Monique Moultrie, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University, is the author of the new book Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality. In the book, she explores the impact of faith-based sexual ministries on black women’s sexual agency to trace how these women navigate sexuality, religious authority, and their spiritual walk with God.
How would you describe your personal history and relationship with the evangelical church, and especially with the televangelist Juanita Bynum, whose ministry you discuss at length in Passionate and Pious?
I was reared in a conservative Christian church (a Baptist church) in a rural community that was a model of evangelicalism and took quite seriously the Christian message to evangelize. I went to Jerry Falwell rallies as a teen and actively participated in Christian organizations/clubs. When I entered college I first became aware of televangelist Juanita Bynum even though as a teen I had practiced purity as was expected from my evangelical model. What I remember about watching Bynum’s “No More Sheets” sermon for the first time in a small group setting with a group of other women was that I remembered many things clicking from the sermon. It made sense on a very guttural level. I also think the sermon offered voice to a lot of the personal experiences of women in the room. Women were trying to live out their faith lives in ways that came into contrast with their own sexual needs, desires, and actual realities. Later as I watched events in Bynum’s personal life unfold, I began to wonder if Bynum was the model exemplar or if in fact this was a model that others could hold onto and participate in the same way.
After personally following Bynum for years she became the topic of my doctoral dissertation as I set out to explain the sexual dilemmas facing black women of faith and why/how they were influenced by No More Sheets. My dissertation used ethnographic research and cultural analysis to examine the authority of evangelical sexual messages produced in religious media like her televangelism. I continued to follow Bynum through her marriage, divorce, and subsequent ministries beyond her initial No More Sheets ministry although the book really only focused on this first step.
How did your background in the evangelical church—your experience in the community and as a consumer of its messages about sexuality—help (or hinder) you as you conducted research?
I mention in the book that part of my background in the evangelical church meant that a lot of this rhetoric was something I was used to, as I already knew the lingo and phrases. One of the early book reviewers’ comments was that the book was full of a lot of insider language as I described the communities. I was really such an insider that I needed to go back with the editors to get help determining what words/phrases/categories needed to be defined for those outside of these communities. Thus, in this initial way I had a natural in because I was formed in black church settings. I was also familiar with religious media because I grew up watching televangelism and in many ways the evangelical communities I was studying just made sense to me. It made entering into research much easier as I knew what types of questions to ask to get a response. At times, I could even anticipate responses. I could be understood by my audience and in ways that gave me an advantage since I didn’t have to work as hard to earn trust. Having familiarity in their settings aided my research. I didn’t have to be vouched for in many ways and specifically online this helped when people can’t look at you in your eyes and get a feel for whether you seem authentic or not. Being online in many of these accountability groups and participating online it really helped to know the community’s language, theology, worship, etc.
On the other hand, if my insider status did hinder my research, it was because I was very compassionate towards them. I really spent a lot of time thinking of my research questions. I think a lot of what gets written about evangelicals treats them as if they are cultural dupes. They are written about as if they lack intellect or are overruled by emotionality or that they are not making conscious decisions. I knew that not to be the case so I wanted that to show in my own research. I wanted to highlight the very tough decisions that are being made daily in each of these women’s lives where they embody very complicated contemporary realities where being celibate until marriage for a black woman often means participating in celibacy movements for more than half of their lives. Young girls start in groups in their teen years and they participate in college groups and stats show that black women marry much later; they marry much closer to age 50 so that’s a long time to participate in these movements! I wanted to be compassionate towards this experience because I understood this struggle. I also understood their deep desire for sexual relationship and faith to align. I wanted that to come forward in my research. In some ways, my tenderness towards their plight may have obfuscated my ability to be as critical as I may have wanted to.
