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(145) ‘Pure White’: The origin story of purity culture

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Trigger warning: This episode contains stories of racial violence and sexualized racial violence. 

In this episode we deep dive Purity Culture’s origin story, and its connection with America’s racial history. 

Want to talk about this episode? Join our partners in The Big Debrief on Tuesday March 26 at 9pm EST and Wednesday March 27 at noon in Melbourne. 

Show Notes:
Talk to us on Instagram and Twitter
Pure White with Dr. Sara Moslener
The Myth of Colorblind Christians: Evangelicals and White Supremacy in the Civil Rights Era by Jesse Curtis
The After Purity Project  
Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence by Sara Moslener
64: ‘Biblical’ Womanhood Was Always Cultural Womanhood With Professor Beth Allison Barr
132: The Problem With Purity Rings (And Other Bad Symbols & Metaphors) with Karen Swallow Prior
Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 by Gail Bederman
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
Kaisha Esty
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ida B. Wells
Alabama supreme court rules frozen embryos are ‘children’ (The Guardian)
Seeing White podcast

Sara Moslener is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, Anthropology, and Religion at Central Michigan University where she teaches courses on the history of religious and racial discrimination in the United States. She has been studying evangelical purity culture for over 15 years and has numerous publications including the book Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence (Oxford University Press: 2015). She hosts the new series Pure White: Sexual Purity and White Supremacy with Axis Mundi Media. Connect with her on Twitter and Substack

Devi (she/her) (00:01.806)
this is what a lot of people might not know. Purity culture language is sort of ubiquitous now. It’s in throwaway paragraphs, in articles of the New York Times, or Cosmopolitan or whatever. But when you saw something that eventually became purity culture, no one was talking about it. if you could take us back to that time when you were just starting out as a historian, what did you see and why did you think something’s going on?

Sara Moslener (00:56.675)
you know, I got interested in the topic as a graduate student. I had had I had been to a True Love Waits event as a college student. And and that got a lot of questions percolating for me. But of course, I was very much part of this movement and hadn’t really realized how much so.

Devi (she/her) (01:34.7)
Yeah.

Sara Moslener (01:34.963)
But as a graduate student, I was very interested in what we weren’t even using the language of purity at the time. It was sexual abstinence. And I was very interested in it as a religious practice among evangelical adolescents and sort of what it meant for them, why they were making this choice and so on. And what I thought was gonna be a study of adolescent spirituality turned out to be a study of more powerful white men and setting up these rules and having political power and that was my first indication that this purity thing was not really about the spiritual formation of evangelical adolescence. When it turned out that, you know, my first book was was more about powerful white men like Billy Graham and, and, um,

Devi (she/her) (02:59.374)
James Dobson.

Sara Moslener (03:00.287)
and James Dobson, right, I was like, okay, there’s this is not there’s something more going on here. And I knew I was like, so what’s the underlying ideology here? And that’s when I started to look at that sort of the political rhetoric around purity, going back further than the 1980s and finding it.

Right and dobson’s work in the 70s finding it in billy graham’s rhetoric and finding it in the 19th century among white feminists and thinking about well, what What is the work that? the sexual purity is doing and A lot of the work it was doing um in in the late 20th century was around the family All right, the family has this unit essential for national

thriving, but in the 19th century, the work it was doing was around race and promoting, promoting white racial identity, white families, and, and white supremacy and all of that and that as foundational to the well -being of the nation state. The thing about studying race after the civil rights movement,

Devi (she/her) (03:59.694)
Yep.

Sara Moslener (04:28.579)
is you have to understand that we’ve been in the US and I think in a lot of other places we’ve been socialized into colorblind ideology and that that is, that there’s a virtue in that.

Devi (she/her) (04:47.406)
Yep.

Because, and just to kind of clarify that for people, because I think what you’re saying is that it’s like, we’re so advanced now. Look, like there are, in the United States, let’s say, there are black people who are doctors and lawyers, and everything’s fine.

Sara Moslener (05:04.771)
And the civil rights movement addressed all the problems. And there’s lots of, I do want to recommend a great book that I read this summer. And in fact, I interview him in the podcast, Jesse Curtis, his book, The Myth of Colorblind Christians. So needed, I think, in terms of really seeing how white racial identity functions, because it has been created to be invisible, because that’s its power.

