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Evangelical Fear and Purity Culture

Over the last couple of weeks, Josh Harris has announced that he is splitting up with his wife and that he has left Christianity. Generally, I don't like to write about people, but prefer to write about ideas. However, there are some things about Josh Harris and purity culture that are instructive.

Josh Harris grew up in a "homeschooling royalty" family. His dad was a popular homeschooling speaker, and Josh and his brothers were encouraged in pursuing their intellectual interests outside of academia. At age 21, Josh wrote I Kissed Dating Good-Bye. Over the next few years, he also wrote Boy Meets Girl and Not Even a Hint. These are books that discourage dating, encourage courtship, and lay the framework for purity culture.

Purity Culture did not begin with Josh Harris. Elizabeth Elliott was certainly around much earlier with The Passion and the Purity. Harris was just responding to ideas that were percolating through the conservative evangelical homeschooling community.

Now, twenty years later, Harris has re-evaluated his stance on dating and courtship and even made a documentary in which he apologizes for his previous statements (although some argue that he does not go far enough). He seems to be trying to understand that the purity culture of his young adulthood was damaging to many teens and young adults of that time frame. Many young adults ended up getting married to the first person they had a relationship with because they were afraid to date. Others developed abnormal relationships around sexuality.

How did all this happen? How did a 21 year old kid write a book and all of the sudden all these homeschool kids are now courting instead of dating?


Evangelical fear is a very real thing. And evangelical homeschooling was steeped in fear. Parents wanted guarantees that their kids would be safe from the "world", so they didn't send them to school. They wanted them to have a solid "Christian" curriculum, which curriculum companies were happy to sell them, complete with Young-Earth Creationism and American Exceptionalism.

Parents remembered their own heart breaks from dating and learned that Purity Culture could guarantee that their own kids could enter marriage as virgins and without any sexual hangups. That sounded like a great deal! So, parents were happy to push Purity Culture on their kids. These parents were doing the best they could, but Purity Culture preyed on their fear. Purity Culture said that the "world" is overly sexualized and we need to make sure our kids are completely protected from sex until marriage. Purity Culture also said that boys always wanted sex but girls didn't, so the girls had to be the gatekeepers and always dress modestly and keep the boys "at bay". And, of course, this would all end with marriage and great sex for the rest of their lives. (Note: this is not in the Bible. Just an FYI.)

And no one really thought too hard about the downside of the messages that were received. What about those who are sexually abused? What if you have sex? Is forgiveness really forgiveness? And certainly there was very little talk about sexual consent and assault.

Evangelical homeschooling wasn't necessarily a bad thing in the 80s to 2000s. Patrick and I homeschooled our kids and had great experiences with it. But, when it was underpinned by evangelical fear, which it often was, the results could get ugly, as they did with Purity Culture.

Now, twenty years later, the victims of that culture (and, hopefully, also their parents) are having to unpack all the issues that got stuffed down back then. The "sexual prosperity gospel" (the idea that if you save sex for marriage you automatically have a great sex life) isn't actually a real thing. Marriage is hard and therapy can be a good thing. LGBTQ people have real identities and are loved by Jesus.

Some people are having to do a radical faith deconstruction and leaving the faith, hopefully, temporarily. I pray that Josh Harris is able to find his way back to Jesus. Others of us have had a less messy deconstruction.

In these deconstructions, I've seen that people have to deal with the fear. Evangelicalism is dependent on fear. It's an if-then works righteousness faith if you're not careful. God hasn't given us a spirit of fear. And doing more stuff won't make us less fearful or more acceptable to God.

I had to come out of evangelicalism to see that fear was such an important part of the edifice holding my faith together. Giving up that fear and learning to live with grace and love, though, is truly worth it. But, not easy. (I'll write more about fear and chronic illness another day).

Purity Culture is just one example of evangelicalism's fear run amok. But, God is greater than our fear and he's a God of love and grace. If you're still struggling with this, I'm happy to talk to you. And you don't have to give up Jesus to give up this fear.



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