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How theological differences over sex have fueled some of the bitterest political fights of the past century and more.

If we want to understand the challenge of disintegrating sexual norms and the culture wars surrounding them, one of the most important things we need is history. This crisis did not just explode out of nowhere in the 1990s or even the 1960s. In Moral Combat, R. Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, reviews a century’s worth of American cultural conflict over sexuality, fueled by a growing divide between religious subcultures. Her account is subtly biased, but readers will benefit from her clear presentation of the longer history and larger significance of our sexual conflicts.

Griffith picks up the story in the aftermath of the conflict over the 19th Amendment. With women’s suffrage enshrined in the Constitution, the nation had hardly caught its breath before it was embroiled in a series of political conflicts over sexuality. Suffrage was followed by a series of what we would now call “culture wars” over birth control laws, censorship of pornography, marriage across ethnic lines, Alfred Kinsey’s sex research, and sex education in schools. These led straight into the battles over abortion, sexual harassment, gay rights, and transgenderism that are still raging today.

The first and most important takeaway from Moral Combat, then, is that the culture wars are at least a century old. Since the women’s suffrage movement began, there has never been a time when political conflict over sex was not an important presence in American public life.

The second takeaway is the centrality of sex to the culture wars. Other issues have been involved, of course. But there is a reason the controversy over abortion shot right to …

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