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.
I believe her
The #MeToo movement marks a distinctive cultural difference between 1991 and 2018. This is obvious in how the public (and the Senate) have responded to Anita Hill vs. Christine Blasey Ford.
I remember the Anita Hill hearings vividly. They were televised live and were on every TV in sight. This was a remarkable feat in 1991 before the era of cable news. Or the phenomenon of “breaking news.”
In an era of blame the victim, Hill’s accusations were definitely breaking news. And, oh boy, was she ever bombarded with victim blaming. Forced to relive some of the most humiliating experiences of her professional life, Anita Hill became a hero. A generation of women were struck by her willingness to call a public figure to account for his abusive behavior.
Women across the country took to wearing pins that said, “I believe Anita Hill” and simply, “I believe her.”
Unfortunately, Hill was treated to shameful and shaming abuse in front of the entire American public and Clarence Thomas was still confirmed. That is the history of justice (or lack of it) for women who are victims of sexual harassment and sexual violence and assault.
Fast forward to 2018 and the newly emerging allegations of sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
In the wake of Ford’s accusations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her as a teenager, fewer people are questioning whether she was assaulted. While this is a cultural step forward, his defenders are also not saying, “Let’s find out if these allegations are true because we wouldn’t want an unrepentant sex offender on the nation’s highest court.”
As we have heard in other #MeToo cases, some people are asking if people’s lives should be ruined by actions they took when they were teenagers. Clearly preparing a line of defense for his nomination if the allegations prove to be true. What his defenders are really asking is whether men’s lives should be ruined by the behavior of their younger selves. No one is asking about the lives of the women who were deeply marked by the violence of these boys.
Michelle Goldberg pointed out in a NYTimes column that we are not really asking if boys and men should be accountable for their sexual violence, but rather, which boys and men should be accountable. As she notes, sex offender registries regularly mark men for life for their crimes in an effort to protect vulnerable populations.
But prep school boys and other boys of privilege are rarely held accountable in the same way for their abuse of power and physical strength in perpetrating violent actions against their dates or even just women at parties. And Kavanaugh is on record promoting a storied secrecy of the boys club world.
Sexual violence and restorative justice
The problem with confirming Kavanaugh “even if he did it” on the premise that men shouldn’t have their lives and careers ruined by the actions of their youth is that if he did it – he has clearly shown no remorse, no recognition of the harm that he caused, nor any understanding of the restorative justice that is required before forgiveness is possible.
Restorative justice is the principal that injustices need to be remedied. When people are victims of injustice, their experience can rarely be undone. Such crimes often include violations of a person’s body, mind, and soul. The body’s memory of rape or sexual assault can never be undone. Just as degrading and demeaning verbal abuse cannot be unheard. The fear and terror associated with these crimes or with a mugging or physical attack cannot be erased or forgotten.
Our culture routinely accepts sexual violence against women as normal. Or at the very least, as a woman’s fault for putting herself in a vulnerable situation. In such a culture, it would not be particularly surprising that the boy who grew up to become Judge Kavanaugh didn’t remember the encounter.
Violent, terrifying, and abusive encounters with boys and men mark the histories and psyches of countless women. Across this country and across the world. The normalization of this violence and the refusal to hold boys and men accountable for violent, sexually aggressive behavior is a symptom of a culture that cares more for protecting male privilege than defending women’s human rights.
Compromising the Court’s moral authority
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
This week’s Supreme Court debates about the definition of marriage echo the same debates that have been dominant in communities and states across the country for the past several years. Justice Kennedy, who appears conflicted about where he stands on this issue, expressed his concern about changing a conception of marriage that “has persisted for thousands of years.”
In truth, like most social institutions, the institution of marriage has shifted and changed over the years in ways that have strengthened it and made it both more accessible and more just.
Two hundred years ago we debated whether or not slaves should be allowed to marry. One-hundred and fifty years ago we debated whether married women should remain their husband’s property under the principle of coverture (the principle of two-becoming-one-flesh), or whether women should be regarded as their own persons, with full rights and responsibilities. Forty-seven years ago we debated whether or not interracial marriages should be legal.
In 1967, the Loving v. Virginia ruling eradicated states law prohibiting interracial marriage and thus transformed the institution of marriage yet again, in ways that struck down discriminatory state laws in much the same way that a ruling in the current case might do.
That ruling read, in part, “Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man [sic],” fundamental to our very existence and survival . . .To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes . . . is surely to deprive the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.”
Even more recently, we have debated no-fault divorce, marital rape laws, and now marriage equality. In each of these cases where we have debated about the nature of the institution of marriage, we have shifted and expanded our understanding in ways that moved us a little closer toward justice in our society.
But, so often in this debate it is Christianity and the Bible that is brought up as the ultimate weapon in defense of a marriage between one man and one woman. The Genesis text that states that man shall leave his parents and join with wife to become one flesh is trotted out as “proof” that God has defined marriage as between one man and one woman.
Unfortunately, these folks must have stopped reading their Bibles at the end of Genesis, chapter two. Even a cursory read of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament demonstrates that marriage was not understood or practiced this way at all.
Marriage in the Bible was much more about property rights, ensuring paternity of offspring, succession, political alliances and tribal stability than it was about companionship, mutual support and affection as we think of marriage today. The patriarchs of the Jewish and Christian tradition often had sex with multiple women, usually, but not always, for the purpose of procreation. Many of the women in the Bible who were slaves, or servants, or handmaids were reportedly “given” by the legal or primary wife to her husband for the purposes of securing children. The notion of consent, particularly for women, in matters of sexual intercourse is not a relevant moral norm in most of scripture.
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