Devi (she/her) (05:54.478)
Before I get too far into our conversation, actually also, we haven’t had a historian on for a while. How do you want people to interact with your work? Like just even right now in this conversation,
You’re coming to us as someone who has studied extensively. You have looked at things that we do not have time to look at and look for. But for you as a historian specifically,

What is it that you hope people will do with your work?

Sara Moslener (06:54.563)

What I realized I wanted to do with the After Purity Project, which was my research project, interviewing people who’d grown up and out of purity culture. So people come to, I imagine this podcast of many others thinking about purity culture as their own personal experience with it and the –

of things they’re trying to work through, whether that’s religious trauma, sexual trauma, or just, you know, trying to figure stuff out for the first time. And what I think history does, and I think why I’m drawn to it, is it situates us in a landscape that’s not just about our own stuff. Oh That’s where that came from. What purity culture did was put heaping amounts of responsibility on kids. You know? My hope is that they’ll see it and say, oh, this is something about…

being in the United States and being in this time and place. And these are all the things that have come together to create it. Because I think, you know, if you come out of evangelicalism, you’re dealing with so much shame, so much guilt, and you almost don’t know what to do if that were to go away, because you’re so used to like…

shaping yourself around it. But I think when we turn to history, we see narratives that are greater than ourselves, that encapsulate our stories, but also show the larger things that we were caught up in, that we were not aware of.

Devi (she/her) (11:00.718)
You spoke about some of the larger narratives in which we can situate our individual experience of purity culture. Can you talk about maybe one or two of those larger narratives that you think are incredibly important? W hen you look back, what are some of the overarching narratives that existed around purity culture that maybe we don’t realize and we don’t see?

Sara Moslener (14:53.091)
of the movements themselves in the 90s, in the 2000s. Yeah.

Devi (she/her) (14:55.264)
Yeah.

Yeah, or as far back as you want to go. So meaning like something’s happening in the 90s. So people are signing true love waits pledges. But I think you would see that there’s a there’s centuries old ideas that supporting this to even happen. Right. So what are some of those things? What are those narratives?

Sara Moslener (15:14.083)
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, so the dominant narrative is around white womanhood. Sexual purity was an ideal that was promoted by and for white women, I’d middle class white women, that white women became a national emblem in the 19th century.

Our sort of our moral authority was based on the belief that we were sexually disinterested. And it’s really interesting to see this happen. So, know, so white women became, you know, the angel in the house.

Devi (she/her) (16:11.31)
Yes.

Sara Moslener (16:11.383)
They became the sort of the domestic goddess, you know, who sort of kept the home. This is where we see, you know, what a lot of people consider, you know, biblical gender roles or actually 19th century gender roles about women who stay in the home and make it sort of a sanctuary. While their husbands are free to be in public doing sort of the shady work of commerce and politics.

which is necessary, but right. So this was the ideal Victorian family.

Devi (she/her) (16:44.814)
and seeing prostitutes of which there were so many. So Karen Swallow Prior talked about the angel of the home idea. We really got into this. I’ll link to that in the show notes for those of you who are like, what is going on here when you hear Sarah say all of that. It’s real, I promise. Sarah, you said something.
You were talking about how women were seen as almost like sexually disinterested. And I think it’s important for people to know that for us, that may be like, oh, yeah, obviously, because those are some of the ideas that we still have in our culture today. But the reality is for people in the Victorian period, that’s the 1800s, is that correct? Yep, they’re dealing with ideas from hundreds of years before where women were sexually deviant. Right. So this comes up in Beth Allison Barr’s book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood. and I will put a link to that in the show notes as well, because we talked to her about this in that episode. So that’s what’s in the backdrop for them. Men are holy, men are not weak, women are weak, they are deviant sexually. But then the Victorian time period comes in and the roles are really reversed. Do you know why it was?

Sara Moslener (18:11.875)
So another historian made the argument that it was economic. She made the argument that the economic system of the Victorian family was about dealing with the growth of the middle class and the discomfort that people had with gaining personal…

wealth because there was still very much this sort of Calvinist modesty right but you have people becoming more and more wealthy and trying to figure out how to how to navigate that wealth in a way that they didn’t have to give it up but they could also sort of see it as something that was that was consistent with being Christian. Oh, the historian is Gail Betterman, she’s at the University of Notre Dame, this is from her book, Manliness and Civilization. And I’m sure there are other 19th century historians who make this argument, but it was really an economic arrangement that would allow men to do the dirty work of commerce.
And so then the responsibility was on women to create the space where he could come home and have an experience of moral restoration within his home, with his family. So you see this idea of the home and the family as being sanctified, but not at the expense of middle class attainment. Yes.

