Why Is There So Much Sex in Christian Conservatism and Why Do So Few Historians Care Anything about It?

Article excerpt

SIT DOWN AND BUCKLE YOUR SEATBELTS! WHAT I AM ABOUT TO TELL you will shock and disgust you," ran the e-mail that Georgia state representative Calvin Hill sent to his supporters in February 2009. With the state facing a $2.3 billion budget shortfall, the Republican vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee alerted his constituents that even during this economic crisis, "your tax dollars are being used at our state universities to pay professors to teach your children classes like 'Male Prostitution' and 'Queer Theory.'" (1) Although it quickly emerged that Representative Hill had mistaken a list of faculty areas of expertise for actual course offerings, he and another Republican representative, Charlice Byrd, took to the airwaves. As CNN reported their support from the Christian Coalition, Hill and Byrd demanded the firing of the faculty members and the cancellation of their classes in order to right this "major misuse of the state university system's budget." (2) When asked about university professors of religion, who far outnumber those with expertise in sexuality, Hill fumbled for a response. On an Atlanta street, a Georgia State University student was more direct: "Me, I'm a Christian," she told a reporter, "and if my mother heard about there are classes about being queer here, she'd probably withdraw me." (3)

As religion scholar Janet R. Jakobsen points out, the antipathy between nonreproductive sex and Christian conservatism has achieved the ultimate ideological goal--that of appearing so self-evident as to pass unexamined. (4) Instead of probing the content, the "culture wars" narrative laments that this presumably timeless relationship was drafted in service to laissez-faire capitalism. And on the surface, the recent move in the Georgia statehouse rehearses the familiar storyline: With its economic model in disarray, the conservative movement of the last thirty years might be expected to fall back on its most reliable hot-button issue. "[W]eary gay Georgians shouldn't be surprised," wrote an Atlanta columnist, that "it was professors studying gay topics that [Hill] singled out" from the extensive expertise guide) Georgia, after all, has been among the hardest hit of the free market's domestic victims. Decades of disdain for public oversight produced a branch bank on every street comer and a frantic level of unscrupulous mortgage lending; in early 2009 the state was leading the nation in the number of troubled banks, by a factor of almost four, and was among the leaders in the extent of foreclosures. (6) In the culture-wars version of the conservative ascendancy, this economic outcome was enabled over two generations by the cynical manipulation of emotional, irrational religious prejudices. By periodically hollering "abortion" or "homosexual agenda," this explanation posits, the godless free marketeers duped the folks in the pews into dismantling their own New Deal protections, thereby forcing American wealth disparities back to nineteenth-century levels and greasing the skids for the wholesale off-loading of middle-class jobs. As Thomas Frank put it in the definitive popular formulation, the rise of the New Christian Right after 1970 is the spectacle of "a French Revolution in reverse--one in which the sans-culottes pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy." (7)

From Jonathan Rieder's landmark 1989 essay on the silent majority to Matthew D. Lassiter's pathbreaking 2006 book of that title, historians have used this paradox to pose productive questions of the recent past. (8) Many have done so with one eye on the clock, wondering when the buzzer will sound halftime on the era of conservative ascendancy. As the scholarly profession anxiously waited for Lefty to return to the national stage, the historical explorations of conservatism evolved to ever more complex forms. One result has been a sort of collective penance for the condescension of the consensus historians of the mid-1960s and their social science allies, who underestimated conservative America by focusing on its radical fringe. …