Beware the dominant narratives about religion and sex. Things are usually more complicated.

In the United States, narratives of religion and sex education often invoke a cultural battle between the religious and the secular, with religions opposing secular instruction about sexuality in public schools. As the story is told, public sex education—forged in the 1960s sexual revolution as comprehensive sexuality education—provoked conservative Christians who fought against it in the name of traditional family values. These religious opponents later pushed for abstinence-only education to take its place.

One challenge to the impression that public school sex education is entirely secular is the reality that religiously motivated abstinence-only education has proven wildly successful at gaining federal funding and replacing comprehensive sexuality education in many public schools. The conservative Protestant influence on the history of abstinence-only education is well established. While program creators became more skilled over time at omitting explicit Christian references in their public school curricula, ACLU cases continue to demonstrate challenges that some abstinence-only programs (recently rebranded as Sexual Risk Avoidance Education)pose to the First Amendment prohibition against state establishment of religion. This education is guided by what it omits, silencing widely known facts about sex: that correctly used condoms are very effective at preventing sexually transmitted infections and pregnancies, that the category of sexual orientation is not limited to heterosexuality, that sexual activity includes more than the missionary position within marriage, and the list goes on. Aside from clear religious involvement in the rise of abstinence-only, the fact that these programs focus on severely restricting children’s knowledge about sexuality and sexual health—and that they have persisted despite critiques of their ineffectiveness, inaccuracies, and damaging messages, and that evidence shows that most comprehensive approaches are more successful—should at least raise questions about the narrative of secularity and progress surrounding public school sexuality programs.

The prevailing assumptions also obscure the deeply entangled nature of religious and secular developments within culture. Just as secular trends have influenced religious opposition to sex education, religious sex educators have contributed to the creation and promotion of public sex education from the beginning. In other words, rather than just being an obstructive force to liberal efforts, religion has shaped the history of both sides of contemporary debates over sex education.

The push for sex education in the United States has a long religious past. The roots of the national movement for public sex education can be traced to the late nineteenth-century social purity movement. The early purity reformers had much in common with today’s evangelical purity culture: both were led by Protestants who taught young people about the importance of chastity outside of marriage in order to stay safe from the physical and spiritual dangers of sexual sins. However, most leaders of early purity reforms were the progressive Protestants of their day, teaching about abstinence in order to break the “conspiracy of silence” around sexuality as part of their social reforms to abolish prostitution. They used purity education to expand rather than constrict mainstream conversations around sexuality. Motivated by liberal theologies that lauded modernism, they embraced scientific advancements and medical expertise in their sex education, even as the social norms that they taught about patriarchy, heterosexual marriage, and whiteness upheld the status quo. At that time, their effort to teach children and young adults anything about sexuality in public was a fairly radical act, one which set the national stage for public sex education.

Social purity organizations went on to merge with the early twentieth-century social hygiene movement, which consisted of doctors, biology teachers, and public health experts who wanted to share their newly discovered sexual knowledge about syphilis and gonorrhea. The alliance between these “medical men and moralists” created the American Social Hygiene Association in 1914, which served as the clearinghouse for the sex education movement for many decades. While the men of science often held the reins, the Protestant social purity influence meant that early sex education maintained a strong interest in teaching about moral dimensions of sex. The involvement of Catholic sex educators also kept the American Social Hygiene Association neutral in regards to birth control, because Catholicism prohibited its leaders from endorsing artificial contraceptives.

Most public schools were slow to embrace sex education, so sex educators had to first convince parents and social leaders that sexual information should be taught to children. World War I presented a major opportunity for this work, as parents pressured officials to protect newly drafted soldiers from the sexual dangers posed by prostitutes around military bases. In addition to chemical prophylactic kits, medical lectures by army physicians, and mandates to shut down prostitution districts, the government called upon sex educators to impress upon young soldiers at home and abroad the importance of staying sexually clean. The American Social Hygiene Association partnered with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) to carry out this decree, with both groups creating education materials and the YMCA distributing them through lectures and YMCA huts on military bases. The YMCA’s involvement in sex education reached back to its social purity work, during which time it developed a Christian rationale for team sports as a way of channeling young men’s sexual energy into wholesome activities. Military chaplains, who were overwhelmingly Protestant, joined YMCA sex educators in giving lectures and individual counseling on sexuality to soldiers. This meant that of the three types of sex educators within the military during World War I—physicians, YMCA directors, and chaplains—two were explicitly Christian and relied upon moral arguments in their lessons.

