American evangelical Christians had their own sexual revolution in the 1970s, Daniel Silliman claimed at a lecture Monday.
Silliman ’06 spoke on “Selling Sex at the Christian Bookstore: How Market Forces Shaped the Secular Fantasy of American Evangelicals.” Currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Notre Dame, Silliman claims that though it may seem a no-brainer to place evangelicals staunchly on the traditional, conservative side of the American culture wars, this assumption obscures the facts.
“A look at the publication dates of Evangelical sex manuals shows these Christians were not following a cultural shift,” Silliman said. “They were a part of it.” He pointed out that the first popular book to give sex advice, evangelical or not, was Marabel Morgan’s “The Total Woman.” It was the bestselling title of 1974.
Sex manuals like Morgan’s encouraged Christian wives to embrace their sexuality and use it to improve their marriages and find sexual fulfillment. Middle-class, middle-aged women began engaging in sexual roleplay with their husbands, greeting them at the door in just sheer stockings, high heels, and an apron, or seducing them in the garden.
“For a change tonight, place a lighted candle on the floor,” Morgan’s advice suggested. “Seduce him under the dining room table. Or lead him to the sofa.”
The typical interpretation of this kind of advice, according to Silliman, has been to say evangelicals were merely trying to claim it was possible to both achieve sexual satisfaction and be a good Christian.
Silliman, however, believes a close reading reveals a more sinister truth.
“They said sexual satisfaction was attainable through belief,” he said. “They argued belief in Jesus and the Bible was directly, causally connected to complete personal fulfillment.”
Silliman supports his claim by pointing to the phenomenon of Christian bookstores, through which this evangelical sexual revolution — a kind of prosperity Gospel, but with sex — was able to spread.
During the 20th century, when booksellers such as Eerdmans, Baker, and Zondervan discovered they could sell unprecedented numbers of books by marketing their works to a “trans-denominational print culture,” did Christian books really began to sell. Mennonites and Dutch Reformed, for instance, though they saw themselves as opposed in certain theological matters, were beginning to see each other as allies in the fight against the secular culture.
As a result, Silliman said, “Publishers’ market incentives changed.”
Books on Mennonite doctrine or Methodist theology, which would appeal only to specific, narrow audiences, wouldn’t sell as well as books on practical issues like marriage, children, and how to live day to day.
“Not everybody was happy about this dumbing down to books with the broadest appeal, but the market was the market,” Silliman said. “In the changing dynamics, attention to immanent, this-worldly things was encouraged and rewarded.”
Books like Marabel Morgan’s “The Total Woman” would eventually sell very well in this market — leading to an evangelical sexual revolution.
Silliman’s larger point, then, becomes clear: although the evangelical Christian culture of Zondervan publishing and Marabel Morgan saw itself as battling modern secularism, its ultimate concern — whether in its sexual revolution or its bookstores — was fundamentally secular.
“An evangelical identity emerged with the emergence of a print culture, and the identity is constructed not against secularism but within secularity, within secularism,” Silliman concluded. “They produced, sold, and bought religious books, but they were religious books about the here and now. They were all about abundant life — but the kind you could have wearing just sheer stockings, high heels, and an apron.”
Silliman will teach a course at Hillsdale next semester on “Religion, Society, & Culture.” The class, which may be counted for credit in the sociology, religion, or Christian Studies departments, will examine how religion is a cultural activity and social phenomenon throughout America’s history.