The White Supremacy of Natural Law: Miscegenation and Same-Sex Marriage as Sodomy in American Law and Culture

by Will Hogue

In the wake of the Kim Davis scandal, where Davis, a Rowen County, Kentucky clerk denied a marriage license to a same-sex couple on the grounds of religious freedom in 2015, Governor Mike Huckabee came to her defense. In a nationally broadcast interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Huckabee was asked how his and Davis’s stance, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges which legalized gay marriage, could be justified in comparison with the court’s ruling in Loving v. Virginia which struck down bans on interracial marriages. Tapper inquired, “I know that you are a supporter of the Loving v. Virginia decision in 1967 which outlawed all bans on interracial marriage…. Even after the bans were struck down, even though there may have been Mormons or adherents to Bob Jones who, at the time, thought of blacks as inferior, as taught by their religion… you would have said [law clerks] have the right to defy the Supreme Court.” Huckabee, confidently retorted, “It’s not the same case. That was an interpretation of marriage, but it’s still man-woman marriage. This is a completely new, total redefinition of marriage. And, I think what’s important is we have a county clerk who is not accommodated for her faith.”1CNN, “Mike Huckabee Defends Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis,” YouTube (CNN, September 4, 2014), This statement from Huckabee is one that many Americans likely agreed with, but the question for me was, is it not the same case? 

In her groundbreaking book on miscegenation law, What Comes Naturally, historian Peggy Pascoe argued that the “bottom line of white supremacy” was the naturalizing of anti-miscegenation law.2Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (New York, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011), 1. She argued that race-mixing was prohibited by the white male elite using “three animating fictions—one constitutional, one scientific, and one popular” which served to create a natural law basis for constitutional separation.3Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (New York, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011), 6. Natural law, “a body of unchanging moral principles regarded as a basis for all human conduct,” is generally grounded in the cultural and religious prohibitions of a given society, and gives moral, natural credence to something as part of, or counter to human nature.4Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), s.v. “Natural Law.” When we look to the legal arguments posed for anti-miscegenation law we find that even at the highest levels, the moral and scientific language of “human nature” was involved to maintain the social order. From the Western medieval period, sodomy laws prohibited any sex which was not productive—heterosexual, homosexual, and beastial.5Zeb Tortoricci, Sins Against Nature: Sex and Archives in Colonial New Spain (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018). These miscegenation acts against nature, were often legally seen as sodomy because they were considered unprocreative or encouraging “deplorable results.”6Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America, 71. Under this umbrella of sodomy was beastiality, which according to Victorian race science after the antebellum property laws of the United States included the mixing of “negroid” and “caucasoid” human races. As Keith Sealing writes:

To the monogenists, slavery or anti-miscegenation laws based upon a theory of White superiority over a fellow descendent of Adam had to be justified by a theory of specific unity followed by racial degeneration…. Although the proponents of the second theory had an apparently more scientific justification for slavery and anti-miscegenation statutes, it was not well-received in the South because it conflicted with the Bible. The “polygenists” saw Blacks as a separate and inferior species descended from a different Adam, and, thus, saw slavery as qualitatively no different from the ownership of a horse, and miscegenation as approaching bestiality. But the polygenists had one major problem: species are generally defined as populations that cannot mate, or populations that if successfully mated produce sterile offspring, such as the mule [the word “mulatto” is often considered to derive from the Spanish for mule, although this is debated]. Every admitted child of master and slave stood as evidence against the polygenists’ separate species theory. Polygenists were forced to hold fast to the position that these mixed-race individuals were of diminished fertility, even though that was patently false, or else to redefine the term “species” to fit the obvious fact of vigorous infertility between Whites and Blacks.7Keith Sealing, “Blood Will Tell: Scientific Racism and the Legal Prohibition Against Miscegenation,” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2000,

As Kathleen Belew showed in her work on 20th century white supremacists, the idea of preserving the “naturally ordained” hierarchies of racism and sexism were beholden to an understanding of compulsory heterosexuality and procreative intercourse. This logic, in the neo-fascist’s eyes would see homosexuality as a crisis to bring the demise of Western White Civilization.8Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home the White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University press, 2019). Fundamentally, these laws existed to keep two groups as distinct castes—women and African Americans. The creation of these illicit castes made natural and inferior African American sex, and the supposedly “passive” women.9Andrew Koppelman, “The Miscegenation Analogy: Sodomy Law as Sex Discrimination,” The Yale Law Journal 98, no. 1 (1988): p. 145,, 147. This passivity is a pejorative stereotype applied to women, blacks, and homosexuals which serves to preserve the white propertied male as the hierarchical head. In all of this, there is a concern for the property rights of white men and, as one judge put it, the “highest advancement of our cherished Southern civilization.”10Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America, 71. In the end, the preservation of this social order depended on officials at the local level—county clerks—who Pascoe referred to as the “gatekeepers of white supremacy.”11Pascoe, What Comes Naturally, 4. It seems that this “white supremacy” is protected, both in anti-miscegenation and anti-gay marriage law through the tripartite rationale Pascoe explicates. A tiny section of What Comes Naturally is dedicated to the connection activists drew between Loving and the fight for gay marriage; however, revisiting the topic in our current political climate with a resurgence of white nationalism and homophobia seems both timely and necessary.

American laws prohibiting intermarriage between whites and people of color date back to the colonial era. However, the rights extended to black people in the Reconstruction amendments created a newfound panic around interracial sex and the slippery slope to race-mixing. “Scientific” arguments, based on miscegenation as sodomy, were offered to defend this bias. James Trosino cites the 1883 State v. Jackson case which claimed, “It is stated as a well authenticated fact that if the issue of a black man and a white woman, and a white man and a black woman, intermarry, they cannot possibly have any progeny, and such a fact sufficiently justifies those laws which forbid the intermarriage of blacks and whites.”12Issac West, “Analogizing Interracial and Same-Sex Marriage,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 48, no. 4 (2015):, 4. There were also scientific studies to defend the argument for bestiality that suggested “mulattoes” could not bear children past the third generation, and that those who were born would be “sickly” and “effeminate.”13Pascoe, What Comes Naturally, 7. Psychologists and eugenicists had also similarly classified people of African descent and homosexuals as mentally inferior and mentally disordered, respectfully. These pseudo-scientific rationales not only rest on racism and homophobia, but on the understanding that marriage is an institution which only exists for procreation. Of course, scientific studies were not employed to ban women from marrying after menopause, and the question of adoption does not figure into these late nineteenth century arguments as a way of having children; rather, these studies were employed within a system with preconceived ideas about race and sexuality.  

