Sex Scandals and Minoritized Religions
Podcast with Megan Goodwin (22 March 2021).
Interviewed by David McConeghy
Transcribed by Andie Alexander
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sex-scandals-and-minoritized-religions/
Sex, gender, race, American religion, sexual abuse, rhetoric, stereotypes
David McConeghy (DM) 00:05
My name is David McConeghy. And it’s my great pleasure today to welcome Dr. Megan Goodwin, program director at Sacred Writes, visiting lecturer in religion at Northeastern University, and the co-host of one of our favorite podcasts, Keeping It 101. And if you don’t know much about that, I encourage you to go back and listen to our episode with Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst on religious literacy as social justice, where she talks a bit about it. Dr. Goodwin, thank you so much for joining us today.
Megan Goodwin (MG) 00:36
I am delighted to join you today. Thank you so much for having me.
The occasion of our conversation is your really fascinating book, Abusing Religion: Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals, and American Minority Religions. And one of the things that I really am thankful for after reading your book is the idea that you present of “contraceptive nationalism.” And this is kind of a dense idea, and I want to give our listeners your definition of it. You’ve argued in the book that narratives of contraceptive nationalism are stories that attempt to defend the American body politic, from insemination by religious outsiders by portraying them as sexual threats, and they minoritized religious outsiders through allegations of sexual abuse, substantiated or otherwise. Can you introduce this concept for our listeners and explain why this is such a critical theoretical lens in which we can talk about not only sexual abuse but minoritization of religions in the United States?
Yeah. And I think that’s a great way to set it up is that it’s a minoritization, a marginalization strategy. Actually, strategy makes it sound like it’s on purpose. And I’m not sure that Betty Mahmoody was like, “How can I villainize Muslims today?” One of the things that I’m trying to do with contraceptive nationalism, it looks at the spaces where American religion—it gets not just reimagined, but restricted. So, it seems counterintuitive to think this stupid book that you could buy at the airport, right, would have any sort of lasting impact on the American religio-political landscape. But they really, these trash, these garbage books really do. Because it’s, of course, never just the book, sometimes it’s also a movie. But more than that, it’s this moment of, like—put my Foucault hat on—there’s a discursive explosion here, around concerns about religious outsiders and specifically the way that if we let religion be too free, they, the religious outsiders, who are also racial outsiders, a lot of the time, will take advantage of our freedoms to both pollute the American body politic in a religio-political way and to—I mean, I use the word inseminate deliberately, even though it makes my skin crawl—because it’s seen as an attack on white women and children, who then stand in for the idea of America itself.
Right. So, let’s back up because I think for some of those that that are perhaps outside of the US and may be less familiar with American kind of religious stuff. There’s a lot to unpack there. So, the three books that we’re talking about, that are investigated in your work are, Michelle Remembers about the Satanic panic, Not Without My Daughter, which is a book about a woman who goes to Iran and has trouble leaving Iran again.
That’s a soft sell. Yes, yes.
Understatement of the year, right. And, and then, finally, Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which is about polygyny and Mormonism.
Yes. Mormon fundamentalism.
He doesn’t actually draw a line between those, which is part of the problem.
Yeah, that’s one of your big critiques of him. But I think for all if all three of these books, you’re using their evidence of a kind of discourse about what America is, in terms of its purity, in terms of who counts as American, and that when religious outsiders try to count as American, we mark them as outsiders first by sexual difference. Am I following correctly in that?
Yeah, I’m not sure if I would argue for the primacy of sexual difference as again, I think there’s a… I know that there’s a racial aspect there as well, but I focused specifically on the sex and sexuality piece, in part because that’s where my formal training lies. That’s where I started with this project and sexual… or allegations of sexual predation are a historically tried and true minoritization strategy. Right? It’s there’s nothing unique to the United States about these kinds of allegations in terms of just saying, like, “Well, you’re an outsider or you should be an outsider. So clearly you are doing sketchy sex things, right?” We see this around, you know, medieval anti-Semitism. We see this around reactions to early Jesus people, like, clearly y’all are having orgies.
