Wrestling With Angels

The Sexual Revolution Confronts the Church


Marjorie L. Coppock







    During the volatile years of the 1960’s, I was in my 20’s. My husband and I were raising three young children.  A bewildering array of social revolutions was occurring all at once.  It was an exciting but a dangerous time. Shrill reports of confrontations, demonstrations, and assassinations filled the newscasts, newspapers, and magazines.1


§         The cold war was a hovering concern.  Following Russia’s launching of Sputnik I in 1957, the United States accelerated the exploration of space.

§         The leaders of the civil rights movement, activated by the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, led sit-ins and marches which led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

§         Anti-Vietnam protestors confronted the military mindset in the late 1960’s.

§         Women were challenging the second-class status of women whose contributions to society were dismissed as trivial or non-essential.

§         The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 accented the reality of social revolution.

§         The sexual revolution confronted traditional values.



     The sexual revolution that exploded and swept across the United States in the last half of the 20th century brought profound changes in sexual and family relationships.  These changes challenged traditional values and religious practices.   The changing sexual and family behaviors jeopardized the ability of the family to act as a reproductive support group for religious values and ideas.  Social influences through the media, schools, and legislation influenced people; young people especially, to move away from commitment to traditional moral behaviors and family values toward more unrestrained behaviors.


     Dynamic changes in family and sexual behaviors became the focus of major social movements from the years 1960 to 2000.  Highly disciplined and vocal groups engaged in intense debates over these changes.  The debates relating to sexuality, sex-education, abortion, divorce, and homosexuality focus on the meaning of human life, the family, and sacred values.  Consequently, the disputes became acrimonious, accompanied by ferocious denunciations and accusations.


     In their support of traditional values, religious groups encountered political struggles internally and within the larger society.  The struggle over control for the definition of 'normal' sexual behavior was evident within denominations and even within their own hierarchies.  Liberal factions sought to change official church statements related to sexuality in order to bring them into line with secular practices.  A dichotomy between Churches became evident.  ‘Mainline’ denominations moved in the direction of accommodation to contemporary values while 'fundamentalist' denominations sought to preserve traditional biblical values and family relationships.


     Interest in this study has grown out of my life experiences within academia as a student and a professor of sociology; within churches of several denominations, including Baptist, Church of the Brethren, United

Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian; and as a wife and mother raising three children who were born in the 1960's.  As parents raising two sons and a daughter, my husband and I were confused and concerned about the changes that were taking place in society.  Being unaware at the time of the organ­ized groups that were challenging traditional moral values, I naively assumed that other social institutions were continuing to support these values.


     My family and I were actively involved in the churches in which we were members. These experiences sensitized me to the varied perspectives, both within denominations and between denominations, in regard to support for diverse sexual and family relationships.  I observed and felt personally the intensity of feelings these topics generated within congregations.



    At age 53, I received my Ph.D. in sociology with a focus on marriage and family. I began full time teaching of undergraduate and Master’s level university classes during the 1990's.   Most students   held the long-term goal of forming a loving and stable family.  Yet, many expressed concern and anxiety about their ability to achieve their goal.  They had seen, and many had felt, the pain experienced when marriages and families broke up.  Consequently many were afraid of forming marriage and family bonds; indeed, many were even concerned about serious dating relationships.


    This manuscript presents a summary and overview of the challenges directed predominantly toward Jewish and Christian organ­izations in their support of cherished sexual and family values and the accommodations made by these groups to the changing culture.   The study identifies the perspectives, actors and organizations involved in the debates over differing definitions of appropriate sexual and family patterns, particularly as they responded to changing legislation.


     Denominational literature, newspaper and magazine reports, journal articles, and other literature are summarized and integrated to analyze the ongoing contests and debates within and between religious organizations as well as within the larger society.   This summary study is intended to help concerned laypersons, students of social organization, church professionals and other interested readers gain a clearer under­standing of the social forces and dynamics behind the rapid changes that occurred within society at the end of the millenium.  In so doing they can more effectively address the continuing challenges being directed towards traditional sexual and family relationships



1  Dates obtained from The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1997.  Robert Famighetti (editor).

   Mahwah  NJ: World Almanac Books. 1996 .