Reviewed by Aimee Byrd
I have two teenage daughters. Two! So purity is definitely a Christian value that my husband and I want to guard, promote, and teach on a continual basis. And yet between technology advancing further than we seem to be able to catch up with and the obsession with sexualizing everything in our culture these days, adolescence is difficult to navigate through. It almost seems like a trial for both parents and their children – who will survive?
Concerned and proactive parents appreciate all the help we can get. But perhaps we are too quick to give our encouragement and support. The parachurch purity movement has been one of those causes that may need a closer evaluation. Just because they use some of the same words and share many of our common concerns does not mean it is something Christians should wholeheartedly embrace. What if the very thing that appears to be helping our children is actually hindering their understanding of holiness?
While chastity is a Christian virtue that we should both model and teach, some evangelical parachurch movements have taken it out of its context of Christian holiness and the local church’s disciple-making commission. So a very good thing, Christian purity, has become a commodity instead of a process in sanctification.
Given my apprehensions about what is marketed to my teenagers both by the secular media and the evangelical parachurch movements, Sara Moslener’s new book, Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence, piqued my interest. Moslener traces the sexual purity movement in America, showing how it developed as an ideology linked to national security. She identifies “several cooperating impulses: evangelical political activism, deep anxiety over gender roles and changing sexual mores, fear and moral decay, apocalyptic anticipation, and American nationalism”, making the case that “sex and national survival are the poles around which evangelicals have constructed a national identity” (5).
An evangelical reading this book may be tempted to write Moslener off from the start. How dare she go after something that is so sacred to us as sexual purity? But the research done in this book is something we should take a look at. Christians should be wary when sexual purity has been hijacked as an ideological commodity. It is also troubling that this is a branding of evangelicalism.
Moslener begins with tracing sexual purity back to first wave feminism and the reversal of traditional gender roles. Where women used to be thought of as the morally inferior sex (the whole “it was Eve who first took the bite” shtick), in the 19th century this idea took a 180-degree turn. Purity was regarded as a feminine trait. Women exploited their newfound status as moral superiors to extend their power beyond the domestic sphere and control the sexual behavior of men. Moslener connects the reversal of the female status as moral superiors in first wave feminism to the political movements fueled by evangelical tropes of manhood and womanhood. She demonstrates how the correlating emergence of the field of psychology contributed to this movement by introducing the category of adolescence.
Yet as women gained spiritual, social, and political influence, men began to feel threatened by a feminization of theology. The response was a promotion of muscular Christianity. Moslener traces the emergence of leaders such as Dwight Moody, Frances Willard, Catherine Beecher, and Ellice Hopkins to reveal the connection between framing male and female roles with the protection of white culture and social welfare. She explains, “a woman’s moral failings were always traceable to a man’s doing, a harsh economic situation, or both” (30). With the uprise of Darwinism and sex education in the midst of a culture of religious conversion and Victorian gender roles, the sphere of adolescence gave new significance to purity rhetoric. “Sexual purity was the ‘chief secret’ of civilizational greatness because it promoted racial purity, genetic endurance, and a collection of superior moral and physical traits” (44).
Moslener then demonstrates how Carl “Henry and Billy Graham crafted a rhetoric of sexual fear that linked sexual immorality, national decline, and pending apocalypse – a discourse that will remain highly relevant within evangelical circles and serve as the architectural foundation for later sexual purity campaigns” (76).
Again, while reading this you may want to get angry with the author. But Moslener is not actually criticizing sexual purity itself. Nor is she critiquing biblical theology. She is interested in critiquing the evangelical tropes that couch the language of sexual purity as a commodity that will save civilization and the ideologies that Americans hold dear. This makes those of us who prize both our faith and sexual purity ask the question, why? What are our motivations? What do we hold most dear and how do we present that to others? What is public and what is private?