Devi (she/her) (20:03.822)
Mmm. Mmm.

Devi (she/her) (20:19.734)
Yep. And prosperity, which, and it’s not hard to draw the line to then just go to what Joanna Gaines today will write about making a home for her life. And I’m sorry, you guys, for all the Joanna Gaines fans out there, she’s beautiful. She seems very winsome. I don’t get any of her products over here in Australia in Target, but I, there’s just such a direct line to me between that idea and what’s cultivated in sort of the visual branded.

homemaking culture today, right? That is primarily run by white women and their beautiful white families.

Sara Moslener (20:54.947)
Yeah, right, right. And it’s perfectly fits into sort of the aspirationalism The thing about all of this is, right, and this is the case with the Victorians, it’s like these were ideals that most people could not live out. And so it wasn’t like,

Devi (she/her) (21:01.422)
right.

Sara Moslener (21:24.131)
this wasn’t an accurate assessment of how people actually lived. These were ideals that people were told to aspire to. In the 19th century, you had Godey’s Ladies Book, which gave women instructions for how to comport themselves, how to…

Devi (she/her) (21:34.446)
Mm, yeah.

Devi (she/her) (21:42.318)
Yep.

Sara Moslener (21:52.129)
you know, have their homes, you had, you know, people writing books about, you know, making your home into a Christian sanctuary. You know, Catherine Beecher, who was, you know, sort of the Joanna Gaines of the 19th century, wrote a whole book, which is a fascinating primary source, which included like how to actually create a space in your home where you could have, you know, family.

Devi (she/her) (22:11.212)
Mm -hmm.

Sara Moslener (22:20.771)
kind of devotional services and different things like that. So they’re very much right. And this is, you know, what came to be called the cult of domesticity. And yeah.

Devi (she/her) (22:23.456)
So there’s that happening in the Victorian period, really in the United Kingdom or in England, that that’s obviously also getting exported over to the United States. Something else is happening in the United States, though, in the middle of all of this, and that is chattel slavery. And so you start to see some some different expressions of sexual ideals in the United States. Talk about what some of those things are.

Sara Moslener (23:03.587)
Yeah, yeah. I think our best guide here is Harriet Jacobs, who wrote the book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. And I think that is, this is a universal homework assignment, if I may, from Dr. Moslener. It’s in public domain, so you can find it. You can read the whole thing online.

And Harriet Jacobs was an astute observer of religion, of the experiences that she was having as an enslaved woman, including experiences of sexual predation. And she had, and she wrote, and she escaped. And in the North, she got in with a group of white abolitionist women.

And she was asked to write her story, which she did, for white women in the North. And so she spared no detail of the sexual violence she had to deal with. And in a way that was, you like you don’t talk about those things in public. And she basically, like many times, she’s saying to the reader, please don’t judge me too harshly. You have to hear these things.

This is what slavery is because people in the North weren’t convinced that slavery was a bad thing. I think that’s something that’s so important for us to remember, you know, when we because this is what we can do when we start thinking historically, right. People have to be convinced that slavery was a problem. And that should stop us all in our tracks, you know, when we are assessing the problems we are thinking about today.

Devi (she/her) (24:34.606)
Right.

Sara Moslener (24:58.051)
or not thinking about today. But she was someone who wrote about sexual purity and wrote about it as something that she, that was a privilege for the white women who were reading her book and saying, and it was very strategic, right? Cause she knew what her audience valued was.

Devi (she/her) (24:58.51)
Yeah.

Yeah.

Devi (she/her) (25:15.052)
Mmm.

Sara Moslener (25:27.575)
you know, was sexual purity, that this is something that women had. And for her, she knew that the only thing that gave her a sense of power as an enslaved woman was sexual purity. And much less, you know, having, being someone who wanted to live as a Christian, which she, you know, she famously says, if I could be free to live like a Christian, I…

Devi (she/her) (25:42.476)
Mm.

Devi (she/her) (25:51.438)
Mmm.