As a trained academic, I was clear in my goal of illuminating my ethnographic subjects’ experiences while at the same time offering a womanist corrective. My constructive sections are where my critical side shows. In my goal of not just being objective in presenting these various ministries but to humanize them and these women’s experiences I did take a very critical persona. I did mention in the book that my own rearing in a conservative Christian background gave me messages that privileged monogamy and committed relationships as more normative. When I looked back at my questions related to non-monogamous relationships like hook up culture, my own background tainted those sets of questions. I didn’t really presume that non-monogamy would be the norm. Persons talked with me about their experiences with multiple partners, but often it came out as not their own experience but something that they were reporting from others. When I went through the transcripts, I think a large part of that may have been the way that I crafted the question that probably presumed monogamy. If they were in a multiple-partner relationship my questions presumed that this wasn’t what they intended as a mature relationship. Yet, I know for some of the participants that having multiple partners was not a stage or some immature sexual agency. Having multiple partners was deemed as normative as having one partner and so that’s definitely one way when I looked back at the research I saw a hindrance. Thankfully I became aware of this before the book went to print but certainly as I did the interviews I wasn’t as in tune with this unconscious privileging.
Your book discusses the many messages black women receive from the evangelical church: submission, modesty, abstinence outside of marriage, heterosexuality, etc. What tools does your book provide for shifting these messages or encouraging black women to reclaim their sexual agency?
First, I start with the presumption that black women are sexually agential. The book asserts that black women are sexual agents that are consciously choosing to participate or not participate in sexual acts based in some part to their faith. One of the benefits of the text is to highlight celibacy as a sexual choice as women who are not being “forced or coerced” to be celibate but are actively participating in their own sexual decisions that include the right not to have sex or to express sexual freedom without a sexual relationship. For me that is a shifting of the dominant message.
I think another message or tool that the book provides is that it tries to address what is actually going on in people’s lives. It doesn’t just take the evangelical norm of celibacy until marriage as a fantasy world but admits that there are some things that happen along the way like divorce, death; there’s queer subjectivity; there are different ways of being in the world. It really tries to shift the typical conversation around sexuality in black ecclesial spaces. Even though this is a book about heterosexuality and black women’s participation in heterosexuality even the chapter on the participation of women who identify as having same-sex desire is still framed around their participation in heterosexual norms, which are really complicated sexual realities.
What I’m trying to do in the book is to offer a way forward using a womanist lens. Each chapter takes a part of the womanist definition to construct a womanist sexual ethics for contemporary times as I ponder what would it mean to live into this contemporary womanist sexual ethics. For example, I talk about sexual generosity as a way to talk about the fluidity of sexual expression. How do we think about sexual freedom, flourishing, and thriving that actually deal with people’s everyday realities and not just what the norm would be? The norm is complicated so yes, I interviewed grandmothers and women, who had been widowed, never married, married multiple times, or knew that marriage wasn’t the path for them. I asked what does it mean to be a sexually agential person of faith with these complicated personal decisions at work? The book really tries to give some semblance of what I think a person could do. I hope these suggestions are bold enough to really change business as usual to make possible new ways of being Christian, black, female that would allow one to be whole. To allow persons to not feel stigma, to not feel shame, to feel that their sexuality is a part of who God gifted them to be and that this is fine and to be thrilled about that.
How has the evangelical church’s impact on black women changed with the advent of new technologies and communications tools like email and social media?
I think one of the best offerings of the book is to say, if research just looks at singles ministries in churches, then you are missing the many ways women are influenced by faith messages. It is not true that they are just getting sexual messages at Sunday school or Sunday worship or once a month at singles retreats/events but these ministries talk about practicing purity daily. In order to practice purity daily there are many steps in doing that and they don’t take for chance that you are going to show up on Sunday morning.
One of the things that I highlight as one of the tools the evangelical church can learn from is the amount of accountability that is required to be a part of one of these ministries. Your local church does community and it’s certainly about bringing others into Christ and into the Christian family. This is not new or changed. Making people feel like family—it’s one thing to be a family member and be estranged; it’s another to feel like you’ve found your people. This influx of technology is a way for people to find their people and to stay in communication with their people. The impact this will have on the evangelical church is tremendous. The church’s core values are expanded and flourish through these mediums because if I hear a great sermon like “No More Sheets” I don’t have to be a part of the church to do so. Technology provides exposure. One of the ways women all over the globe were exposed to Bynum’s sermon that weren’t a part of the few thousand that attended T. D. Jakes’ conference that year was that they sold the sermon on VHS. You can see clips now on YouTube. They did this as a means of evangelism. They also did this a means of making profit, and I don’t want to minimize that. They made the tapes to mass distribute. That early decision via televangelism has impacted the evangelical church so that one person’s message that may have just impacted their city can now create a global presence. I watch the global growth of Pinky Promise’s leader Heather Lindsey that has been around 5-6 years and part of what she is able to accomplish is much greater than the small community church that they have at the Oasis. Her platform, being able to use social media, and even her books have allowed her to have a stage, a voice that is much greater than what she has as first lady or even a minister. I am careful to note in the book that the leaders would be clear to say that their platforms are to highlight Christ or the Christ that they serve and it’s not about profit but about them being able to lift up the message of Jesus and the way that God wants them to live. I don’t want to minimize that but there is a way that this impact is so much more tremendous than if the technology was not present.
