Purity culture and elections
Welcome to the second edition of North Carolina Religion Roundup: evangelical purity culture, Mark Robinson (again) and more.
Happy Monday! Thanks for reading the second edition of North Carolina Religion Roundup, a newsletter meant to highlight major religion news and trends in the Triangle and greater N.C. My name is Hannah. I’m an education and local government reporter at The Chatham News + Record in Chatham, N.C. and a M.Div. student at Duke Divinity School.
A bit more on how this newsletter is going to work, for new subscribers: I will send out biweekly(ish) newsletters that will include a compilation of religion coverage from around the state, with the occasional original reporting from yours truly. My hope with this newsletter is to connect broader themes by compiling religion stories from across North Carolina in one central place, and to document news from a variety of religions and faith traditions. Still, I will be relying heavily on existing coverage. That said, I’d love to collaborate with any journalists, readers or people of faith interested in contributing in any way to this project. (You can read more about the newsletter and why I was inspired to start it here.)
Thanks for following along, and please reach out with any thoughts or feedback!
In Story to Follow, I examine more context behind Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s calls for “Christian values” in schools — this history of such calls as well as their political power.
In Deep Dive, I take a look at ProPublica’s Oct. 24 investigation which found Liberty University Discourages and Dismisses Students’ Reports of Sexual Assaults. Liberty is in Lynchburg, VA, but the issues raised in this article impact NC universities and institutions too. (This pretty big religion story broke the day after I sent the first edition of Religion Roundup.)
And In a Nutshell, I include a list of religion stories to keep an eye on.
Story to Follow: Family values and the religious right
Last week, Virginia elected Republican Glenn Youngkin as its next governor. Youngkin, a Christian who founded independent evangelical congregation Holy Trinity Church in 2011 (and owns the property at the site of the church), made support of “family values” a large part of his campaign. He has said he does not personally support same-sex marriage, but would support that its “legally acceptable” in Virginia.
Though less vague on his anti-LGBTQ stance than North Carolina’s Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (who recently said he’s “95% sure" he will run for Governor in 2024), both conservative Christian politicians have spent a great deal of time advocating for parent choice in school education — largely against what both men characterize as indoctrination or sexually explicit material.
A week before Election Day, Youngkin released a 60-second ad, titled "McAuliffe Shut Us Out," which features parent Laura Murphy detailing her push to require schools to notify parents of curriculum containing explicit content and to allow students to opt out of reading the material — something she (and Youngkin by extension) said Terry McAuliffe opposed. “…When my son showed me his reading assignment, my heart sunk,” Murphy, who is white, says in the ad. “It was some of the most explicit material you can imagine. …Green Youngkin, he listens. He understands, parents matter.” A resurfaced Washington Post article from 2013, which contained an interview with Murphy and her son (a senior at the time), details that the book in question was Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” which depicts the story of former enslaved people after the Civil War in graphic detail.
All of this is related to religion because “family values” have historically been used to yield political power since the emergence of the religious right in the 1960s and 1970s. While some like Robinson explicitly evoke Christian values, Youngkin hints at them — emphasizing on his campaign site the importance of “homegrown hard work,” “shared values” and families. His “Why I’m Running” intro includes explicit mentions of faith as well: “I'm not a politician. I'm a homegrown Virginian and I've spent the last 30 years raising my family, serving in our church, building business and creating jobs. I'm guided by my faith, values, and an unshakeable belief that Virginia should be the best.”
Youngkin spoke at the Family Research Council’s Pray, Vote, Stand Summit 2021, which this year emphasized the threat of “assaults on faith, family and freedom” by and through “pronoun police, to indoctrination in our classrooms, to the lockdowns of our churches, to the vaccine mandate in the workplace, the core values and ideals that birthed America are at risk of being overrun by political and cultural Leftists.” Lots to unpack there, but the inclusion of faith in this list demonstrates the political organization of the religious right. (Here I recommend listening to NC Policy Watch investigative reporter Joe Killian discuss the controversy surrounding Robinson and the ongoing political efforts of the Christian right in anticipation of the 2022 elections.)
As sociologist and religion studies researcher Samuel Perry tweeted after the election: “What we witnessed in VA (& are witnessing around the USA) continues an historic trend of conservative backlash centered on race & schools. Decades ago, as today, white conservatives lost control over the racial status quo & reacted w/propaganda, private schools, & colorblindness.” Perry, who is the author of “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States,” tweeted the above along with a picture of the book, “The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy” by J. Russell Hawkins. The book cover shows two white women smiling at a young white child, as one of the women holds a sign that reads, “Cursed is the man who integrates. Holy Bible / Jeremiah 11:3-6”.
A recent NYT guest essay, “Why ‘Evangelical’ Is Becoming Another Word for ‘Republican,’” put it another way: “What is drawing more people to embrace the evangelical label on surveys is more likely that evangelicalism has been bound to the Republican Party. Instead of theological affinity for Jesus Christ, millions of Americans are being drawn to the evangelical label because of its association with the G.O.P.”