Sara Moslener (25:57.379)
be glad, but she couldn’t protect herself. She ended up having to enter into a relationship with another white man in order to protect herself from her slave master and to that and she had children to that man.
It’s chapter 10 Where she talks about the decision she had to make and she’s pleading with the reader, please don’t judge me too harshly These are the decisions I had to make to survive These are the decisions I had to make to have any control over what happened to my children because sexual purity in the context of slavery wasn’t meant something very different for white women in the north. It was about status. It was about racial power It was about proving that you were equal to if not better than white men For an enslaved woman like Harriet Jacobs sexual purity was about protecting your family Because as soon as you became pregnant with a child You knew that you were gonna have to say goodbye to that child, right?

Devi (she/her) (27:05.398)
Hmm.

Sara Moslener (27:20.387)
So sexual purity was about so much more. And and Kaisha Esty, who has written a beautiful dissertation on how black women used sexual purity as a form of resistance, talks about how this isn’t just about her embrace of sexual purity, it’s not about her personal virtue. It’s about protecting her family, protecting.

the collective and I think that’s really important difference.

Devi (she/her) (27:54.542)
There are a lot of people who are not going to be familiar with the idea of family separation that was happening in chattel slavery, which is I think what you’re referring to with the protecting her family comment. Is that right? Can you quickly just explain to people what was happening in chattel slavery? Yeah.

Sara Moslener (28:01.941)
Mm -hmm. Mm -hmm. Mm -hmm. Yeah.

Sara Moslener (28:11.203)
Of course, yeah, yeah. And in the colonial period, laws were changed so that any child that was born to an enslaved woman would also be a slave. Traditionally, you know, parentage follows the father. And so, but this way, a slave owner could impregnate slaves and they would give birth to, and did.

Devi (she/her) (28:36.972)
and did.

Sara Moslener (28:39.075)
I mean, this was a regular practice and in fact was necessary in the 19th century because the slave trade ended in 1808. So there were no new slaves coming to the United States. The slavery didn’t end in the US until the 1860s. And so the only way to get more slaves was for women to give birth to them. And of course, and those children,

didn’t belong to the mothers, they belonged to the slave owner, regardless of parentage. But of course, there was a quite regular practice of slave owners, the sons, right, having sexual rights to any enslaved woman. That was just part of the culture. And, and,

Devi (she/her) (29:34.186)
Yeah. And when you say slave owners and their sons, I think we might be getting a picture right now of like a monster, right? Because this is what they did. They are monstrous deeds. No question about that. And if anybody actually wants to read a fictional treatment of it, The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is that what it’s called? I can’t remember. Ta -Nehisi Coates has a novel that deals with this subject in a way that is really haunting and beautiful and all the things. But these are not people who we would recognize today as monsters, right? These are men, these are leaders in their community, these are church going, are they pastors? Are they, like what kind of people are these?

Sara Moslener (30:14.051)
Right, right.

Mm -hmm.

Yeah, these are right. These are people who are deeply invested in the social order because they benefit from it. These are pastors. These are, you know, people who own who are moving the economy forward. One of the and and people who believe who are Christians.

and believe that the life that they are a part of is was designed by God and is justified through biblical teachings. And so they saw no, right, you know, so for them there was no conflict between owning slaves and being a Christian.

Devi (she/her) (31:21.038)
And they’re the ones who are doing all of this. I was just looking, this is why I was just quickly typing on my phone. I was just looking up when the Southern Baptist Convention began and it’s 1845 that they separated from the Triennial Convention. I’m just reading from Wikipedia in order to support slavery, right? So members of this denomination, this is what they’re doing. Okay.

Sara Moslener (31:44.515)
Right, exactly, right. And they wanted to support slavery and the entire hierarchy of that social order. Although one thing I do, I always like to point out, because I grew up in the North, in Pennsylvania, which was Quaker state and everything. And so we like to be like, that was in the South. But the…

Devi (she/her) (32:04.972)
Yep.

Sara Moslener (32:13.407)
economy of slavery, which is what it was, right, why people work so hard for it, why the United States became so powerful so quickly, the entire country benefited from slavery, right, because this is hundreds of years of free labor, right, so the United States would not have gotten to where it is in terms of political power, economic power, without

the institution of slavery. But yes, and of course, you know, that’s sort of how, you know, capitalism convinces people that inhuman systems are legitimate.

Devi (she/her) (33:10.318)
Yeah.