So, the accusations of sexual perversion and predation are not unique to the United States in any way. At the same time, the US is, especially if not uniquely, invested in a connection between sex and religion. I say in the book—and I will say it now—that we’re not really understanding how we think about religion or how we do religion in the United States if we’re not thinking about sex, and vice versa. So, it’s not just, okay, people who are professedly religious turned to religion, to learn how we should do sex. The idea of the United States comes out of a really specifically European Christian worldview that came to think of itself as white. So we wouldn’t necessarily have SCOTUS saying, “Well, the Bible says this about sex, so here’s what what is legal in the United States.” But I mean, and we see this in [Ann] Pellegrini and [Janet] Jakobsen’s Love the Sin—it’s honestly not that far off. What we have is an idea of religion as special, as protected. And our idea of the religion that is special and protected, is connected to a very specific kind of religion, which is white, often conservative Christianity. So, if we’re looking at something like the Hobby Lobby case, which I talk about in the conclusion, it’s not that the Supreme Court says, “All right, all Americans have to think this way about sex.” But what they do say, is “This corporation, which we’ve decided is a person—pause—is entitled to religious freedom—pause again—and the way that we protect that religious freedom is by saying they sincerely believe this thing about sex and sexuality. And even though it is medically wrong, we, because religion is special, can’t impugn their belief about sex. So now this is the law of the land, no matter what the beliefs of the corporation’s employees are. The short version, I think, is that we smuggle in Christian thinking, with the serial numbers filed off, to the way that we think about sex. And I want us to pay closer attention to that. And I also want us to pay attention to how we then use those conservative Christian, very white ideas about what sex and sexuality should look like to regulate how religion can be practiced in the United States, and what happens when you do it, quote, unquote, wrong.
So, the body politic, as you’re arguing here, is marked by race. It’s marked by a certain understanding that the body that SCOTUS talks about, right, the corporate body, the religious body, is a Christian body and a racially marked white body.
Absolutely. It is. Although, they don’t really get into the racial piece. The whiteness gets to be unmarked.
So one of the consequences of how you defend that idea is to say, well, you’re not white, and you do sex differently, and therefore, you don’t count or we’re not going to protect what you want to do.
Or we’re going to treat what you are doing as abuse explicitly. And when we see that I think most clearly in the Mormon fundamentalist chapters, where the state of Texas decided that the practice of polygyny is abuse—full stop—regardless of whether or not people have entered into it willingly—and that’s a whole bigger conversation—regardless of whether or not they the state of Texas had made it safe to leave polygynous marriages. They said polygyny equals abuse, not abuse is happening in these polygynous communities. So, the practice of theologically sanctioned sexual difference was the evidence of abuse that made the state of Texas truly go looking for an excuse to raid, the Yearning for Zion Ranch.
When I was in high school, we used to have a name for this on the debate team which was defining people out of the round. If you set the terms of your definition of what counts as abuse as polygyny, then you have criminalized a religious practice, whether or not it is actually criminal.
Yes, that is correct. the marriage laws in Texas were a little fuzzy on this and particularly about the age of legal marriage, which is why FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) moved there to begin with. Until FLDS moved into the state of Texas, it was legal for a 14-year-old girl to get married with parental permission. They changed the law, specifically because FLDS moved in, and they kept it at 16—love this moment—because what if a girl gets pregnant or parents think she should get married? So, we’re, like really worried about coercion, but only if it’s happening in minority religious communities?
Right, yet again, the projection of normativized understandings of when and where and the conditions under which sex should happen, being privileged from a Christian understanding that sex is between two people only within the boundaries of marriage, right?
Mhmm. And a very specific definition of marriage. But over and above also, what kind of community standard, what kind of community pressure constitutes abuse? Because why is an FLDS father pressuring his 14-year-old daughter to get married? Abuse. But not just a regular dad in Texas pressuring his 16-year-old knocked up daughter to get married? Like, why is one abuse and one not? And in large part, honestly, I think that happens, because we understand religion in these ways. And this “bad religion” must equal “bad sex” sort of recursive pattern.
Right. One of the things that I wondered in the text, and this is—and I’ll admit, it’s a little bit unfair, because you focused so centrally on sex. And so, if my question is, what if we might think of this in a more abstract way as simply the othering process, right? If we abstract it to simply differences. Because I think about SCOTUS cases that I’ve worked with my own students on like US v. Bhagat Singh Thind, which is from 1923, which centers on a Sikh individual that was trying to claim citizenship and how the court denied them citizenship based on their religious identity. One of the things that I wonder is whether or not racial differences and these other differences might add more to the discussion? So, I’m not asking necessarily for you to defend why stop with sex. But if we think more abstractly about things, what does sex offer in this analysis that can’t be offered if we if we think on a kind of a broader term like that?
Yeah, well, I mean, again, I didn’t stop at sex. Because when we’re thinking about the regulation of sex and sexuality in the United States, that’s always a conversation around white supremacy as well.
