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The Grace and the Mess: Religion, Feminism, and Reproductive Justice

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Listen to the interview here (mp3)

This interview is part of a series profiling leaders of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, a project of CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. The Institute provides faith-based leaders working on reproductive justice with training and resources in order to strengthen and raise the visibility of their work. You can learn more about this project here.

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is associate professor of religion and chair of gender and women’s studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She’s a blogger at Patheos where she looks at religion, politics, social justice, and pop culture. Caryn earned her doctorate degree from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Sally Steenland: I want to ask about a post you wrote two days after the election. You called it “Now what?” What did you mean by the question? And how did you answer it?

Caryn Riswold: I wrote the post primarily because I think that especially when we are happy about an election result, as I was, we have to be reminded that there’s still a lot of work to do. It’s easy to get caught up in the celebrations—and I think there is a lot for us to celebrate in this election—but there’s also a lot of work to be done.

What I did was highlight two responses I thought were helpful and represented different perspectives. The first came from Kim Moore, a public health activist who I had the privilege to meet through the Center for American Progress. She talks about how change is an ongoing process that requires action from the collective. I like the way she said that because we still have women who need health care, veterans who need jobs. Voting is only the beginning.

The other response was from Mark Hanson, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Very different perspective, very different work. But one of the things he says that I think is important is that we have to keep talking to each other. Whether or not we are happy with the election, or how our candidates or issues came out, we need a willingness to listen to each other and even to imagine a different way to live and work together in the world.

These are two very different people doing different work, but they’re both reminding us we have work to do and that is my fundamental answer to the question, “Now what?”

SS: Let me ask you another question about the election. Some commentators who noted the defeat of Tea Party candidates like Todd Akin from Missouri and Richard Mourdock from Indiana have been proclaiming that this marks the demise of the religious right—that it’s is a victory for women’s reproductive health and means we are a pro-choice nation.

On the Democratic side, we saw a number of candidates, including the president, campaign openly for abortion rights. And they won. On top of that, we saw four states where voters went to the ballot box and voted against discrimination and for marriage equality. What’s your take on these victories and defeats?

CR: I’ve been reading some of these analyses too. I have what I call “tentative hope” because there were some meaningful wins for women and for reproductive justice in the 2012 election. We should be able to take our moment and celebrate that.  I’m not the only one to reference the statement associated with Martin Luther King that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. I believe that to be true. We have 20 women in the Senate now, the most racially, sexually, religiously, diverse congress in history, and the president was reelected in part because of his support for the right of gay and lesbian Americans to marry. I think that’s a big deal.

But—this is the tentative part—there has been so much work against all of these things in recent years, especially the many measures limiting women’s access to the full range of health care at the state level. There is still a deep painful undercurrent of racism in this country that comes to the surface at various moments and is not going away quickly. Misogyny still informs the decisions and rhetoric of too many politicians who simply don’t trust women to make their own decisions about their health and lives.

I was born in 1971 and I have no memory of contraception ever being a debatable good until this year. So this just happened. We shouldn’t pretend that the Catholic bishops are done with their legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act or that any conservative politician changed his views about race and abortion on Election Day or afterwards. We’ve still got work to do because these forces, these views, these attitudes are still there.

One of the analyses I read postelection that was helpful was Jessica Valenti’s piece at The Nation. She said there’s always going to be resistance and “the feminazi days are not over by a long shot.” That is to say the forces of resistance aren’t gone, but we’ve got a lot of energy and a lot of opportunities. We need to seize the moment and keep doing what we’re doing.

SS: I like your quoting Dr. King. The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, but it’s not a straight line. Your reference to birth control is a perfect example of going back and going forward. Progress isn’t guaranteed. It’s not like gravity or the sun coming up. If you don’t work for it, it’s not going to happen.

CR: I spend a lot of my days with college students in the classroom and on campus. A lot of them were dumbfounded. “Why are we talking about contraception?” It has been a given like gravity. And for them to see that it’s not was an interesting moment. Also a little disheartening, and this is where the tentativeness comes. It’s fits and starts, backwards and forwards.