Sara Moslener (33:10.371)
Another reason why I, you know, I started my podcast with Harriet Jacobs and is because I more, cause I have taught religion, race and discrimination for almost a decade now. And what I’ve come to realize is that we in the United States,

we have not come to terms with the history of slavery and its impact.

Devi (she/her) (34:05.55)
I just want to kind of go back to this. This is the thing that’s happening in this time in the 1800s is enslaved people are many of them are falling in love, actually getting married. They’re having families. Their families are being separated. Their children are being removed from them, sent to places they never hear from again.
Some of the women, or many if not all of the women are being forced to have sexual relations with their slave owners, their children, whomever they get forced to, those children are being ripped out of their arms, et cetera, et cetera. This is just the norm. This is what’s happening. While at the same time, the white women in the plantation are being told what about their sexual purity?

Sara Moslener (35:03.779)
Yeah, that it is something that should be prized, right? That it is something that gives them…

that gives them status, gives them moral authority. And I think that’s the big, you know, because white women didn’t have political power, but they had a lot of moral authority and even more so as a way to sort of compete with the political power of men.

It was a very useful strategy and one that that, you know, even first wave feminists found very helpful for making arguments about women’s suffrage. And so prioritizing it in such a way that it becomes this unassailable truth.

Devi (she/her) (35:58.158)
Yeah.

Sara Moslener (36:10.669)
right, that white women are sexually pure, disinterested in sex. But then we start to see the way white women use that. And especially the way these ideologies get used in the context of racial terror lynchings. Do you want to go back there or do you want to stay?

Devi (she/her) (36:40.782)
I think let’s quickly talk about it because that is relevant. I mean, and this is kind of one of the tropes is that I think I think you would I think we would recognize just even from the media that we consume is the idea of a white woman who has been threatened sexually by a man who is not white of a variety of different races. But yes, yeah.

Sara Moslener (36:44.073)
Yeah, yeah.

Sara Moslener (36:52.459)
Right.

Sara Moslener (36:57.973)
Yeah, yeah. Exactly. And this is right. And this is also right. This is an outgrowth of slavery, the end of slavery, right. And this wasn’t these weren’t stereotypes that the stereotype of men being sexually aggressive that didn’t emerge until after slavery ended. And what’s happening is black men are becoming politically enfranchised.

Devi (she/her) (37:20.558)
Right.

Sara Moslener (37:26.467)
They are not just getting the right to vote, but being elected. They’re being educated and becoming and moving in social circles with white women where white women could potentially see them as their equals. But again, the other thing that’s happening is you have a stiff uptick in anti -miscegenation laws, that is laws against race mixing.

Devi (she/her) (37:40.59)
Yes. Yes.

Sara Moslener (37:54.391)
These are laws that would stay in place well into the 1960s. And so there was a big fear of race mixing and people believed, Christians believed, you know, that, okay, slavery is over, but God still has commanded us that the races need to be separate. And the most useful tool in this time period became racial terror lynchings, where…

White mobs would gather after hearing a rumor that a black man had been inappropriate with a white woman. And all you needed was a rumor, and that was enough. And so if the person was already in prison, they would go to the prison, take him out of prison, and enact vigilante justice by murdering him in public.

Devi (she/her) (38:34.926)
Yep.

Sara Moslener (38:48.769)
Ida B. Wells is a primary source that I think everyone should read. She is the person who was investigating this and getting into the stories and what she discovered was that this story of like the sexually pure white woman and the sexually voracious and dangerous black man,

Devi (she/her) (38:54.67)
Yes.

Sara Moslener (39:17.731)
was a lie. That where she looked at the places where a white woman and a black man were having a relationship, it was consensual. If it existed at all. And that was something that people were not willing to admit, especially white women, right? Because you’re admitting here’s someone in a relationship with, you know, here’s a white woman in a relationship with someone they’re not married to, and it’s a black man, right? And that… that just sort of destroys all of the moral authority that white women were able to claim and so so the fact that this This has been you know And it didn’t matter one in one story that I to be Wells writes about you know, there was a woman who was in a relationship with a man and She didn’t even have to say anything like

family figured out or something and like boom he was struck he was strung up or I think they I think he was burned yeah and the thing is she didn’t have to utter a word the narrative was so powerful and and there’s something about the silence of that particular woman that I think we need to sit with and think about the way that

Devi (she/her) (40:18.924)
He was dead. Okay. Yeah.

Devi (she/her) (40:27.502)
Mm.

