While some have argued that opposition to a woman’s right to make decisions about her body is a legitimate religious freedom issue, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the religious freedom issue at stake in the abortion debate.
On Saturday, a close friend walked out of her local Catholic church with her family in protest of the priest’s blatantly propagandistic pro-life homily. Apparently, he was praising the story of Abby Johnson’s conversion from Planned Parenthood clinic director to pro-life activist and the new film Unplanned, which tells her story. The film, released by a company that focuses on producing “Christian films,” received a nationwide release, was in fourth place after its first weekend in box offices, and has gone on to gross almost $18 million since opening day.
I had recruited this same feminist friend to go with me to see the film because I wasn’t sure I could make it through on my own. What initially struck me as the two of us sat in the theatre and watched people filter in was the makeup of the audience. While it was a relatively small crowd of about thirty people, everyone but the two of us were white, heterosexual couples in their fifties or older. Some of that may have been due to the fact that it was a Saturday matinee, but as soon as the movie opened, it was clear that these people, nonetheless, were the target demographic.
From the opening scene of Abby Johnson’s breakfast in her perfectly clean, well-tooled kitchen to listening to her voice-over describing her life as the camera pans through her white, upper middle-class town, it is clear that this movie is for people like Abby Johnson, people who live in homes, and neighborhoods, and towns that are white, clean, crime-free, and innocent. There is nothing terribly surprising or shocking in the film; it is full of all the pro-life messages one would expect from a movie in this genre including: Johnson’s mommy guilt for being a working mother; stock, super-supportive husband and parents who hate her job but love her so much it doesn’t matter; an incompetent doctor who perforates a uterus and then refuses to send the patient to a hospital in order to cover up his mistake. All of this is backdrop for the main story – a pro-choice protagonist who has had two abortions, directs an “abortion clinic,” and undergoes a miraculous conversion while assisting with an abortion procedure that opens her eyes to the evil she is perpetuating.
This film is rightly identified as propaganda, not because it is pro-life and seeks to persuade people toward a particular perspective. It is propaganda because it is filled with tired tropes and stereotypes about abortion, physicians, Planned Parenthood, and women who terminate pregnancies. It is propaganda because it willfully misrepresents abortion procedures—repeatedly. It eschews any evidence-based argument. From the opening scene reminiscent of Silent Scream, where a thirteen-week fetus is depicted as struggling and fighting for its life to the bloody and life-threatening perforated uterus scen(sc)ario, this movie could easily be placed in the genre of horror.
But, the most offensive scene depicted Johnson’s second abortion, which was an early medication abortion. Not because this scene portrays the clinic staff as callous and incompetent, or because the gory, tortured images of Johnson’s experience are intended to frighten and shock. What is so objectionable is that the end of the scene pans away from Johnson lying naked in a lump on the floor of her blood-stained bathroom in a way that so clearly mimics the notorious photo of Gerri Santoro that galvanized pro-choice support across the country that it cannot be coincidental. The fact that Santoro died from a self-induced abortion when abortion was illegal while the scene in Unplanned depicts a legal, early, and ultimately safe abortion procedure makes the evocation of Santoro’s experience even more abhorrent.
Just about the only thing that the movie gets right is the fact that abortion is bloody. You know what else is bloody? Menstruation, childbirth, miscarriage, polyps, fibroids, hormonal imbalances, menopause, cancer, hysterectomies, ectopic pregnancies, even healthy pregnancies—there are so many things in women’s lives that can cause women to bleed. But this film attempts to use blood, women’s menstrual blood, in a frenzy of gore meant to titillate and terrify. That is also why it is propaganda. Because this film seeks to make people afraid.
So, just remember the facts.
- Abortion is one of the most common medical procedures in the country and it is also far safer than childbirth.
- 25% of women in the United States will have an abortion by the age of 45.
- 60% of women who have abortions already have at least one child.
- 62% of women having abortions report a religious affiliation.
- Most Christians believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
There is a dominant belief that Christianity and Christians are against abortion. In fact, many Christian communities accept abortion in certain circumstances. That abortion is acceptable in some cases means that the real social question is not whether women can have abortions, but which women and for what reasons?
