Melissa Wilde. Birth of the Culture Wars: How Race Divided American Religion

Friday, April 25, 2014 - 10:30am to 12:00pm
Blumer Room - 402 Barrows Hall

Melissa Wilde, University of Pennsylvania

Fri. April 25, 2014, 10:30am-12:00pm, 402 Barrows Hall

Birth of the Culture Wars:  How Race Divided American Religion

 Contemporary American religious groups are often classified as progressive or conservative by their views on sex and gender.  It is taken as a given that progressives are pro-choice, feminist and pro-gay marriage, and conservatives the opposite.  But how did we get here?  In 1931, American religious groups were also riven by sex and gender, but over an issue that galvanizes few today: the legalization of contraceptives.  Back then the debate was not about women’s rights, privacy, or even the proper role of sex (in marriage, or society).  Instead the debates focused on the future of “our race,” and the higher fertility of Catholic and Jewish immigrants.  The key question: what could, and should, be done to prevent these “undesirables” from irrevocably polluting, diluting, and ultimately destroying White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant’s (WASP) legacy in America?  By the mid-1920s, almost half of the major American religious denominations professed a strong belief in these concerns and the corresponding concept of “race suicide” in their periodicals.  Within a few years, between 1929 and 1931, many of them proclaimed that birth control, rather than being a sin as was commonly and until very recently, understood, was actually a duty (for less desirable groups).  The early liberalizers’ stance on birth control was a crucial first step on the path to their identities as religious (and sexual) progressives, even though the reasons for that support are far from what we would see as progressive today.  Largely forgotten, the first religious debates about birth control chronicled in Birth of the Culture Wars demonstrate that the politics of sex and gender that today divide American religion are rooted in inequalities of race and class.