Purity Culture in Calvinism: Creepiness in Overdrive

Purity Culture in Calvinism: Creepiness in Overdrive March 24, 2021

Hi and welcome back! We’ve been talking lately about Calvinism, especially in light of the recent murders committed by Robert Aaron Long, a committed and fervent Calvinist. Unfortunately, this young man got completely sucked into the worst aspect of Calvinism: its hyper-focus on sexual purity. Today, let me show you the extreme emphasis of Calvinism on sexual purity — and how young Calvinists are especially vulnerable to this siren call of wingnuttery.

a roadmap that doesn't work
A roadmap only helps if it’s accurate. (Tabea Damm.)

(For a rundown on Calvinism in general, please see this post. Sometimes, Calvinists like to call themselves Reformed, so you might see that name floating through our sources. To me, Reformed just seems like a more scholarly-sounding variant of Calvinism. Obviously, as well, we ain’t about that victim-blaming. Calvinism itself did not cause any murders. Robert Aaron Long made his decision and bears all the blame for it. Ultimately, we seek only understanding and offer only our deepest condolences to his victims.)

A Standard-Issue Jesus: Love, Hope, and Grace.

For most Christians, Jesus’ lifetime on Earth represents a great comfort. In their ideology, he lived a human life just like ours. Thus, he faced the same disappointments and setbacks — and most importantly, the same temptations — that regular people always have. Hebrews 2:14-18 tells Christians:

For this reason [Jesus] had to be made like them, fully human in every way [. . .] that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

When I was Catholic, Jesus’ incarnation as a human gave me a great deal of hope. Maybe my god kinda understood how weak and fallible I was. Maybe he cut me a bit of slack because he knew how limited I was compared to a god.

Even when I became an evangelical, my crowd talked up Jesus’ shared experience with humans in ways that gave us hope. He hadn’t needed to become human like us, but he’d done it anyway. Because he went through all the stuff we went through, he understood human weaknesses and frailties in an intimate, dynamic new way.

In both flavors of Christianity, my conceptualization of Jesus understood that we humans weren’t godlings like he was. He didn’t expect us to be so, either. And he granted us grace to make up the difference between our reality and our potential. All he asked was that we try our best.

But Calvinists have neither that same grace nor the sense of hope that flows from it.

The Half-Jesus of Calvinism.

The Jesus of Calvinism looks quite a lot different from the one I learned about in every evangelical church I ever attended. (That’s a big part of why I’m writing these Calvinism posts: because I’m not sure most people — even those who’ve been evangelical or have tangled with evangelicals — know about the huge differences between Calvinism and standard-issue evangelicalism.)

The Calvinist Jesus did not feel sexual temptations. Ever. One Calvinist site tells us:

Jesus’ experience of temptation is different from ours insofar as he did not experience temptations arising from a corrupted human nature. In all other ways that we experience sinless desires and temptations, so did he. This does not contradict the account given of him in Hebrews that he was both made like us in every respect and tempted like us in every respect. One does not need to experience every form of temptation to be able to feel the full weight of resisting it. In fact, it is the one who has fully resisted all temptation who has had the greatest experience of wrestling against it.

Another Calvinist site, Reformation 21, asserts that “Christ was not ‘liable to temptations from within.'” That phrase means sexual temptation alone. And another, Warhorn, tells us that when Calvinists talk about Jesus being tempted, they literally only mean that he faced “hunger, weakness and sickness.”

(F’real, do right-wing Christians consider the Oxford comma sinful excess?)

Calvinism offers believers a half-Jesus. Their Jesus doesn’t understand that end of the human experience at all. He certainly won’t cut his followers slack if they experience those desires. And he has no grace at all to offer them when they fail to meet his exacting demands for scare-quotes “purity.”

Calvinism: No Room for Grace. But Plenty for Wingnuts.

What Calvinists have instead of an understanding, gracious Jesus is a zero-tolerance holy war on a perfectly natural, normal human emotion that almost everybody feels.

The only people who could possibly buy into that sort of extremism are wingnuts. And they definitely do.

Wingnuts lack critical-thinking skills, or else they have been taught to use them very selectively. They reject any claim that runs counter to their existing beliefs, but accept anything that fits pretty well with them.