The removal of homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of disorders in 1973, supported by the widespread existence of same-sex attraction as reported by Alfred Kinsey among others, sparked the decriminalization of gay sex state by state, to be held up by the Supreme Court in the 2003 case Lawrence vs. Texas.14Neel Burton MD., “When Homosexuality Stopped Being a Mental Disorder,” Psychology Today, Spt. 18, 2015. Similarly, as Phoebe C. Godfrey argued, the equality that blacks obtained through Brown vs. Board, which was justified, in part, due to a psychiatric belief in the inferiority of black mental faculties, mirrors Lawrence, and was likewise grounded in a fear of the possibility of illicit sexual behavior.15Phoebe C. Godfrey, “Eschatological Sexuality: Miscegenation and the ‘Homosexual Agenda’ From Brown v. Board of Education (1954) to Lawrence v. Texas (2003),” Race, Gender, and Class, Vol. 19, 3-4 (2012), 143-160. When these pseudo-scientific arguments eventually fell flat, the argument rested on the same Christian morality which served to make this sex taboo. As Trosino writes, “the heterosexual supremacist’s fear that legalized gay marriage will taint traditional heterosexual marriage also is closely analogous to the white supremacist’s fear that miscegenation would harm white womanhood… something sacrosanct.’”16James Trosino, “American Wedding: Same Sex Marriage and the Miscegenation Analogy,” Boston University Law Review 73 (1993), 110. These arguments, and most of the arguments against miscegenation and gay marriage, rely on a moralization grounded in white Christian traditions. 

Also, as Darwinism forced polygenists to rethink their arguments about multiple human races or deny evolution entirely, the existence of homosexuality in nearly all mammal species, particularly in great  apes, eroded the argument of homosexuality as against nature.17W. Byne, “Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity,” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 283, no. 16 (2000): pp. 2170-2170, A lesser studied aspect of the religious debate over the theory of evolution is its connection to upholding the racist order. Indeed, Darwinism opened up the possibility of denying the existence of multiple human races for the one “Out of Africa” human race, and the “naturalized” prohibitions against sodomy could be contextualized with other species of Great Apes. Until Darwin, the polygenetic idea of Co-Adamism, as supported by Giordano Bruno, Charles White, and others argued that Africans were a separate race, and that, like mules and other hybrid animals, they would be impaired due to the bestiality involved in their reproduction.18David N. Livingstone, Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 2011), 15. These arguments about the naturalness of anti-miscegenation and strict heterosexuality fell flat with the general acceptance of On the Origin of Species, however the cultural and religious afterlife of these beliefs can still be felt in our social and legal structures.

Christian ideology on sodomy and bestiality is probably the most influential and lasting source both for supporting anti-miscegenation and opposing same-sex marriage laws. While Pascoe does not focus on Christianity specifically, ideas surrounding “Christian Civilization” are overwhelmingly present in the book. She argues that the ideas of “illicit sex” and legitimate marriage served to preserve “white purity” by ensuring any sex outside of marriage was illicit. This made all sex between members of the same sex, and interracial sex illicit.19Pascoe, What Comes Naturally, 12. However, as becomes clear in the book, what was considered moral and immoral was largely dictated at the state and local level by the Protestant dominant ideology. At Indiana’s founding in 1866, State Supreme Court Justice Buskirk noted that:

Marriage is treated as a civil contract, but it is more than a mere civil contract. It is a public institution established by God himself, it is recognized in all Christian and civilized nations… the right, in states, to regulate and control, to guard, protect, and preserve this God-given, civilizing, and Christianizing institution… cannot be surrendered.20Pascoe, What Comes Naturally, 56. 

This was one of the justifications for Indiana’s anti-miscegenation law. Likewise, Trosino quotes the 1877 Green v. State case defending anti-miscegenation which claimed that God had “made the two races distinct.”21James Trosino, “American Wedding: Same Sex Marriage and the Miscegenation Analogy,” Boston University Law Review 73 (1993), 103.  These religiously inspired condemnations of interracial marriage were not confined to the 19th century, however. Indeed, the trial judge in Loving wrote:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.22“U.S. Reports: Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967).,” The Library of Congress, accessed December 11, 2019,

This line of thinking is consistent with the “popular animating fiction” Pascoe discusses which was present in many white Christians’ worldviews. When the courts and legislatures had finally reached a place where they could no longer defend white supremacy scientifically, or by way of God’s Natural Law, they relied on the First Amendment right to religious liberty. Religious groups which were inspired by polygenism often relied on an ancient argument that the African race is descended from Noah’s dark-skinned a cursed son Ham. Thus, in this view, Hamites (Africans) were doomed to serve light-skinned (Caucasians) for all time.23Michael F. Robinson, The Lost White Tribe: Explorers, Scientists, and the Theory that Changed a Continent (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 85-94. Famously, Mormons prohibited interracial dating, and the evangelical Bob Jones University was taken to the Supreme Court over its ban on interracial dating which made it lose its tax-exempt status, but the ban remained in place citing the First Amendment. (Bob Jones did not lift the ban until the year 2000).24“Bob Jones Univ. v. United States,” Legal Information Institute (Cornell Law), accessed December 23, 2019, 

This first amendment argument on the basis of individual religious freedom continues to be the predominant avenue through which people oppose same-sex marriage. When Mike Huckabee referred to same-sex marriage as a “total redefinition,” we must keep in mind how closely related race mixing was to sodomy and bestiality in American law and consciousness. Indeed, Christianity has done much to naturalize compulsory heterosexuality and anti-miscegenation from antiquity to the present, but they have always existed, just as same-sex marriage and civil unions existed in various cultures.25For references to Homosexuality in the Middle Ages and Ancient Europe, see: John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015). For references to Homosexuality and Same-Sex marriage in Asia see: Bret Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve: the Male Homosexual Tradition in China (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1992)., and Gregory M. Pflugfelder, Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). This may seem superfluous, but given the ancient moral roots of Christianity and aspects of American law, these prejudices shaped the creation of the entire legal tradition.  Brown, Loving, Lawrence, and Obergefell all created a backlash in which conservative Christians sought to maintain the previous system in the name of their individual first amendment rights. Not only could law clerks, like Kim Davis, make it difficult for same-sex couples to gain marriage licenses, but as the 2019 case Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission shows, discrimination based on religious freedom will be federally upheld where it stands for LGBT people, whereas the religious freedom to discriminate by race in public services was shot down in Newman v. Piggie Park in 1968 via a definition of the Civil Rights Act.26Jared Ham and Amanda Wong, “Masterpiece Cakeshop, LTD. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission,” Legal Information Institute (Cornell Law), accessed December 13, 2019,, and  “Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 256 F. Supp. 941 (D.S.C. 1966),” Justia Law, accessed December 12, 2019, While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave workplace protections and legal access to public services to African Americans, there are no workplace protections against religious freedom bias for LGBT people in a majority of U.S. states.27“Non-Discrimination Laws,” Movement Advancement Project, accessed December 13, 2019, The Supreme Court will decide whether Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act includes sexuality and gender identity, or not, in 2020. The court is projected to make a narrow decision on the issue, and it seems they may not rule in favor of LGBT rights.28Adam Liptak and Jeremy W. Peters, “Supreme Court Considers Whether Civil Rights Act Protects L.G.B.T. Workers,” The New York Times (The New York Times, October 8, 2019), So while county clerks, the traditional “gatekeepers of white supremacy,” have lost much of their ability to prevent the illicit behaviors of mixed-race and same-sex marriage to support the white patriarchy, the private sector in a majority of states still has the first amendment right to discriminate legally against LGBT employees and users of public space, and African Americans are continually denied access or removed from public space, sometimes though violence. 

