregnancy was what kept good girls good. In sidestepping both of these objections to contraception, liberal clergy depended on the far older concept of purity. Rather than talking about what racial groups should (or should not) reproduce, they instead focused on the ideals of sexual love in marriage—using religious language to underscore the sacrality of marital love and the decision of whether and when to have children as an important place for individual moral decisions. Protestants referred to this intersection of sexual love and the prayerful decision to parent as responsible parenthood, and while they rarely invoked the specific language of purity, the language of responsible parenthood echoed its tropes. In an important shift for the birth control movement, eugenics became unacceptable because of the state’s violation of the sanctity of a couple’s marriage bed. Clergy wanted instead to focus on upholding couples’ moral agency in deciding how to structure their families. This language of sacrality stood in, in these moments, for purity—sex was sacred if it was pure of intent, as it should be in true Christian marriage. This return to the language of purity in the postwar marriage bed echoed old ideas, but also did much to contribute to the new postwar idea of familial privacy and the receding of state power. That said, at the same time that the language of purity pushed against formal, state-sponsored eugenics programs, the perfect, morally pure nuclear family envisioned by these leaders modeled certain middle- and upper-class white norms—and provided a rhetoric that echoed through the state as it attempted to shape working class and nonwhite families into acceptable, pure and purely American family structures.

Presented By
Samira K. Mehta, University of Colorado Boulder

Session Participants

Commentator: Kathryn Lofton, Yale University
Kathryn Lofton is Professor of American Studies, Religious Studies, History and Divinity at Yale University, where she has also served as the Deputy Dean for Diversity and Faculty Development as well as Chair of the Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Program and the Department of Religious Studies. She is the author of two books, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (2011) and Consuming Religion (2017), and one edited collection, Women's Work: An Anthology of African-American Women's Historical Writings (2010).

Presenter: Samira K. Mehta, University of Colorado Boulder
Samira K. Mehta is an Assistant Professor at Albright College. Her research focuses on American religious cultures and the politics of family life in 20th and 21st century US. The author of the National Jewish Book Award finalist Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Blended Family in America (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), Mehta’s current project, God Bless the Pill: Sexuality and Contraception in Tri-Faith America examines the role of liberal Jewish and Protestant voices in competing moral logics of contraception, population control, and eugenics from the mid-twentieth century to the present. She is the co-chair of the Religions and Families in North America AAR Seminar Group and on the steering committees of the North American Religions Program Unit and the Study of Judaism Program Unit at the American Academy of Religion. Mehta has held fellowships from the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Sloan Foundation’s Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, and the Northeastern Regional Fellowship Consortium.

Presenter: Kera Street, Harvard University
Kera Street is a PhD Candidate in the Study of Religion at Harvard University. Her research interests broadly coalesce around topics of race, gender, sexuality, and social media, and the ways that religious identities and religious practice are shaped and presented in the digital realm. Her dissertation project is an ethnographic study of Christian women’s social networking, and investigates how notions of proper womanhood are imagined and reinforced in online spaces. Street has received fellowships from the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, the Louisville Institute for the Study of American Religion, the Fund for Theological Exploration, and the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Street received her bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies from Spelman College, and her master’s in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School.

Presenter: Hannah R. Waits, Harvard University
Hannah Waits is a PhD Candidate in History at UC Berkeley, and she specializes in 20th-century US religion, politics, and culture. Her dissertation, “Missionary Minded: American Evangelicals and Power in a Postcolonial World,” traces how changes to global missionary work shaped American evangelicals’ understandings of themselves and their growing national and international power in the mid- and late twentieth century. Her current project has earned fellowships from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the Louisville Institute for the Study of American Religion, and the Religious Research Association, along with eleven other research grants from various research centers and archives. She has taught a range of US and Latin American history courses at UC Berkeley and the University of Georgia, and she is a recipient of two university-wide outstanding teaching awards.