Pro-abstinence Discourses and the Definition of the Conservative Christian Identity in the Contemporary United States

Pro-abstinence Discourses and the Definition of the Conservative Christian Identity in the Contemporary United States

Claire Gresl-Favier

Since George W. Bush's first term in office, American conservative Christians have been increasingly present in the international media, especially for the last presidential election, as well as in the past year with the last two Supreme Court nominations. Phenomena like creationism, the belief in the Genesis' history of the creation of the world, or sexual-abstinence-before-marriage also attract growing media attention as the epitome of a conservative Christian way of thinking. However, the images presented by the media often oversimplify such phenomena, and tend to be used abroad as another occurrence of the so-called 'American Puritanism'.

The objective of this article is to study the place of abstinence in conservative Christian discourses. Abstinence educations positive or negative effects in matters of public health or education will not be considered here, as this has already been done before extensively. On the contrary, the focus of this article will be on an analysis of the meaning that such a stance on sexuality entails for the way conservative Christians construct their discursive identity.

To analyze this conservative Christian perspective, I have chosen four groups of authors who represent different positions on the spectrum of pro-abstinence argumentation: fundamentalist minister Tim LaHaye and his wife, conservative activist Beverly LaHaye; paediatrician and pro-abstinence writer Meg Meeker; researchers for the conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation; and the G.W. Bush administrations.

Tim and Beverly LaHaye are prominent conservative Christian leaders in their eighties. They were members of the "Moral Majority" of televangelist and Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell that supported the presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan. Tim LaHaye is a minister as well as the author of bestsellers like the international success series Left Behind, co-written with Jerry Jenkins. Beverly LaHaye is the founder of the conservative anti-feminist think-tank Concerned Women for America, and the author of a number of self-help books for women. Together, Tim and Beverly LaHaye are the authors of The Act of Marriage (1976), a sex advice book targeted at Christian married couples which promotes a positive vision of marital sexuality as a 'wonderful gift' from God to be enjoyed by both spouses. The Act of Marriage was followed about twenty years later by Raising Sexually Pure Kids: How to prepare your children for the Act of Marriage (1998), a sexual education manual aimed at helping conservative Christian parents to keep their children abstinent before marriage. According to the LaHayes, such a book was not needed twenty or thirty years ago, but since, they write, "our culture is one of the most sex-crazed this world has ever known" (1998, 10), a particular emphasis needs to be laid today on Christian children's sexual education. The LaHayes represent the more 'religious' end of the spectrum of pro-abstinence discourses that will be analyzed in this article. Tim LaHaye is a fundamentalist minister, and with his wife he defends abstinence on reasons grounded in a conservative reading of the Bible. For them sexuality, while being a 'wonderful' gift of God, can only be enjoyed fully and without sin in matrimony.

The second author, Meg Meeker, is representative of what could be qualified as the 'medical trend' in pro-abstinence discourses. Meeker is a pediatrician who advocates abstinence before marriage on what she claims are uniquely 'medical' grounds. She is the author of two books: Restoring the Teenage Soul: Nurturing Sound Hearts and Minds in a Confused Culture (1999) and Epidemic: How Teen Sex is Killing Our Kids (2002). Meeker contends that the protection provided by condoms is not enough as they have failure rates, must be used perfectly and consistently and do not protect from skin Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) like genital herpes for example. For her, prescribing condoms is putting teenagers too much at risk of getting infected by STDs. Therefore, she advocates abstinence-only-before marriage as the only 100% 'safe' option. The strategy she uses in her books follows the "epidemic logic" identified by the late philosopher Linda Singer in her book Erotic Welfare, Sexual theory and Politics in the Age of Epidemic (1993). By constructing the current high STD rates in the American teenage population as an epidemic, Meeker justifies a pressing need to control teenage sexuality and limit sexual activity to matrimony. Hence, though presented as medical, her books take part in a conservative discourse that aims at reestablishing the primacy of the heterosexual patriarchal family cell. For, as Singer underlined:

[] epidemics justify and are in fact constructed in order to necessitate a complex system of surveillance and intervention, epidemic situations often provide occasions for the reinstitution of hegemonic lines of authority and control. (Singer 1993: 31)

Contrary to the LaHayes who have a clearly conservative and religious standpoint, Meeker's discourse entertains a constant ambiguity by presenting itself as medical while integrating clearly ideological positions. Through her use of the "epidemic logic", her texts appeal strongly to emotions, while retaining the reassuring dimension of medical expertise.

