Birth of the Culture Wars
It is well known that sexual politics deeply divide American religious groups, but few researchers have tried to explain why this is the case. My current book project, Birth of the Culture Wars: How Race Divided American Religion, examines how and why American religious groups first diverged on issues of sex and gender. It begins in 1931, with the wave of birth control liberalizations that occurred then among American religious groups, and concludes with the legalization of the pill in the mid-1960s.
The first paper to come from the project, “Fewer and Better Children: Race, Class, Religion and Birth Control Reform in America,” (American Journal of Sociology, 2014) focuses on the first wave of liberalization. In doing so, it tells an unexpected story: the religious groups that are the most progressive on sex and sexuality today, in fact, started down that path because they were eugenicists who were concerned that they were being outbred by Catholic and Jewish immigrants.
Using more than 5000 articles from more than 30 denominational periodicals, “Fewer and Better Children” demonstrates that although largely (and perhaps intentionally) forgotten, the politics of sex and gender that today divide the American religious field are rooted in inequalities of race and class. As such, it demonstrates that religion is both a key factor in racialization (a cultural indicator of difference), as well as a key site for those seeking to engage in racial projects. “Fewer and Better Children” won three national awards: two from the American Sociological Association – the Charles Tilly Best Article Award from the Section on Comparative and Historical Sociology and the Distinguished Article Award from the Section on the Sociology of Religion as well as the Distinguished Article Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Much has changed since 1931 – but debates about birth control continued to rage among American religious groups. Birth of the Culture Wars traces and explains these debates until the invention and approval of the Pill in the mid-1960s. Through systematic analysis of more than 10,000 articles from more than 40 different religious periodicals, the book demonstrates the powerful and long-term effects that inequalities of race, class and ethnicity can have on religious institutions. Those groups who liberalized in the 1930s because of racialized concerns continued to have racialized reasons for promoting contraception throughout the next three decades, even though the particular populations they were concerned about changed. As the early liberalizers shifted their focus away from the whitening Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants whose “runaway fertility” so troubled them in the 1930s, their focus became promoting “responsible parenthood” in the inner-cities of the US and the global south.
Religious groups who were not a part of early liberalization because they rejected eugenics (usually because they themselves were the targets of eugenicists) had less racialized ways of talking about contraception as the pill became legal – preferring to promote “voluntary” rather than “responsible” parenthood as they adapted to changing contraceptive technologies.
Birth of the Culture Wars demonstrates that while we talk about the culture wars in largely religious terms, their origin and current constellation cannot be understood without understanding the ways in which the American religious field has been, and continues to be, structured by racial and economic inequalities.