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Purity as Branding in the Evangelical Sub-Culture

September 2nd, 2016 | 7 min read

By Jake Meador

After Ruth Graham’s interview with Joshua Harris last week in Slate there was, once again, the predictable round of discussion on social media and in the blogosphere about evangelical “purity culture,” as it existed in youth ministries during the late 80s through the early 2000s. The term purity culture is probably part of the problem here, as there isn’t just one “purity culture” in evangelicalism.

Fundamentalist churches like the one Elizabeth Esther grew up in (which sounds very like the one I grew up in) where misogyny was rampant and sexual sin in the leadership was tolerated, covered up, or both are a different animal than a typical suburban evangelical megachurch where the worst thing happening on an institutional level is some unhelpful teaching on sex ethics and gender issues. Depending on the nature of the error, of course, that bad teaching can be more or less damaging.

But it’s not anywhere near the sort of thing that Esther and others coming out of more properly cultic backgrounds would have experienced. When folks like Katelyn Beaty and Samuel James defend “purity culture” they obviously have the latter in view rather than the former.

That sad, even the latter, more moderated sort deserves closer inspection. We have talked before about how the evangelical culture of the 1990s and early 2000s wasn’t so much a distinctly Christian counter-culture as it was a vaguely Christian sub-culture existing within the same consumer economy as all the other sub-cultures that a decadent capitalist system is happy to tolerate or even encourage. Capitalism will accommodate anyone as long as the chief way they express their individual and communal identification is through commercial activity. (Google “Karl Marx tee-shirt” if you don’t believe me.)

In many ways, that is how the evangelicalism that many millennials grew up with worked in practice. We had our parallel music industry with secular knock-off bands and their own annual awards show. We also had clothing lines, jewelry lines, and our own TV networks and shows. (Here I’m thinking more of The Family Channel, 7th Heaven, and the like rather than TBN, although TBN does have some overlap as well.)

Within this specific cultural context that behaved in ways indistinguishable from other sub-cultures (as far as the market was concerned), chastity became a way of branding oneself as being part of the inner ring of that sub-culture. “Purity,” came to be treated as something that was “cool” in the evangelical sub-culture in the same way that clothes from Hot Topic might be “cool” amongst confused suburban Goth types.

Consider this dc talk song from the early 90s:

Or this Superchick song from the early 2000s:

Note that the argument here is not that this kind of branding is necessarily a replacement for the actual virtue of chastity. It’s not. It’s more complicated and interesting than that. While there were churches where there really was no actual concern for genuine purity amongst the leadership but only with maintaining appearances and a certain level of control over people (I grew up in such a church), such places are almost certainly a minority amongst broader evangelicalism.

Far more common is the sort of church where the virtue, though affirmed and encouraged, is still mediated through the language of branding. This in itself still poses an enormous danger to the actual virtue of chastity because it inculcates in the members of the community a way of thinking about virtue that is fundamentally about self-construction, self-presentation, and that establishes an essentially commercial grammar for thinking about membership in the group.

This necessarily will over time erode the foundations of the actual virtue, leaving behind only the external manifestation of it as a brand that is desirable within a sub-culture. This isn’t because of any kind of uniquely vicious tendency in evangelicalism but because this is how brands work. The surface appearance will always end up eating the inner reality. Remember our Karl Marx shirts or our confused suburban goth kid who establishes his rejection of the mainstream by shopping at a chain located in a suburban mall who sells clothes made in Pakistan and China.

True chastity is not necessarily something that can be easily advertised or announced and it is certainly not a thing that can be easily commodified for establishing group identification in a commercially identifiable sub-culture. Modesty, on the other hand, can be commodified in such ways—and given the commercial incentive to do so, it inevitably would. Once chastity is reduced to modesty, one (comparatively small) external aspect of the virtue, then the brand needed to belong to the group now exists apart from the actual virtue the group wishes to teach its young people. You have the appearance, but not the internal reality. This is the sort of Christian practice many young people grew up with—internal realities occasionally existed but the main thing we were pushed toward was the appearance of godliness.

Is it any surprise, then, that when this generation went to college, so many of them left the church? The habits and routines that we had embraced as part of our Christian life largely consisted of external self-presentation to secure acceptance within the sub-culture. But if your commitment to the faith is no deeper than that, it’s hardly a surprise when your allegiance changes and you discover the need to brand yourself differently in order to appeal to a different sub-culture—a move many of us made with varying levels of difficulty once we got to college.

The challenge in approaching the issue in this way is that if I’m right, then there isn’t necessarily a single bad guy we can point at and blame for whatever problem it is we’re trying to address. The problem is not that we didn’t talk about the issue enough in youth groups. (If anything, we did the opposite.) Nor, in most cases, can the problem be laid primarily at the feet of ogreish pastors who never should have been serving in that role in the first place. We also can’t necessarily point at parents, although to the extent that parents sacrificed church life to pursue success as defined by their rich, white, suburban neighbors we perhaps can.

The problem is ultimately much deeper and so the response must necessarily be much more radical. In embracing an attractional church model in the early 80s, we created a way of doing church life that necessarily reduces Christianity to a kind of consumer option, something you choose to embrace if it makes sense to you.

Once you embrace it, you adopt a set of market habits that identify you as a member of the group and further solidify your membership in it. You go to their movies, listen to their bands, shop at their stores. This is the Christian life as it was given to many of us as young people. The internal realities of Christian faith existed, but what really matter was that we could externalize them, not through the simple practice of virtue, but instead through some kind of market activity that made the capitalists rich. And that, more than anything else, is the besetting sin not only of “purity culture” but of the evangelicalism that birthed it more generally.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).