Sexual Justice and the Religious Left
by Shai Sachs, Sat Oct 11, 2008 at 12:29:52 PM EDT
This weekend, in anticipation of the book launch of Dispatches from the Religious Left, I am running a series on a few selected essays from the book. Earlier today, I posted my review of PastorDan's essay on the role of the Religious Left. This post is about an essay by Rev. Debra Haffner and Timothy Palmer: "Towards a theology of sexual justice."
Sexual justice, as defined by this essay, is quite broad:
Indeed, the full scope of sexual justice embraces anyone who is concerned with gender equality, reproductive rights and health care, and the right to privacy, not to mention education, equality of opportunity and the dignity of all persons.
These issues are far too important to far too many people to sweep under the rug in seeking the support of an ever-elusive "Religious Center", as Jim Wallis argues. So how is the Religious Left to support sexual justice?
The essay urges Religious Leftists to support a wide array of positions under the umbrella of sexual justice, including comprehensive, age-appropriate sexuality education; full access to sexual and reproductive health services; and full inclusion of women and LGBT individuals in public life. Additionally, the essay calls for better awareness and understanding of adolescent sexuality and sexual and gender diversity.
The key to this agenda is the development of a "theology of sexual justice". Haffner and Palmer's organization, the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, has done considerable work in framing sexual justice in a religious context. The theology which has emerged from this work focuses on personal relationships, integrity, and justice. The essay discusses this theology with particular regard for children and adolescents (who need help learning about sexuality and making good decisions about personal relationships); women (who deserve agency); and LGBT individuals (who have a right to full inclusion in public and religious life).
The essay explicitly rejects the narrow biblical view of these issues. For example, in addressing abortion: "Scripture neither condemns nor prohibits abortion. It does, however, call people to act compassionately and justly when facing difficult moral decisions. Scriptural commitment to the most marginalized means that pregnancy, childbearing and abortion should be safe for all women." The essay ends on a hopeful note, noting positive trends that suggest that liberal views of sexual justice are ascendant.
This kind of theological argumentation is, I think, a valuable contribution from the Religious Left. While the Religious Right has carefully worked to close the door on theological debate of political issues, the Religious Left can blow the door off its hinges. Certainly, this kind of debate can begin with direct biblical argumentation: the Bible does not say much about abortion, and it says almost nothing about homosexuality - and even less about how we understand it today. But the debate is much broader, and in this sense the diversity of the Religious Left is a key strength. For while the Bible might or might not condemn abortion, there are many people for whom the Bible, or the New Testament, is simply irrelevant, and these people have a right to make a theological argument about the issues of the day. A healthy public theological debate about political issues can only diminish the influence of the Religious Right.
However, I think the essay stops short, in that it treats sexual injustice as merely a platform promoted by a select few leaders of the Religious Right. In my view sexual injustice is much more; it draws on a crisis of identity and a fear of new and confusing realities among the rank-and-file. Fear of the sexual other is interwoven throughout conservative culture, at least as far back as the days of post-World War II redbaiting, according to Rick Perlstein's Nixonland. And it is certainly has a pernicious and sinister influence on our politics today.
But while in the political realm it is ok, and perhaps even necessary, to forthrightly reject this kind of fear, and to contrast it with open-ended inclusion, the job of a religious movement is very different. Fear of the sexual other, and a crisis of sexual identity, is a personal and pastoral problem. It is something which liberal religious ministry can tackle; it is a job which liberal religious leaders throughout the country are probably already doing within their own congregations. I would also argue that it should be part of the mandate of the Religious Left, to address and mitigate this spiritual crisis outside the boundaries of liberal religious congregations and in society as a whole. Not only would such a project be a valuable service to society as a whole, it would also redound to the benefit of the progressive movement, as it would undermine the foundation of the Religious Right.
I admit that I don't know much about how the Religious Left would go about addressing this problem outside the boundary of liberal religious congregations. It's not an easy problem on an individual level, and I can't imagine the project gets easier on a national scale. But I'd certainly welcome suggestions, and I'm curious to hear what your thoughts are on Haffner and Palmer's thoughts about a theology of sexual justice.