Purity Culture and the Overturn of Roe: Understanding Christian Nationalistic Ideology and its Impact
This article is part of our “Kennedy, Carson, and Dobbs: Law and Religion in Pressing Supreme Court Cases” series.
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On June 24th, the Supreme Court reversed the nearly 50-year-old legal precedent protecting the right to safe abortions in overturning Roe v. Wade. While the outrage and fear this decision caused was widespread, taking many forms, my own mind returned to my 13th birthday. It was the day I received my purity ring. As a young woman raised in evangelical purity culture, in this short, albeit significant ceremony, I would pledge my virginity until my wedding night, giving my father authority over my body until he handed that authority over to my future husband. Chastity pledges occurred broadly among white evangelicals beginning in the 1990s. These rituals have acted to disembody individuals and, more broadly, to normalize paternalistic governance. Deferring bodily agency to the patriarchal leaders within evangelicalism presages its abdication to the State.
Understanding the contribution of purity culture to the overthrow of Roe requires tracing its binary rhetoric and how that conversation influences its audience. The first binary established within purity culture is the distinction between the pure and the impure. Purity culture amplifies this into the trope of “young white women” as being universally good, bearers of innocence and chastity. “Young white women” across the U.S. codify their purity with emblems of virginity such as purity balls, chastity pledges, and purity rings. “Young white women” within evangelical Christianity are seen as objects of sexuality without being subjects of it. This projection eliminates the agency of “young white women” and in doing so causes disembodiment within themselves/ourselves. What began as purity rings and chastity pledges became women’s adbication – willingly or unwillingly – of sexual autonomy.
In contrast, the discourse of Black women’s sexuality relies often on the Jezebel trope. This fetishization of Black women enables the religious right to claim that, by outlawing abortion, they are protecting Black women from their own lasciviousness. The binary tropes of white and black women efface folks of all races and ethnicities that are impacted by purity rhetoric. Statistics used in this propaganda overlook the Black maternal health crisis and the current lack of access to affordable contraceptives, affordable childcare, and livable wages – all factors that disproportionately impact communities of color. Michele Goodwin shines a stark light on the impact of anti-abortion laws on Black women in The Racist History of Abortion and Midwifery Bans:
Today, as people debate whether anti-abortion platforms benefit black women, the clear answer is no. The U.S. leads the developed world in maternal and infant mortality. The U.S. ranks around 50th in the world for maternal safety. Nationally, for black women, the maternal death rate is nearly four times that of white women, and 10 to 17 times worse in some states.
Anti-abortion laws cannot be separated from the long racist and dualistic history of Christian nationalism. Authoritarian structures thrive on creating systems of dominance over bodies, particularly in the realm of sexuality and reproductive health.
Within evangelical Christianity, virginity indicates value and social standing. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is holy enough to give birth to the savior of the world because of her virginal status. Girls raised within purity culture are given the binary: be virginal, or become like chewed up gum, unsticky tape, or a rose stem without petals. Many who hear these messages develop what Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers terms “Religious Sexual Shame”. This shame induces traumatic symptoms of dissociation, the separation from one’s own body, which impairs the agency and governance of sexual choice.
This purity tradition sets up another binary: that of virgin/non-virgin. Virginity itself is a social construct within patriarchy dependent on the idea that having sex sullies a woman and makes her less valuable for marriage. While the rhetoric of virginity has a long history within white, patriarchal Christian nationalism (Virginia, the first permanent English settlement was named after the virginal status of Queen Elizabeth I), abstinence-only teaching spread from youth group seats into public school desks with the rise of the religious right. Sara Moslener traces “government-sponsored sexual purity” in Virgin Nation, disclosing how the federal funding of religious organizations teaching abstinence-only messages within schools began with a bill signed into law by President Reagan (113-118). Despite the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only education, its rebrand of Sexual Risk Avoidance Education still receives government funding. Abstinence-only education and purity culture teachings were at the forefront of evangelical culture in the 1990s. The messages regarding sex, gender, and race, however, were the backdrop.
In 1979, the U.S. Moral Majority was formed by Jerry Fallwell to further enforce the Christian nationalist ideology. It only lasted until 1989, yet, it ignited the religious right. Their leaders rallied to protect the “religious liberty” of Christian schools to racially discriminate. Randall Balmer shares in Thy Kingdom Come that after mobilizing around racial discrimination, Paul Weyrich recognized the pro-life agenda as a powerful agent for recuriting evangelical voters. The “abortion myth,” as Balmer calls it, is the claim that the religious right simply could not sit back idly and allow Roe to happen. It blames Roe, rather than racial discrimination, for the inception of the religious right. Nadia Bolz-Weber elaborates in Shameless that conservative Christian leaders made biblical claims of life beginning with first breath, not conception (115-118). The shift to the pre-birth fight-for-life served as a powerful agent for evangelicalism, and it led to the acceptance of a paternalistic form of governance that removes bodily autonomy.