Gaining legitimacy by using research to ground conservative ideological positions is at the core of the strategy of the Heritage Foundation, a prominent conservative think-tank that I selected to illustrate the more 'political' trend in pro-abstinence discourses. The Heritage Foundation is a think-tank which advocates economic liberalism, a reduction of the role of the federal state and what it calls the defense of 'traditional American values'. Its position on abstinence can be summed up as follows:

For the Heritage Foundation, there is little 'real' material poverty in the United States. Those who are poor are poor because they lack moral values, self respect, discipline and religious faith, which lead to violence, alcohol and drug abuse and out-of-wedlock pregnancies. The welfare state cannot eradicate poverty as it encourages people to stay on welfare by giving them money. For the Heritage Foundation, what the 'underclass', that is the poorest section of society, needs is not money but a 'moral' education, that favors self-control, delayed gratification and hard-work, which will help them get out of poverty. Sexual-abstinence-before-marriage is a crucial part of this moral education as it develops discipline, self-esteem and respect for others and teaches that marriage is the only acceptable frame for sexual activity, therefore encouraging people to marry. For the Heritage Foundation, the family and its "cornerstone" marriage are the "basic unit of society" (Heritage Foundation 2006) and the ideal frame for the development of an economically productive and 'moral' individual. Marriage and its promotion, by abstinence education among others, should therefore be the base of what Heritage Foundation researcher Robert Rector calls a "morally constructive philosophy of welfare." (Rector 2001: 73)

These views of the family and of abstinence are shared by the Bush administration, the fourth and last author of pro-abstinence discourses that this article will look at. For the president, promoting abstinence means helping "our young children learn to make right choices in life" (Bush 2002), that is: helping them to choose "self-restraint" over "self-destruction" and thus "counter the negative influence of the culture" (Bush 2004) which sends to American teenagers messages that undermine the institution of marriage. The Bush administration's reasons for defending abstinence are very close to those defended by the Heritage Foundation. However, the arguments it puts forward in public speeches are mainly grounded in "public health," in order to avoid alienating the less conservative part of the electorate. Hence,. Like Meeker it defines abstinence as the only 100% safe way to prevent STDs and teen pregnancies that it considers as being two major public health problems. However, it appears clearly when the Bush administration's discourses regarding abstinence are connected to its attempts at promoting fatherhood and marriage, limiting access to abortion and contraception and preventing the legalization of gay marriages, that the promotion of the heterosexual matrimonial family cell is its major ground for defending abstinence.

As previously mentioned, what I want to underline in this article is the way pro-abstinence discourses shape and reassert conservative Christian identity in the contemporary USA. My contention is that abstinence serves to support and reinforce a number of notions which are crucial to conservative Christian identity among which the faith in creationism, the 'comforting myth' of the traditional family and the idea of 'culture war' in connection with the 'decline' of traditional American values.

The link between abstinence and creationism, though both are key issues in conservative Christian discourses, is not necessarily an obvious one. Yet, it is clearly made by the LaHayes who explain to their readers that teaching creationism is crucial to achieve the goal of "raising virtuous children" (LaHaye 1998: 31) who will see themselves not as mere animals but as God's 'special creatures':

[self acceptance] is a problem for children because public educators reject or omit all references to God and teach children they are biological accidents the result of 'random chance as products of evolution.' We know better. Our children are creatures of God! They need to know that. Talk about improving self-image! Children who know they are creatures of God have much less trouble understanding 'Who am I?' or 'Where do I come from?' than those children who mistakenly think they evolved. (LaHaye 1998: 39)