Interestingly, the first amendment religious freedom argument which preserved this racist line of thinking also helped to bring it down. The Los Angeles Catholic Interracial Council, a coalition of interracial Catholics who sought to end anti-miscegenation laws worked to support the marriage of a white Latina Catholic and a black Catholic man. Since the Catholic Church had banned the belief in polygenism and anti-miscegenation in Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, the group stated that anti-miscegenation defied their religious freedom. While the Catholic hierarchy distanced itself from the group, the case went to trial and struck down the anti-miscegenation laws in the state of California.29Pascoe, What Comes Naturally, 223. While religious freedom was part of the fight against miscegenation as well as for it, same-sex marriage has taken to employ the language of human rights instead. In both cases it was essential to break down the tradition of natural law which used was created with a European patriarchal bias to establish laws around sex and marriage. Sodomy law, rather than just miscegenation law specifically, to expand Pascoe’s thesis, seems to be the “bottom line of white supremacy.”30Pascoe, What Comes Naturally, 1.


Baxandall, Rosalyn, and Linda Gordon. Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.

Belew, Kathleen. Bring the War Home the White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University press, 2019.

Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Byne, W. “Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity.” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 283, no. 16 (2000): 2170–70.

Hinsch, Bret. Passions of the Cut Sleeve: the Male Homosexual Tradition in China. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1992.

Koppelman, Andrew. “The Miscegenation Analogy: Sodomy Law as Sex Discrimination.” The Yale Law Journal 98, no. 1 (1988): 145.

Livingstone, David N. Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 2011.

Pascoe, Peggy. What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America. New York, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011.

Pflugfelder, Gregory M. Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Rosen, Michael. Dignity: Its History and Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Sealing, Keith. “Blood Will Tell: Scientific Racism and the Legal Prohibition Against Miscegenation.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2000.

Self, Robert O. All in the Family: the Realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2013.

Tortoricci, Zeb. Sins Against Nature: Sex and Archives in Colonial New Spain. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.

Trosino, James. “American Wedding: Same Sex Marriage and the Miscegenation Analogy.” Boston University Law Review 73 (1993): 93–120.

“U.S. Reports: Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967).” The Library of Congress. Accessed December 23, 2019.

USCCB. Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching. USCCB. Accessed December 23, 2019.

West, Issac. “Analogizing Interracial and Same-Sex Marriage.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 48, no. 4 (2015): 561.

Williams, Daniel K. God’s Own Party: the Making of the Christian Right. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

The Black Manifesto

by Benjamin Van Dyne

Most efforts to secure reparations for U.S. slavery and racial subjugation have focused on the federal government—whether Callie House’s organizing among her fellow ex-slaves for taxes on seized southern cotton to be repaid to former slaves,1Berry, Mary Frances, My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations (New York: Vintage, 2009). Representative John Conyers’ proposed congressional commission to study federal reparations (which he introduced in every Congress starting in 1993 until his death in 2019),2See Robinson, Randall,  The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (New York: Plume, 2001), p. 238. author Randall Robinson’s best-selling The Debt in 2000,3Robinson, Randall,  The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (New York: Plume, 2001). or writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 article “The Case for Reparations” which succeeded in persuading swathes of the white intelligentsia of the need for some form of reparation.4Coates, Ta-Nehisi, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.

In 1969, however, James Forman led a very different effort. The National Black Economic Development Council (NBEDC) was a group of black churchmen and business leaders who had gathered in Detroit in 1968 to consider how to advance the cause of black economic progress. Forman led them in developing the “Black Manifesto,” which was directed not at the federal government but at the leading mainline Protestant churches and white Jewish synagogues.

After writing the manifesto, Forman and the NBEDC sought for a suitable place to make the first public presentation of the manifesto. They settled on New York’s Riverside Church. Riverside was a cathedral to both U.S. Protestantism and U.S. capitalism. With its Art Deco-Gothic style and deep pockets, both funded by the devoutly Baptist John D. Rockefeller, it had a reputation as a center of political and social action. Just the year before Martin Luther King had announced his opposition to the Vietnam War from its pulpit, and its weekly broadcast of the Sunday sermon was heard throughout greater New York. If the manifesto’s claim that “the white churches are another form of government in this country,” was true anywhere, it was at Riverside.

Though Riverside’s minister, the Rev. Ernest Campbell, had agreed to allow Forman to present the manifesto during Sunday service, he had not envisioned Forman’s disruptive takeover. Forman interrupted Campbell, seized the mic, and presented the manifesto’s demands: reparations of $500 million from white churches and synagogues. Well before Cedric Robinson made a systematic case that capitalism itself was a racializing and racist system,5Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: the Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). Forman and the NBEDC made a case that white churches and synagogues owed reparations specifically because they were “part and parcel of this system of capitalism” and therefore owed $500 million in reparations—as the Manifesto drily points out, “a mere $15 per black brother and sister in this country.”6The Black Manifesto, The Church Awakens: African American Struggles for Justice, Archives of the Episcopal Church. In his remarks that Sunday, Forman criticized Riverside’s relationship with Rockefeller, charging that Rockefeller used “money stolen from the poor to build this great cathedral. . . and [his] money is still exploiting people of color all around the world.” Forman then demanded a list of all of the church’s assets. It was at this point, remembered Forman, that Campbell asked the church’s organist to attempt to drown him out.7Forman, James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000).

According to the manifesto, the money was to be used for ten purposes, including black-owned newspapers, television stations, research institutes, and funds for striking black workers. Fully $200 million was designated for a southern land bank and $130 million was to be used to establish a new, radical black university in the south.8The Black Manifesto, The Church Awakens: African American Struggles for Justice, Archives of the Episcopal Church. The NBEDC was to manage the money under the supervision of a committee of black leaders including Forman.

Within a week, black students at the adjacent Union Theological Seminary had endorsed the manifesto, occupied the administration and classroom building, and demanded that the seminary pay up. Seminary president John Bennett at first refused, saying it was outside his legal purview. Bennett relented the next day and requested an emergency convening of the board. The Board of Directors at Union said no to the specific demands of the occupying students, but made several alternative commitments totaling more than two million dollars in funds, to be controlled by black students, faculty, and alumni. The seminary ultimately paid a little more than a million dollars.9“Summary of Responses to the Black Manifesto of the NBEDC.” Board of Trustees Document, Union Theological Seminary Archive. 1972 file.

