Sexuality and Religious Authority in the Black Church

Joseph Winters on Monique Moultrie

The intersection of Christianity and black female sexuality is a site of tension and complexity. On the one hand, Christian theology has contributed to legacies that conceive of black women as naturally promiscuous. According to womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, the denigration of black women is partly motivated by a prejudice in Christianity that subordinates the flesh to the spirit. At the same time, black church women have responded to sexualized stereotypes by cultivating habits of respectability, including sexual modesty, temperance, and celibacy. While respectability politics should be read as a survival strategy, it leads to a situation in which black women sacrifice sexual pleasure and desire for the sake of holiness, black uplift, and patrimonial order.

Monique Moultrie’s beautifully written text, Passionate and Pious, works within these enduring tensions as she examines faith-based sexuality ministries that target black women. These sexuality ministries “include Christian televangelists, Christian women’s and singles conferences, and Christian media (e.g., videos, audiotapes, and live streaming on the Internet)” and are “ostensibly [designed] to help black churchwomen navigate their sexuality and spiritual walk with God.” While the overall theme in these ministries is sexual purity—or the confinement of sexual activity within the sacred institution of marriage—Moultrie contends that the proliferation of media actually creates occasions to talk openly and creatively about sex. Following Michel Foucault’s notion of power as a generative apparatus, Moultrie suggests that the dispersion of sexuality ministries does more than just prohibit and repress erotic desire. On the contrary, the explosion of online chatrooms and social media sites provides a space for black Christian women to “ferret out which sexual messages to follow, modify, or ignore.” Consequently, black female desire within the orbit of Christian sexual ministries exists at the crossroads of constraint and generativity, and submission and agency.

Passionate and Pious
Monique Moultrie. Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality. Duke University Press, 2017. pp 190. $23.95.
The aim of Passionate and Pious is to “ask questions and rebel against the sexual messages given to black women by religious communities.” Moultrie’s text endeavors to expose and challenge the black female stereotypes—the promiscuous Jezebel, the asexual Mammy— that sexual ministries rely on and reproduce. Yet Moultrie refuses a framework that assumes some contrast between the enlightened scholar and black female populations being manipulated by televangelists and preachers. Using data from interviews and her experience as a participant observer in online communities, Moultrie insists that black church women often revise, contest, and decode what they are given, especially exhortations to simply suppress erotic desires. By paying attention to the complexities of black female sexual agency, Moultrie enacts a womanist approach. As she puts it, “womanist ethnography insists that black women must be taken seriously as cultural readers and that their attempts to navigate their own meanings are to be commended and upheld.” This ethnographic component is intertwined with an ethical impetus to open up space for diverse, responsible, and healthy sexual relationships, particularly those sexual activities—same sex desire, senior sexuality, multiple partners—that are shunned by dominant Christian imaginaries. In sum, “this book utilizes womanist analyze the impact of religious media on black churchwomen’s sexual agency.”

A crucial part of Moultrie’s analysis is her reading of Juanita Bynum’s influential “No More Sheets” sermon and enterprise. Bynum is a black female televangelist who has garnered wide recognition because of influential ministries, a tortuous relationship to TD Jakes, and her marriage to Thomas Weeks, a marriage that ended after years of domestic abuse. According to Moultrie, Bynum has been successful in spreading a message to black churchwomen that consists of sexual purity, submission to men, and the sanctity of marriage. Part of Bynum’s success lies in her ability to bring together “the best of capitalist televangelism” with the “sensibilities of black religiosity.” In addition, there is something “unique to black femaleness…in Bynum’s rhetoric and movements,” a quality that enables her to connect with her black female audience, to act as if “her story is representative of all black women’s stories.” Consequently, when Bynum preaches about celibacy, non-marital sex, divorce, and general struggles with erotic desire, she assures her audience that she has already experienced what they go through.

