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After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion by Anthony M. Petro

Elizabeth A. Castelli | Barnard College

Anthony M. Petro. 2015. After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion. New York: Oxford University Press. 294 pages. $29.95 cloth.

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In the early 1990s, I attended a small, invitation-only conference that brought together biblical scholars with Christian theologians and ethicists in the hopes of brokering some sort of rapprochement between two groups of scholars who rarely see eye-to-eye on proper modes of biblical analysis. Whereas biblical scholars are trained in historical-critical methods (situating the Bible in its cultural and historical contexts) and may expand their methodological and theoretical repertoires by borrowing from the worlds of literary and cultural studies (in order to reflect on the afterlives of biblical texts in more recent cultural and political contexts), theologians and ethicists tend to view the Bible primarily as a foundational archive for the project of constructing theology and ethical arguments for confessional communities. The conversations between biblical scholars and theologians/ethicists are often vexed and filled with misunderstanding and frustration.

At this conference, a biblical scholar, who paradoxically challenged the taxonomy I have just laid out, presented a manuscript on “ethics and the New Testament” for discussion by the assembled group. One of the three main topics of his manuscript was “homosexuality,” which he argued is always indefensible because all the evidence from the New Testament—primarily, several short passages from the letters of Paul—make clear that homosexuality is an unacceptable deviation from God’s law and natural law. The animating example at the heart of his discussion of homosexuality was a death-bed-ridden gay man awaiting the inevitable outcome of his terminal diagnosis of AIDS, a man steeped in self-loathing and grief and regret, a man to whom the author had been providing pastoral care. The mobilization of this image of the self-loathing dying man as the lone and singular representative of “homosexuality” tout court took some members of the conference aback, and in the ensuing discussion, the author defended his startling synecdoche and his biblically inflected conclusions without apology. One member of the conference asked whether the author would likewise defend the anti-Judaism of the New Testament, on the grounds that, however painful, one had to take scripture at its word and apply the values of first-century texts to contemporary realities, no matter the consequences. No, the author replied, he would not. Indeed, he could not, he said, because after Auschwitz and the deaths of six million Jewish people, defenses of the New Testament’s anti-Judaism had become anathema.

At this point, the renowned theologian sitting next to me at the conference, an irenic and mild-mannered Welsh bishop spoke very softly in response: “And so,” he asked, “is it your position that we must wait for six million dead from AIDS before you will consider changing your mind about the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality? ” That soft-spoken Welsh bishop was Rowan Williams, who eventually ascended to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, leading the Anglican Communion during a period when it came close to schism over issues of sexuality, on the one hand, and fidelity to tradition and church teaching, on the other.

The logical and rhetorical confusion and collapse of “homosexuality” with “AIDS” at this conference was not an idiosyncratic gesture on the part of one lone conservative Christian biblical scholar. As Anthony Petro shows so compellingly in After the Wrath of God, conflating sexual orientation/identity with a medical diagnosis was the default position in the first years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic; the biblical scholar’s version of the blurring of these lines was only an instance of a more routine move made by policy makers, journalists, activists of various stripes, and ordinary citizens. Moreover, this category confusion or conflation enabled—perhaps even required—another kind of line-blurring, that between the medical and the moral. Meanwhile, the response of the archbishop-to-be to the biblical scholar’s conclusions and comparisons offers an early instance in which a voice of institutionally sanctioned religious authority pressed for a radically different moral calculus—one grounded in a quite different reading of the demands of scripture. And yet, morality remained an urgent and critical element of his intervention into the conversation. As Petro also shows in his book, whereas the dominant narrative around AIDS and religion in the United States has been conventionally framed by a simple secular vs. religious binary, the history is much more complex: boundaries blur, the categories of “religion” and “morality” are mobile, and everything from political rhetoric to activist strategizing depends on these boundary-blurrings and the transitive and portable nature of categories.

For those who lived the history that Petro narrates with such texture and detail, certain moments are seared into memory: AIDS framed as an apocalyptic scenario of just deserts, foretold by the apostle Paul in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, translated into medieval theology’s theorization of sodomy, and ferried into the contemporary world; people with AIDS stigmatized by their infection and their marginal sexual, social, economic, or racial/ethnic status; the deployment of the language of guilt and innocence to separate the “bad” victims from the “good”; the theologization of governmental responses to the epidemic; the fierce political contests between religious leaders (especially those of the Catholic church) and AIDS activists and their allies (especially women’s health activists).