Sara Moslener (40:43.155)
that whiteness is constructed for white women to protect us, but under the guise of protecting us, but for the purposes of maintaining a racial order. And so that is…

And of course, when you go to then like a true love waits around, right? None of that is present, right? Because we’re in a very different historical moment. And so being able to kind of weave these together, I think is really important for us to really ask those hard questions about why, why sexual purity.

Devi (she/her) (41:14.702)
No.

Devi (she/her) (41:32.75)
Yeah. So, so let’s, let’s come into this moment then, because I’m thinking there are a lot of people who are listening to everything you said, and they were going to be like, Sarah, I hate all of that. I hate all of that. None of us wanted that. None of us thought those things were good. I was just a girl in a youth group in 1998. And someone told me I was going to be damaged goods if if I had sex with with with my boyfriend.
And so I felt horrible that we were already kissing too much or whatever. I’m just trying to make up a scenario here. This is Jenny. And Jenny is saying, what does all of that have to do with me? I just wanted to be pure. I just wanted to please God.

Sara Moslener:

Yeah, and so, and this is where I think we need to get into the idea of racial formation, both collectively, right, what is white racial identity? And we see that very strongly in the 19th century of what was happening. We see the way that sexual purity is really about forming white women’s racial identity as this, in many ways, you know, white women, and we see this in the people who study missionary context as well, that white women were often a boundary marker between the civilized and the uncivilized. And so white women have this special status, which doesn’t, which doesn’t necessarily translate to the 20th century, to the 21st century.

But it does, I think, require us to think about the habits of white racial identity and the need to be innocent. And this is sort of one of the big themes of my book. And I think especially the need to value innocence over everything.

And I think that’s, you know, that’s what purity culture did in the 1990s as a moral exemplar. I mean, True Love Waits was very, you know, they were very pointed. They were disgusted by Bill Clinton. They were disgusted by the embrace of LGBTQ folks. And they wanted sexually pure teenagers on the lawn of the national mall to send a message. Hey, we are sexually pure.

I think that’s the hardest part about purity culture for me is the silence around sexuality. And this to me is, habit of whiteness, the things that make us uncomfortable, that we fear, we are silent. And that’s, right, and so that’s what people who were socialized into purity culture were taught. And I think that was especially powerful for those of us who were girls, because we were told you’re not safe, right? There’s sexual danger afoot.

And I think that in and of itself is an echo of the lynching myth that sexuality is dangerous. Here’s a question I would ask You know so much of what we teach we learn about sexuality when we’re young is about sexual danger. I would say like
We learn more about sexual danger than we learn about actual sexuality and what it means to be a sexual person.

Devi (she/her) (46:22.062)
Yeah, or pleasure.

Sara Moslener (46:45.847)
eah, and rights, right? We don’t learn about pleasure. We don’t learn about consent. We don’t learn about body autonomy. We just learn be afraid, protect yourself. And I see that as having direct links to the lynching myth. That there are ways that…that we still sort of embody that. I want to say so I’m asking this more as a question you know what if this message of sexual of sexual fear is really rooted in a fear of of black male aggression right that culturally that that’s where it comes from.

Devi (she/her) (47:39.362)
Yeah.

Sara Moslener (47:44.675)
And so, yes, it’s about controlling women’s bodies and sexuality because white women are the ones who have historically controlled the race line, the distinction between the races. And again, it’s hard to see that now. I mean, one thing we know, right, is that mixed race people are the fastest growing racial group in the United States, which is great, right? But that’s only been since 1965. So it hasn’t been that.
But our shared cultural conscience has been shaped so much by fears of race mixing. There’s no evidence that the true love waits. People or whoever said, oh, we need to, you know, this race mixing, we gotta, you know. I don’t think that happened. I don’t think there was a fear of race mixing, but I do think that sexual fear in general worked very well to reproduce all of that, and to, especially in terms of the formation of white girlhood.

Devi (she/her) (49:01.294)
Yeah. Look, there is so much I could ask you as a result of everything you just said. We just have to have you back, Sarah. There’s a lot going on here. But I want to take us into today, literally today. So you know that in Alabama, maybe two weeks ago, I can’t remember when it was, very recently, the Supreme Court of Alabama unanimously said that embryos are children.

I will put a link to an actual story, a new story for people who wanna read about it, which jeopardized nearly immediately IVF clinics in Alabama. And many of them started just pausing treatments, pausing, pausing, pausing, pausing, you know.

