Evangelicals are parsing through 'purity culture'
(OPINION) What is “purity culture,” and why is it in the news?
A particular U.S. Protestant campaign born in the 1990s sought to urge teens and young adults to follow the age-old Christian (also Jewish, Muslim, etc.) teaching against sexual relations before marriage. Outsiders and opponents called this the “purity culture” movement, and it’s currently in the news and the subject of intense online debate.
That “purity” label is confusing because critics of the phenomenon are not just secularists or those who scoff at old-fashioned morality. Conservatives who likewise advocate the sexual “purity” taught in Christian tradition raise some of the most pointed objections to this movement’s specific theology, techniques, and claims.
The cause originated in 1993 with sex education materials under the “True Love Waits” banner issued by the publishing arm of America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Within just one year of existence a Washington, D.C. rally drew 25,000 youths and displayed 210,000 sexual abstinence pledge cards on the National Mall.
The movement appealed to many moms and dads who were wounded by the sexual libertinism that began in the 1960s and wanted more wholesome relationships for their own children, fretting over increases in sexually transmitted disease, unwed pregnancy, and divorce. The pledges of abstinence till marriage were reinforced by wearing rings popularized from 1995 onward by The Silver Ring Thing organization, reconfigured last year as Unaltered Ministries. Instead of high school proms, some churches held “purity balls” where dads escorted daughters.
The movement is back in the news due to its primary celebrity guru, Joshua Harris, who at a tender age 21 wrote “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” This 1998 book eventually sold nearly a million copies and fused the effort with a highly influential how-to methodology. In Harris’s fierce formulation, conventional “dating” was banned in favor of “biblical courting” in which parents chaperoned unmarried couples, who never socialized by themselves. Even hand-holding and kissing were supposed to be avoided before the wedding.
Last year, Harris released a documentary film and an online statement that apologized for spreading “a less-than-biblical view” that had harmed people. Harris said his books will no longer be reprinted. He now thinks “dating can be a healthy part of a person developing relationally” and recommends books on building healthy couples by Henry Cloud and Debra Fileta. Harris confessed he learned that for some readers he had “instilled fear” and spread the mistaken idea that obeying his rules would guarantee “a great marriage, a great sex life.”
More dramatically, Harris announced in July via social media the separation from his wife of 19 years and the mother of their three children, because “in recent years some significant changes have taken place in both of us.” In a second statement days later Harris revealed his religious “deconstruction” and “massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. . . . By all the measurements I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.” He also asked forgiveness for opposing “marriage equality” and contributing to “a culture of exclusion and bigotry” toward gays.
It’s unclear to what extent his marital and religious crises were shaped by church turmoil during recent times. Harris was originally mentored by C. J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries, now a denomination of 73 congregations renamed Sovereign Grace Churches. Harris eventually succeeded Mahaney as the lead pastor of its flagship Covenant Life Church of Gaithersburg, Maryland. But in 2012 Covenant Life severed ties with Sovereign Grace, while Harris and Mahaney resigned from leadership of the influential Gospel Coalition. Mahaney is now a Sovereign Grace pastor in Louisville.
Almost simultaneously, a 2012 lawsuit alleged a sexual abuse cover-up by the Maryland church. The case was later dismissed, but then re-examined in depth in the 2016 Washingtonian magazine article “The Sex-Abuse Scandal That Devastated a Suburban Megachurch.” Last year, complaints gained new prominence from Sovereign Grace dropout Rachael Denhollander, the attorney famed for exposing molestation of gymnasts at Michigan State University and U.S. Olympics. Other former church members continue to share grievances via www.sgmsurvivors.com.
Meanwhile, Harris had resigned from Covenant Life in 2015 in order to undertake theological study at Regent College, a respected evangelical graduate school in Vancouver, British Columbia. Whatever the impact there on his religious migration, the school doubtless shaped the shedding of his famous “purity” formulations, which had been challenged by many thoughtful Christian conservatives.
In the current controversy, a clear-headed evangelical critique of movement damage, “myths,” and “false promises” was posted May 31 by Camden Morgante, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at Johnson University in Knoxville, Tennessee, who herself was raised in purity culture and endorses its “noble and necessary” goals though not its particulars. See this post.
She contends, among other points, that purity culture makes virginity the primary mark of spiritual status, says women who slip are hopelessly ruined, reduces women’s worth to what happens (or doesn’t) in the bedroom, breeds pride and judgmentalism, falsely promises “fairytale” marriages for those who obey its tenets, ignores solid marriage preparation, makes women the sole protectors of sexual morals, and preaches in an over-all context of unhealthy “patriarchy.”
Also of interest is this July 30 analysis by conservative culture critic Joy Pullman.
The Gospel Coalition, with its past Harris and Mahaney links, posts this depiction of the purity movement.
This piece first appeared at Get Religion.