Creationism, which is the faith in the story of the creation of the world as stated in the Genesis as factual, is used by conservative Christians to assert a major statement of their beliefs: that humans were created by God and not by the 'random natural process' of evolution. For the LaHayes and conservative Christians in general, humans are children of God, built after his image and as St Paul wrote "members of Christ himself" (1 Corinthians 6:13b, 15-17) (LaHaye 1998: 23). Human bodies being part of Christ's own body need to be taken care of accordingly and especially not to be defiled by an 'immoral' premarital sexual activity. If humans were not part of the body of the Christ, they would not need to remain abstinent, but as they are they need to treat their own bodies as temples. Abstinence before marriage is thus considered the duty of every conservative Christian and like creationism reasserts the divine nature of humanity.

Following a similar argument, I argue that abstinence reinforces the important concept of the difference of 'nature' between humans and animals as stated by creationist beliefs. If humans are God's children, created by him as stated in the book of Genesis, then they are divine unlike animals that were not made after God's image. This boundary is drawn even more clearly by the idea of sexual self-control which is at the heart of pro-abstinence discourses. A good example of this is given by Tim LaHaye when he explains that a boy who says he cannot wait until marriage to have sex is not in love but "in heat" (LaHaye 1998: 163). His lack of self-control thus makes an animal of him as he does not live up to the standards of self-control demanded by God. In this view abstinence becomes the ultimate proof of self-control over sexual urges and thus, like creationism, differentiates humans and animals as the latter are not able to control these urges.

Sexual-abstinence-before marriage is also, as previously mentioned, at the core of a conservative Christian strategy of reinforcement of the heterosexual patriarchal family cell. In a society where cohabitation and divorce become more and more widespread experiences, abstinence education reasserts the need to get married as, following federal guidelines, it teaches that: "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity" (PRWORA of 1996) Thus abstinence education encourages young people to marry and not just cohabitate. Simultaneously, abstinence education reasserts the superiority of heterosexual marriage over other types of family cells like homosexual, cohabitating or single-parent families which operate outside of the frame of marriage. Besides, pro-abstinence discourses not only reassert traditional marriage but they also promote a gendered vision of couple relationships. In Raising Sexually Pure Kids, for example, the LaHayes endorse the idea that:

[] girls are romantic. From early childhood, their fantasies are of Prince Charming, not sex. Ask a five-year-old girl playing with her dolls what she wants to be when she grows up and the she will probably say, "a mommy." She automatically thinks of family and childhood. As a five-year-old boy, and his answer will almost never be "a father." He thinks in vocational terms of being a fireman, a policeman or a ball player. (LaHaye 1998: 161)

Likewise, the report on federally funded abstinence programs prepared in 2004 for the Democrat Representative Henry A. Waxman underlined that

Many abstinence-only curricula begin with a detailed discussion of differences between boys and girls. Some of the differences presented are simply biological. Several of the curricula, however, present stereotypes as scientific fact. (Waxman 2004: 16)

For conservatives like the LaHayes, the Heritage Foundation, or the G.W. Bush administrations marriage in its traditional form "is the foundation of a successful society" (PRWORA of 1996), within which women and children are safer from physical and sexual abuse and poverty, and where the male breadwinner "invest[s] more hours per week in work and careers", is more involved in the community and is at lesser risks of being incarcerated than his non-married counterparts (Santorum 2003). Abstinence education, through its definition of heterosexual marriage as the only appropriate space of sexual expression, is thus a tool in the conservative strategy to reassert the hegemony of a traditional family cell based on clear gender roles.