This proved to be the pattern: Riverside and Protestant denominational institutions, if they responded at all, increased investments in their own programs, but refused to turn any money over to Forman or the NBECD. The total investments made by Union, Riverside, and the Protestant denominations came to about $4 million.10Lechtreck, Elaine Allen, “We are Demanding $500 Million for Reparations”: The Black Manifesto, Mainline Religious Denominations, and Black Economic Development,” Journal of African American History, (Winter–Spring 2012), 39-71. The other $496 million remained unpaid.

The legacy of the Black Manifesto can be seen in recent actions taken by some institutions to atone for the benefits received from slavery and racial discrimination, including at Georgetown University (where the university’s Jesuits once claimed ownership of 272 enslaved persons), Boston University and Princeton Theological Seminary.11Lechtreck, Elaine Allen, “We are Demanding $500 Million for Reparations”: The Black Manifesto, Mainline Religious Denominations, and Black Economic Development,” 39-71. In 2019, Episcopal Diocese of New York set aside a million dollars to make amends for the ways in which it has benefitted from slavery.12Millard, Egan. “Diocese of New York establishes reparations fund, adopts anti-slavery resolutions from 1860” Episcopal News Service, 12 November 2019. The text and story of the Black Manifesto, implicate religious institutions in much larger forces of capitalism and white supremacy—neither making them solely responsible, nor letting them off the hook.

Pro-Life as Liberal or Backlash? A Critical Review of Daniel Williams’ Defenders of the Unborn

by Will Hogue

While on the campaign trail, Donald Trump was questioned in a public audience about his position on abortion. Trump, who is known for frequent misogynistic comments, went on to say that not only was he pro-life, but that he believed women should receive “punishment” for an abortion procedure.1Lucia Graves, “Trump Once Said Women Should Be Punished for Abortion. Now, He’s Making It Happen,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, January 24, 2017), While many pro-life groups came out and rejected his statement, his sentiment is part of a growing, arguably reemerging, trend. A failed Texas bill which somehow made it into the legislature would have made abortion punishable by death.2Anna North, “A Texas Bill Would Allow the Death Penalty for Patients Who Get Abortions,” Vox (Vox, April 11, 2019), These situations beg the question of why abortion is such a contentious issue, and is the fetus or the mother the object of concern or ire? With this current political climate, the history of the culture wars has seen a timely explosion of historical literature in recent years. With this, the history of Christianity, in particular the Christian right, has seen an enhanced interest from scholars. Within these histories, historians have begun to examine more closely the beginnings of anti-abortion activism sixty years ago. The critical question that Williams addresses is the age of the pro-life movement, which predates Roe v. Wade. Yet the framing of this creates an argument that goes against some of the classic literature in the field. 

 In her essential book on the subject, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, Kristin Luker argues that the controversy over abortion is not so much about the fate of the embryo, but rather, motherhood as a source of meaning for women’s lives. Luker shows that the debate surrounding abortion is mainly concerned with abortion as an aspect of  the breakdown of traditional gender roles.[1] Similarly, Rebecca Klatch gives a nuanced perspective of the various motivations for women’s involvement in conservative politics in her book Women of the New Right.[2] Klatch argues that “laissez faire” and “socially conservative” women are the two main camps of the New Right. “Laissez faire” women are ideologically rooted in 19th century liberalism, while “socially conservative” women are influenced by religious traditions.[3] Another classic work, Abortion and Woman’s Choice: The State, Sexuality, and Reproductive Freedom by Rosalind Petchesky, more overtly claims that the battle over access to abortion was an issue of upwardly mobile women abandoning patriarchal norms (abandoning a strictly domestic life for the workforce). Those who do not support feminist advancement are part of the backlash politics of the pro-life movement.  In her essential work, Backlash, Susan Faludi lays out the fundamental argument that “backlash” occurred when women stepped outside of traditional gender roles. This backlash is, in part, connected to any shift in women’s traditional role as mothers, and is linked to their growing autonomy from reproductive labor. When this change takes place, no matter how minute it may be in reality, patriarchal values resurface through media, religion, science and popular culture.[4] These are but some of the essential texts which established an understanding of the abortion debate as something intrinsically connected to gender roles.

[1] Kristin Luker, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984).

[2] Rebecca E. Klatch, Women of the New Right (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1987).

[3]Debra Reneé Kaufman, “Book Reviews.” Gender & Society, vol. 4, no. 1, 1990, pp. 118–120., doi:10.1177/089124390004001023.

[4] Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women (London: Vintage, 1992).

Defenders of the Unborn, however, looking at the longer history of the largely Christian pro-life movement begining in the 1950s, takes issue with the idea of the pro-life movement as backlash to Roe v. Wade. The most recent proponent of framing anti-abortion activism as backlash politics is Robert O. Self in his sweeping history All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s. Religious historian Daniel Williams in his book Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade rethinks both the ideas posited in Self’s book, and in Williams’ previous book on the religious right[1]. Defenders of the Unborn considers the longer history of the pro-life movement starting in the 1950s as a movement for which used a rhetoric of “human rights” for the unborn in a politics which Williams refers to as initially “liberal.” Williams, however, oversells his argument about the pro-life movement as an ecumenical “liberal” Christian movement across denominational lines. Indeed, he identifies little ecumenism or theological unity between Catholics and Protestants before at least the late 1960s after the Second Vatican Council. In this context, where Catholics were one of few denominations that opposed birth control or abortion, it is difficult to define something as broadly “liberal.” Indeed, Williams’ argument begins to fall flat when he acknowledges the differences in Catholic opposition to abortion and contraception, and almost universal Protestant support (mainline and evangelical) for abortion rights before the late 1970s. While he proves effectively that Catholics employed a rights-based argument to sell the pro-life agenda which he defines as “liberal,” he still admits that this did not reconcile with Catholic doctrine which had, at least since the nineteenth century, seen contraception, abortion, and sodomy as interrelated sins against nature.[2] Given that, doctrinally, the church’s abortion stance, and the idea of the “dignity of the human person” is rooted in a medieval understanding of social hierarchy, as Michael Rosen has shown, the politics of backlash may still be a valuable piece of the story even in respect to Catholicism.[3]

[1]Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: the Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[2] USCCB, “Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching (USCCB),” accessed December 20, 2019,

[3] Michael Rosen, Dignity: Its History and Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

Historians generally agree that the white male heterosexual was the de facto representative of the citizen, or the “universal subject,”3Robert O. Self, All in the Family: the Realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2013), 4. and that civil rights, feminism, and gay rights proved a challenge to his dominance in the hetero-patriarchal order. Self argues that while the state has always been heavily involved in the regulation of bodies and sexuality through abortion law, sodomy law, and marriage, the nuclear family was so unquestionable that sex and sexuality were still culturally imagined to be private before the sexual revolution.4Robert O. Self, All in the Family, 4. This breakdown of the divide between public and private, both politically and socially, through Great Society programs and the new left eventually developed into an uneasy coalition of neoconservative Catholics and Jews, evangelicals, Southern Baptists and fundamentalists who believed in sustaining the traditional nuclear family. Self successfully connects the development of a neoconservative/conservative coalition with his idea of “breadwinner conservatism,” a political ideology which rejected Great Society social welfare programs and protected an idealized nuclear family from the “moral threats” of the new left.5Robert O. Self, All in the Family, 5. Self argues that for breadwinner conservatives abortion belonged within the umbrella of the new left’s promotion of immorality in the sexual revolution, feminism, and gay rights. Abortion, in Self’s view, is viewed as an issue that “challenged the conventional views of motherhood and the divide between public and private life in America.”6Robert O. Self, All in the Family, 134.