Finally, I think the church’s impact on black women changed with these tools because it allows people to still be on roll somewhere as a member but not ever go; you can tithe/give offering online. You can participate online in ways that weren’t possible before. I may have been a member of church X that doesn’t have women ministers but I can follow these powerful female pastors/preachers and see something different. This ability also changes what you see and this is a significant shift.
You describe your methodology as “womanist ethnography,” in which you seek to “create space for the validity of black women’s religious experiences.” How do you reconcile raising up these voices with critiquing the messages and code of sexual ethics that these women follow?
I talked about this in the previous question; it’s a struggle. Part of why it was really necessary to do the ethnography was to not just trust my gut but to actually hear from others. My presumptions/hypotheses were that women would have feelings of shame for not adhering to purity or being celibate until marriage. I expected to have women who had not met that mark and felt guilty, and I overwhelmingly didn’t find this reported at all. Thus, it was important to highlight this in the book to check my own presumptions and to say that women are handling their sexuality and faith walk in a different way. At the same time, their not feeling shame doesn’t mean that they are critiquing the system. They know the norm is heteronormative marriage and many of them weren’t critiquing that norm despite looking around in their friend group or in their churches and seeing this is not their reality. My ability to be critical and say let’s question that norm and not whether you are adhering or coping with not adhering to the norm is my attempt to critique these messages.
An example of questioning this norm is my doing womanist ethnography and interviewing women who had same-sex desire and deeply want to be heterosexual because they believe that this is what God is calling for them. My job as an ethnographer is to listen, record, and then interpret. I present what they said and then I offer a womanist corrective. In this example, I reported what they wanted to be, but my womanist corrective called me to question if they could imagine a wider spectrum of different possibilities that were beyond landing on an identity as queer such as being on a continuum and acknowledging that continuum as a person of faith. My corrective hoped to show that being who God created you to be would not mean being outside of God’s will.
Ultimately, after listening to these women’s stories and what they were telling me, I also wanted to offer something constructive. Academic scholarship can be destructive and listening to these women’s stories, I couldn’t just remove the influence of the church and the messages that they were being given and not provide something in the interim. I wanted to provide some intervention, and I’m certain that others have more great work to follow but my goal of meeting what they were telling me with a better alternative was a dance.
I talk about this dilemma in the introduction where I discuss entering the Pinky Promise community online as a researcher and setting up a researcher page in their online forum (which is still active even though the book is done). I set up this page being fully aware that they could forget that I was a researcher. We would pray together, and they would forget I was a researcher. Those moments when they forgot and saw me as a part of the community, I was still a person that had to question some of their messages.
The intro chapter recounts the story of Heather Lindsey instructing in a sermon that there is never a reason to divorce even in a broken, battered relationship. A woman in the online group recounted being ready to divorce an emotionally and physically abusive husband and the group rejoiced that she was now going to pray more fervently for her relationship. I wrestled for a couple of hours that day watching women congratulate this woman on her decision to fight for her marriage and I watched well-meaning women put this woman in harm’s way. As a researcher, I knew telling her to run, flee, and get to safety could sever communal ties, but I also knew that I had to say something. As an ethicist, I had a mandate to tell her what I honestly thought would save her life. The book highlights numerous moments like this where my job as an ethnographer did not always match the compassion I wanted to show the community; yet, I tried to provide a balance and a critical response.