And you see that again, most clearly in the Not Without My Daughter chapter, where Betty Mahmoody makes not just her husband but all Muslim men out to be religio-racial, sexual predators and horrible abusive monsters. And this isn’t to say that abuse did or didn’t happen in Mahmoody’s marriage—I don’t know that; I believe people when they say that they have survived abuse. I don’t think that her individual experience of abuse, justifies monstrifying half a billion people. But I do think that there’s something particularly important about paying attention to the way that sex limits and builds and imagines what religion should look like in the US. And again, race absolutely plays a role in there, too. But I focused specifically on sex because there is this American contradiction where we have or we profess to have a kind of national morality around sex—and we see this, you know, emerge in the 1970s and 1980s. explicitly, I talked about that in chapter one—this idea of national values very much being tied to heterosexual, to partner, gender binary marriage where you have some but not too many children. And that becomes not just like what a good Christian looks like, but what a good American looks like. And of course, of course, that is another space where whiteness goes unmarked, but the way that America police’s itself and police’s the world in terms of a sexual morality that very much draws from a specific kind of Christianity just fascinated me, and I wanted to dig more into that. There’s a lot of work in the construction of marginal religions or New Religious Movements or cults, but very little of it actually deals with sex and sexuality. And I found the work that I did do that kind of engagement, ultimately unsatisfying, so I wanted it to be a larger theoretical inquiry that really roots itself in critical theorists of sexuality. And I hadn’t seen that work done before. And it felt like an important contribution.
You do say in the book that you think that religious sex abuse—and you mean this in kind of three ways, right: a sex abuse that happens within religious communities, sex abuse, that happens by religious leaders, and then sex abuse…
… or religious community members.
… yeah, or members, and then sex abuse that may be in some way related to certain religious values, I believe is the third point. So why has our field struggled to theorize sex in more complex ways?
Specifically, around the issue of abuse, I think we don’t talk about it because we don’t like to talk about it. It’s uncomfortable. It’s achy. And because we often treat accusations of sex abuse as just as serious as the abuse itself. And so often, I think we’d rather not raise the possibility that abuse might be happening, rather than make a false accusation because we imagine the accusation of sex abuse to be devastating, when, honestly, if we look at the legal and public consequences for folks who have perpetrated or facilitated sex abuse, there aren’t actually that many consequences for most of them. So, I, you know, I’m drawing specifically in that space where I’m saying that sex abuse is under-theorized on the work of Katie Lofton, and the folks who attended that first Yale conference around religious sex abuse, which has got to be like—yikes—10 years ago now. And Katie’s response to that—her retrospective—is just this is such a huge, truly staggeringly huge problem, why isn’t there more? And there just isn’t. But we are, I want to say, seeing a moment where the academy and specifically religious studies is starting to account for this phenomenon, to theorize this phenomenon. So, looking at, you know, Luce just gave a bunch of money to the religious sex abuse project, which is really exciting, because that will fund yet more research. Folks like Brian Clites and Katie Hoelscher and Jack Downey are doing really interesting, smart work around not just sex abuse, but the overlap of sex abuse and colonialism, sex abuse and white supremacy, I think all the time about Katie’s article that talks about priests being accused in Massachusetts, then being shipped off the American Southwest, where they continue to abuse children, but they were mostly Native and Latinx children. And they got away with it for years, because that’s not who we think of when we think of the target of sex abuse.
I wonder whether part of what our field struggles with is… So, if, as religious studies scholars, one of our goals is not to be bias free, but at least to be neutral in the moments when we are presenting the views of others so that they recognize them, that one of the challenges that we face with sex abuse is that we recognize that the abuse is wrong, but that we’re unsure of how to present the responsibility of the community in which it happened. And so, the kind of complicity of the community—and there are always going to be members of the community that are participating in cover ups or numerous other forms of complicity that we could talk about—that like, if we start down that chain, right, then our critique of that community’s complicity in the sex abuse appears to be very not neutral anymore, right?
Well, it also implicates us in our own communities. Like this is why I’ve argued that we use this contraceptive nationalist strategy, device—whatever you want to call it—because it’s easier to blame the weirdos for the horrible sex abuse than to say abuse happens because we let it, which is actually a piece I wrote over the summer about the Daniel Lavery coming out and naming the abuse that his father facilitated at Menlo Church. Abuse never happens in a vacuum. Abuse never just happens because between two people. It is always something that we allow to happen either by not noticing it or by deciding that it wasn’t that bad, or it would be worse to address it than to just pretend it never happened. I think, truly, complicity is at the core of this. We don’t like to talk about sex abuse as though it is common, although it is staggeringly so, because then it’s something that’s wrong with all of us and not just something that’s wrong with religious outsiders.
Or marginal communities.
