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How Canadian Evangelicalism is reinventing purity culture as “pro-women”

Protestant purity culture played an important role in the shootings in three massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia (Unsplash / Edwin Andrade).

The anti-Asian shootings at three massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia in March 2021 had complex religious elements. Eight people, including six Asian women, were killed in the attacks. The alleged shooter emerged from an evangelical “purity culture” that teaches a narrow view of sexuality, often with racist undertones.

Purity culture has both specific and broad meanings. It relates directly to a wave of “extreme abstinence” practices from the 1990s that are primarily aimed at women. But it also includes decades of more extensive evangelical teachings that limit sexuality to heterosexual marriage.

While some argue that the culture of purity only refers to the narrow practices of the 1990s that even many evangelicals are now distancing themselves from, there is no clear distinction and the underlying ideas are the same. According to Bradley Onishi, an American professor of religion, women are taught to “hate their bodies” and men are taught to “hate their minds.” This is the mindset that led the accused offender in Atlanta to claim that he was plagued by a “sexual addiction” because the harsh approach of the purity culture of denial and self-loathing made him unable to cope with his sexual ones Dealing with thoughts and urges.

Read more: How the “extreme abstinence” of the purity movement caused a feeling of shame in evangelical women

The culture of purity also takes up xenophobic and racist views on non-white cultures as exotic and sexually unbridled. Canadian ex-evangelical Jenna Tenn-Yuk writes that “women with color … cannot be considered pure”. Asian-American ex-evangelicals such as Angie Hong, Flora Tang and Onishi have also examined the links between purity culture and the fetishization of Asian women after the Atlanta shootings.

Suppression of “unclean” sex

A culture of purity in the broadest sense is fundamental to evangelical thinking. But it’s not just anti-sex. While it suppresses sex outside of heterosexual marriage, it enhances and celebrates married heterosexuality. This has been called the “gospel of sexual prosperity”.

Purity culture works primarily through self-sustaining systems of peer accountability. Evangelicalism is a decentralized movement and evangelical legitimacy is largely based on acceptance by other evangelicals. Purity culture is therefore a complex worldview, embedded in broader principles and social structures, for both men and women.

Protestant Christianity has always liked to see itself as an adaptation to cultural and technological change. But changes in gender and sexual attitudes over the past few decades have meant that evangelicals can no longer keep up with the rest of North American society.

There is some evidence that evangelical attitudes towards sexuality are evolving, particularly towards LGBTQ equality. But actual changes in the evangelical world are difficult. Purity culture is an interlocking system for regulating all sexuality. It resists incremental evolution.

When evangelical leaders and followers move away from the principles of purity culture, they lose their standing and access within the evangelical world. Many end up going away altogether.

Canadian evangelism

In Canada, the culture of purity is largely invisible in mainstream society, much like evangelicals themselves. But it remains fundamental to evangelical thinking.

My research has shown that, unlike the United States, most Canadian evangelicals have given up the struggle for cultural dominance. Instead, they struggle to maintain their own private spaces. This is most evident in the struggle to maintain exclusions against LGBTQ as part of the broader system of regulating all sexuality.

Read more: Canada’s marginal “Christian law”

While Canada has aggressive American-style evangelical activists like Charles McVety, they are less dominant in evangelical circles than in the United States.

The majority of Canadian evangelicals are more subtle. Some are well aware that homophobic teachings drive people away. Many downplay the problem as much as possible.

But they cannot easily moderate their actual positions on LGBTQ rights and other sexuality issues. This would bring down the entire house of cards of the culture of purity.

Instead, Canadian evangelicals have formulated their views as “pro-women” more positively. This is based on the classification of the purity culture of women as vulnerable and in need of protection, again often with underlying racial tones.

One example is the strong evangelical support for the so-called “Nordic model” of prostitution law of the Stephen Harper government. The model is aimed at buyers of sex versus sex workers. This follows the focus of the purity culture on the “protection” of women. But the law still stigmatizes sex work and sex workers, who are mostly women and often racialized.

Canadian evangelicals and other anti-abortion activists have also curtailed their efforts to focus on campaigns against the sex-selective abortion of girls. This uses the practice of gender-selective abortion in other parts of the world as the basis for campaigns against abortion in Canada. This enables a woman-friendly design that implicitly upholds the ideals of the culture of purity.

The culture of purity, and especially its anti-LGBTQ aspects, may not be as ingrained as they seem. Some evangelicals are aware that they have drawn themselves into a corner of intolerance and are not keeping up with Canadian society.

But reforms in the evangelical world are difficult. Instead, evangelicals, particularly in Canada, are reformulating the principles of purity culture to appear tastier without letting go of the underlying tones and beliefs.

Jonathan Malloy, Professor of Political Science, Carleton University

This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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