How the Atlanta shooting shows the dangers of American evangelicalism's trademark "purity culture"

  • Temptation and “sex addiction” feature heavily in evangelical rituals and beliefs around gender roles.
  • A mythical “heroic masculinity” underpins evangelical ideas on men and sex.
  • No evidence links impulsive sexual behaviors with mass murder, experts say.
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For four days, as the country tried to parse the latest mass shooting, pundits and the public finally confronted the increase in anti-Asian rhetoric and hate crimes in an attempt to understand what might have driven a 21-year-old to shoot eight people, six of them Asian women. 

Then came the police statement: The alleged shooter said he wasn’t fighting a race war when he allegedly committed the killings, at three massage parlors in the Atlanta area; he was battling his own “temptation” and “possibly, a sex addiction.”  

Far from eliminating racism as a motive, the alleged shooter’s confession embodies it: The murders in Georgia represent a uniquely American twinning of racism, sexism, and religion.

“It’s not a jump to say white conservative Christianity played a role here,” said Joshua Grubbs, an assistant professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University. “The facts need to come to light, but all the facts that are in the light right now suggest it’s at play.”

Robert Aaron Long, the accused shooter, was reportedly an active youth group member of Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, 40 miles from Atlanta. The church is affiliated with Founders Ministries, a conservative movement within evangelicalism to establish an approach to the Bible not “limited by cultural sensitivities,” according to its website. 

There’s been more attention in recent years to the connection between “toxic masculinity” and violence, a connection that feminist scholars have been writing about for decades, and recent revelations about the alleged shooter’s motive have pushed gender to the forefront of the conversation. 

But gender experts say it’s impossible to understand the role of misogyny in the killing of six Asian women at massage parlors without also thinking about the way sexist stereotypes objectify Asian women. And religious studies scholars say it’s impossible to understand either without looking at evangelicalism.

“What it comes down to, in a very simplified way, is that all the ‘isms’ run together here, and that is something that tends to occur often in the context of white conservative Christianity,” said Grubbs.

Believers and secular scholars alike hear in the shooter’s own language, as told to police, a linguistic map of evangelical values that are both rooted in and expressions of historical and contemporary forms of racism and sexism. 

Two key concepts here are “temptation” and “sex addiction.” Both feature heavily in evangelical “purity culture,” a set of rituals and beliefs around gender roles, designed to encourage believers, especially young men and women, to abstain from sex outside of heterosexual marriage.

“The whole concept of temptation is theological,” said Kyle J. Howard, a public theologian and preacher in Atlanta. “When he talks about ‘temptation,’ he’s using theological language. We should be looking at what this person’s theological tradition or connection is.” 

Long’s church released a statement, four days after the killings, condemning the murders and disavowing any link between its teachings and the violence. The Southern Baptist Convention, a key evangelical platform, also distanced itself from the shooting. 

But scholars of evangelicalism reject these denials as facile.

“As an historian of Christianity, I would push back against that,” said Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University who specializes in evangelical culture. “He was clearly and deeply formed by a particular conservative evangelical faith tradition.”

Far from being prudish, conversations about sex feature prominently in that faith tradition, experts say. The goal isn’t to banish sex; it’s to confine sex to strict heterosexual norms. A key part of the belief system is that falling outside of those norms is not seen as an individual failing; it’s viewed, instead, as “addiction.”

“White evangelical Christians emphasize their interpretation of biology or popular science to make sense of human sexuality,” Kelsy Burke, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who studies white evangelicals and sexuality. “Your brain creates these pathways, is the language they use. Seeing it as physically addictive is a way to make sense of” breaking sexual taboos.

But even “sex addiction” is a piece of evangelical theology. There’s no medical condition by that name, no diagnostic criteria, and therefore no bona fide treatment. 

“That’s just a ludicrous claim, to blame this [violence] on that,” said Grubbs, who specializes in the psychology of sex addiction.  “You won’t ever catch a competent mental health person saying, ‘I diagnose this person with a sex addiction.’ That is not a thing that they’ll say.”

Grubbs’ own research, meanwhile, and his work with sociologist Samuel Perry, suggests that “sex addiction” is a thing that mostly white evangelical Christians will say. In several studies, Grubbs found a significant relationship between religiosity and self-reported sex or pornography addiction. (Non-evangelicals may use pornography, or struggle with sexual impulses, but are unlikely to call these behaviors “addiction.”) 

It’s sexism, rather than biology, that’s really at the root of the idea of “sex addiction.” The belief that the world is full of temptresses that even good Christian men can’t always resist lets men avoid responsibility for their “lapses.” 

“In addiction recovery programs, the blame is rarely directed at men themselves. It’s directed at the obscure sexual secular culture, the pornography industry,” Burke said. “In the case of Mr. Long, these messages clearly, for multiple reasons, went sort of sideways. He acted out in a very extreme and aggressive way, but I think we can see how the language… plays into somebody like long’s thinking.” 

If sexism is a central tenant of Long’s evangelicalism, racism isn’t far behind. Establishing a “heroic masculinity” that can resist those temptresses is a big part of that tradition, and racism plays an implicit but crucial mythic role.

“It’s rarely articulated blatantly, but [racism] is very important. Books on Christian masculinity point to these mythical heroes, Hollywood heroes,” said du Mez, who wrote Jesus and John Wayne. “What I noticed is, all these heroes were white men. Many of them proved their heroism by subduing non-white people and using violence to achieve order. John Wayne, the cowboy, stands in Iwo Jima against the Japanese, or with the green berets against the Vietnamese. This is a persistent pattern; this how heroic masculinity is defined.” 

Angie Hong, a divinity student at Duke University and a one-time evangelical worship leader and musician, said she saw all of these dynamics play out in the Atlanta church she once attended.

“I went to a white church, and when I would play, I would get comments like, ‘You’re a China doll!’ People would pinch my cheeks, even though I’m an adult woman at this point. And yes, I got sexually harassed,” she said.

“Even though they welcomed me, they treated me as an object. They were so fascinated with this ‘mysterious Oriental figure;’ they wanted me to teach them words, to pray in Korean. There’s racism in the form of that desire,” she added.

In fact, racism writ large is “baked into evangelicalism from the beginning,” said Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.  In White Evangelical Racism, her forthcoming history of the religious movement’s relationship to white supremacy in the American south, she calls racism “a feature, not a bug, of American evangelicalism.”

“It’s so pervasive,” said Butler, herself an ex-evangelical. “It’s so much of history, but they don’t want you to know about that history. They just kept writing themselves into a better history all the time.”

Activists and scholars worry that this same instinct to beautify the story is already at work in shaping the view of the shooting. “Here we have the mass murder of Asian women, in the midst of a colonial history of and of [ongoing] hyper-sexualization, and we have police not wanting to say racism,” said Christine Hong, an assistant professor of educational ministry at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

“White supremacy does all of that, but we don’t want to name it. We just want to talk about anti-Asian bias, which is a softer and more accessible word, “she said. “It speaks to white discomfort, not necessarily the pain of the communities that suffered.” 

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