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Evangelical Writer Who Influenced Purity Culture Announces Separation From Wife

Joshua Harris, one of the most influential voices on sex and relationships for a generation of evangelical Christians, has announced that he and his wife are separating after 20 years of marriage.
Katherine Frey
The Washington Post/Getty Images
Joshua Harris, one of the most influential voices on sex and relationships for a generation of evangelical Christians, has announced that he and his wife are separating after 20 years of marriage.

Joshua Harris, one of the most influential voices on sex and relationships for a generation of evangelical Christians, announced this past week that he and his wife are separating after 20 years of marriage.

Harris' book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, was published in 1997 when he was in his early 20s. It became a manual for young evangelicals looking for love.

In recent years, Harris has apologized for some of the ideas he promoted and publicly wrestled with them in a documentary.

In an interview with NPR last year, Harris talked about going through that process with his wife, Shannon.

"I think it's made us realize how there's heartache and there's pain no matter which pathway you choose in life," Harris said. "There's no path that you can choose that can protect you from that."

Harris and his wife announced their separation on Instagram, writing:

We're writing to share the news that we are separating and will continue our life together as friends. In recent years, some significant changes have taken place in both of us. It is with sincere love for one another and understanding of our unique story as a couple that we are moving forward with this decision. We hope to create a generous and supportive future for each other and for our three amazing children in the years ahead. Thank you for your understanding and for respecting our privacy during a difficult time.

In her latest piece for Slate, Ruth Graham writes that an author announcing his separation from his wife normally wouldn't be news, but Harris was such a pivotal voice in what's known as the evangelical purity movement and was influential on how a whole generation of conservative Christian young people thought about relationships and marriage.

To get an understanding of how this might affect the evangelical community, All Things Considered spoke with Graham, who often covers religion.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

What exactly did Harris advocate for when I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out in the late 1990s?

The book in some ways is about sex. It's an abstinence manifesto. The idea was that having sex, even with a serious boyfriend or girlfriend, before you were married could lead to lasting regret. Harris even argued it's better not to even kiss before you got married. Just the idea that God wants you to be pure on your wedding day. But the argument was really about marriage. The idea was that modern dating is spiritually corrosive in a way because you're sort of practicing breaking up. You're rehearsing for divorce. The bigger implication was kind of that there was a formula to a good marriage and if you followed this set of rules and restrained yourself enough and behaved in exactly the right way, you would have a foundation for a lasting marriage and a happy marriage.

I Kissed Dating Goodbye became a Christian bestseller and Harris followed it up with Boy Meets Girl, where he talked about meeting Shannon and courting her and marrying her. What was the impact of those books on the evangelical culture?

It's really hard to overestimate in a way. It hit just at the same moment that the "True Love Waits" moment was gaining steam. That was a big abstinence movement that encouraged teenagers to sign pledges that they would avoid having sex until they got married. A lot of people wore purity rings. This is a major movement in the '90s and early 2000s. Harris' book kind of gave the intellectual foundation for that in a way. It was a huge influence on really a whole generation of evangelical young people who came to see this idea of premarital abstinence as a core part of faith,not just a good habit or a good idea, but really something very important to their faith, and as they grew up that started to change for a lot of people.

Harris openly struggled with some of his ideas in recent years and chronicled that process in a documentary called I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, where he talked to people who say they've been harmed by his ideas, made to feel shame about sex or rushed into relationships that didn't work. What does it mean that Joshua Harris, who wrote those books, is now publicly saying his own marriage isn't working?

The significance of this is that here's this person who held himself up not just in I Kissed Dating Goodbye, but in at least one book to come, as proof of concept that if you waited, if you did everything in the right way, you would have the perfect marriage, essentially. And for that to be proven not true, for his marriage of all marriages to end in divorce, I think it's a sort of coda to the purity movement.

What kind of reaction have you been seeing to this news this week that Harris is separating from his wife?

You know, there's a little bit of gloating of course because the Internet is what it is. But I've seen mostly sadness. You know, for one because it's the breakup of a family. For some people it is disillusioning and for other people it confirms that this legalistic approach to sexuality is not a guarantee. There really is no magic formula for marriage.

Harris' writings and ideas had such an impact on evangelical youth groups and young evangelicals, for many years. Do you think this news will have much of an impact in how churches and how his audience talks about these issues of sex or dating and relationships?

I think churches have been grappling with this for some time now. It's not so much that mainstream evangelicalism has changed its sexual ethics or changed the big idea. But I think that this is just another cause to realize that making premarital sex and abstinence such a major theme of youth culture and youth group culture, specifically, just does not necessarily lead to healthy marriages. It just takes a much more robust and complex sexual ethic and way of talking about sex. I think this is a reminder of a conversation that's been going on for, you know, at least a decade or so.

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Corrected: July 21, 2019 at 10:00 PM MDT
In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we say Joshua and Shannon Harris are separating after 19 years of marriage. In fact, they are separating after 20 years.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.