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R. Marie Griffith. Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics.

R. Marie Griffith. Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics. New York: Basic Books, 2017. Pp. xx + 396. $32 (cloth).

R. Marie Griffith's book Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics is a well-organized, very well written, and timely expose of the polarizing conflict that has existed during the approximately one hundred years between the 1920s and today, a division between traditionalist Roman Catholics, Protestant Evangelists, and social conservatives on the one side against more progressive and liberal elements within American society. She points out that our political culture has contained variations of these two sides throughout our history, in the battle between those keen to preserve order and tradition at all costs and those favoring at least some change and some progress toward a more tolerant and inclusive society. She cites fear as the motivating force behind the conservative movement: (1) fear of increasing women's freedom and changes in their traditional roles; (2) fear of the Other, whether religious or ethnic; (3) fear of the decline of the United States as a nation because of the evil acts of its citizens. Sexual mores and attitudes toward sex, in her opinion, underlie all aspects of this split between the two sides of American culture, as does the range of Americans' beliefs across the religious spectrum (although religion, especially the Christian religion, is often variously interpreted to undergird specific cultural arguments).

For each chapter of her book, Griffith selects one major controversy as dominating a particular decade, despite the obvious overlapping in time of these issues as the century progresses: contraception (1920s), censorship and obscenity (1930s), interracial sex and race-mixing (1940s), the Kinsey revolution and female sexuality (1950s), sex education in schools (1960s), abortion (1970s and 80s), sexual harassment (1990s), and same-sex marriage and civil unions (early 2000s). For each chapter, she has selected a single major figure to highlight as representing the liberal side of the issue. At the same time, she directly voices the opposition these individuals faced, often quoting at length the virulent propaganda written to protest what was seen as a threat to American morals and to our future as a nation.

Chapter Two on censorship and obscenity features D.H. Lawrence as the central figure. Lawrentians can see immediately that Griffith is not a Lawrence specialist. She focuses exclusively on Lady Chatterley's Lover and a few of Lawrence's essays (and does not use the CUP edition in her citations!). But she is able to place Lawrence directly into the narrative of the bitter struggle that he and other modernist writers and artists waged against the conservative figures on the right, and she links the growing emphasis on censorship in the 30s to the furious debate over birth control in the 20s. Given this perspective, she puts her finger directly on the reason Lawrence's novel created such turmoil: "The book described more than secret infidelity, the kind that might tear apart a marriage; it bespoke the annihilation of cherished social norms, if not Christian civilization itself." And she emphasizes the lasting influence of the Lady Chatterley's Lover controversy on American culture and politics, stating, "The religious debates regarding that novel and Lawrence more generally reveal the deeper conflicts in Anglo-American religious thinking about sex that would roil obscenity debates for years to come."

While Lawrence disappears from Griffith's discussion of the other issues in her book, it is easy for Lawrentians to insert Lawrence's beliefs and writing into many of her later chapters. Griffith's horrific essay on racism, with its underlying theme of the black male as an oversexed beast threatening the virginal purity of the white female, makes clear the way Lawrence's sensual dark heroes and sexually alive heroines upend this aspect of American racial stereotyping. Echoes of Lawrence pervade Griffith's discussion of Ruth Benedict's appreciation of so-called "primitive" peoples and her explorations of what they have to contribute to our understanding of our own culture. He probably would not have appreciated the Kinsey volumes on male and female sexuality, given their highly scientific approach to sex, but he would have approved of their frankness on the subject and the support they provided to the idea that sex is a natural human function, not something secret and sinful, as well as the data they presented on the strength and prevalence of female sexuality. Birkin's intrusion into Ursula's classroom in Women in Love and his insistence on explicitly explaining the sexual function of pistils and stamens fits neatly into the controversy over sex education in schools. The complex and often conflicted attitude toward homosexuality Lawrence frequently exhibits, however, contrasts with the highly polarized views of conservative and progressives in our own millennium. Only contraception, abortion, and sexual harassment are not primary issues in Lawrence's writing. Otherwise, his shadow hangs over all the chapters of Griffith's book, even if he himself is not explicitly mentioned.

Griffith's epilogue brings Donald Trump into her discussion, as she deftly pulls together the strains of the controversies she has described evolving from one decade to another up to our present time. For those bewailing the current breakdown in civility and the viciousness and extremism of our political and cultural debates, Griffith foregrounds the abuse and ugliness heaped on figures like Lawrence by those averse to their ideas, ostensibly on religious and ethical grounds. Reading Moral Combat from the perspective of Lawrence scholarship emphasizes his importance as a writer and thinker within the various controversies that rocked that twentieth century and, in some cases, continue virulently today.

Eleanor H. Green

Editor, D.H. Lawrence Review, 2009-2017
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Author:Green, Eleanor H.
Publication:D.H. Lawrence Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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