Evangelical Christianity is in the business of saving souls, but sex still sells.
In his recent JSSR article, Jeremy N. Thomas identifies three key arguments against pornography that have developed in the U.S. since the 1950s. The first is the “traditional values” argument: porn offends God’s will by encouraging sinful behavior. The second is the “public-performer harm” argument, which emphasizes the harm done to women when men buy and sell their sexual performance. Finally, church leaders’ “personal-viewer harm” narrative emphasizes how porn hurts the viewer, leading to addiction, compulsive sexual behavior, and other psychological harm.
Using content analysis to closely read articles from 54 years of Christianity Today, Thomas finds that the proportion of the “traditional values” arguments against pornography started to drop steadily in the mid 1970s. It’s been replaced by a growth in the “personal viewer harm” narrative since the mid ‘90s. Evangelicals didn’t stop believing that pornography is against God’s will, Thomas believes. Instead, the articles have started to “outsource” their moral authority by calling on arguments about personal health and wellbeing over claims about divine rules.
Changing arguments may mean that religion is losing its influence in a secularizing world or that religious leaders are just developing new strategies to better reach the people. Either way, the shift demonstrates the impact of social change on religious rhetoric and practice.