Thus, it’s a lot easier to push a wingnut into more and more extremist beliefs or to add another extremist belief to their existing ones. But it’s almost impossible to convince wingnuts they’re doing anything wrong.

In the 1990s, by pushing the tribe into ever-greater heights of wingnuttery, Calvinism achieved significant victories in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In particular, Calvinist leaders targeted young adults in their recruitment efforts (as we discussed here). Calvinists’ inhumane, all-or-nothing mindset proved devastating to young Christians in particular.

Calvinism: The Seduction of the Innocent.

Young evangelicals get raised and taught from infancy to believe that their tribe’s big Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game is totes for realsies. They completely lack any life experience that would tell them otherwise. It’s like they’re raised in a fantasy world and have no clue how reality operates.

Like this, but nowhere near as nice — and they can’t dance for beans.

That’s why, when that cult leader Ezekiel came to my Pentecostal church in 1992, he could enthrall absolutely nobody in my church who was older than 22 or so. It’s why the Seekers only seemed to snag young adults for their cult. It takes a lot of effort for young adults to struggle free of that mess; they often describe their post-deconversion life as having to learn absolutely everything about science and relationships from the ground up.

Knowing all this, who could be surprised to learn that Joshua Harris, the purity-culture poster boy for many years, gravitated to Calvinism in his quest for perfect Jesus-ing? Of course he did. (See endnotes for more “of courses.”)

Young adults see a lot in Calvinism that appeals specifically to inexperienced people who can’t use critical thinking skills on religious claims (or entirely lack them).

It looks so incredibly scholarly and rational. It just reeks of Jesus-correctness. So it fits perfectly into evangelicals’ existing beliefs, and then expands them outward into greater extremism. And hooboy, you will never see a bunch of fundies with more Bible verses in hand to back up their position.

In every single way, Calvinism takes a sandblaster to young evangelicals’ mental and emotional defenses. Looking back, I’m just glad I deconverted before I could encounter it.

Calvinism and Its Grand Solution to Impurity.

The extremism in Calvinism, its unending demands for perfection from adherents, and its deceptively-scholarly and Bible-verse-heavy argument style leads to one end only: a focus on sexual purity that would have had 3rd-century ascetics going “whoa, dude, loosen up a little.”

Worse, Calvinism offers only one real solution for dealing with unwanted sexual feelings. A Calvinist site, Warhornreveals it to us:


Put it to death. It is sin.

Yikes. Of course, that writer doesn’t describe what “putting it to death” actually looks like in the real world. Likely he just means to Jesus super-hard to push those feelings back down. Most of the time, “putting illicit desires to death” won’t look like murdering a bunch of massage-parlor employees. Yes, obviously. However, the imagery is unnerving all the same.

Over at the Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS), we find a long sermon about how Christians need to become “holy” and “sanctified.” Among other exhortations, that RTS preacher advises the “husbands” among his listeners to “declare war on pornography.” He frequently describes Christians’ efforts to follow their tribe’s rules in martial terms like that: fights, battles, wars. Here’s an example:

It is a long, grueling, bruising battle [to follow all those sex rules], but it’s the battle that every Christian is called to.

Also yikes. This is really violent imagery to be teaching people, especially younger people who lack the necessary life experience to understand that this blustering, chest-thumping blahblah is just part of the pretendy game (as well as a part their elders enjoy quite a bit).

When All You Have is a Calvinism Hammer…

Robert Aaron Long attended a Calvinist church, Crabapple First Baptist Church (FBC). To its fingertips, it’s an SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) church. It’s located in Milton, a little town in north Georgia that got assimilated, Borg-like, by Atlanta some 15 years ago.

After Long’s killing spree, people quickly found Crabapple FBC listed as an “Founders-friendly” church at Founders MinistriesAs we discussed recently, Founders Ministries largely spearheaded not only the Conservative Resurgence but also the current shift toward hardline Calvinism in the SBC as a whole. Really, that Founders list functions well as a who’s who of extremist Calvinist churches.

(By the way, that “Founders-friendly” link only lists churches in Georgia. It contains over 80 listings. A bit over half seem to be SBC churches. Crabapple is still listed on the site today, but I’ve heard that the Founders people are trying harrrrd to distance themselves from any suggestion of formal affiliation.)