Petro makes two very significant methodological and analytical contributions to the history of AIDS and religion in the United States. Because he is particularly interested in the discursive framing of AIDS, sexuality, and religion—and their intersections—he has had to delve deeply into a rich and varied historical archive. This archive covers many genres: newspaper and magazine articles, transcripts of speeches and sermons, legal documents, popular Christian books and pamphlets, US government documents, reports and official publications of ecclesiastical hierarchies, oral histories, activist manifestos and strategy plans, among others. Petro mines the archive for historical details, but he also reads the archive for its rhetorical underpinnings, its citationality, its discursive productivity. This rhetorical approach attends to the details of image, metaphor, analogy, and forensic strategy. Petro challenges the conventional account of AIDS and religion, arguing that the relevant change over time was not from initial condemnation—invocations of “the wrath of God,” for example—to a more compassionate and progressive vision, but rather from vicious and often cruel critique to the domesticating consolidation of a moralizing discourse at the heart of public policy and public health.

Petro does not seek to narrate a comprehensive history of AIDS and religion in the United States. His project is more focused on the discursive effects of particular moments, movements, and figures on how, even today, we talk about AIDS, sexuality, and (sexual and religious) freedom—discursive effects, he argues, that are steeped in the language of morality and that imbricate ideas about health and sexuality with highly ramified notions of moral citizenship. In the process, Petro offers an illuminating and detailed account of the critical role of C. Everett Koop, Reagan-appointed devout Christian surgeon general, who simultaneously established a no-nonsense, common-sense equilibrium in the framing of AIDS as a public health crisis that nevertheless wrote conservative Christian sexual ethics into the operating system of public policy. Koop was both the most highly placed government official responsible for public health and a Bible-believing activist who promoted conservative Christian positions on abortion and sexuality. Though he became the target of more conservative Christians for his pragmatism in supporting sex education in public schools and condom use as a fall-back alternative if abstinence was impossible, his insistence that health and sexual morality were inextricably linked makes him a poster child for Petro’s argument that the response to the AIDS crisis came to involve equal doses of medicine and moralism.

For me, the most compelling part of Petro’s book involves the fierce contest pitting New York City’s Catholic Cardinal John O’Connor and the Catholic hierarchy against radical activists from ACT-UP and WHAM! (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization). Petro provides a multi-perspectival view of planning, execution, and aftermath of “Stop the Church,” the infamous (and perhaps notorious) direct action by ACT-UP and WHAM! affinity groups against Cardinal O’Connor on his home turf: St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue during the Cardinal’s homily in the middle of a regularly scheduled Sunday mass in December 1989. Whereas many concluded that the Stop the Church action was either an unforgiveable transgression of religious freedom or a colossal tactical failure, Petro invites his readers to consider another dimension of the action—reading it not as a line-crossing sacrilegious travesty or a grievous political miscalculation, but rather as an extravagant religious act on the part of the activists. Such a reading reinforces the overall thesis of the book that “religion” is a mobile and malleable category available as a resource to all the actors in this story and not the sole possession of the religious elites and institutions.

Petro’s history does a great service by bringing together a complex archive and reading it with subtlety and balance. The epilogue brings us into the contemporary scene, the campaign for gay marriage with its capacity to produce moral (gay) citizens, and the shifting world of AIDS prevention with the emergence of prophylactic antiretroviral drugs (PrEP). For Petro, these changes do very little to disrupt the imbrication of the medical and the moral that has characterized the response to HIV/AIDS from almost the beginning. Petro is an heir to the historical perspective of Michel Foucault in showing how social changes that may appear liberatory or progressive often involve the consolidation of more conservative and normative values and constraints. After the Wrath of God will benefit both readers who think they already know this history because they lived it and readers who have always lived under the shadow of HIV/AIDS and never known a world without it.


Elizabeth A. Castelli is Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Religion at Barnard College. She is the author of Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making and Imitating Paul: A Discourse of Power. She is co-author, as a member of the Bible and Culture Collective, of The Postmodern Bible, and co-editor with Janet R. Jakobsen of Interventions: Academics and Activists Respond to Violence and with Rosamond C. Rodman of Women, Gender, Religion: A Reader. She has guest edited special issues of the Journal of the History of Sexuality (with Daniel Boyarin) and differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. In 2014, she published the authorized English translation of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s never-produced script for a film, Saint Paul. Trained as a biblical scholar and historian of Christianity, Castelli is interested broadly in the politics of interpretation, the afterlives of ancient Christian texts and ideas, and the intersections of religion and politics. She is currently at work on a collection of interlocking essays on the theme of confession. She is the Editorial Director of Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books. She serves on the boards of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and the Center for Constitutional Rights, and she is an active member of the collective that runs Word Up Community Bookshop/Libréria Comunitaria, an all-volunteer community bookshop and arts space in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan.