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  • Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights by Heather R. White
  • Gillian Frank
Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights. By Heather R. White. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pp. 260. $29.95 (paper); $28.99 (e-book).

Whether in reference to the history of sexuality in general or LGBT history in particular, historians of modern American sexuality are only beginning to understand how religion has been a major force in shaping the modern sexual order. An emergent conversation is moving historians of sexuality beyond a pervasive and simplistic historical framework that stereotypes religion as an unchanging, residual, and conservative monolith that is opposed to LGBT politics, secular modernity, and sexual liberalism.1 Heather R. White's beautifully written and immaculately researched book, Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights, is therefore a crucial intervention in the field. Not only does White offer a primer for scholars of modern American sexuality to think about religion as a category of analysis, but she also helps her audience think critically about religious sources. Reforming Sodom focuses on American mainline Protestants—"religious liberals, urbane modernizers of the twentieth century"—and how they "formed and then reformed religious teachings about homosexuality" (4, 12). Each of the book's five chapters analyzes the changing and multiple roles of religious ideas, institutions, and practitioners in shaping gay identity and politics even as an emergent gay politics transformed religious beliefs, practices, and traditions. In short, White's book makes visible how liberal Protestants influenced all sides of the political debate over gay rights.

Undergirding Reforming Sodom are two key axioms. First, the history of sexuality in the postwar United States is not a story of secularization where religion is absent or in decline. Second, the term "secular" needs to be complicated, because historians have mistaken as "neutral" or "nonreligious" a powerful but invisible Protestant influence on American culture. What is more, Reforming Sodom demonstrates that there is no easy way to draw boundaries between the religious and secular—they are mutually imbricated in the story of LGBT politics, especially in the encounter between pastoral care and the therapeutic sciences.

The importance of the therapeutic and medical professions in regulating and shaping same-sex sexual meanings and identities has been well studied by historians of sexuality. Less understood in this historiography, however, is that for "many Americans the turn to therapy was couched in a spiritual idiom" and enabled by pastoral counseling, which embedded psychology into ministry. Reforming Sodom's first chapter, "The Therapeutic Orthodoxy," shows how the project of reading heterosexuality and homosexuality into the Bible underpinned the therapeutic project of straightening the [End Page 346] sexualities of Christians. Religious injunctions against homosexuality, White demonstrates, were not timeless and unchanging but instead were recent Protestant inventions that dovetailed with therapeutic efforts to regulate same-sex sexual behaviors. She traces how the term "homosexuals" appeared for the first time in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible in 1946. This term's appearance was momentous, for it marked the transformation and consolidation of a number of unrelated terms into a historically modern concept: homosexuality. This translation was part of the larger entanglement of religion and the therapeutic sciences that shaped mainline Protestant understanding and regulation of homosexuality.

The second chapter, "Writing the Homophile Self," analyzes how the homophile movement contended with Protestant therapeutic orthodoxy, which deemed homosexuals as sick and in need of compassion and cure. White reveals a complex relationship between homophiles and mainline Protestants in that "religious beliefs and practices covertly accommodated same-sex desire and gave language for locating homosexual identity" (46). Put differently, homophiles did not simply reject Protestantism even as Protestantism created spaces for sexual variance. While some homophiles believed that the path to self-acceptance meant leaving religion behind, other activists sought to bring together faith and sexuality as part of a larger political project of rendering homosexuality socially acceptable. White shows that for these activists, religion became an avenue, not a roadblock, to political reform.

"Churchmen and Homophiles," White's third chapter, investigates how liberal Protestants became influential allies and advocates of an increasingly militant gay identity movement...


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pp. 346-348
Launched on MUSE
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