All of this is a story to follow not only because of Robinson’s maybe run for governor, but also for all the people and legislators who support his views. (Reminder that Robinson, along with all NC House Republicans, supported House Bill 324, which contained rules for how schools could teach about race and history and also would’ve required a notification process for the teaching of certain subjects or materials. And in October, the Johnston County school system imposed rules limiting how teachers can discuss history and racism in their classroom, in exchange for $7.9 million its all-Republican county commissioners were threatening to withhold until the school board passed a policy banning Critical Race Theory from county classrooms. Notably, Republicans also did not speak out against Robinson’s recent comments likening LGBTQ people to filth.) Robinson has said the U.S. is a “Christian nation,” that anyone who disagrees with that should leave, and that his faith influences his policies.
An Oct. 29 tweet from Former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker sums up the issue well (emphasis mine): “In Raleigh alongside @markrobinsonNC speaking to thousands of people today at the Stand Up for America rally. NC conservatives are fired up for the spiritual and cultural battle for the future of our nation.”
Deep Dive: Purity culture and power
Two weeks ago, ProPublica broke a big story showing how Liberty University discouraged, dismissed, and even blamed, students who have tried to come forward with claims of sexual assault, through case records and interviews with more than 50 former Liberty students and staff members.
If you haven’t read it, you should. The story does an excellent job of highlighting both the disconnect between the school’s stated values of truth and justice with its policies surrounding sexual assault, and how the school’s stated values surrounding purity and sexual ethics contribute to a culture and system which shames survivors. The school’s code of conduct, “The Liberty Way,” emphasizes abstinence prior to marriage and breaking that ban is punishable by a $300 fine, 30 hours of community service or even expulsion.
Such strict rules led to school leaders sometimes advising survivors not to report, ProPublica reported, out of fear the student could be found to violate school conduct.
“I was really confused,” former student Elizabeth Axley told ProPublica. “They were making it seem like I had done something wrong.”
To be clear, universities — Christian or not — have a problem when it comes to handling sexual assault and ensuring Title IX is upheld. In 2018, UNC-Chapel Hill was been found in violation of the Title IX anti-discrimination law after a five-year federal investigation into its policies and procedures governing sexual assault and harassment cases. That investigation found a failure to respond promptly and equitably to some complaints, a lack of timely resolution and inadequate documentation of complaints. UNC certainly isn’t alone in those problems.
What sets the issue at Liberty apart is the way in which religion is at play. Religion Scholar Anthea Butler wrote a fantastic thread on the workings of purity culture after reading the ProPublica story.
“Young girls and women are always ‘to blame’ for men's sexual proclivities and rapes. You were in the wrong place. You wore the wrong clothes. You were drinking. You flirted with him. All of this happens outside of evangelicalism but in this world, they are weaponized against you,” she tweeted. “But this particular case is egregious, because Title IX was used in conjunction with a morals clause to make sure that cases would not be brought or the male perpetrators punished because it's always the woman's fault for tempting the man.”
In North Carolina, we should be on the lookout for such evidence of purity culture and ways that it shows up in policy and impact in (even non-Christian, non-religious) schools and workplaces. This can look like how schools handle sexual assault cases, but it can also look like how schools enforce dress codes. (This subscriber-only piece by the Fayetteville Observer looks at such potential discrepancies.)
Following the ProPublica story, Gardner-Webb University, a private Christian university in Boiling Springs, NC, hosted Title IX sessions with “nine things to know about Title IX” for its students and resources for “individuals to overcome sexual misconduct and gender discrimination.”
From the Instagram of Lesley Day Villarose, VP of student development and dean of students at Gardner-Webb
To be clear, I don’t know if such sessions at Gardner-Webb, or its “Red Flag Campaign” were impacted by the story. Still, it raised the question in my mind of what other NC Christian schools, or any other universities for that matter, are telling their students and staff about their Title IX policies. Have any of these schools reviewed their policies on campus following the ProPublica story? Have any NC school administrations discussed their own handling of sexual assault, as documented in the story among Liberty officials?
In a Nutshell:
Not all the stories listed here will be written explicitly as religion stories, but I’ll include them if I think they point to a religion story to follow.
On last week’s Día de Muertos celebrations: Chatham's Communities in Schools celebrates Day of the Dead and remembers local high schooler who died in a car crash, Raleigh’s Latino community celebrates the Day of the Dead to ‘remember our lost ones’ and Afghan crisis and pandemic make for another somber Día de los Muertos (not NC-focused)
Diwali, a festival of lights with five days of celebration, concluded this weekend. It’s celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world. I haven’t seen any North Carolina coverage of Diwali celebrations, though a few included Diwali celebrations happening in the Triangle in their online calendars. If you’ve seen coverage, let me know and I’ll update this post!
A look inside one Charlotte church where the pandemic has forced reinvention, by QCityMetro
North Carolina’s last “dry” county (Graham) allows some booze sales, by the Counter, citing religious influence on lack of alcohol sales
Is there room for a religious left? [Opinion by CNN]
US Muslims gave more to charity than other Americans in 2020
That's it for this week's edition of North Carolina Religion Roundup.
Thanks for reading. Until next time. And in the meantime, I gladly welcome any tips, feedback or news you think I haven’t included but should in future editions. — Hannah