Prenatal health, Rape, Incest, and health of the Mother – PRIM. Evidence indicates widespread consensus and acceptance among many Christian denominations that abortion for PRIM reasons is justifiable.
Of the 11 Christian statements included in a 2013 Pew Research Center study, only Roman Catholics state that they oppose abortion in all circumstances. All the other denominations, even the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), and the Missouri Synod Lutherans concede that abortion is justifiable when a woman’s life is in danger. The LDS, the NAE, and the Episcopalians also specifically mention that rape and incest are considered justifiable reasons to terminate a pregnancy.
Beyond Christian communities, more than three-quarters of the U.S. public have consistently approved of PRIM abortions since 1972, indicating a broad public consensus that abortion is sometimes necessary.
Christian acceptance of PRIM abortions has helped shape the dominant public discourse about abortion into a debate about justification. By requiring women to justify their reasons for ending a pregnancy, this framework divides women who have abortions into two categories – the tragic and the damned.
Women who have PRIM abortions are portrayed as tragic, not only deserving of access to abortion services but also equally deserving of public sympathy. Women who have abortions for other reasons are stigmatized as morally unfit and labeled as selfish, cruel, and irresponsible. In short, they are the damned.
Given that only 27.5 percent of abortions happen from PRIM reasons, that leaves nearly three-quarters of the women who have abortions in the United States damned. These women stand outside acceptability in the justification paradigm that conservative Christian voices have established for our public conversation about abortion.
In a justification framework when women get pregnant, we expect them to have babies.
It is time for Christians to challenge the inadequacy, intolerance and misogyny of this paradigm of pregnancy and abortion. As my deeply Christian mother taught me, “You shouldn’t have a baby because you are pregnant. You should have a baby because you want to be a mother, because you want to have a family.” The moral wisdom of this Christian perspective recognizes that parenting is a profoundly moral act.
To choose to have a child is to make a significant moral commitment to raise the child or to place it for adoption. Since only 1 percent of women place their children for adoption, the overwhelming majority of women who continue unplanned pregnancies are making the choice to mother that child.
Creating healthy families requires more than ensuring that babies are born. Creating healthy families and raising children is a deeply spiritual and moral task requiring commitment, desire, and love on the part of parents.
Limiting our cultural approval of women’s reproductive decisions about the size, shape, and timing of their families to a narrow list of PRIM reasons flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching that he came to bring abundant life. A Christian vision of abundant life requires recognizing and supporting the development of healthy and robust families. It requires respecting women and the moral decisions that they make about their families. A Christian approach to supporting healthy families recognizes that only individual women and their partners are able to determine their ability to parent a child.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court upheld a Colorado baker’s decision to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. It was an oddly narrow decision that reaffirmed protections for gay rights while simultaneously allowing the baker to violate them.
The case was argued on two grounds – free speech and free exercise of religion. Regarding free speech, the argument that baking a cake is a speech act did not seem to hold much traction. Neither did the majority opinion hold that a businessperson has a right to discriminate based on their religious beliefs.
The Supreme Court’s Decision
Surprisingly, perhaps, the decision was ultimately decided on very narrow grounds. The majority ruled in favor of the baker based on the judgment that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission demonstrated “hostility” to religion. The Civil Rights Commission had made the original ruling against the baker.
What Justice Kennedy is referring to here are remarks that were made by one member of the Commission who said:
Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be – I mean, we – we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination.
So far, what this Commissioner said is simply fact. Religion has been used in exactly this way throughout history. Furthermore, religious people continue to claim “freedom of religion” to justify misogyny, violence, homophobia, and other egregious and uncivil behaviors.
Here’s where it gets tricky
However, the Commissioner went on to say:
And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to – to use their religion to hurt others.
This is what really seemed to set Justice Kennedy off. He argued in response:
To describe a man’s faith as “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use” is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical – something insubstantial and even insincere.
Based on this statement of one Commissioner, Kennedy held that the whole Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to uphold their responsibility of “fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law – a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.”