With Darwinian theory gaining popularity, Christians began losing social clout. Moslener tracks the evangelical response as promoting a religion of fear, demarking boundaries between Christian faith and purity in opposition to communism and licentious living. In order to gain a voice, evangelicals accommodated to the psychological language of the culture. As they emphasized family values, they focused on the benefits of sexual purity for personal fulfillment. Moslener spends a chapter connecting the thread of the sexual purity movement through the Jesus People Movement, Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri, Cold War fundamentalism, James Dobson, and the development of Christian psychology. Although the author tries to be neutral, it seemed that she particularly enjoyed giving Dobson a beating. She makes the case that his family values teaching is saturated in psychological speak and sexual commodification. A woman’s virginity is a “basis of exchange” for future security, reaching “the height of its value on the wedding day. By maintaining her virginity, a woman retains her moral authority over her husband, and, with it, her ability to constrain his baser instincts” (105).
But all this historical background builds up to our current climate of True Love Waits and The Silver Ring Thing parachurch organizations. Moslener ponders the need to publically declare one’s commitment to purity as an evangelical movement when it is already a basic conviction of the Christian faith. Sexual purity is now marketed as revolutionary and empowering. Moslener pinpoints some of the language used in the movement, like how it is “fun” to say no, and teens saying they are “coming out” as virgins. “As members of a religious subculture that situates itself on the margins of a perceived inhospitable mainstream, evangelical adolescents understand their pledge not as a choice but as the expression of sexual identity” (119). In examining these movements, Moslener reveals an ideology that has capitulated to the self-help and individualistic values of the secular culture to market its own revolutionary brand.
As a confessional Christian, I have to wonder where the church fits in to all this movement-based sexual purity. Moslener demonstrates how purity becomes the answer offered to the problem that needs to be cured. While Jesus is presented as necessary to this “personal transformation,” the language used sounds more like a psychological issue for personal fulfillment or even locking in a happy marriage with a great sex life, rather than an offense to a holy God in whose image we were created. It’s the all too familiar rhetoric of the prosperity gospel: in exchange for sexual purity, God will bless you with a wonderful spouse who will fulfill your every desire. Where is the theological language of sin, holiness, sanctification, and glorification? And how is it used in the context of media-saturated events and personal testimony given by their peers? Do we really need a True Love Waits Bible? And do I really want my child to advertise their purity on their finger? “For evangelicals who focus more on personal spirituality than theological tradition for the formation of Christian spiritual life, private, sexual acts, rather than doctrinal statements, are sites for reinforcing orthodoxy, especially during the formal years of adolescence” (124). This is something to think about critically.
The stipulations that go with procuring a silver ring are particularly troubling to me. One must physically attend a Silver Ring Thing event to purchase one of these coveted rings, that come with detailed “instructions for caring for the ring, but also for its disregarding if sexual indiscretion occurs” (146). The exclusivity of this ring develops a subculture of its own of who is in and who’s out. It’s as if the ring replaces the covenantal signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
There are many take-aways from reading this book that provokes important questions to ask about the purity movement. How are we framing our apologetics? What compromises are we making to advance our own ideologies in American politics? Sexual purity is important to me. But turning chastity into an ideology cheapens it. Therapeutic language downplays the power of the Word of God to convict us. If we trade the real thing in for a caricature, we are setting our kids up for failure and creating a false substitute for the covenant community God has given us to receive the ministry of Word and sacrament.
The problem with this book is that many who would benefit from reading a critique of the purity movement in America will not read it. And that is a real shame. While I understand and appreciate the academic nature of the book, I wish the author had written it for a popular audience. I’d love to see another edition targeted that way. Of course, the author would then have to insert more questions, application, and even commentary that evangelical readers would likely disagree with. But it would be sharpening for further engagement and evaluation of our Christian convictions. For an important topic, it is tough reading compiled with a lot of data and not much commentary. But if you are interested in the topic of sexual purity and American adolescence, Virgin Nation will spring board plenty of discussion.
Aimee Byrd is a wife and mother of three and the author of Housewife Theologian and Theological Fitness. She is also the “Residing Housewife Theologian” here at Books At a Glance.