Interview by Lynne Gerber and Gillian Frank

Anthony Petro’s After the Wrath of God (Oxford, 2015) is one of the first academic books to recount and analyze the broad range of religious responses to the emergence of AIDS in the United States in the 1980s and 90s. Moving the conversation about religion and AIDS past the oft-quoted canards of the religious right, the book examines how religious figures and groups closer to the American mainstream crafted positions that negotiated a fraught balance between compassion for the sick and concern over the perceived moral issues with which AIDS has long been entwined. Petro recovers historical figures that are rarely remembered such as Earl Shelp and Ronald Sunderland, two Southern Baptists who developed a prominent model of pastoral care for people with AIDS, and looks at familiar figures such as C. Everett Koop and Cardinal John O’Connor anew by tracing the tricky slippage between the medial and the moral in each figure’s work. Using cases like these and others, After the Wrath of God demonstrates how AIDS was—and still is—used as a means of constructing moral citizenship and social sensibilities about who is worthy of inclusion, and care.

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Lynne Gerber: As someone who recently started studying AIDS and religion, I find it’s a subject that many people think they already know everything about. But yours is actually the first academic monograph to look at AIDS and American religion in a systematic, historical way. Why do you think this is a topic that generates a sense of “we know this story already?” And did you have to do particular work to counter that perception in order to get your book written and published?

Anthony Petro: When I’ve presented my work, I’ve found that people who lived through the eighties often respond with a sort of nostalgic interest. Many have vivid memories of AIDS, of friends or lovers who died or of news headlines declaring a new epidemic among “homosexuals.” I’ve found younger interlocutors to be quite fascinated by this history, but they really do not know much about it. For many of them, AIDS is an African epidemic, and an epidemic of poverty, more than part of the history of U.S. public health or queer life. I think that’s a symptom – we often don’t teach about the AIDS crisis in the U.S. as part of American history. It slips through the cracks. So why is that?

I think it’s partly so because AIDS, when it emerged in the U.S. in the early 1980s, was one of those crises that interrupts how we perceive and remember the past. One of those events – to borrow from Tony Kushner cribbing Walter Benjamin – that explodes our very sense of history and of linear time. The epidemic did not fit with the growing confidence we had in biomedicine to rid us of disease (a confidence ignited by the success of antibiotics in treating bacterial infections since the 1940s). And it didn’t fit with the march of progress in the fight for lesbian and gay rights following the sexual revolution. It almost seems – and many Christian commenters would jump on this resemblance – like some sort of divine intervention calling us back to more “traditional” ways. In addition to this sense that AIDS happened outside of history, of course, is the fact that the AIDS crisis is not just history: it’s still with us. I think these two factors combine for a lot of people to make the AIDS crisis almost seem unlike many other recent historical events – in that it still feels too close, affectively, to write about as a historical episode and because it has not ended for most people around the globe.

At the level of writing, it was hard at first even to figure out what tense to use! I had to ask myself, is this book a work of history or a study of the historical present? In the end, I tried to do both. The major chapters explore AIDS across the 1980s and 1990s. But in the introduction and especially the afterword I try to make the case that this history still haunts how we in the U.S. think about sexuality, intimacy, public health, and even national citizenship.

Gillian Frank: Why is it important to place religious history at the center of the history of AIDS? How does an analysis of religious responses to the AIDS epidemic enrich our understanding of this history in particular and the history of sexuality more broadly? 

AP: It is puzzling that religion has not been more central to histories of the AIDS crisis, given how many people with HIV and AIDS have experienced the epidemic through the languages of theodicy and salvation. Such religious languages, often combined with the rhetoric of apocalypse, as Thomas Long has shown, saturated the AIDS crisis. Kushner knew this. His ability to translate Jewish, Christian, and Mormon vocabularies into queer poetry is a key reason Angels in America remains one of the best American plays. We historians haven’t quite caught up.

Like much of the history of sexuality, the history of AIDS has had somewhat of an allergy to religion, and in many ways this is understandable. But we miss a huge part of this history if we buy too readily into the rhetoric of the culture wars, which posits two sides: religious tradition versus the secular left. The former often become the enemies of our histories; the latter heroes. Of course, putting religion at the center of the AIDS crisis isn’t just about reversing this equation.

I hope After the Wrath of God will help open the history of sexuality and AIDS to more nuanced approaches to thinking about the role of religion. My argument isn’t simply that we have overlooked the great number of religious actors who have been involved with AIDS relief or policy-making, including the great number of pastors, chaplains, priests, nuns, rabbis, monks, and religious lay people who cared for people with AIDS, fought with them on the frontlines, and often lived with HIV/AIDS themselves.

My bigger point is that we misunderstand religion, and the forms of power that modern religion takes, if we don’t move past the terms set by the culture wars. Examining religion, and moving beyond an emphasis on the Christian Right, allows us to see the centuries-old Christian theological rhetoric that has tethered sodomy to epidemics and even to espionage. This series of connections became quite popular among Christian writers in the 1960s and 1970s who were reacting to the women’s movement and the sexual revolution. The association of sodomy with a national epidemic thus not only preceded AIDS by a couple decades, it became a key lens through which Americans understood the crisis.