And then the Alabama legislature very quickly rushed to kind of go, no, no, no, this isn’t about IVF. We’re going to legislate to protect IVF. IVF is important to us. So I looked up some statistics. IVF is overwhelmingly done by white people. Or let’s say, if we’re talking about women, it’s overwhelmingly done by white women nationally in the United States. I think one of the studies that I saw, it was 6. something percent Black, 15 percent Asian.
I can’t remember Hispanic and Latino, but it was well over 60 % was white. So what for me, when I saw that I go, this is about now we have to lock down and preserve the white family, right? And it’s popular, we can legislate, we can rally legislative support.

For you, when you see that kind of moment where the Alabama Supreme Court goes embryos are children and then everything that follows, what are you seeing as a historian?

Sara Moslener (51:02.531)
I mean, I’m seeing first and foremost white Christian nationalism. I’m seeing the most extreme version of it, that women’s reproduction, women’s reproductive choices need to be controlled. And it’s interesting, you know, because even if it’s an embryo, yeah. And…

Devi (she/her) (51:23.158)
even if it’s an embryo.

in a test tube. Okay.

Sara Moslener (51:33.155)
Back to sort of this theme of innocence, like I think this is, it’s really consistent with, you know, what I’ve seen in the pro -life movement and the way that, you know, the capital T, capital U, the unborn are sort of put forward as this innocent, right? And so, and that things can be, that people, you, can justify all sorts of actions if they have an innocent, if they’re doing it to attempt to protect an innocent population. And so now we have a whole new set of innocents, these embryos. And I think it functions to reassure, people that yes, we are on the side of right because we are protecting the innocent while they make choices that in fact are quite harmful to others. And so, so yeah, so I’ve been thinking a lot about myths of innocence and how, how dominant they are in the United States. They are very dominant in white Christian nationalism.

Devi (she/her) (53:00.558)
Okay, let’s quickly talk about what you said there about myths of innocence. Why do you think this idea of innocence is such an important quality then to Christians? Why is it part of our mythology?

Sara Moslener (53:05.347)

Right, right. So I think specifically to American Christians, the embryos are in the same position that white women were in the 19th century, right? That there’s a population of people who represent all that is good and perfect and holy and therefore must be protected at all costs. Yeah. And so what has happened, so in the 19th century, we see, right, that’s white womanhood. Moving into the 20th century, that becomes adolescence, right? When that concept emerges, you see a lot of that in Billy Graham’s rhetoric. And then of course that moves nicely into the pro -life movement with the unborn.

Devi (she/her) (53:48.078)
Whoa.

Sara Moslener (54:12.227)
and now it’s being extended to that. So this is a pattern of identifying who is the innocent party and who is the innocent party on which we can hang our hat and justify all the other things that we wanna do. And it could be, are we trying to control, you know, Are we trying to control women? Are we trying to consolidate white racial power? Are we, you know, and so this is something I’ve written about in terms of the pro -life movement and how the pro -life movement, I think, you know, if you, which I grew up in was as I’ve thought about it, like how it was very much part of my racial formation. And so, because the abject then, was the welfare queen. Right? Because it was the, you know, and so it’s about, right, it’s about responsibility, personal responsibility, and that you are, that in order for a nation state to be strong, its people, its families need to be self -sufficient, and they need to be self -sufficient in a way that,

Devi (she/her) (55:14.638)
Yeah.

Sara Moslener (55:41.123)
that they don’t become that they don’t become dependent on the state, right? So this is another piece of it is sort of the rhetoric around welfare. And, you I think is also another piece of, as really.

Devi (she/her) (55:59.374)
Yeah.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, no question, because I think that the thing for me sitting on the outside of all of this here in Australia, as a brown woman who spent a significant formative part of my life soaked in white American Christianity in Northwest Arkansas and loved it. I just want to say that, by the way, I loved it. I have no complaints about my experience. None. I just want to say.
Whenever I hear American Christians talking about the value of the family and how they use the rhetoric about the value of the family to create legislation and move political events, my question is always, which family? Because it always looks like a white family to me, right? I feel like that which family question is so real.

Sara Moslener (57:30.659)
And what is family? Because the welfare movement was all about a family has to be, because there’s tangible benefits if you’re married, and to be married, regardless of whether that’s a good situation or not. And there’s this expectation that families,

should not depend on the state. That’s not a family. A family is self -sustaining. And of course, a family is white. It’s mom, dad, and kids. It’s not extended family. It’s not female -headed households. Those are all degenerate forms.

