Believers are too often stereotyped as sex-obsessed hypocrites – and political battles have helped drive this thinking.
“Honk for Jesus, save your soul,” a biting satire starring Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall as a megachurch pastor and his wife, opened in theaters earlier this month. It’s often funny, and Brown and Hall give spirited, charismatic performances. But it’s also a pointed illustration of what’s wrong with the way Americans talk about religion in public and how hard it is to move beyond the cliché.
The film falls into the antiquated stereotype of portraying religious people as sex-obsessed puritanical hypocrites, and religious organizations as fundamentally corrupt. This ubiquitous cliché characterizes much of the portrayal of religion in modern media. He is largely blind to the spiritual power that attracts Americans who find value in devotion in the act of worship; it reduces religion to a reductionist caricature.
In the logic of the cliché, people who go to church are not sincerely religious. Nor do they find any real power or meaning in religious practice. They are either cynical manipulators or misguided dupes.
The fact that the cliché is deeply superficial should not make us forget the disappointing reality behind its origins. For the past two generations, American politics has revolved around a movement of socially conservative, mostly white Protestants allied with some Latter-day Saints and Roman Catholics. Some of them called themselves the “religious right”, a name often used by the media.
More than elsewhere, the religious right has taken the field on questions of sexuality. For years, its leaders have mobilized voters on the issue of abortion and, more recently, on sexual orientation. But they also supported conservative politics more generally, associating Christianity with deregulating business or increasing military budgets.
The religious right has formed a powerful electoral bloc that has propelled candidate after candidate to power over the past 40 years. He’s also had a few political victories — most recently, the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
But Christianity in America paid for this success. Sociologists David Campbell and Robert Putnam have uncovered in survey after survey a correlation between the ascendancy of the religious right and the growing alienation of young Americans from the Christian faith. In the same years that the religious right has proven to be one of the most powerful forces in the Republican Party, the The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that the share of Americans who identify as Christians has fallen to 70% of the population.
According to Campbell and Putnam, this is due – at least in part – to the success of the religious right in identifying Christianity with conservative politics. Many young people who support same-sex marriage or worry about climate change often face “cognitive dissonance,” a popular phrase among online communities of former Latter-day Saints. How can they call themselves Christians and support the politics they believe in? The answer many come to — and many who have already given up on the faith push — is that they can’t. So they just leave Christianity.
And so we are faced with a rather bizarre conundrum. The religious right and the non-religious left agree on one thing: the cliché. Christianity is nothing more than a fierce defense of Victorian sexual norms.
The very fact of this strange juxtaposition should worry Christians. It is easy and comfortable for many religious right leaders to blame the disaffiliation of their youth on the very people they already oppose: secularists, liberals, etc. But it is a circular logic. It’s abundantly clear that portrayals of Christianity like the one in “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul” are banal, lazy and dismissive. But it’s not like they’re totally detached from reality.
Religious-right advocates argue — with some justification — that Christianity has in fact been concerned with sexuality since New Testament times. The gospels record Jesus commenting on the wedding. The apostle Paul was deeply suspicious of sex, especially outside of marriage.
But it is also true that Christianity is as subject to the ebb and flow of the tides of history as any other aspect of human culture. The roots of contemporary American Christianity’s expectations of sexuality are not only found in the Bible, but also in the norms set in the Victorian era of the late 19th century and the resistance to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The determination of the religious right to center sexuality as the most significant and consequential aspect of the Christian faith is a choice made in light of history. It is not necessarily an inevitable reading of faith itself.
There are many other options. Throughout human history, and even the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there are resources to fuel a revolt against aspects of our sick society beyond issues of sexuality, to imagine a society free from poverty, hunger and war; what Latter-day Saint leaders have always called a Zion society. There is a scriptural mandate for all of these things, invoked by then-President Spencer W. Kimball when he condemned war and Brigham Young when he condemned poverty. And the potential remains. Despite concerns from the religious right about secularization, few of those young Americans who have left Christianity identify as atheists or agnostics. Many are looking for a Christianity other than that described in “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul”. Fortunately for believers, the possibility of this faith exists.
Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Professor of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and author of “The Mormon People: The Creation of an American Faith” and “Christian: the politics of a word in America.”