Here Daniel Williams suggests that the narrative must focus more on the origins of the pro-life movement rather than seeing it as appearing in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade. While Williams usefully reminds us that the pro-life movement had origins far earlier than Roe, the idea that this movement is grounded in New Deal liberalism, while interesting, is really only an issue that pertains to Catholics, and even then, Catholics supported abortion liberalization in numbers only slightly lower than their Protestant counterparts.7T.W. Smith, “Catholic Attitudes Toward Abortion,” National Center for Biotechnology Information (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1984), Throughout the 1970s, Catholics were only 10% less likely to support abortion liberalization than Protestants, and even today only around half of Catholics are pro-life. The focus on pro-life Catholics whitewashes the intra-denominational struggle taking place among Catholics after the Second Vatican Council and promulgation of Humana Vitae. Catholics for Choice, a pro-choice lobbying group in Washington D.C. could be a group to look to in order to see the division among Catholics. Catholics for Choice, like their pro-life counterparts and most Protestant denominations, set their advocacy in the language of human rights. In a 1974 statement they stated, 

Sinful and barbaric laws forbidding women their human, personal right to terminate an unwanted and impossible conception, were forced upon them, in and out of marriage, and deprived them of their human and spiritual inalienable right to their own souls, conscience, free will, and full personhood, reducing them to the unholy status of bondage, and slavery to a patriarchal mystique which insisted on the state and male ownership of every woman’s body and mind.8Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000)., 174.

Not only did pro-choice Catholics use the same rhetoric of rights as Catholic pro-lifers, this time for the mother, as well as discuss the inconsistent history of the dogma of “life at conception,” but they also framed their rights discussion in a private/public sphere discourse which resonates with Robert Self’s argument, that “private” had to be made public to see the injustices inherent in the system.9Robert O. Self, All in the Family. These Catholics are reflecting a liberalism which fits within the Great Society coalition even while critiquing it which is similar to most of their liberal protestant counterparts. 

The question of the “Right to Life” movement being grounded in liberal values is also a slippery argument. While Williams should be applauded for this insight, this argument needs a deeper discussion on the rise of Catholic neoconservatism, and a broader Christian liberalism had generally which been pro-choice. Christine Rosen points to a history of mainstream liberal support of not only what we would today conceive of as eugenics (race based forced sterilization, etc.) but also birth control and abortion in her problematic, yet insightful book Preaching Eugenics.10Rosen’s funding comes from a neoconservative thinktank, Ethics and Public Policy Center, and often blurs the lines between what we would normally consider eugenics and birth control. Much like Rosen, Williams does not define what is liberal and conservative distinctly, and blurs lines, even referring to the progressive era prohibition movement as ‘socially conservative’ while seeing pro-lifers as socially liberal.11Daniel K. Williams, Defenders of the Unborn: the pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 3. Could not the Catholic stance on contraception and abortion be characterized as socially conservative as well? After all, at the Lambeth Conference of 1930 the Anglican Communion liberalized its rules on contraception, and it seemed as if the Catholic Church would follow suit after the Second Vatican Council.12The Anglican Communion, “Lambdeth Conference,” The Lambdeth Conference Resolutions of 1930 (Church of England, 2005), In fact, when Paul VI published Humana Vitae shortly after the Council, a lay member of the commission commented that, “It was as if they had found some old unpublished encyclical from the 1920s in a drawer somewhere in the Vatican, dusted it off, and handed it out.”13Lisa McClain, “How the Catholic Church Came to Oppose Birth Control,” The Conversation, October 31, 2019, Williams’ other claim that these liberal Catholics clashed with second-wave feminists, while true, implies that earlier liberals and “liberal” Catholic pro-lifers may have been of one accord, but further investigation suggests this is not so.14Tracy A. Thomas, Misappropriating Women’s History in the Law and Politics of Abortion , 36 SEATTLE U. L. REV. 1 (2012). 

While the Catholic Church has prohibited abortion at any stage under the penalty of immediate excommunication since 1869, the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant body in the country) only began to debate abortion officially after their schism in 1979.15J. T. Noonan, “Abortion and the Catholic Church: A Summary History,” The American Journal of Jurisprudence 12, no. 1 (January 1967): pp. 85-131, In her dissertation, “The Spiritual is Political,” Laura Foxworth contends that after the 1977 International Women’s Year (IWY) conference in Houston, Texas, connection between the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion and homosexuality threw the Southern Baptist Convention into a tumult.16Laura Foxworth, “The Spiritual Is Political,” The Spiritual Is Political: The Modern Women’s Movement and the Transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention (dissertation, 2014),, xii. Foxworth contends that the inclusion of provisions for lesbians at IWY was the tipping point for conservative Southern Baptists. Before this point, the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention was moderately liberal and supported the ordination of women and much of the Second Wave Feminist platform. However, conservative Baptists began to coalesce in the mid-70s, and by the end of the decade were able to elect a fundamentalist president, taking the Southern Baptists into the rhetoric and politics of Anita Bryant and Phyllis Schlafly.17Laura Foxworth, “The Spiritual Is Political,” The Spiritual Is Political: The Modern Women’s Movement and the Transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention (dissertation, 2014),, 125. Williams usefully points out that Catholic Right-to-Lifers’ opposition to the ERA only came after reports from STOP-ERA that abortions would be paid with taxpayer dollars.18Williams, Defenders of the Unborn, 239. However, Schlafly worked to relate the issues of feminism, gay liberation and abortion in a way that greatly shaped some of the rapidly growing Catholic and opposition to ERA and abortion.19Greenhouse, Linda and Siegel, Reva B., “Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate before the Supreme Court’s Ruling (2012).” Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 257. Available at SSRN: While the Catholic reaction to abortion may be a mix between backlash and a movement that was shaped around a language of rights, for Southern Baptists and the Moral Majority (a conservative Christian political coalition), backlash was a key component to opposing abortion. 

Nevertheless, Williams makes a critically important point about the Catholic Church’s efforts to create an institutional movement to lobby and promote grassroots activism against abortion which proved essential for the creation of the movement as it exists today. Despite the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion and contraception being rooted in patriarchal theology which connects abortion, contraception, and sodomy as against nature, the framing of the pro-life movement as a movement for the rights of unborn people was a distancing from the politics of motherhood. However, other denominations still seem to have only joined in response to advances in the feminist movement, and in particular the “breakdown” of the family with its connection to abortion on demand and the rights of lesbians. Williams gives us excellent food for thought, and we should consider the staying power of abortion politics and the nuances that affect it.


