The purity movement of the evangelical church is frequently focused on preserving the virginity of women. Modesty teachings, in particular, maintain that women must cover their bodies in order to prevent lust and potential “consequences.” These teachings do not apply to all women equally, however—those speaking on purity and gaining popularity in evangelical circles are consistently white, heterosexual, thin, able-bodied women like Elisabeth Elliot, Leslie Ludy, and Stasi Eldredge. Even the bloggers who go viral for writing on the subject are all cut from the same cloth. By contrast, those entrenched in white evangelical culture frequently imply that women of color are innately impure—particularly Black women, whose perceived sexuality is seen as both worthy of punishment and pity. This is a bigoted, racist stereotype that robs women of color of their agency and emerges on a number of fronts, including with regard to politically powerful white conservative approaches to reproductive rights.
In conducting interviews for my upcoming book, many women of color told me they felt ashamed and burdened by modesty teachings, too often on the receiving end of “jokes” or stigma about their alleged promiscuity. One of the most popular and prevalent examples of this kind of racism is the critique of the pop singer Beyoncé’s life and work by conservative white politicians and pundits. The evangelical Mike Huckabee, for example, recently wondered aloud if Jay Z had not crossed the line from husband to exploiting “pimp,” thus reducing Beyoncé’s talent and ambition to a sexuality that is not under her control. The idea that she could have her own motivations didn’t come into the picture for Huckabee—instead, he likened Beyoncé to a trafficked woman, a role that he clearly sees as deserving of condescension and derision.
And when it comes to the battle for reproductive rights, this sexualization of Black women lends itself both to victim-blaming and white savior narratives. A couple of years ago, a white-led, conservative Christian, anti-choice organization hung a billboard reading, “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” Such a statement at once demonizes Black women who choose to get abortions—who, by extension, have taken control of their own sexualities—and suggests that there is a need for a white organization to come in and “help.” Overall, the message of these campaigns is clear: Agency and decision-making must be taken out of the hands of Black women and placed instead in (white, conservative) legislators’ hands.
In the minds of many evangelical Christians, people who “deserve” abortion access, if any, are those whose purity was forcibly taken from them—in other words, through rape. Of course, those same groups continuously support maneuvers to deny abortion access to poor women of color, implicitly suggesting that their purity (and safety, health, and well-being) matters less. This sentiment has real-world ramifications: Abortion restrictions, such as Texas’ infamous HB 2, frequently manifest in the shutdown of clinics that serve these communities.
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Furthermore, the ongoing birth control coverage fight—federally in discussions over Hobby Lobby and the Affordable Care Act and statewide in places like Texas and Missouri—disproportionately restricts birth control access to people of color with lower income. While the right has framed the debate about religious liberty, the underlying stereotypes about women of color as sexualized and immodest have aided in the battle. Because women of color are “innately” sexual, evangelicals or conservative Christians see it as more important that they’re abstinent rather than they have access to things that will keep them safe and healthy when engaging in sexual activity because access would encourage sinfulness. Additionally, with the “bootstraps” politics that pervade the white American conservative party and church, women of color are often portrayed as lazy and relying on government help, somehow “unworthy” of taking control of their own bodies.
At the same time, these stereotypes also work to undermine women of color’s agency from a “benevolent” perspective. Even as they deny them birth control or abortion access, evangelicals uphold the sexualized stereotype of women of color as an example of brokenness, a need for white suburban ministries to “set them right.” The mostly white women’s purity ministry, Secret Keeper Girl, for example, spent much of 2013 raising money to take their Secret Keeper Girl tour into “the inner city of the Bronx” to spread the gospel of modesty there and a woman’s worth there.
The thought is this: If Black women are naturally promiscuous, then sexual fidelity and modesty will not come easily to them. They will need to be taught. And that is where the benevolent racism of white evangelicalism takes its greatest toll. By treating the Black community as an object to be acted upon, as opposed to a community with its own leaders and its own methods of confronting issues, white evangelicalism sets itself up as the savior of the Black woman. Learning sexual purity and modesty—what these leaders see as white values—become vital parts of the white gospel as told to communities of color. Secret Keeper Girl wrote on their site of the ways in which Black churches in poorer communities of color are theologically bereft, portraying pastors as having given up on the sexual health of their congregants. In their view, the Black church community had to be taught, from the outside, by white suburban women. (Thus far, the Black church in the area targeted by the modesty campaign appears not to have responded.)
And this narrative is self-perpetuating. Because the underlying stereotypes are never challenged, young Christians go into “inner cities” to minister there, and return to their cozy white existences without having challenged their institutionally enforced bias against people of color. And the cycle repeats—the solution to the perceived problems of communities of color continues to be teaching them evangelicals’ ideas of what whiteness means, including sexual purity and modesty.
Recently, the Southern Baptist Convention leaders called for more integration in traditionally white SBC churches—which is something of a progression. But until the paternalistic theologies around race change, such integration in the churches will be next to impossible; people of color will continue to be silenced, ignored, or outright attacked on matters of sexual health. There needs to be a groundswell of change from both the political and theological right in order to completely challenge and change the racism that permeates white evangelical churches today.