The opinion equivocated on a number of points and fairly invited further cases by stating:
The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.
Just what is “undue disrespect”?
It is the phrase “without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs” that gives me pause.
How are we to determine what constitutes “undue disrespect”? Is that another way of saying we need to respect these “sincere religious beliefs”? Who decides what is “undue”?
After all, we live in a country where Christians hold some horribly disrespectful beliefs.
Some of these beliefs are against the law. As in, some Christians sincerely believe that they have the right to beat their wives and some of their wives have been taught to believe they deserve it.
Some of these beliefs are used to harm women. As in, some Christians who sincerely believe that fertilized eggs are human beings are interfering with women’s access to birth control and abortion.
Some of these beliefs are simply morally abhorrent. As in, some Christians sincerely believe that the white race is morally, physically, and intellectually superior to all other races.
Freedom of speech means that we must allow people to express their beliefs, however abhorrent. It doesn’t mean we must respect those beliefs.
The same must be said for freedom of religion. While people have a right to believe whatever they wish, they do not have a right to act on those beliefs when they harm other people.
My faith calls me to challenge hatred
Misogyny is exhausting.
Today I have been working on explaining and documenting the history of misogyny and patriarchy in the church as backdrop for understanding the contemporary debate about abortion in the US.
Not only is navigating the history of misogyny exhausting, it’s given me a headache too!
I think it is easy for many Christians to forget how misogynist our tradition has been. Particularly if we worship in communities that accept women pastors and lay leaders.
Misogyny is defined as the “hatred of women.” It’s a pretty bold claim to say that there are elements of our history and our culture that actively express a “hatred” of women. Many people find that language too extreme and would prefer “softer” language – discrimination, prejudice, condescension, disregard, perhaps even objectification (seeing women as sexual objects rather than as fully human equals).
The thing is, throughout history many historians, philosophers, political leaders, and prominent theologians have treated women is demeaning and abusive ways. There is nothing “soft” about the sentiments expressed by many male philosophers and theologians. Nor is there anything “soft” about the social control of women that often accompanies misogynist and patriarchal attitudes.
Here are some of the texts I’ve been working with today:
Tertullian (early 3rd c. CE) – You are the Devil’s gateway. It is you who plucked the fruit of the forbidden tree. You are the first who deserted the divine law. You are the one who persuaded him whom even the Devil was not strong enough to attack. All too easily you destroyed the image of God, man. Because of your desert, that is death, even the Son of God had to die. . .
Augustine (late 4th – early 5th c. CE) – The woman does not possess the image of god in herself, but only when taken together with the male who is her head, so that the whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned as a helpmate, a function that pertains to her alone, then she is not the image of God. But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God, just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one.
Barth (early 20th c. CE) – The covenant creation dictates a certain order, a relation of priority and posteriority, of A and B. Just as God rules over creation in the covenant of creation, so man rules over woman. He must be A; he must be first. She is B; she must be second. He must stay in his place. She must stay in hers. She must accept this order as the right nature of things through which she is saved, even if she is abused and wronged by the man.
I use these quotes when I teach my students about the misogyny that is embedded in the development, history, and theology of Christianity. These quotes unambiguously establish women as not only inferior to men and removed from God but as the very “Devil’s Gateway.” It seems pretty clear that these men did not think much of women. These statements even seem to be a little “hatey,” don’t you think?
These kinds of ideas – that women are the root of sin and evil, that women must be subservient to their husbands, that women must accept our inferior status in life – all of these ideas are rightly understood as part of a misogynist tradition in Christianity, a tradition that has contributed to larger social attitudes and behaviors in society that collectively express a fairly serious “hatred” of women.
Unfortunately, these misogynist attitudes are not just a part of Christian history, they continue to function in influential ways in contemporary Christianity.
I recently wrote about the offensive ideas about women that some Orthodox Christians hold in the ecumenical movement. But misogynist ideas about women, women’s social roles, and women’s leadership in the church are also alive and well in conservative and some evangelical circles too.
Controversial pastor Mark Driscoll who started the mega church Mars Hill in Seattle said this about women, “Women will be saved by going back to that role that God has chosen for them. Ladies, if the hair on the back of your neck stands up it is because you are fighting your role in the scripture.”
And, of course, who can forget the Pat Robertson gem from 1992, “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
WOW! He really has no idea what feminism is about does he?
While misogyny is deeply embedded in the development, history, and theology of Christianity, this does not mean that Christianity is inherently misogynist or patriarchal. It is human beings who shape attitudes and beliefs about human nature, the sacred, and our religions through our teachings and our practices. And it is human beings who have created patriarchal church structures and misogynist theologies. The real danger of these misogynist theologies lies in the way that they shape attitudes about women and the way that women can (and even should) be treated.
Another way in which this hatred of women has manifested in our society is in the double-standard that exists between expectations about men and women’s sexual behavior. While some churches may preach against sex before marriage, it is only women who are truly expected to comply. Women who have sex outside of marriage are labeled in many ways – whore, promiscuous, slut, tramp, harlot, strumpet, bimbo, floozy, hussy, tart, trollop, jezebel, and referred to as “loose” or “fallen.” We do not have parallel words for men.
Because Christianity has played an important role in shaping cultural attitudes about pregnancy, abortion, and the sacredness of life (among other things), it is important to recognize the ways in which the Christian tradition and its theological ideals have been influenced by misogyny and patriarchy so that we can reshape our beliefs and practices to recognize women’s full humanity, women’s moral agency, and the fact that women are equally loved by God.
image Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_passiflora70′>passiflora70 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
My regular bike ride takes me past a small rural Presbyterian church that has been struggling with a decreasing congregation over the last ten or twenty years. It is the nearest Presbyterian church to our old house and so I have attended worship there several times over the years.
I’ve even preached there once or twice when a friend of mine pastored the church for a number of years and asked me to fill the pulpit when she was on vacation. Like many small churches, they worried about their declining numbers. My friend tried to help them focus on reimagining their role in the local community and how they might be a faithful church rather than to obsess too much over church growth (or lack thereof).
So, I have a connection to this small church and its congregation and always think fondly of them and my friend as I cycle past the church several times a week.
I also know that this church has been struggling with the issue of homosexuality in recent years.
Several years ago I was on an Presbytery panel that focused on “Amendment One” in NC, which sought to define marriage as “between one man and one woman.” I presented an overview of the PCUSA’s support of civil rights over the years alongside a summary of the divergent expressions of marriage in the Bible. I argued that regardless of how Christians felt theologically about the issue of homosexuality, legal discrimination against any group of people is unjust and contradictory to the witness of the PC(USA).
The interim pastor of Memorial Presbyterian was on the panel supporting Amendment One and its proposed discrimination of gays and lesbians.
I can only imagine how members of this church received the recent news that the denomination had voted to allow pastors and churches to celebrate gay and lesbian marriages. I knew that they had been having conversations about leaving the denomination over these changes.
A couple of months ago, the sign in front of the church read “Welcome EPC.” In the world of Christian acronyms, this stands for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church – a denomination created in the early 80s for Presbyterians who felt that the denomination was too “liberal.” I wasn’t entirely sure what the sign meant – were they welcoming members from the EPC to worship? were they welcoming community members to a new EPC congregation? were they testing the waters of transition with their weekly message? Who knew?
Yesterday, when I rode past the church I noticed with great sadness that they had covered over the iconic PCUSA crosses on that very sign. The sign still reads “Memorial Presbyterian Church” but with the erasure of the denominational symbol of the PCUSA, this small church has joined many other churches across the country in leaving behind the mainline Protestant tradition to embrace an evangelical tradition representing conservative values and rigid, intolerant interpretations of scripture.
My heart broke a little as I rode my bike past that church. It broke for that congregation whose prejudices against gays and lesbians pushed them to leave a community of churches that they have been a part of since their formation. It broke a little for my Presbytery that has now lost another church from our community of faith. It broke a little for the knowledge that it was likely the prejudiced teachings of earlier traditions of Christianity that helped to shape the prejudice and bias that continues to mark this community’s reading of scripture.