So Long almost certainly grew up surrounded by and fully immersed in this kind of restrictive, controlling, all-or-nothing thinking.

His Jesus expected nothing less than perfection from him — and granted him no grace at all. If and when he failed, then his only recourse were tribe-created, tribe-approved antidotes that turned out to be worse than useless, functioning more as new punishments in their own right.

… Everything Looks Like Sex Nails.

When sexual desires bubbled up in him, Robert Aaron Long tried to address them exactly the way his Calvinist community taught him to do. Indeed, the New York Times tells us he was a very active, engaged, involved church member at Crabapple First Baptist Church (FBC).

He prayed for relief, which his god apparently declined to answer. He sought help from his peers to hold him “accountable,” which means they’d know if he visited pornographic sites or spent money on sex workers. But he apparently did it all anyway.

Eventually, he ended up in one of those scare-quotes “Christian rehab” places evangelicals like, HopeQuest. (Josh Duggar did the same thing — twice after his scandal blew wide open.) According to the New York Times, he even tried to live in some sort of halfway house full of men fighting substance addictions.

None of it helped at all.

There’s not even any indication that he actually had some kind of genuinely pathological issue with sex — only in the idiosyncratic, Christianese way his community defined “sex addiction.”

Revelations from the Edge.

When someone’s pushed to the very edge of reason by viciously-controlling masters, then pushed a bit more still, that person will eventually erupt into a panicky explosion of frantic activity and words. Their psyche gets laid bare, in those desperate moments.

Most people won’t hit that point and lash out at innocent victims. Obviously. There are probably millions of young men in Calvinism right now who are struggling just like Robert Aaron Long did. And they’re probably flabbergasted that he made those decisions. They probably think they’d never do that.

And they’re probably right.

I’m not even coming close to claiming that they would, for whatever that’s worth. Nor am I claiming that Calvinism breeds spree shooters. That’s a chicken-or-egg argument I’ll leave to the social scientists.

What I am saying is that nothing in Calvinism and nobody in Robert Aaron Long’s Calvinist leaders or community recognized that he was as deeply disturbed as he was. Nor could his community guide him toward the real help he very obviously needed.

All they had was brutal coercion to force lockstep and compliance — like how his parents threw him out the night before the murders. Authoritarian control-grabs probably work just fine on 99% of Christians. It did not work on Robert Aaron Long, though.

What Calvinism Did and Didn’t Offer.

I’m sure Robert Aaron Long’s church leaders had seen a whole succession of troubled young men struggling like him. Indeed, his church’s 2016 “Covenant” and “Internet Accountability” pages both indicate that his leaders took particular interest in controlling their flock’s every movement online and in meatspace. And again, this control-lust usually works out fine for Christian leaders.

But when reality-based reactions really mattered, when people around this young man needed to be able to tell that he was in an extreme state of distress, that real help was needed, Calvinism had nothing helpful at all to offer.

Instead, Calvinism offered Robert Aaron Long only violent imagery, a useless roadmap, Jesus-flavored ineffectual pseudo-treatment, and yet more punishment for his inevitable failure to live up to his tribe’s demands. 

NEXT UP: That one dude I quoted today who was talking about Josh Harris was completely wrong about a lot, but especially one thing. It doesn’t matter what someone believes; they can still realize it’s untrue, especially if it’s actually, um, untrue. We’ll talk about this common Christian error tomorrow. See you then!


Regarding Joshua Harris’ many “of courses:” Of course Joshua Harris ended up working under none other than uber-Calvinist C.J. Mahaney, that dear friend of Al Mohler’s. Mahaney groomed Joshua Harris for future leadership at his church, and indeed Harris did grow up to pastor a large Calvinist church for a while. Of course Mahaney’s church (Sovereign Grace) made J.D. Greear’s Top 10 Worst Sex-Abusin’ Churches in the SBC! And of course Harris appears to have helped Mahaney cover up quite a lot of that abuse. And of course he hasn’t really faced any repercussions at all for any of it. (Back to the post!)

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(Last thoughts: I found this paper recently. Looks interesting. It’s about the “lived experiences” of evangelical men who self-identify as sex addicts. I’m still reading it, but so far it looks very good.)

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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