Abstinence education is also a key element in what conservatives define as the "culture war" for the defense of traditional American values. For most conservative Christians today, the loss of the puritan work ethic caused by welfare dependency, as well as the decline of moral values and the collapse of the traditional family brought about by the sexual and feminist revolutions, are seen as the main causes as what they see as the decline of their nation. Sexual-abstinence and its emphasis on self-control and delayed gratification does, on the contrary, promote "moral" values and discipline, which, as believed by the Heritage Foundation among others, should render the modern welfare system useless and should help to promotes marriage that they see as the best possible basis for a productive and moral society. Moreover, in opposition to more liberal contemporary trends in parenting, abstinence education reinforces parental authority as it articulates children's education along clear cut lines which will help them remain abstinent. For example, in their book Raising Sexually Pure Kids, the LaHayes suggest strict dating rules like curfews and chastity pledges, and close monitoring of the teens' environment, activities, etc. Abstinence education also upholds the negative vision of a secular public education that conservative Christians consider as 'immoral' as, as the LaHayes explain:

If your children are going to learn Christian values, you and your church will have to teach them. The public school will not do it. In some cases, the public school does not teach moral values because they reject them (sic.). In other cases, since morals are based on the Bible, the schools have been intimated by the threat of a lawsuit for 'teaching religion.' A federal judge in Louisiana recently decreed that teaching abstinence is unconstitutional because it is based on morals derived from religion. (LaHaye 1998: 40).

By opposing what they qualify as the 'immoral' and oversexualized curricula offered by public schools, to abstinence curricula offered by private religious schools and faith-based initiatives, conservative Christians reinforce their opposition to secular education which became a key issue for their community since school prayer was outlawed by the Supreme Court in the 1960s.

I hope to have shown in this article how, by confirming and promoting conservative Christian narratives like creationism, reasserting the hegemony of the traditional patriarchal family cell and acting as a tool in the "culture war", pro-abstinence discourses play a crucial role in the definition and reassertion of contemporary conservative Christian identity. Abstinence is not a peripheral issue in the process of self-definition of the American conservative Christian community. On the contrary, it is at its center and epitomizes most of its current conflicts. For, as anthropologist Gail Rubin stated it:

Contemporary conflicts over sexual values and erotic conduct have much in common with the religious disputes of earlier centuries. They acquire immense symbolic weight. Disputes over sexual behaviour often become the vehicles for displacing social anxieties, and discharging their attendant emotional intensity. (Rubin 1999: 143)

It is, therefore, crucial for a better understanding of contemporary conservative Christianity to examine the current investment of the conservative community in debates over abstinence and teen sexuality.

Works Cited

Bush, G.W. (2002), "President Calls for Ticket to Independence in Welfare Reform", May 10, at

Bush, G.W. (2004a), "State of the Union Address", Washington, D.C., January 20, at

Heritage Foundation (2006) "Issues in Brief: Family and Marriage" at:

LaHaye, T. and Jenkins, J. (1995-2005) Left Behind (series), Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale

LaHaye, T. and B. (1995) The Act of Marriage: The Beauty of Sexual Love, Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

. (1998) Raising Sexually Pure Kids: How to prepare your children for the Act of Marriage, Sisters, Oregon: Mutnomah Publishers.

Meeker, M. (1999) Restoring the Teenage Soul: Nurturing Sound Hearts and Minds in a Confused Culture, Traverse City, Michigan: McKinley & Mann.

. (2002) Epidemic: How Teen Sex is Killing Our Kids, Washington D. C.: LifeLine Press.

Rector, R. (2001) 'Implementing Welfare Reform and Restoring Marriage' in Butler, S.M. and Holmes, K. R. (2001) Editors, Priorities for the President, Washington D.C.: The Heritage Foundation.

Rubin, G. (1999) "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality", in Abelove, R. and Aggleton, P. (eds), , a Reader, London: UCL Press.

Singer, L. (1993) Erotic Welfare, Sexual theory and Politics in the Age of Epidemic, New York & London: Routledge.

US Congress,Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, H.R. 3734, Public Law n 104-193, 104th Congress.

Waxman, H. A. (prepared for) (2004) The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs, Washington, D.C.: United States House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform Minority Staff, Special Investigation division.


  • There are currently no refbacks.