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Is Evangelical Christianity a Sex Cult?

Updated: Jul 6

I’m currently in the middle of cutting together Season 4 of the Restorative Faith Podcast. If you have listened to previous seasons of the podcast, you are aware that each season revolves around a theme. This particular season focuses on the conflict between science and the church.


The opening episode of the podcast deals with how the theory of evolution set the stage for the conflict with the church that would persist throughout most of the 20th century. For my human-interest story, I interviewed two sisters, Hannah and Leah, who grew up in a fundamentalist sect of Christianity known as The People of Praise. They were sent to a special school where they were taught that everything in the Bible is literally true and scientific theories that contradict the biblical version of events are false.


During our interview we covered a number of topics, but what they emphasized to me is that the beginning of their deconstruction was questioning the narrowly defined gender roles. As girls, individuality was squashed out of them. They helped raise their brothers. They were in charge of house cleaning, laundry and cooking. They were expected to learn these skills because, as women, their primary role was to marry a man, have children and be a godly mother and wife.



As we started exploring this point further, Hannah said something very interesting: “Evangelical Christianity is a sex cult, and you cannot convince me otherwise.” Since then, I have been thinking about this statement, which I want to unpack with you in this post.


Free Love


It’s important to understand that modern Evangelical Christianity emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a reaction to the counter-culture movement of the 1960s. Of course, a big aspect of the counter-culture movement was free love, where traditional relationship structures were rejected. The societal expectations inherited from the 1950s was that sex was reserved for marriage. This was in large part due to the lack of birth control and the cultural judgment leveled against women who became pregnant out of wedlock.


However, with the advent of the birth control pill in 1960, women could not only engage in sex without fear of becoming pregnant, but more importantly, a woman could choose when or if she wanted to become pregnant. This level of choice had never previously existed for women and it upended the rigidity of gender norms that had so tightly controlled women’s lives up until that point.


The outcome was that women in the free love movement were having sex with multiple partners (male and female) outside of marriage. Moreover, with the rise of feminism, these same women could now get jobs and support themselves without being anchored to a man. This sexual and economic freedom threatened to undermine the power structures under which men had thrived.


A man could always count on a woman needing his support economically because she was virtually shutout of the job market. Likewise, the threat of pregnancy meant that a sexually active woman had extra motivation to marry a man. With both of these incentives jeopardized, men had to call upon other areas of the culture where these power structures could be preserved. Enter Evangelical Christianity.


God Says So


One of the major theological motivations of Evangelical Christianity in the 1970s was to maintain the traditional gender roles assigned to men and women. At the core of their biblical interpretation is a focus on marriage between a man and a woman as the primary aim of every human being. This is derived from a very specific reading of Genesis chapters 2 and 3.


In the story, God creates Adam from the dust of the earth and then Eve as a companion for Adam from his rib. Evangelicals interpret this story as establishing a theological hierarchy: men are primary and women are secondary. From their creation, Adam and Eve were in a state of perfection. In this state, they had no sexual intercourse because they were pure.


The Rebuke of Adam and Eve, oil on copper by Charles Joseph Natoire, 1740

However, upon eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God places curses upon Adam and Eve. One of those curses is limiting their lifespan: “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife: By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gn. 3:17, 19)


The implication of this curse is two-fold. First, we see the use of the word “wife” implying they are married and, second, had they not eaten from the tree, they would live forever. However, once Adam and Eve were ejected from the Garden of Eden, their lifespan limitation meant that they now had to reproduce. This required Adam and Eve to engage in sexual intercourse, resulting in their two sons, Cain and Abel. According to this interpretation of Genesis 3, the very nature of sex and sexuality is grounded in the sinful nature of humans.


There are a number of implications to the way Evangelicals interpret this story. First, women were designed for men, not the other way around. Hence, the natural order of the world is for women to be subservient to men. This is why women should not be out earning their own incomes, but rather, should be reliant upon men for their provision.


Second, following the relational pattern of Adam and Eve, God intended for marriage to be between one man and one woman. Neither men nor women should be exploring relationships that defy this pattern (such as same sex, polyamorous, or open relationships).


