Geoffrey R. Stone
Sex and the Constitution
Sex, Religion, and Law from America’s Origins to the Twenty-First
New York: Liveright/Norton; 2017, 704 pp.
Beginning his volume in the ancient and medieval
worlds, Geoffrey R. Stone demonstrates how the Founding Fathers, deeply
influenced by their philosophical forebears, saw traditional Christianity as an
impediment to the pursuit of happiness and to the quest for human progress.
Acutely aware of the need to separate politics from the divisive forces of
religion, the Founding Fathers crafted a constitution that expressed the
fundamental values of the Enlightenment.
Although the Second Great Awakening later came
to define America through the lens of evangelical Christianity,
nineteenth-century Americans continued to view sex as a matter of private
concern, so much so that sexual expression and information about contraception
circulated freely, abortions before “quickening” remained legal, and
prosecutions for sodomy were almost nonexistent.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries reversed such tolerance, however, as charismatic spiritual leaders
and barnstorming politicians rejected the values of our nation’s founders.
Spurred on by Anthony Comstock, America’s most feared enforcer of morality, new
laws were enacted banning pornography, contraception, and abortion, with
Comstock proposing that the word “unclean” be branded on the foreheads of
homosexuals. Women increasingly lost control of their bodies, and birth control
advocates, like Margaret Sanger, were imprisoned for advocating their beliefs.
In this new world, abortions were for the first time relegated to dank and
dangerous back romos.
The twentieth century gradually saw the
emergence of bitter divisions over issues of sexual “morality” and sexual
freedom. Fiercely determined organizations and individuals on both the right
and the left wrestled in the domains of politics, religion, public opinion, and
the courts to win over the soul of the nation. With its stirring portrayals of
Supreme Court justices, Sex and the Constitution reads like a dramatic
gazette of the critical cases they decided, ranging from Griswold v.
Connecticut (contraception), to Roe v. Wade (abortion), to Obergefell
v. Hodges (gay marriage), with Stone providing vivid historical context to
the decisions that have come to define who we are as a nation.
Now, though, after the 2016 presidential
election, we seem to have taken a huge step backward, with the progress of the
last half century suddenly imperiled. No one can predict the extent to which
constitutional decisions safeguarding our personal freedoms might soon be
eroded, but Sex and the Constitution is more vital now than ever before.
Geoffrey R. Stoneis the author of the prize-winning Perilous Times. He is the Edward H.
Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago and
one of our nation’s leading constitutional scholars.