One of the oddities of contemporary evangelicalism is how it can take a biblical mandate and politicize it, by tying it in unhealthy ways to nationalism. Sara Moslener’s Virgin Nation explores through an academic historical lens how modern purity movements among teenagers are built around a drive for a pure and strong nation — and fear of a looming apocalypse. Focusing on “True Love Waits” and the “Silver Ring Thing,” movements that attempt to convince teenagers to abstain from sex until marriage, Moslener positions these campaigns as lying at the nexus of many trends in modern evangelicalism: “political activism, deep anxiety over gender roles and changing sexual mores, fear of moral decay, apocalyptic anticipation, and American nationalism.”
Since I am an evangelical concerned about purity (albeit differently than these organizations would frame it), Moslener’s Virgin Nation has particular relevance for me. It provides historical resources to talk about sex and purity. Or at least it can show how I shouldn’t talk about it — as one-dimensional physical purity or in nationalistic terms.
American evangelicals have framed their language about purity in almost exclusively sexual terms, with bizarre apocalyptic and nationalistic overtones. Since our kids aren’t sexually pure, our nation, we are told, is at risk of falling apart. “Sex is great!” Moslener summarizes as their message, “But it also has the ability to destroy the entire human race.”
These purity movements equate sexual “degeneracy” with a weakness in the moral stability of the nation — seen archetypally in the decline of the Roman Empire (as Billy Graham himself argues), but used even in modern America. This weakness flows not only from venereal disease but from the emotional and social weakness that premarital sex brings with it into a family. If that institution is weakened, they argue, the rest of society follows. They see teenagers having sex as akin to a national security issue that endangers our country (or even the world). Hyperbolically, as lyrics in a song from the “Silver Ring Thing” run: “If we told you you’d be fine, we’d be lying to your face / It’s like playing with a nuclear bomb / you could wipe out the whole human race.”
Virgin Nation is rich in its historical reading of the rhetorical strategies of these purity movements. I love burying myself in a densely argued monograph, and Moslener clearly has a lot to contribute to the developing field of American evangelicalism and purity movements. Still, as a believer in the tradition that she studies, Virgin Nation sparked quite a bit of soul-searching in me on the kind of purity that we are called to.
I do believe that we are called to purity: a comprehensive purity that encompasses our sexual nature and other parts of our life. The apostle James saves harsh words for people who aren’t pure in their words (see his metaphor of fresh and salt water) and in their care for the poor, just as Paul explicitly calls us to sexual purity. Holiness requires a holistic purity. As Augustine — along with the vast majority of Christian tradition — teaches, purity is an attribute of the soul, not of the body.
More than this, a lack of purity endangers not the nation (to which Christians owe respect), but the church (which is our family). This is why Paul is so concerned about impurity in 1 Corinthians 5 — it doesn’t fit with our calling as a church. If we adopt a nationalistic rhetoric around purity, we shift our primary loyalty from the church to the nation, with devastating consequences for our Christian life.
Christians can't ignore an imperative to purity. But we also must avoid shaming people and continuing the toxic messages of apocalypticism and nationalism that Moslener records. If we avoid talking about purity altogether, we miss a vital part of the holiness that the Christian life is intended to be and the church is intended to foster. Still, we need to recognize purity as properly an attribute of the soul, not the body, and which can be manifested in many of our actions, not just our sex life. Teaching this to kids may be trickier than a simple message of physical abstinence, but it is necessary for true discipleship.
Contrary to the arguments Moslener records in Virgin Nation, our lack of sexual purity doesn’t doom our nation. But a lack of holistic purity might kill our church.