Devi (she/her) (58:19.992)
It’s not queer families. It’s not, I mean, that’s the most obvious example to me of late, like who gets to be a family, literally. Yeah.

Sara Moslener (58:28.387)
And so not queer families, exactly. who gets to be a family, absolutely. And I think, yeah, and so now we have this brand new sort of group we can add to the innocents who need to be protected. And that can be used as a way to make these, to continue to make the same claims. I mean, there’s nothing, the right isn’t doing much that’s new, they just have a lot more ways to do it now because of the end of Roe v. Wade.

Devi (she/her) (59:00.366)
Yeah. I just I want to push back on that innocent thing just because I have a feeling some people are probably thinking about this. Unborn children in a womb really are innocent. Like they didn’t choose to exist. They didn’t choose, even if we didn’t even if we didn’t use the word innocent, like they have no dog in this fight, right? Babies exist. Baby didn’t choose to be here. Isn’t that by definition exactly what innocence is? Myth or not? What would you say to them?

Sara Moslener (59:42.019)
Well, I mean, a lot of Christians would say, would say no, in fact, all, you know, because of total depravity. Right?
It’s the rhetorical move, right, of designating an innocent population. And I, you know, and I will say too that I also believe that white progressives and white liberals do a similar thing where they will designate, you know, have their sort of pet.

Devi (she/her) (01:00:13.806)
I was sinful at my mother’s breast, King David. Yeah. Yeah.

Sara Moslener (01:00:41.251)
projects who is the innocent population that is under threat and and instead of actually Kind of working alongside groups and thinking about their own stuff They sort of say oh well if I you know if I post these certain things if I show I’m pro this and pro that Right then I have performed my own instance right so this right so so yeah Yeah

Devi (she/her) (01:01:07.054)
Whoa. Okay. Right, that’s interesting.

Sara Moslener (01:01:10.947)
Yeah, so I, yeah, so I just, just to complicate it further, right? I don’t think this is unique to white Christian nationalism. It’s just, that’s what I study. But I, I always try and be as critical of white liberals, because I am one. And I, I’m like, oh yeah, why is it so important to me that people don’t see George Floyd as a criminal, right? That why is it, you know, is it about telling the truth or is it about…
you know, because, hey, you know, I want people to think, see me in a certain way as standing up for, you know, for innocence. So, yeah, so I think white progressives do that, that we use causes to perform our own goodness. Yeah.

Devi (she/her) (01:01:57.582)
Yep, no, that’s really insightful. Okay, Sarah, you’ve given us homework, Harriet Jacobs, I will put a link to her narratives in the show notes. So guys, you will all have access to it. For you as we finish now, what’s one more thing that you hope people do as a result of hearing a lot of new information from you right now?

Sara Moslener (01:02:00.739)
Yeah.

Harriet Jacobs. Mm -hmm.

Sara Moslener (01:02:24.195)
Yeah, yeah. I would make one because I, you know, one of my big things in my teaching and writing is getting white people to think about white racial identity. So if I can offer another piece of homework, this is something I have my students do. I highly recommend a podcast called Seeing White by Seen on Radio. It’s an excellent series. It is historical, but it’s also contemporary. It has…

and I think is just really helps us make white racial formation visible and in the context of the United States. And of course that’s unique, right? Whiteness is gonna function different ways. So that would be, yeah, that’s what I’d say.

Devi (she/her) (01:03:08.11)
Hmm.

Devi (she/her) (01:03:16.046)
Amazing. Do you have maybe like a writing assignment people can do after listening to that or after reading Harriet Jacobs? Like what’s a reflection question that could jumpstart people as they start thinking about what this could mean for their life?

Sara Moslener (01:03:23.427)
and

Sara Moslener (01:03:29.699)
Yeah, yeah. One of the…

One of the questions I ask my students when we have our day, for a week we do what is race. One of the questions I have them write about is, what is your racial identity and how do you know?

Devi (she/her) (01:03:56.462)
Okay, that’s big. That’s big. I look forward to hearing how people, how they navigate that.

Sara Moslener
Yeah.

Yeah, yeah, if anyone wants to send me their homework, I’d be happy to give you I got, you know, get out my gold stars.