Anglican Church. “Lambdeth Conference.” The Lambdeth Conference Resolutions of 1930. Church of England, 2005.

Baxandall, Rosalyn, and Linda Gordon. Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.

Faludi, Susan. Backlash: Undeclared War against Women. London: Vintage, 1992.

Foxworth, Laura. “The Spiritual Is Political.” The Spiritual Is Political: The Modern Women’s Movement and the Transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention, 2014.

Klatch, Rebecca E. Women of the New Right. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1987.

Luker, Kristin. Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984.

McClain, Lisa. “How the Catholic Church Came to Oppose Birth Control.” The Conversation, October 31, 2019.

Noonan, J. T. “Abortion and the Catholic Church: A Summary History.” The American Journal of Jurisprudence 12, no. 1 (1967): 85–131.

North, Anna. “A Texas Bill Would Allow the Death Penalty for Patients Who Get Abortions.” Vox. Vox, April 11, 2019.

Pascoe, Peggy. What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America. New York, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011.

Pflugfelder, Gregory M. Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Rosen, Michael. Dignity: Its History and Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Self, Robert O. All in the Family: the Realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2013.

Smith, TW. “Catholic Attitudes Toward Abortion.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1984.

Tortoricci, Zeb. Sins Against Nature: Sex and Archives in Colonial New Spain. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.

USCCB. Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching. USCCB. Accessed December 23, 2019.

Williams, Daniel K. Defenders of the Unborn: the pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Williams, Daniel K. God’s Own Party: the Making of the Christian Right. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

It Was like Living Through the End of the World

by David Marchionni

In all the history of homosexuality we have never been so close to death and extinction before. Many of us are dying or dead already.

Larry Kramer, 19831Karen Ocamb, “Larry Kramer’s Historic Essay: AIDS At 30,” Larry Kramer’s Historic Essay: AIDS At 30, The Bilerico Project, June 14, 2011,

It came out of nowhere. When the Centers for Disease Control published its June 5, 1981 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), it unintentionally inaugurated one of the darkest periods in American history: the AIDS crisis. The report, written by UCLA’s Michael Gottlieb, noted that between October 1980 and May 1981 five cases of the rare (and usually fatal) illness pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (traditionally found only in extremely immunosuppressed patients, and often referred to by the acronym PCP) appeared in what had previously been healthy young men in the Los Angeles area.2Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015), p. 415. Gottlieb and the CDC further observed that all the young men in question were homosexual. Rechristened as “gay pneumonia”, PCP helped cement Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) as an exclusively gay issue in the national consciousness. While AIDS affected many, it utterly decimated gay America.3A point of clarification: In this text “gay” (such as in “gay America”) refers to male homosexuals. It has killed hundreds of thousands (448,060 by the year 2000 alone), claimed the lives of much of the gay rights movement’s leadership, triggered widespread anti-gay violence, and opened the door to entirely new forms of government-sponsored oppression and discrimination.4“HIV and AIDS — United States, 1981—2000,” HIV and AIDS — United States, 1981—2000, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 1, 2001, Yet amidst such suffering, AIDS sparked a mass revolution. It radicalized gay activism, triggering a newfound wave of homosexual unity and mass protestation.

With the release of the July 3rd 1981 MMWR, the CDC acknowledged a new, rarely diagnosed illness (aside from PCP) was predominantly affecting homosexuals.5Michael B. Gregg, ed, “Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Pneumocystis Pneumonia Among Homosexual Men – New York City and California,” Morbidity And Mortality Weekly Report 30, no. 25 (1981), p. 305. Kaposi’s Sarcoma (abbreviated to KS) quickly became a media darling.6Gina Bright, Plague-Making and the AIDS Epidemic: A Story of Discrimination (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 77. Christened by the media as the “gay cancer,” KS caught the eye of the public due to its distinctive (and repulsive) skin lesions and its association with sex and homosexual deviancy. Few stories sell better than sex or fear, and the mysterious new GRID (Gay-related Immune Deficiency) offered both in equal measure. Media organizations large and small happily sensationalized the topic, claiming that the new malady would befall all who engaged in “risky” or immoral behavior. None other than The New York Times helped lead the charge, running numerous articles reporting that all infected patients were promiscuous homosexuals having sex with between fifteen and twenty anonymous men per night, and that the infamous gay bathhouses were the epicenter of the “Gay Plague.”7Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 416. The media frenzy only grew worse in 1983 following the realization that HIV could be transmitted via infected blood.8Dennis Altman, AIDS in the Mind of America, (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986), p. 74. Heterosexual Americans, now in the line of fire, feared for their safety. Conservative state legislatures profited from the media panic, using the momentum generated to pass draconian HIV-specific criminal laws. In total, thirty-three states would pass such targeted felony ordinances.9Teresa Wiltz, “HIV Crime Laws: Historical Relics or Public Safety Measures,” Pew Stateline, The Pew Charitable Trusts, September 6, 2017,

HIV/AIDS truly could not have come at a worse time. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 heralded a sweeping victory for the New Right’s Christian conservatism. Incensed by the progressivism of the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Right claimed the Presidency and the Senate in the 1980 election, a year before American homosexuals began dying in droves. The New Right wasted no time ascribing blame. Consider Lawrence Lockman’s widely circulated 1986 book The AIDS Epidemic: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting your Family and Community from the Gay Plague. The conservative columnist (and eventual member of Maine’s House of Representatives) not only held “the gay lifestyle” responsible for bringing AIDS to American shores – reiterating the popular notion that homosexuals are “extremely filthy and disgusting as well as unhealthy” – but went further and attacked heterosexual patients as well, accusing them of cavorting with homosexuals and living sinful, debased lives.10Gina Bright, Plague-Making and the AIDS Epidemic, pp. 83-84. Alternatively, revisit the work of paleoconservative (traditionalist conservatives reacting against the rise of neoconservatism in the Republican Party) Patrick Buchanan.11Samuel Francis, “The Paleo Persuasion,” The American Conservative, December 16, 2002, The Republican columnist, commentator, and politician authored the widely-circulated “AIDS Disease: It’s Nature Striking Back”. Buchanan’s piece echoed many of his fellows in calling homosexuals both a moral and public health menace. He then boldly pushed onward, articulating a policy of nationwide segregation, one that would forcibly remove suspected AIDS patients from public life so as to protect ‘innocent’ heterosexual America.12Dennis Altman, AIDS in the Mind of America, p. 59. The widespread (and completely debunked) belief that AIDS could be spread by casual contact only made it easier for local and state governments to encourage blatantly discriminatory practices. Individuals with HIV/AIDS (and homosexuals more broadly) could be barred from public facilities and transport, expelled from their schools, evicted from their homes, fired from their work, profiled and quarantined by the police, discharged from the Armed Forces, and barred from donating blood. Meanwhile, the CDC understood as early as 1983 that AIDS was not transmissible via simple contact, proximity, or shared use of daily items.13Institute of Medicine (US) Committee to Study HIV Transmission Through Blood and Blood Products, “History of the Controversy,” HIV And the Blood Supply: An Analysis of Crisis Decisionmaking, U.S. National Library of Medicine, January 1, 1995, Yet regardless of both CDC and activist attempts to spread awareness within the general population, these novel forms of discrimination intensified.14Gina Bright, Plague-Making and the AIDS Epidemic, p. 94. 