The pre-birth fight-for-life evoked strong emotions in the hearts and minds of evangelical voters by a fixation on the “innocent fetus”. This produces yet another binary: abortion. Abortion is “all bad” and giving birth is “all good”. This dichotomy does not take into account the nuance and complexity involved in pregnancy. Jennifer Holland writes in Tiny You, “[w]hen activists took gory photos of aborted fetuses, fetus dolls, embalmed fetuses, videos of abortions, and symbolic funerals and cemetaries into private and public spaces, they waged war for hearts and minds” (3). This figure is clearly seen in the film series and book created by Frank Shaeffer and C. Everett Koop (Harding, 191). Whatever Happened to the Human Race? includes clips of babies in cages crying and a snowy field covered with dolls signifying murdered children. In an appropriation of civil rights issues, Shaeffer uses footage of Black people in chains and of the Holocaust. These images induce strong emotions in their viewers, pulling on the heartstrings of single-issue voters for the service of the religious right.
Since its inception, the religious right has focused on combating the equal rights of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community for fear of losing a political and societal body that aligns with ideals within purity culture, with straight, white, cisgender Christian men at the pinnacle. Sophie Bjork-James articulates in her article White Sexual Politics that “[w]hite evangelicals have become one of the most consistent voting blocs and have resisted every attempt to extend legal protections for same-sex couples and people who identify as LGBT.” Sex, race, and gender as binary are longstanding tenets within Christian nationalism. Bjork-James describes how this worldview establishes the “Divine Institution” of the patriarchal, white, Christian nuclear family. These reductionistic ideals of gender, race, family, and sex lead to the State’s appropriation of bodily autonomy, and ultimately to last Friday’s decision of Supreme Court.
Without comprehensive sex education and access to affordable contraceptives, abortion often becomes the only viable option for the livelihood of the person who is pregnant. In It’s Not Just About Abortion: Incorporating Intersectionality in Research About Women of Color and Reproduction, Kimala Price argues that abortion must be looked at through Kimberlé Crenshaw’s lens of intersectionality. The need for an abortion does not exist within a vacuum, and cannot be reduced to a binary of good and bad. Race, gender, socioeconomic status, marital status, disability, and many other intersections of identity impact one’s need to have safe abortions. In a country that does not provide universal healthcare, paid family leave, or affordable childcare, still suffers from a gender pay gap, and an even larger racial wealth disparity, unplanned pregnancy causes life-altering devastation disproportionately based on privilege or lack thereof.
Anti-abortion laws remain pro-birth while maintaining regulations that are anything but pro-life. Pro-life requires honoring the life, and therefore autonomy, of all individuals who can and do become pregnant. As Minna Salami articulates in Sensuous Knowledge: “Tyrants have always understood that . . . the more you prevent an experience of knowledge as living and evolving, the higher chance of upholding power” (24). Abstinence-only education and chastity pledges limit the potential for “experience[s] of knowledge as living and evolving” and therefore enable disembodiment that surrenders individual autonomy to the patriarchal leaders via the State. Binary ideology arrests inclusive conversations and care for transgender, non-binary, and gender-expansive folks who also get pregnant and need safe abortions.
Abstinence-only education, lack of LGBTQ+ education, racist and heterosexist tropes, and binary ideology sever people’s ability to have agency and autonomy over their bodies. The “black and white” ideology of purity culture must be diffused into many shades of complexity through embodiment and “sensuous knowledge”. These shades allow the conditions for the embodied autonomy necessary to move us away from dogmatic control of the State. ♦
Jenny McGrath (she/her) is a licensed mental health counselor, somatic psychotherapist, and movement educator based in Seattle, Washington. She researches the intersections of purity culture, Christian nationalism, and their impact on individual and collective bodies.
McGrath, Jenny. “Purity Culture and the Overturn of Roe: Understanding Christian Nationalistic Ideology and its Impact.” Canopy Forum, July 15, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/07/15/purity-culture-and-the-overturn-of-roe-understanding-christian-nationalistic-ideology-and-its-impact