Evangelical Christian leaders began in the 1980s to link changing sexual mores to national decline and anticipation of the apocalypse, and in 1993, young evangelicals from a group called True Love Waits pounded stakes carrying more than 100,000 sexual “purity” pledge cards into the lawn of the National Mall. In Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence (Oxford University Press, July), religion professor Sara Moslener argues that this activism has deep roots and is not only about personal choices, but also a political ideology. Says Moslener, “The more I study sexuality, the more I find it’s not just about sex.”
Why did you write Virgin Nation?
No one was looking further back than the Moral Majority for the roots of the sexual purity movement. But in 1910 the American psychologist G. Stanley Hall had characterized adolescence as a battleground between sexual desire and religion. He also emphasized distinct gender roles—women should be educated with motherhood in mind, and men should be educated to be leaders in their homes. For him, the successful adolescent was able to subvert sexual desire to religion.
What led to the connection of adolescent sexual purity with national security?
Evangelical leaders such as Billy Graham and James Dobson built on Hall’s views to respond to political fears, linking sexual morality with the well-being of the nation-state, and pushing forward an evangelical political agenda. The rhetoric emphasizing the sexual purity of young people as the hope for the future of America is still alive in the purity movement. A leader recently told me, “Any society that [operates] on ‘do whatever you want’ has been destroyed, and now we’re experiencing the moral decay within civilization.”
How did you come up with your title?
My editor suggested it. I wasn’t sure I liked Virgin Nation, or if it really fit since the book isn’t about virginity. But then I realized the phrase captured the idea—especially with the subtitle, Sexual Purity and American Adolescence—that it’s about a national identity.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Ideas linking sexual purity and politics are not new, and the purity culture still teaches that sexually pure adolescents are the salvation of America. On the surface, this movement seems to be about making good sexual decisions, but it is actually about a particular political ideology.