Arguably, the worst effects of AIDS-based discrimination were experienced within the healthcare industry, the one realm of life exceedingly vital to people living with HIV. Physicians and nurses refused to treat or even touch patients. Orderlies refused to wash patients or change their clothes and dressings, leaving them to lie in their own filth and misery. Should a patient find their way to a clinic or emergency room, staff would simply ignore them until they either left out of frustration and shame, or simply expired. When patients did succumb to AIDS-related complications, morgue technicians and undertakers refused to handle their bodies, instead opting to throw corpses (dressings, bedsheets, and all) into heavy-duty garbage bags before requiring the friends or family of the deceased to remove them on their own.15Dennis Altman, AIDS in the Mind of America, p. 62. The paranoia reached such a level that medical facilities across the country refused to treat any individual of an “at-risk” group (often summarized as the 4Hs: homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians).16Gina Bright, Plague-Making and the AIDS Epidemic, p. 85. Due to the effects of media-sponsored paranoia, as well as hate speech, the 1980’s saw rates of violence against gay men and lesbians skyrocket.17William R. Greer, “VIOLENCE AGAINST HOMOSEXUALS RISING, GROUPS SEEKING WIDER PROTECTION SAY,” The New York Times, The New York Times, November 23, 1986, Spurred on by AIDS-related panic and homophobia, the storming of gay neighborhoods and gay-aligned events grew more common.18William R. Greer, “VIOLENCE AGAINST HOMOSEXUALS RISING”, Take a quiet Sunday afternoon in San Francisco, for example. That day bore witness to a gang of twenty-odd drunken teenagers gather at the edge of Sigmund Stern Grove. Wielding bats, sticks, and rocks, the mob screamed and shouted “Faggots got AIDS”, “Unclean” and “You’re diseased” whilst brutally assaulting gay and lesbian attendees of a community picnic organized by Dignity (a gay Catholic organization).19Dennis Altman, AIDS in the Mind of America, p. 69. Some Conservatives openly advocated for abhorrent measures of controlling the potentially-infected population. Conservative author William Buckley proposed that every HIV-positive American be mandatorily tattooed so as to make their status readily apparent.20Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 424. Meanwhile, Californian multimillionaire Lyndon LaRouche went one step further, organizing his Prevent AIDS Now Initiative Committee (PANIC) to promote an initiative on California’s 1986 ballot.21Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 424. He and his seven hundred thousand supporters sought to forcibly inter all people with AIDS in quarantined concentration camps, much the same way the nation had done to Americans of Japanese descent forty-four years earlier.

AIDS defined an entire generation. The specter of death hung like a cloud over the head of every LGBT American during the crisis years.22Perry N. Halkitis, The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience, (New York City, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 1. Facing death and discrimination, impassioned activists such as Larry Kramer rose and tackled the problems born of the Crisis.23Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 422. By 1982, he found a number of similarly-minded allies.24Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 419. Bold new confrontational organizations such as ACT UP, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and the AIDS Network all promoted revolutionary programs, ranging from caring for people with AIDS to engaging in campaigns of mass civil disobedience.25Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 419, p. 422. They looked after their own, and took the veritable life-and-death struggle gays faced on a daily basis into the homes of the nation through orchestrated church and television station invasions.26Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 436. In the face of not just their own mortality, but also the risk of reprisal at the hands of their neighbors or government, six hundred thousand gays and lesbians from all across the country gathered in the nation’s capital on October 11, 1987.27Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 428. The Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights saw the grief and rage of the community on full display, mourning the loss of over forty-one thousand fellow gays and lesbians to AIDS, and to protest a government that did nothing but watch them die.28Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 429. The unveiling of the AIDS Quilt at the National Mall on live television made for a stirring, lasting moment that exemplifies the best of civil resistance. The AIDS generation lived through one of the worst epidemics in modern history. All who survived have been scarred by it, but came out the other side more resilient and stronger as a community.29Perry Halkitis, The AIDS Generation, p. 1. While many had perished, their sacrifices would be remembered, and the survivors have continued to resist Christian conservative AIDS-related policies well into the modern day. 


Altman, Dennis. AIDS in the Mind of America. First ed. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986.

Bright, Gina M. Plague-Making and the AIDS Epidemic: A Story of Discrimination. First ed. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Faderman, Lillian. “Chapter 23: The Plague.” In The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, First Simon & Schuster hardcover ed. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Francis, Samuel. “The Paleo Persuasion.” The American Conservative, December 16, 2002.

Greer, William R. “VIOLENCE AGAINST HOMOSEXUALS RISING, GROUPS SEEKING WIDER PROTECTION SAY.” The New York Times. The New York Times, November 23, 1986.

Gregg, Michael B, ed. “Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Pneumocystis Pneumonia Among Homosexual Men – New York City and California.” Morbidity And Mortality Weekly Report 30, no. 25 (July 3, 1981): 305–16.

Halkitis, Perry N. The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience. New York City, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.

“HIV and AIDS — United States, 1981–2000.” HIV and AIDS — United States, 1981–2000. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 1, 2001.

Institute of Medicine (US) Committee to Study HIV Transmission Through Blood and Blood Products. “History of the Controversy.” HIV And The Blood Supply: An Analysis Of Crisis Decisionmaking. U.S. National Library of Medicine, January 1, 1995.

Ocamb, Karen. “Larry Kramer’s Historic Essay: AIDS At 30.” Larry Kramer’s Historic Essay: AIDS At 30. The Bilerico Project, June 14, 2011.

Wiltz, Teresa. “HIV Crime Laws: Historical Relics or Public Safety Measures?” Pew Stateline. The Pew Charitable Trusts, September 6, 2017.