After the war, the American Social Hygiene Association continued to seek ways of convincing people that sex education was not filthy smut. To do this, it partnered with churches and mainline Protestant organizations like the Federal Council of Churches, using the pulpit, religious publications, and conferences to argue that sex education would help children become better Christians by instilling the importance of reproduction within marriage. Sex educators, increasingly interested in social scientific developments in social work and psychology, also turned to ministers as early experts in marriage education and counseling. Progressive Christian leaders embraced this new label as marital experts, pleased that they had valuable data to offer about sexuality in the decades before the Kinsey reports. Following the Federal Council of Churches’ interfaith initiatives, sex educators also reached out to Reform Jewish rabbis to promote a “Judeo-Christian” message that linked sex with married life. These religious partnerships resulted in sex education’s monumental shift away from venereal disease education toward “family life education.”

In the 1960s, the rise of the most thorough version of sex education was led by Christian sex educators and rooted in religious morality. A leading spokesperson for comprehensive sexuality education, Mary Steichen Calderone, was a Quaker whose religious values deeply shaped her approach of teaching about sexuality as a fundamental component of identity and health. She was joined by Protestant leaders from the National Council of Churches, successor of the earlier Federal Council of Churches. Together, they promoted sex education as a way of spreading the “new morality.” Also known as situation ethics, the new morality was a progressive theology popularized by Anglican Protestant theologians John A. T. Robinson and Joseph Fletcher in the 1960s. Liberal Protestants who adopted it sought to replace externally imposed moral absolutes with internally cultivated moral decision-making, guided in each situation by the Christian principle of love (agapē). Early comprehensive sexuality educators embraced the new morality because they believed that mandated absolutes of “just say no” had failed to teach young people how to control their sexuality. Despite accusations of promoting an “anything goes” approach, they argued that individuals who applied the new morality’s principle of love to each sexual situation would follow even higher standards than those expected to abide by unbending moral dictates.

Given this history, why has the story of public sex education often left out religion? For the early movement, the misleading idea that secular scientific expertise completely replaced religious influence and authority has guided collective memory. Contributing to this myth, sex educators decried the influence of religion on sex education, and most scholars have taken them at their word. The problem with this interpretation is that the liberal Protestant sex educators who said this rejected only a certain type of religion, namely fundamentalist Protestantism; they viewed their own versions as more modern and universal and therefore appropriate to guide moral education about sex for everyone. The assumption that the secular had eclipsed the religious within sex education has silenced the many religious scientists and scientifically-trained religious leaders who helped the movement to realize that teaching scientific facts about sexuality was not enough. To urge people to avoid certain sexual behaviors, they promoted moral education about sexuality. Their religious approach convinced many churches and Christian parents that sex education was not gutter-talk, as it softened the scientific language that was seen as too specific and therefore too lurid for young ears.

There are multiple reasons why sex education since the 1960s has been portrayed as secular. Early comprehensive sexuality educators, like their predecessors, decried “religion” in their critiques of conservative Christianity, even as they argued that their own Protestantism motivated them and made their approaches more effective. At other times, religious comprehensive sexuality educators downplayed their religious affiliations in public as a way to distance themselves from their opponents, who they viewed as religious extremists. Some comprehensive sexuality educators, of course, have also been openly non-religious or anti-religious, and the rise of sex education work within denominations has resulted in a division of labor, with the mainstream movement appearing more secular. Perhaps most obvious, abstinence-only supporters have declared comprehensive sexuality education to be secular, anti-God propaganda, and some have taken their word for it. In response to conservative Christian opposition, comprehensive sexuality educators have self-censored in order to avoid or survive local controversies—at least partially explaining why America’s progressive sex education is a lot tamer than that of Europe. As a result, despite the efforts of comprehensive sexuality educators to distinguish themselves from their loudest critics, religion continues to play a role in shaping secular sex education.