When I have spoken to my students about the kind of—and this’ll sound a little odd, perhaps until I get to the end of it—but I’ve spoken to my students about the kind of recent political moment with the January 6  insurrection at the Capitol. One of the things that I’ve talked to them about was my frustration with a number of responses, particularly by President-Elect Biden during the insurrection about claims that this is not who we are, right. And I think that this really gets to the issue that you’re talking about, because if contraceptive nationalism is about our self-narrative about who we imagine that we are, then to say that we as a society are complicit in the sex abuse, suggests that each one of us has a complicity that we are unwilling to face.
Yeah. Yeah, it is who the hell we are. It’s not all of who we are, but it is absolutely who we are. And unless we take responsibility for that, we will not make any progress toward preventing sex abuse or, you know, violent attacks on our capital.
And so, one of the things as a historian that strikes me about this is this isn’t new. This is not a modern phenomenon. So, you know, when we can pretend, for instance, that there were… you know, that the Salem witchcraft trials weren’t such a big deal, for instance, or that was not a fundamental moment that broke the back in a way of the Puritanical Congregationalists hold of sexual morality in New England, and that we fail to see the racism that has been embedded in our treatment of people of color and the treatment of indigenous persons—that all have these moments of collective amnesia—suggests that, socially, culturally, Americans are not just unwilling to deal with current trauma related to sex abuse but even historical trauma. What do you think we can do about that? If it’s all related to contraceptive nationalism and the body politic and defending that core—however, fragile and false and lying it is to us—what can you and I do to undo the collective amnesia?
Well, I mean, I wrote a book about it. But I don’t know what you’re doing. (laughs)
I think I’m talking to you about your book. (laughs)
I mean, this is one of the challenging things about working on just straight-up bummer scholarship, because I think it’s a very human response to say, “Oh, no, this is really bad. What do I do?” And it is a really unsatisfying answer to say push for structural change. But it yes, you can absolutely attend to these issues in your communities, you can push back when you see sex trafficking narratives emerge in ways that damage sex workers, and don’t actually protect children at all. But this is a structural problem, and we need structural change. So how do we set up systems in which if, for example, women—anyone—are in marriages that they don’t want to be in anymore, how do we help them leave an abusive situation safely? By and large law enforcement is not on the side of survivors of abuse. So how else can we structure responses to abuse that allow people to leave abusive situations safely, that make us more able to recognize abuse when it’s happening? Like I, frankly, I think it starts with defund the police because law enforcement or not, who should be responding to these situations of domestic violence or abuse or danger.
But I also, in an ongoing way, I am hoping that my work helps us notice some patterns and some inconsistencies. One of the biggest places of pushback I get about the work that I try to do is that “okay, but abuse does happen in these communities.” And it absolutely does. Of course it does. Of course it does. Warren Jeffs is a disgusting human, I don’t think that there should be prisons, and I don’t think that there’s a hell. But if there are going to be prisons, that’s where Warren Jeffs belongs, and I kind of hope there’s a hell solely so you can go do it. At the same time, abuse happens everywhere, just everywhere, every day, in every community, everywhere. And the fact that we as a country get all riled up when it happens in a small town outside Eldorado, Texas, or when someone starts a—I’m going to… please hear my scare quotes—sex cult in California—because that Nexium guy got, like, centuries, in terms of the sentence that he’s supposed to be serving. It is a horrible example of sex abuse, but it is not unique. It’s not unusual. So why do we attend to these things when they happen in small religious communities, but not, you know, in downtown Lubbock? Why, if all of the community members of Yearning for Zion had to register as sex offenders, not because they themselves abused children, but because they allowed their children to live at Yearning for Zion and because Yearning for Zion was a place that polygamy was practiced? The state of Texas said, “you put your children in harm’s way.” If that’s true, why don’t we see the same reaction around even abuse in the Catholic Church? No one’s rolling into the parish parking lot on Sundays with tanks. And that absolutely happened in Yearning for Zion. Catholic parents are not being forced to register sex offenders for letting their children be in close proximity to priests. And I’m not please, please know that I’m not arguing that that’s what should happen. But I wonder about the size of the movements that I’m looking at, as opposed to the size of the reaction to them. Why do we freak out when this happens on the margins, when this happens when people do religion differently in ways that we think are weird or bad, but not when it happens, you know, in our, in our own families, in our own homes, in our own towns, in our own communities? So, it is my hope that we start paying a lot more attention to all of the stories, frankly, that we’ve been encouraged to kind of brush off as, “Oh, that’s not that bad. Oh, you’re overreacting. Is that really abuse?” You know, Whoopi Goldberg, “if it’s rape, rape.” No, we need to believe survivors, we need to pay attention to all allegations of abuse, rather than only pay attention to when it happens on the margins. Because and this is what I’m arguing, paying attention to it only when it happens on the margins allows us to exculpate ourselves and pretend that it’s not our problem. When again, sex abuse is not just a religious problem, it is an American problem.