But as promised, Moultrie does not treat Bynum’s audience as passive, obedient subjects. Instead she identifies moments where her interviewees “perform a negotiated reading” of Bynum’s sermons and sexuality ministry. While black churchwomen are urged to eschew pleasure and uphold conventional marriage norms, some of Bynum’s followers depart from these expectations. Moultrie notices this interplay between obedience and refusal within black churchwomen as she examines Christian sexuality ministries that have been influenced by Bynum—Michelle Mckinney Hammond’s singles ministry, Wives in Waiting, and Pinky Promise. These Bynum-influenced communities do not just preach celibacy and admonish non-marital sex; they also encourage single women to focus on their relationship/marriage with God as a way to prepare for earthly marriage and wifely responsibilities. In addition, they provide support groups for women practicing sexual abstinence. And yet the women who participate in these ministries do not uncritically accept what is preached to them. As Moultrie points out, some of her interviewees express frustration with living a celibate life; others worry that they will become judgmental and resentful of women who enjoy sex outside of marriage. Taking these tensions seriously, a womanist approach to celibacy affirms both abstinence and/or sexual activity as “acts of self-determination.” Therefore, a womanist ethic views “celibacy [as a] part of sexual agency, but others cannot demand it of you.”

While the discussion of Christian sexual identity tends to privilege heterosexual practices and non-elderly sex, Moultrie draws our attention to the limitations of sexuality ministries in the face of same sex desire and senior sexuality. In response to the heteronormativity of the black church, which includes the demand to overcome same-sex attraction, the author introduces the notion of sexual hospitality. Hospitality “means meeting the stranger and embracing her just as she is, without the need for labeling her or stretching her to fit into a compulsory heterosexual frame.” And in opposition to a tendency to treat elderly black women as asexual, Moultrie broaches the notion of sexual generosity, an ethic that “starts when a woman takes up the freedom to choose for herself how she will express herself sexually.” Generosity “offers a rethinking of sexual mores for a population who may desire companionship but not marriage.”

Moultrie’s introduction of an ethics of generosity and hospitality begins to make explicit her normative project. While she acknowledges both the limitations and possibilities of popular sexuality ministries that target black women, she ultimately wants to offer an alternative sexual ethics. The key terms for Moultrie are pleasure, mutual vulnerability, and responsibility. On the one hand, a womanist sexual ethics “privileges pleasure” but acknowledges that there are multiple ways of pursuing pleasure. And while the pursuit of pleasure prioritizes the individual’s desires and fantasies, Moultrie reminds the reader that a healthy sexual ethics requires participants to be accountable to their partners. Rules and guidelines are not incompatible with ecstasy and the satisfaction of desire. In light of the risks and dangers associated with certain activities (multiple partners, hook ups), a woman should “seek sexual accountability as she pursues the just goal of sexually pleasurable liaisons.” To put it succinctly, sexual accountability should replace the demand for sexual purity as black women discuss, think about, and practice non-marital sexuality and pleasure. And while the black church is one important site for cultivating sexual responsibility, there are other “pathways to liberation.”

Passionate and Pious is a well-written, timely book that is sure to contribute to serious discussions about black female sexuality within the orbit of the black church. Perhaps what makes the text so impressive and refreshing is how Moultrie practices the generosity that she recommends. Even as she rejects the confining prohibitions stipulated in most sexuality ministries, she provides a sympathetic reading of televangelists like Bynum and the women targeted by her enterprise. Similarly, while she uses resources from womanist theory, she also takes seriously the tensions and ambivalences voiced by black women in online communities and chatrooms. In other words, it is not as if womanist thought is supposed to swoop in and liberate black churchwomen from oppressive codes of sexual abstinence. Rather, Moultrie finds resources for liberation and pleasure within communities of black churchwomen wrestling with the complexity and promise of black female sexuality. She performs an ethos of hospitality toward the “other” in her research and writing.

And like any literary achievement, Passionate and Pious leaves the reader with lingering questions and queries. Why is it that “sexuality and holiness” are treated as incompatible identities within Protestant-inspired cultures? Why is it that the sacred so often signifies those qualities—purity, coherence, protection— that are opposed to erotic pursuits and activities, activities that are risky, disruptive, etc? To put it differently, isn’t Moultrie beckoning us toward an alternative notion of the sacred that resonates with black female agency and vulnerability? These questions may haunt us even more intensely after reading Moultrie’s fascinating text.

Joseph Winters is the Alexander F. Hehmeyer Associate Professor of Religious Studies and African and African American Studies at Duke University. He holds secondary appointments in English and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. His interests lie at the intersection of African American religious thought, black literature, and critical theory. His first book, Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress was published by Duke University Press in 2016. He is currently working on a second manuscript titled, Disturbing Profanity: Hip Hop, Black Aesthetics, and the Volatile Sacred.