SS: Was it a kind of smack-to-the-head moment for a lot of your students? Were they like, “This could actually go away?”

CR: It depends on their level of political engagement. A lot of them thought, “Why would contraception be controversial at all?” Even some of my pro-life students said that. They think because we have access to contraception, abortion should become less of an issue. To see that maybe contraception is becoming an issue too came out of nowhere for a lot of young people.

SS: You describe yourself as a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. Can you explain what that means? Is there a Lutheran tradition in America we should know about? Are some of us cultural Lutherans or secret Lutherans without knowing it?

CR: That’s a great question! To be a theologian for me means that I think, talk, and write about faith, religion, and God. That part is pretty straightforward. To be a feminist for me means that I pay attention to the effect of God-talk on women, poor people, people of color, and all those groups marginalized in a white heterosexist patriarchal culture. I try to put that experience at the center of my thinking, talking, and writing about God, faith, and religion.

I say “in the Lutheran tradition” because I see it as a home and a base. To be a Lutheran means that I have a sense of both the mess and the grace in the world. The messiness—the idea that we are all saints and sinners—comes out of Martin Luther’s 16th century work. But his work is also infused by the grace of God as a freely given gift of love.

Those are theological insights into God and human nature that make sense to me and help me work for justice in the world. It’s a tradition into which I was baptized as a two-month old child and raised. I stay because it takes seriously the relationships between God and the world, between an individual person and God, and between people in community.

I’m much less equipped to talk about Lutheranism in terms of history and culture, but I will say this: My family’s history, along with Lutherans in America, is part of the immigrant history of this country. My Norwegian and Danish ancestors were farmers who came and settled in the upper Midwest for economic opportunity. This was a country where they could work hard and could have access to opportunities. They would struggle, lose their land, gain it back. In terms of American history and economic justice, opportunity and hard work, these values have been transmitted over the generations

SS: I want to ask you about our Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute that you are a part of. Some of our leaders are advocates, some are clergy, and some such as yourself come from academia. It’s a very rich mix. Can you talk about the value you bring as someone who brings an intellectual tradition? Why is that important to the reproductive justice movement and to the institute?

CR: It’s been very interesting for me to think about answering this question over the past year. I’ve been participating in the institute and trying to figure out what I bring and how it affects the work I do. I keep coming back to the classroom. I spend every day with undergraduate students, teaching them not only about the history and beliefs of particular religions like Christianity but also teaching skills that are important in the world, like thinking carefully about truth claims, learning how to ask questions, and learning how to express yourself responsibly when you write and speak.

I sit with young people who are trying to figure out how to make a meaningful life. They’re discovering their passions and figuring out who they are. They wrestle with injustices that maybe they didn’t know existed or maybe they’ve known for a very long time existed but didn’t know what to do. They’re figuring out how to take these things and translate them into service and leadership. They’re learning to think critically, to be creative, to express themselves effectively, and to do work that matters.

Also as an academic, I bring to this work decades of learning and doing scholarly work that deconstructs oppressive theological and political systems, while constructing alternatives that make justice possible. There’s never been one way of being Christian in the world. I’ve tried to do work in public and through the institute that highlights a progressive, proactive faith.

SS: You have a rippling influence through young people that is huge. And the intellectual piece is important too. Sometimes we are activist oriented and forget that our work needs to be grounded in something substantive.

CR: ….that didn’t arise overnight but is part of a long progressive intellectual tradition.

SS: A tradition that connects with people who care about right and wrong. And even if they don’t use the term “moral complexity,” people certainly experience it in their lives. To talk about reproductive justice in a way that reflects values and traditions is a crucial thing.  People see themselves and their families. It’s a more compassionate, less judgmental and forgiving way to see reality.  

CR: Right—the grace and the mess.

SS: Exactly. Caryn, thank you very much for being with us and thanks for your work.

CR: Thank you so much.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page

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