The following is the first entry of a three-day series on Amy DeRogatis’s new book, Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2014). See also Amy's website for several reviews, including her interview in Emma Green's Atlantic article, "The Warrior Wives of Christianity," which Seth Dowland wrote about a week ago. Lynne Gerber is a Visiting Researcher at the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Seeking the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). Tomorrow, RIAH's own Samira Mehta interviews Amy about the writing of her book. On Monday, Heather R. White situates Saving Sex among other new work in the history of religion and sexuality.
Like many American subcultures, evangelicals are stuck in an identity dilemma. On the one hand they identify deeply with American culture, its history and its perceived mission. On the other they are deeply critical of the turns that culture has taken, particularly since the socio-cultural changes of the 1960s. As a result they often seem unable to decide if they represent culture or counter-culture, center or margin. Sexuality is one arena where this dilemma is most vividly felt. Not wanting to be perceived as prudes, evangelicals participate vigorously in American discourse about sex and sexuality, but wanting to take a stand for distinctive Christian beliefs such contributions are also frequently framed as critiques of that discourse. Are Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar of 19 Kids and Counting, for example, counter-cultural for their conservative beliefs and resultant large family? Or does their celebrity, and their willingness to court and profit from such celebrity, make them quintessential Americans?
This tension pervades many of the fascinating sexual projects discussed in Amy DeRogatis’s Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism. The book is a tour of sorts through a carefully selected set of sites in evangelical sexual culture. It begins and ends with two ostensibly similar but critically different versions of purity culture, one prevalent among white evangelicals and the other among African American Christians. In between the book takes us through the explosive market for Christian sex manuals that promise daring novelty while offering standard therapeutic fare, the world of deliverance ministries that use modern biology, as they understand it, to argue for the literal presence of demons in sexual fluids, and many variations on the theme of celebrating reproduction, which seems to frequently be paired with celebrating female submission in marriage, sexual and otherwise. It considers sites that fit squarely within the evangelical mainstream carefully explicating, for example, the range of purity literature aimed at children of different ages, while also attending to those which criticize that mainstream in the hopes of creating a purer Christian culture. DeRogatis is an able guide, making the distinctions between margin and center clear while pointing to some of the continuities between each.