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Gender, Marriage, and Sexual Purity in American Religious History  

Seth Dowland

Throughout American history, religious people and groups have developed, sustained, or challenged cultural norms around gender, marriage, and sexual purity. Beginning with the earliest English Protestant settlers in the 17th century, American Christians have devoted consistent attention to the proper roles of men and women, and to the proper functioning of families. Throughout American history, religious leaders have assigned men as spiritual leaders of their families. Assessments of women’s piety—and its importance in maintaining social order—have grown more positive over time. Prophetic radicals and political activists have frequently challenged American Christianity by attacking its traditionalism on issues related to gender and sexuality. The ideal of a “traditional family” has, however, proven quite robust. Even as cultural attitudes around gender and sexuality have shifted dramatically in recent years, the presumption that typical American families are heterosexual, middle-class, and Christian has persisted. This presumption developed over time and has remained dominant owing in part to the contributions of American religious groups.