Adam and Eve with Cain and Abel by Giacinto Gimignani

Finally, sex is only appropriate when God has blessed the union of a couple through the sacrament of marriage and is primarily intended for procreation. This means that women especially should never have sex before they are married to a man and the use of birth control to prevent pregnancy is morally dubious given God’s intention for women to become mothers.


Armed with this interpretation, men who chaffed at the feminist movement could now point to the Bible and say, “See, from the beginning of creation, God intended for human relationships and society to operate in one specific way. Men were meant to remain in charge and women were meant to be their helpers. Breaking away from this pattern is not only unnatural, but sinful.”  


In other words, men could now say to women, “You have to do what I say because God says so.”  


Obsessed with Sex


Hannah spoke about how, when she was in college, the leaders of her Christian group were obsessed with knowing about every detail of their sexuality. They would literally sit them down and ask intimate questions about their relationships. These leaders were in their 40s and, now that Hannah is in her 40s, she finds their questions not only horribly inappropriate, but symptomatic of scopophilia (an obsession with voyeurism). She’s not wrong.


One of the reasons why her youth leaders were asking these questions is because of how they view sex as a currency. When you adopt the morality of the Bible, you also adopt the cultural lens through which the Bible was written. One of the underlying assumptions in cultures of the ancient near East is how the value of a woman is very much tied to her virginity. This is highlighted in Deuteronomy 22:13-30 where it states that the first time a man has sex with his wife, he should find evidence of her virginity.


What exactly is this evidence? Put simply, blood. The assumption at this point in history, because of their limited understanding of human biology, is that the first time a woman has sex, there should be tearing in her vaginal canal that will cause bleeding. Today we know that not all women experience this type of tearing during their first intercourse, but at that time it was an expectation.


What men were looking from their brides was blood on their bedsheets. Although you might assume this is a vestige of a bygone era, in countries like Ethiopia where a woman’s virginity is still highly valued, the bride’s family will literally hang the bedsheets in front of their house, displaying to their entire community that their daughter was sexually pure until her marriage.


However, if there is no blood, then the consequences are quite dire. The scripture says that if there is no evidence of virginity, then the men of the community “shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father's house and the men of her town shall stone her to death.” (Dt. 22:21)


A woman’s virginity was so important to her survival in the ancient world that there’s a law in this same section of Deuteronomy that states if a man rapes a woman who is a virgin, then that man is required to pay a fine to her father and marry her. The reason he must marry her is because she is now ineligible for marriage. She is considered tainted goods, and because of this, the law explicitly states that the man is never allowed to divorce her.


Although we live in a world where this type of thinking would seem antiquated and even barbaric, this approach to sexuality is critical to the framework of Evangelical theology. Since Evangelicalism is patriarchal, where women are considered subordinate to men, one of the primary ingredients necessary to maintain this power structure is convincing women that their value as humans is primarily derived from the pleasure their sexuality offers men.


Once this belief is internalized as something intended by God, then the natural focus of every relationship is preserving the purity of the sexual relationship. Everything else a woman offers the world (intelligence, creativity, charity, leadership, etc.) becomes secondary and unimportant. This is why Hannah’s youth group leaders (both men and women) were so concerned about their sex lives. They’ve convinced themselves that the most important component of a godly marriage is sexual purity.  


Purity Culture

As Evangelicalism spread throughout the United States in 1970s and 80s, it eventually gave birth to Purity Culture in the 1990s, which is something I explored in Episode 1 of Season 2 of the Restorative Faith Podcast. Purity Culture is the idea that a godly life means that boys and, particularly girls, should suppress and repress all of their sexual thoughts and desires until they are married.


As a result, these adolescents are taught to feel not just guilt, but deep shame around anything sexual. It’s important to distinguish between shame and guilt. Guilt is when our conscience tells us that we've done something wrong. Shame, on the other hand, makes us feel condemned to our very core. It causes us to question our worth and our integrity and sexual shame is particularly damaging in this way because Evangelical culture approaches sexuality like a light switch that you can choose to flip on at any moment.