We also miss the translation between secular and religious vocabularies of public health in efforts to prevent HIV. Putting religion at the center of this history forces us to confront precisely how pervasive Christian rhetoric is, even when – especially when – it seems to evaporate into the recommendations of public health, the gospel of condoms, or the encompassment of gay marriage into an HIV-prevention strategy.

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Portrait of C. Everett Koop wearing his formal uniform with the Public Health Service. (National Library of Medicine.)

LG: The book uses AIDS as a case to speak to one of the most talked-about issues in religious studies, namely the construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of the boundary between the secular and the religious. The book discusses figures such as Cardinal O’Connor and C. Everett Koop evoking and/or effacing that boundary for strategic purposes. It also insists on a religious reading of the seemingly secular activism of ACT UP/NY (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power/New York). What do you think these specific cases, and AIDS in general, tell us about that boundary and how it is made, re-made, and strategically used?

AP: I’ve been deeply influenced by Talal Asad’s work, both his insistence that we think about taxonomies of religious power and his often forgotten observation that the religious and the secular are not antithetical to one another, not a simple binary, but rather two broad and often overlapping discursive traditions. Once we see religion as a historically contingent, modern form, rather than some ex nihilo essence or vestige of the premodern, then we can begin to take stock of how it continues to overlap with and to shape our assumptions about secularism and indeed about modernity.

I discuss four cases in the book, four sites for investigating the contours of “the moral” in wake of the epidemic: the rhetorical emergence of AIDS through biomedical and theological languages, the moral governing of public health, the exercise of ecclesiastical authority, and the clash of religious protest. Taken together, these cases show how very Christian the secular has been in the U.S., but also that this history – of the Christian or even Protestant secular, as Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jakobsen have called it – is not a smooth or linear one. It comes in bursts and fits. And it has a peculiar knack for rearing its head in regard to issues of sexuality – with AIDS in the 1980s, gay marriage in the 1990s and 2000s, and certainly around issues of women’s reproductive health and sexual freedom today. In such moments, I argue, “morality” becomes one of the key terms through which translations between Christian languages and secular languages take place.

LG: One thing your book documents is the varied efforts at developing sexual ethics in the face of AIDS by a range of social actors, from religious leaders who took ethics as their privileged domain to gay men trying to avoid the virus. What are some of the different moral logics you found at work in these different efforts? And what role did the condom play in these ethical competitions?

AP: I worked in opposite directions here, trying to track both the diversity of moral rhetoric about HIV/AIDS while also demonstrating how a particular form became hegemonic – and to demonstrate the latter without, I hope, reducing the complexity of the former. I think morality – as a form in the late 20th century U.S. – exerts a strong centripetal force. It pushes toward singularity and toward moralism. Real diversity in terms of moral logic has proven quite difficult to come by and, when it does arrive, nearly impossible to accept as benign variation within the very Protestant history of even secular morality in the U.S.

But two key ethical approaches still stood out. The first we might call mainstream Christian – it included evangelical and mainline Protestants and many Catholics. While various actors within these traditions differed in their theological and moral approaches to homosexuality, they tended to call for care and compassion and, eventually, for sexual abstinence and fidelity for people in paired relationships. Another strain, which we see in the work of many queer AIDS activists, including members of ACT UP, emphasized sexual freedom, making education and rights-based discourse the drivers of their approach to fighting AIDS, rather than calls for abstinence or monogamy (though such calls were not absent among gay AIDS activists). This delineation is a little too neat, I admit – there was more overlap, which I hope I capture in the book.

Condoms play a more interesting role in this history – and the history of safe sex – than one might think. They have become the gospel of safe sex for most public health workers, AIDS activists, and mainstream Americans. But in the early Eighties, as Cindy Patton has shown, the use of condoms was only one part of a much broader discussion among AIDS activists and members of the lesbian and gay community about how to protect themselves from this new disease. Even before HIV was discovered (and named), AIDS activists like the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco and Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz in New York created “safe sex” pamphlets that suggested a number of sex practices, or sex play, in which gay men could participate that would lower their likelihood of catching STDs.

By the end of the decade, as we know, condoms did become the starting and ending point for discussions of safe sex, a shift that should also tell us something about what AIDS workers and public health officials understood sex to be. Religious conservatives balked at the turn towards condoms and safe sex and quickly began to point to what they would call the “failure rates” for condoms, a propaganda campaign aimed at undermining some of the best public health logic at the time. They would also elevate abstinence and monogamy as public health arguments, which we can see in the work of the U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, an evangelical appointed by Reagan to appease his supporters on the Christian right.

ACT UP New York’s Stop the Church flier: “‘The extent of AIDS among teenagers is going to be the next crisis’: Cardinal O’Connor won’t teach safe sex.” (Held in the ACT UP/NY Records, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.)

