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9 Purity Culture and the Christian Wrong Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. —Matthew 5:8 Right before my freshman year in high school, my parents and I moved into a house on the north side of my hometown of Colorado Springs. A friend invited me to attend her church, and I did for much of high school. The church had charismatic youth-group gatherings, home Bible studies, and special services, like the one on Good Friday, which came complete with an altar call. I slid into these experiences, mimicking speaking in tongues and trying to move my hands and body the same way during worship. There was something comforting and familiar. Perhaps the more emotional expression of faith reminded me of my own family’s church. But after a while, it felt forced and exhausting, and I found myself with my eyes open most of the time, looking around 169 during the prayers at those dancing and singing. I was suddenly more interested in what this faith looked like and less in what it felt like. I stopped attending as much and eventually quit altogether. My friend’s church was called New Life Church. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Long after I graduated from seminary, I came across a headline about this church, which became one of the most influential Christian organizations in the United States. The church was caught in a shocking scandal that sent crippling reverberations throughout the evangelical Christian world. The senior pastor of the church, Ted Haggard, faced allegations of an extramarital affair. He had bought drugs and solicited a male sex worker in Denver for over three years. According to CNN, “After the allegations were made public, Haggard resigned as president of the influential National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), an umbrella group representing more than 45,000 churches with 30 million members . He also temporarily stepped aside as pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church.”1 Eventually, the church board forced Haggard to completely resign and pushed his family out. But for the wider evangelical Christian community, the target of criticism became the “homosexual act” Haggard had committed. The rhetoric suggested that his misconduct was much more offensive than if he’d had an affair with a heterosexual woman. And those who were virulently opposed to homosexuality weren’t solely evangelical Christians. Arguably, this perspecOutside the Lines 170 tive was held widely by those who fall on the conservative side of the political spectrum. It was no coincidence that “Christian” and “Right” were often synonymous, and sadly, in the public sphere, it continues to be so today. Early forces included renowned evangelist Billy Graham, who supported Republican candidates and had a huge hand in forming a religious Republican base through his revivalist campaigns, and the cross-denominational organizing of the National Evangelicals Association. As the influence of evangelical Christianity in politics stretched all the way up to the Oval Office, the Christian Right became more than just a political perspective or single organization. What happened with Haggard was an issue of morality and fidelity, and the betrayal of heterosexuality. Ultimately, it was an issue of purity, and it betrayed all the structures around virginity. In our church and society, we have a culture of purity, which regulates bodies and locks people into narrow, limited sexualities. I barely remember Ted Haggard, but I doubt I will ever forget this story; it arouses so many emotions, including sadness , outrage, shock, relief, and doubt. The story is a part of the history of the town where I grew up, as well as of American Christianity, my faith, and our American notions of purity and faithfulness. The effects of purity culture are still present in the dogmatism of purity balls and rings, increasing controversies over wedding cakes for gay couples, and gender-specific signage for public restrooms. But this is not the only Christian way to view purity. A few Purity Culture and the Christian Wrong 171 days ago, I received a postcard from the group Queer Theology , and on the front it says, “Christianity has always been queer.” It was a timely reminder that Christianity has actually always contended with notions of purity through queerness. From its beginnings, Christianity was characterized by transgressive encounters, the crossing of boundaries—an offensive intermingling, whether it involves temple meat or worship, multiple ethnicities and identities, and friendships that extend beyond the norm. A queer spirituality today continues that legacy by challenging and...


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