How an Abstinence Pledge in the ’90s Shamed a Generation of Evangelicals

The Christian “purity” movement promoted a strict view of abstinence before marriage. But two decades later, some followers are grappling with unforeseen aftershocks.
By Clyde Haberman

To the uninitiated, Christianity’s evangelical movement can seem like a monolith that brooks no dissent on certain core issues: Same-sex relationships are sinful, men’s spiritual dominance over women is divinely ordained and, on the political front, Donald J. Trump was an improbable but nonetheless valued protector of the faith.

Not everything is what it appears to be. The movement is in fact rife with division, a reality reinforced last month when Beth Moore, an evangelical writer and teacher with a huge following, formally ended her long affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention, principally because of its tight embrace of the licentious, truth-challenged Mr. Trump.

It was a rupture several years in the making. As Ms. Moore told Religion News Service, disenchantment took hold when Mr. Trump became “the banner, the poster child for the great white hope of evangelicalism, the salvation of the church in America.” But the former president’s behavior is not the only issue buffeting the evangelical movement. White supremacy, male subjugation of women, a spate of sexual abuse cases, scandals involving prominent figures like Jerry Falwell Jr. — all have combined to undermine the authority of religious leaders and prompt members like Ms. Moore to abandon the Southern Baptist Convention.

Retro Report, which examines through video how the past shapes the present, turns attention to an artifact of religious conservatism from the movement. This is the so-called purity pledge, taken in the main by teenagers who pledged to abstain from sex until they married. Some swore to not so much as kiss another person or even go on a date, for fear of putting themselves on the road to moral failure.

Devotion to this concept took hold in the early ’90s, when fear of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases bolstered the evangelical movement’s gospel of teen abstinence. It was a view put forth as God-commanded and had the support of like-minded political leaders, from the White House of Ronald Reagan to that of Mr. Trump.

Many people certainly found lifelong contentment because of having waited for the right mate. But for others, as the Retro Report video shows, the dictates of the purity movement were so emotionally onerous that their adulthoods have been filled with apprehension and, in some instances, physical pain. They are people like Linda Kay Klein, who embraced the movement in her teens but left it in disenchantment at 21, two decades ago.

She described the trauma and the shame she felt this way: “I would find myself in tears and in a ball in the corner of a bed, crying, my eczema coming out, which it does when I’m stressed, and scratching myself till I bled, and having a deep shame reaction.” Ms. Klein found she was far from alone. She collected tales of enduring anxiety in a book, “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free” (Touchstone, 2018). “We went to war with ourselves, our own bodies and our own sexual natures,” she wrote, “all under the strict commandment of the church.”

It was under the aegis of the Southern Baptist Convention that the vow of virginity took distinct form, in True Love Waits, a program begun in 1993. As the movement grew in the ’90s, estimates of teenage adherents reached as high as 2.5 million worldwide. Youngsters wore purity rings, signed purity pledge cards and attended purity balls, with girls dressed in white and escorted by their fathers.

The fundamental message, inspired by a verse from Paul the Apostle’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians, was this: “I am making a commitment to myself, my family and my Creator that I will abstain from sexual activity of any kind before marriage. I will keep my body and my thoughts pure as I trust in God’s perfect plan for my life.”

Separate from religious imperatives, American teenagers in general have become warier of premarital relations — and certainly of unprotected sex. According to the federal government, there were 61.8 births in 1991 for every 1,000 young women in the 15-to-19 age group. By 2018, that figure had dwindled to 17.4, a decline that cut across racial and ethnic lines.

Among those who regarded purity in terms of spiritual enlightenment, few in the ’90s came to be more celebrated than Joshua Harris, a young man who preached that even sex-free dating was a dangerous first step on the slippery slope of a compromised life. His 1997 book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” sold roughly a million copies. In his writings and speeches, Mr. Harris advocated courtship under the watchful eyes of a couple’s parents.

His message back then, he recalled for Retro Report, was that one should avoid conventional dating just as an alcoholic ought to steer clear of a bar. “It was, like, if you don’t want to have sex,” he said, “then don’t get into these sorts of short-term romantic relationships where there is an expectation to become intimate.”

Controlling teenage hormones, however, is easier said than done. Mr. Harris, who lives in Vancouver, eventually pulled his book from circulation, and has apologized for the role he played in causing anyone feelings of shame, fear and guilt. Today, he no longer considers himself a Christian.

Part of the problem for some critics of the movement is its emphasis on virginity as the greatest gift a man and a woman can bestow on each other. To them, other aspects of a healthy relationship seem to take a back seat, including core human elements like emotional attachment, intellectual compatibility or the simple virtues of kindness and understanding.

There is also what the writer Katelyn Beaty has called the “sexual prosperity gospel” — the promise, hardly always realized, that abjuring sex as a teenager will be rewarded later with a lifelong marriage of physical joy along with spiritual fulfillment.

Then, too, some grew unhappy with the singular burden that seemed to be placed on young women. Reining in lust — the guys’ lust as well as their own — tended to fall to them. “It’s women and girls’ responsibility to dress right, to act right, to talk right, to do everything just right to ensure non-sexuality for all people,” Ms. Klein said in a 2018 interview with National Public Radio.

This credo may even have had echoes in the recent shootings at massage parlors in Georgia. The suspect, Robert Aaron Long, belonged to a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and was described as someone who struggled with sexual temptation. Brad Onishi, who grew up in a strict evangelical community in Southern California that emphasized sexual purity, told The New York Times that the culture he was raised in “teaches women to hate their bodies, as the source of temptation, and it teaches men to hate their minds, which lead them into lust and sexual immorality.”

For spiritual guides like Beth Moore, the male-dominated culture of evangelicalism had its political incarnation in Mr. Trump, who was famously captured on tape bragging how he had forced himself on women. “There comes a time,” she said, explaining why she left the Southern Baptist fold, “when you have to say, ‘This is not who I am.’”

CLYDE HABERMAN, a regular contributor to Retro Report, has been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The New York Times, where he spent nearly 13 years based in Tokyo, Rome and Jerusalem. Subscribe to our newsletter here and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.

This article first appeared in The New York Times.