LG: The book has a very interesting argument about AIDS and moral citizenship. It starts by proposing that AIDS had a critical role to play in the reconfiguration of public life and of citizenship that was part of the Reagan revolution. It concludes by tracing the effects of that reconfiguration to two seemingly different contemporary issues: gay marriage and the criminalization of HIV. Without giving away too much of the book, how do you think AIDS, and issues regarding sexual practice it raised, shaped how we understand the nation?

AP: I draw on a rich body of scholarship that has looked at how politics, its style and its objects, has changed roughly between the 1960s and the 1980s. Robert Self has called it a “transformation in the national polity itself” and Lauren Berlant has described it as the emergence of an “intimate public sphere,” in which citizenship was defined less and less through one’s relationship to the state and more in terms of one’s sense of national belonging. To be an American increasingly meant to be recognized by the state and to belong to the national community. Of course, a lot of people have been and continue to be excluded or marginalized in this imagination of the nation.

The AIDS crisis, and especially the ways that American Christian rhetoric took it up as a moral crisis, was crucial to this shift, reshaping how Americans understood the nation and the contours of citizenship. I found it helpful to think about what I call “moral citizenship,” my play on the excellent work that scholars like Margot Canaday and others have done in thinking about what we sometimes call cultural or sexual citizenship. Focusing on morality allows us to see both religious and secular rhetoric at work – and, of course, the culture wars were nothing if not a battle of fierce rhetoric. The language of morality, because it is so pervasive and yet slippery, also makes it far more difficult to separate the culture wars into religious conservatives versus secular liberals. It forces us to think about a different form of rhetorical power, one that played on both religious and secular histories, often translating between the two.

Let me give a more concrete example. One of the moral genealogies I track is the ascendance of Christian and secular calls for monogamy to fight against the spread of HIV. It’s opposite, promiscuity, was the culprit. For many of us, even today, this sounds like good teaching, like common sense. But as a number of activists noted in the 1980s, promiscuity was not necessarily the problem. Rates of transmission depend upon the kinds of sexual acts one practices, not the volume. You can give a thousand handjobs to a thousand strangers and your risk of contracting HIV is lower that one act of vaginal or anal sexual intercourse with one person. Yet calls for monogamy continue to haunt HIV prevention even today – the AIDS Foundation, for instance, has made gay marriage a central piece of HIV prevention. Here, we see HIV prevention running directly into broader struggles for the national recognition of gay, coupled intimacy. By moving from the margins to the center of national life, by getting married and having their romantic love recognized not just by the state, but as American, the story goes, gay men will save themselves from AIDS. That is moral citizenship.

LG: As a historian of (relatively) recent history, how do you think about source materials that can be read as both primary texts and as secondary ones? Do you have different reading strategies depending on how you’re going to use them? A way of deciding when something becomes solely a primary text or still has secondary value?

AP: Would it make me a bad historian to admit that I have so much trouble with this distinction? I always tell my students that nothing is intrinsically a primary source or a secondary source; it depends how you are using the text – as a source of information or as an object for interpretation. But even that distinction easily blurs. This point was made all the more difficult because some of the very best analytical work about AIDS was written in the 1980s. I’m thinking of people like Cindy Patton, Dennis Altman, Douglas Crimp, and Paula Treichler. But their work has also become a critical part of the history of the representation of AIDS, a model of sex-positive writing that I hold in contrast to moralistic writing about the crisis, not only by some conservative Christian authors but also by journalists and historians. It is impossible to write about the history of the AIDS crisis without wading into difficult questions about narration, so in that sense there really are no texts that are purely secondary, and I tried to respect that.

LG: What questions did this book help answer for you? What questions did it make you want to think about more?

AP: I’ve often sensed – and I think many people born in the late Seventies and in the Eighties might agree – that the AIDS crisis fundamentally shaped how I think about sex and sexuality. I wanted to know why, to get a sense of what AIDS changed about sexual rhetoric in the U.S., and to figure out how some specific forms of moral rhetoric became so dominant. I was also interested in the category of the “moral” itself – what shape does it take in the modern U.S.? What form of power does it occupy? What is its relationship to religious power or, more specifically, to Christian power? These are the kinds of questions I want to tackle as a historian of religion and sexuality in the U.S.


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Anthony M. Petro is Assistant Professor of Religion at Boston University, where he is also affiliated faculty in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and the Graduate Division of Religious Studies. His book, After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion, was published by Oxford University Press in 2015. His research and teaching interests include the history and politics of religion in the United States; gender and sexuality studies; and the history of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Gerber -- photoLynne Gerber studies American religious life in conversation with critical social theory. Her work focuses on the body, sexuality and the construction of health in contemporary Christianity. She is the author of Seeking the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), a study of the moral construction of fatness and homosexuality in Christian weight loss programs, ex-gay ministries, and American culture. Her current research focuses on a queer religious community – the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco – and its response to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 90s. Lynne is currently a Research Associate with the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School.



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