This was punctuated most clearly in Tim and Beverly LaHaye's book The Act of Marriage (1976) where they describe how Christian couples are supposed to have sex. God’s design for sex is that women are supposed to be meek lambs during the day and hypersexual tigers at night.

Interestingly, in this book, they document how some couples struggle with this formula. The diagnosis from Tim LaHaye is that the wife has not accepted God's design for their sexual lives.


However, the real reason why they are struggling is because they have been taught their entire lives to feel deep shame around anything sexual and, once married, now they are expected to do a complete 180 and embrace the very thing they’ve been told to reject. It’s a recipe for disaster.



Many women (and men) who grow up in Evangelicalism find they cannot have a normal sexual relationship because they have what Linda Kay Klein calls a sex shame brain trap. Researchers refer to a brain trap as when two things get trapped together in the brain. This is based on Hebb’s Axiom which states that when neurons fire together, they wire together.


For example, researchers found that when musicians play an instrument and they use the same two fingers together over and over again, eventually the neuronal firings for those two fingers becomes fused. If you move one finger, you're automatically going to move the other finger with it. Hebb’s Axiom also applies to concepts.


Linda talks about how Purity Culture can create a sex shame brain trap where the moment we engage in sexuality, it can trigger a shame reaction. The pressure to remain pure until marriage requires the repression of sexual desire. However, when a person who has repressed their sexual desire becomes sexually active, often the result is sexual dysfunction.


When Linda finally decided that she was going to have sex with her boyfriend and throw off the shackles of Purity Culture, she literally had a panic attack. She would break out in hives and literally scratch herself until she bled. She was trying to engage in the very thing she had been taught not to do her entire life and her body had a violent reaction.


When she published her book, hundreds of women raised in Purity Culture reached out and said, “Your experience mirrored my own. I’ve struggled to have a normal sexual relationship.”


Diagnosis


So is Hannah’s analysis of Evangelical Christianity fair? Are they a sex cult? A cult is a group who tightly controls its members, requiring unwavering devotion to a set of beliefs and practices which are considered deviant. I certainly think that this definition could apply to many Evangelical communities in the last 40 years who subscribed to a patriarchal purity centered theology.


I personally encountered this type of theology among the Christian groups I attended at Rice University in Texas and within Evangelical churches in California. I experienced first-hand the great shame and judgment levied against anyone who would question the Evangelical attitude towards sexuality. When my wife and I skirted some of those norms when we were first dating, she was quickly blacklisted by her community.


I also think this hyperfocus on sexuality is why these communities will also obsessively rail against homosexuality as a sinful aberration. Same sex relationships threaten the entire foundation of their theology.


That said, I also understand that treating Evangelicals as monolith would be to ignore how many different views exist with Evangelical Christianity. There are some Evangelical communities that have upheld the equality of women, ordain women pastors and have come out in favor of gay rights and gay marriage. Of course, these represent a minority.


Personally, I think Hannah is onto something. I think there’s good reason to question the Evangelical approach to sex and sexuality. It’s certainly a thread that, if pulled, unspools the whole tapestry, but, in my opinion, it’s a theology worthy of being questioned.


What are your thoughts? Do you think Evangelical Christianity is a sex cult?

2 Comments


This was wildly insightful, but really kinda not surprising. My take would be that most any denomination of a religion that requires that much control (and this is where one could include certain orthodoxes) borders on being a cult just by definition. Is what makes a cult just its size alone? I'm glad you pointed out that there are different types of Evangelical beliefs, but, a lot of it gets muddied together and I don't think it's unfair given the largely extremist views they share. Whether it's 6% or 20%, it's still pretty scary. And while it's scary, cult phenomena is still fascinating, and, I think it's threatening to most folks who choose a religious label to explore what that…

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Chris, this is a good point. It doesn't matter how small the percentage of Evangelical churches who enforce this type of belief system, the end result for those on the inside are still the same. What I find to be fascinating is how enforcing this unnatural sexual morality on people has long term consequences where it's a struggle for them to engage in normal expressions of what would be considered healthy sexuality by most of the world. It goes to show that extreme belief systems (like Evangelicalism, ultra-Orthodoxy or groups that would be considered cults) have super negative consequences that follow people for life.

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