Yeah, that sense of structural liberatory kind of move, the structural liberation, that you’re advocating, do you see your scholarship in a fundamentally liberatory way, that you hope that it will lead to the undoing of the structures?
I mean, that would be lovely, but I don’t… I’m not sure that I think of it so much as liberatory as it is truly vocabulary building. One of the things that really surprised me, and the reactions to my work, and not just the book specifically, but as I have been more vocal in public about sex abuse, is how many folks come back after I’ve said like, “Here’s the problem as I see it; here’s what I want to see happen; here’s why I think this is wrong.” Are folks coming back and saying, you know, I was really uncomfortable, I knew this was wrong, but I didn’t know how to articulate it? And so being able to say, yeah, this is abuse. Yes, this is violent. Yes, this is messed up. Here is why I think we think this way, here’s what I’d like to see us do. I mean, liberatory be great. But truly, if it’s just diagnostic, I will feel like I have done something worthwhile.
Well, I wonder if that’s part of the benefit, right of, at least in your book, a modicum of historical separation from the moments that you’re talking about? Right to look back at the 1980s and the 90s when these works were coming out, provides us just enough difference, just enough space, to have a hindsight that sees the structures that might be hidden to us in the moment or that are hard to name in the moment right? Naming the new Christian Right or naming the Satanic panic feels different, at least to me, in my own work when I’m working kind of maybe 10 years earlier than you are on some similar issues. That that space just—it feels like the people of the past, I can put my finger better on the structural issues that were that were limiting them, which haven’t changed—right, they persist—but at least that distance for me provides something.
See, that’s funny because I honestly don’t experience it as distance at all. It still feels very present to me. Yeah, I’m trying not to feel personally attached that we’re talking about the 80s as time that we have space away from even though that is technically chronologically accurate, but also how very dare you? I mean, yes, absolutely. None of this is new. And I think that’s important to recognize. You know, all of the case studies that I’m looking at are really captivity narratives. So, these are, you know, it is an especially, although, again, not exclusively American literary genre, stories about Native folks kidnapping, nice white women, and, you know, perverting and abusing them. Or later we see Mormon captivity narratives, we see Catholic captivity narratives—like this really drives which case studies I went to look at because I went looking for America’s like original boogeymen and it’s witches, it’s Mormons, and it’s Muslims. And at the same time, there is this coalescing, this confederacy, of disparate Protestantisms, and as I’ve argued Catholicisms, in a substantive way—arguably for the first time in American history—aligning itself to say these people are foreign and dangerous, not just to Christian communities, not even just to nice white ladies, but to America specifically, in again, a global and exacerbated by the nuclear threat sort of way. Yeah. But at the same time, yeah, it just doesn’t feel past to me. I mean, it is impossible to look at, oh god, it was Sean Penn this past week, right, who was talking about the democrats and their sex parties and how they’re stealing children for pedophilia. And like, it’s just, you could truly lift that word for word—although not on Twitter, obviously—from 1986, and all of the hoopla surrounding the McMartin daycare trial.
So, it just doesn’t feel past—it just feels cranked up to 11 to me, like. It feels like the 80s on meth, honestly.
I wonder if the lesson that they learned is that that kind of moral panic is really successful, and that they’re trying to do their best to replicate it as fast and as thoroughly as they can. Right?
I’m not convinced honestly, that it’s even disconnected. For a lot of folks, particularly for a lot of really conservative white evangelical communities, the Satanic panic never actually ended. So…
… there are traceable lines there. And that’s not exclusive again to like people in churches. There are folks in law enforcement who will tell you the Satanic panic never ended. This is always happening. We’re just not supposed to talk about it anymore. So yeah, I hesitate to speak to anyone’s kind of intentionality about this. But I think, yes, history has proven that accusing outsiders of attacking your children, and particularly sexually attacking children, is a very effective marginalization strategy, and it’s a very effective strategy for justifying violence against that group.
Well, I’m so thankful that you have been able to name it right and to really point to it as you suggest, that the vocabulary addition here is so useful as we try to work against these things. I’m thankful for your work. Thank you, Megan, …
Thanks for reading it.
And it’s been it’s been a delight to speak with you.
It’s been lovely speaking with you too. Thanks for letting me nerd out about the theory pieces.
Absolutely. Any time.
Goodwin, Meagan and David McConeghy. 2021. “Sex Scandals and Minoritized Religions”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 22 March 2021. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 22 March 2021. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sex-scandals-and-minoritized-religions/
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