Purity

What is 'purity culture'? Why is this term in the news right now?

What is 'purity culture'? Why is this term in the news right now?

THE QUESTION:

What is “purity culture,” and why is it in the news?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This was a particular U.S. Protestant campaign born in the 1990s that sought to urge teens and young adults to follow the age-old Christian (also Jewish, Muslim, etc.) teaching against sexual relations before marriage.

Outsiders and opponents called this the “purity culture” movement, and it’s currently in the news and the subject of intense online debate.

That “purity” label is confusing because critics of the phenomenon are not just secularists or those who scoff at old-fashioned morality. Conservatives who likewise advocate the sexual “purity’ taught in Christian tradition raise some of the most pointed objections to this movement’s specific theology, techniques and claims.

The cause originated in 1993 with sex education materials under the “True Love Waits’ banner issued by the publishing arm of America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Within just one year of existence a Washington, D.C. rally drew 25,000 youths and displayed 210,000 sexual abstinence pledge cards on the National Mall.

The movement appealed to many moms and dads who were wounded by the sexual libertinism that began in the 1960s and wanted more wholesome relationships for their own children, fretting over increases in sexually transmitted disease, unwed pregnancy and divorce. The pledges of abstinence until marriage were reinforced by wearing rings popularized from 1995 onward by The Silver Ring Thing organization, reconfigured last year as Unaltered Ministries. Instead of high school proms, some churches held “purity balls” where dads escorted daughters.

The movement is back in the news due to its primary celebrity guru, Joshua Harris, who at a tender age 21 wrote “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” This 1998 book eventually sold nearly a million copies and fused the effort with a highly influential how-to methodology.

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Separating religious belief from cultural tradition. In real world it's no easy journalistic task

Separating religious belief from cultural tradition. In real world it's no easy journalistic task

Is it possible to separate out religious influences from centuries-old societal customs? And if so, just how does a journalist go about doing this?

This is not an easy task. That goes double for journalists -- perhaps most journalists -- with little exposure to the principles of group dynamics or the psychology of institutional religion.

This may sound like hubris on my part, but I believe that the wide experience gained on the religion beat prepares journalists to better understand humanity’s complex social and psychological formulations -- allowing religion writers and editors to (potentially) better parse the differences.

This recent New York Times story on the semi-isolation of menstruating women in remote western Nepal, causing the death of some, provides a platform for exploring the question.

But first, a quick return to Brazil.

You may recall that a few weeks ago I posted here on the custom of some indigenous Brazilian tribes to murder unwanted children. I tried to explain how from their tribal perspective the practice made sense.

I noted that in their rain forest environment, where food is surprisingly difficult to come by, the children -- fatherless or physically impaired -- were in the tribes’ view being sacrificed for a greater good. That's because they could not contribute to the group's food supply, which tribal leaders deemed an unacceptable burden that threatened the entire group's survival.

I also noted how outrageously obscene the practice seems when considered from a Western mindset rooted in the Abrahamic religious traditions. My point was to illustrate how difficult it is for journalists to put aside their deepest values when covering groups with a vastly different belief set.

The late Huston Smith, the renowned scholar of comparative religion, once wrote, I’m paraphrasing now, that every civilization -- and by every civilization he even included small, semi-nomadic jungle tribes -- is influenced by some spiritual vision of how life is best lived.

I take that to mean that in the Brazilian case, the tribes were following some inner sense of their own notion of right and wrong, even if they did not articulate it in spiritual or religious terms.

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