Corruption of the Body (Politic)

by Benjamin Van Dyne

Contemporary definitions of corruption (and, by contrast, of “good government”) arguably take much of their current shape in the Progressive Era reforms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which sought to battle “corruption” in at least two forms: First, there was the quasi-legal category of corruption, which conveys a sense of procedural norms being violated. Second, the term was used to describe the impurity of non-Anglo Saxon blood, which is “corrupted” by the presence of undesirable genetic and racial traits.1Christine Rosen, Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. To a contemporary reader, these usages may seem distinct, an etymological artifact with no lingering connection. Yet a closer look at the usage of these terms in the Progressive Era reveals that these two senses of “corruption” have a historical tie. The impurity of non-Anglo Saxon blood was linked by some reformers to the kinds of social and political behaviors that they attacked as “corrupt.” If political and social corruption was a major target of Progressive Era reformers, then it was genetic corruption that began increasingly to claim their attention in the 1920s and 30s. As historian Christine Rosen notes, some reformers saw eugenics as of a piece with other reform efforts because of the ways in which it tackled a root cause of social ills, rather than just the symptoms.2Christine Rosen, Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. The root cause of political and social corruption, at least some of the time, was corrupted blood.

Industrialization, urbanization and immigration changed the face of the United States in the years after the American Civil War. The jobs available in urban areas, especially in the North, drew not only immigrants, but also domestic migrants from the South, both black and white.  The changes wrought by the war became constitutive of the new U.S.: industrial, immigrant, urban. But the rapid growth of cities and industry led to tensions between various immigrant groups, between new immigrants and native-born whites, and between industry and the new laboring class—all of whom were coexisting in rapidly growing urban centers.3Saidiya V. Hartman, Wayward Lives: Intimate Stories of Social Upheaval. New York: Norton, 2019.

Progressive Era reformers were a diverse group with differing priorities and a variety of campaigns. It included early socialists as well as brahmins motivated by a sense of noblesse oblige. It had some roots in the social gospel (in white as well as black churches) as well more secular manifestations. My purpose, then, is to draw our one thread that implicates a variety of reforms efforts in a particular, Anglo-Saxonist discourse of “corruption,” not argue that the Progressive Era reforms were all determined by Anglo Saxon norms.4Kelly Brown Douglas has argued that Anglo-Saxon and Protestant chauvinism can be traced to the English reformers, who saw the purification of the English church from popery and from Norman culture as being closely related projects. See Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2015), chs. 1-2. Some reformers devoted their attention to efforts to restrain the abuses of large social institutions. They led efforts to regulate and ultimately break up trusts like Standard Oil. This is the era of activism for women’s suffrage and for direct popular election of U.S. senators.

But good-government reforms also edged into attacking institutions that gave power to newer immigrants. Attacks on urban political machines, in particular, could have a racial character. There is no doubt that these machines operated though coercion and sometimes outright violence. So-called “corrupt” urban regimes like those of Pendergast in Kansas City or Tammany Hall in New York operated on systems of bribes and kickbacks, patronage and pressure.5Gaustad, Edwin S. and Mark A. Noll, eds. A Documentary History of Religion in America to 1877. 3d ed.(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003, 234. But such political machines were also a route into participation in American public life for newer immigrants who might otherwise not have had access to political or economic power. Like labor unions, such machines could function as solidarity organizations, if perhaps (also like labor unions) ones not totally free of internal power politics, patronage, and violence. But those political machines were also sources of economic and political power for communities of newer immigrants, mostly Catholic and mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe, who otherwise had access to neither. Such immigrants were not yet routinely considered white, and their presence and power presented a challenge to the Anglo Saxon political establishment that was both disgusted by their culture and threatened by their power.

Some effort to dismantle these machines were frontal attacks: Key members of Tammany were prosecuted for violating bribery laws. But other attacks were subtler, and mixed genuine efforts at good-government reform with effort to diminish the power of immigrant communities. Civil-service laws, which protected civil servants from political influence and reduced the number and power of political appointees, were aimed in part at reducing the power of urban political machines. Many of the key figures of the movement for women’s suffrage were also temperance activists; those speaking out for quality-of-life among women recognized the degree to which women were put in physical and economic danger not only by lacking the franchise but also by the lack of protection from husbands and fathers that, in their view, the use of alcohol caused. Men who spent their time and money at the beer hall were not spending it on their families who—barring major changes in normative family structures of the kind we are just now seeing—depended on them.6Gaustad, Edwin S. and Mark A. Noll, eds. A Documentary History of Religion in America to 1877, 42.

Yet attacks on the tavern as a site of drinking were also attacks on a physical site where a political machine’s operators would ask for and distribute favors. For some reformers, this meant that bars were not just sites of drinking (objectionable enough in itself). They were also a distraction from a proper Victorian home life, a gathering place for young single laborers, and a site of political organizing among immigrants whose status as “white” was still in the works.7Gaustad, Edwin S. and Mark A. Noll, eds. A Documentary History of Religion in America to 1877, 48.

To the extent that individual persuasion and legal prohibition did not succeed at bringing the immigrant masses into compliance with Anglo-Saxon, Protestant norms of good government, temperance, and family life, a slightly later group of reformers would continue that tradition—not depart from it—by pursuing eugenics as a means to save the city from undesirable persons. This is the second cultural valence of “corruption”—the way in which the social and political corruptions some reformers saw as endemic to new, mostly Catholic immigrants became linked firmly to biology.

The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States by lowering the quota of immigrants of each nationality. It also recalibrated the calculation of the quota to increase the allowable number of British nationals, and completely excluded immigrants from Asia.8The text of the Immigration Act of 1924 can be accessed at Advocates of these immigration restrictions focused on the danger that non-white blood would corrupt the social and political culture of the United States. The immoral behavior of urban immigrants (specifically sexual immorality and the use of alcohol) was cited by advocates as evidence of the need for immigration restrictions.9Baynton, Douglas C. (2016). Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press. p. 45.

At the same time, reformers turned to more aggressive measures to regulate the presence of “corrupted blood.” Churches were asked to advocate for laws restricting marriages in order to prevent “undesirable”—that is, mixed or non-Anglo Saxon—offspring. Even where such laws did not pass, some churches did so voluntarily. (Roman Catholic churches, jealously guarding their authority over the sacrament of marriage, tended to be the exceptions.) The judicial system turned to forced sterilization on the theory that future criminality could be prevented if criminals did not reproduce. As historian Christine Rosen argues, at least some of the time, eugenics was an effort at long-term social reform meant to solve many of the same problems that other reformers had sought to solve.

The afterlife of this eugenicist meaning of  “corruption” survives in the complex, racially inflected cultural valence of that term. In a society where the ideal of colorblindness is often praised, such plausible deniability about racist assumptions can be perpetuated in such obliquely racialized categories. The cultural valence of “corruption” operates in a way somewhat analogous to “terrorism”: Anyone can commit an act of terrorism, but the image of a “terrorist” is assumed in much U.S. media to be Middle Eastern and Muslim. “Terrorist,” then, has a cultural weight which both perpetuates stereotypes about Middle Eastern and Muslim people but can be used without directly making claims about race and religion. Pay attention: “Corruption” still tends to be used in contemporary media predominantly to describe non-white people. Yes, anyone can commit acts of corruption—but only certain kinds of societies are thought to tend toward corruption and those tend to be Latin American, African, or Eastern European. Corruption of the body politic and corruption of the body remain more connected than they might seem.