I believe that the Christian faith is full of wisdom that can help lead people to live strong, faithful, justice-filled lives rooted in community and compassion for the created world. It is not the only source of wisdom for a meaningful life, but it is an important source that motivates, inspires and helps to heal and guide billions of people around the world.
Christianity can also be used to hurt, exclude, shame, and harm other people. Often by people whose interpretation of Christianity is rigid, intolerant, and exclusive.
As a living faith, Christianity grows, changes, and responds to the world in which it lives. Christians learn from science, from history, from experience, and from people witnessing to their knowledge of the sacred – even when it is different from our own.
In recent years, many Christians have had to unlearn many hateful and inaccurate things that the Christian church and tradition has taught about homosexuality in the past. Many of us have learned from our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters new ways of understanding what it means to be created in the image of God and this has helped us to see and understand scripture in new ways.
These shifts in interpreting scripture are an example of how Christianity continues to live and grow and have meaning for people of faith in our world. Over the centuries we have reinterpreted our understanding of many things that were once thought fixed due to our “interpretation” of scripture – slavery, divorce, the role and status of women, and sexuality are just a few of these.
My heart breaks for Memorial Presbyterian Church and the many other churches who have left the PCUSA and other mainline denominations over the issue of homosexuality. Not because of the continued fracturing of the body of Christ, although that makes me sad too. Not because I think my denomination is best and the churches who leave can’t be faithful Christians somewhere else. Not because they have taken their property and walked away from Salem Presbytery.
What I see is fear and intolerance winning out over justice. And it breaks my heart.
In the mountains of Romania, nestled amidst chickens, peacocks, horses, dogs, and a lovely pair of domesticated rabbits, forty-five theologians, biblical scholars and church leaders have met together for the past week to talk about how to move together toward Eucharistic fellowship and the visible unity of the Church.
Representatives from Roman Catholic, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, historic Peace churches, and for the first time an official representative from the Pentecostal tradition have come from thirty-one countries to talk together about the issues that divide our churches and to seek together ways to be the church together in the world.
In the midst of fragmentation, denominationalism, and a wide range of practices and beliefs among Christians around the world, the question of the “unity” of the Church has been an ongoing passion and concern for many Christians. Based in the belief that we are called to be one Church under Jesus Christ, one of the themes of the modern ecumenical movement has been to explore the question of how the churches might work together toward “visible unity.”
The ecumenical movement and me
Growing up as a cradle Presbyterian and a preacher’s kid, Presbyterianism was my sociocultural world. When my father got angry with me or my sister, he would often preface his remarks with the exasperated endearment, “Child of the covenant!”
As an adult, I asked him why he did this. He explained that it was his reminder to himself of the sacred nature of his responsibility as a parent and of the vows he had made at our baptism. What it taught me was that I wasn’t just his daughter, I had a larger family, a covenant family—and that our baptismal vows were a lifelong commitment.
People enter the academy for a variety of reasons. Some of us love books and learning and see the academy as an avenue for life-long learning; others are passionate about a particular area of knowledge and inquiry and desire nothing more than to talk about it with others who share their passion; some colleagues of mine are gifted teachers who seek to open the minds of young people or to help them develop their intellectual curiosity; one colleague even told me years ago that he wanted to “be famous.”
My route to the academy came via the church and advocacy work that I did on behalf of women at the national office of the Presbyterian Church (USA) prior to entering seminary. I had read some feminist theory in college and discovered Rosemary Radford Ruether’s work on my own. After college I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life until I came across a job ad in a mission volunteer newsletter that read, “One person to work for the eradication of sexism at all levels of the church.” Wow, I said to myself, I want to do THAT!
[third in a series of posts addressed to understanding denominations and ecumenism]
What would you die for?
To save your children? To save your spouse? To ensure world peace? To promote your religion? Would you die rather than renounce your beliefs? Which ones? As we enter Holy Week, I often think about Jesus’ death and try to figure out what to make of it.