Melissa Wilde is an associate professor of sociology and the undergraduate chair of the sociology department at the University of Pennsylvania. One overarching question that has driven Wilde's research as a comparative-historical cultural sociologist: How can we better understand the ways in which religious institutions, as belief systems developed centuries or millennia ago, react to cultural change? In pursuit of this question, Wilde has investigated a variety of religious changes including: the cultural factors and social movements that directed the Second Vatican Council in the Roman Catholic Church (1962-65); the demographic factors that explain why American Protestantism has gone from being majority Mainline to majority conservative and evangelical; and the role religious competition and marketing played in encouraging the Roman Catholic Church to exponentially increase its granting of marital annulments.
Currently, Wilde is investigating how we as a nation arrived at a juncture where the politics of sex and gender are the key issue dividing American religious groups, the central battle in what many have referred to as the “culture wars." To do so, she examined the 31 largest American religious groups’ stances on birth control, abortion, divorce, women’s ordination and homosexuality over the course of the Twentieth Century. She has found that contemporary divisions are rooted in inequalities of race and class, because those groups who first liberalized on issues of sex did so in relation to the issue of birth control in the early 1930s; and their stances on birth control were determined by their particular class and racial locations.