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A Time to Speak: Why Progressive Religious Leaders Must Find Their Voice on Sexual Justice

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There’s a growing recognition of an organized progressive religious voice in this country. Collaborative efforts by mainstream and progressive religious leaders to address such issues as the budget, poverty, the war in Iraq, and immigration are now recognized and featured in prominent publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Newsweek.

We are beginning to counter the perception that the religious right speaks for religion in America. Many of us are also working to address what I have labeled the “religiophobia” of secular progressive organizations, or a fear of religion that keeps organizations from reaching out to faith communities and from articulating a moral vision.

Yet there’s one set of issues that too many progressive religious leaders are still reluctant to address publicly — those related to sexuality.[1] Some believe these issues are just too divisive. Other progressives warn that they will so alienate Catholic and evangelical social justice organizations that raising these issues will impair efforts to build a collaborative movement. Still others believe that it is enough to say that they do not support the criminalization of abortion or writing discrimination into the U.S. Constitution, but that is as far as they are willing to go.

The reluctance to discuss sexuality issues means that even “safe” topics, such as sexuality education, child sexual abuse prevention, and HIV/AIDS prevention, often go unaddressed by progressive religious leaders.

The organized religious right has no such reluctance to address sexuality. Its leaders are unequivocally opposed to abortion, emergency contraception, marriage equality and other rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) people, and comprehensive sexuality education. Its leaders speak out on these issues, galvanize their base with these issues, and get the attention of national leaders with these issues.

Case in point: The week, following allegations of a civilian massacre at Haditha, Iraq, by a U.S. military unit, President Bush focused on same sex marriage during his radio address, and the Senate voted on the Federal Marriage Amendment. The proposed amendment to the Constitution fell far short of the votes needed for passage, but that the vote occurred at all was a victory for the religious right.

The religious right presents a unified front, regardless of its behind-the-scenes differences. As a result, they have successfully convinced the media that the two great moral issues affecting the nation are abortion and gay marriage rather than poverty, the war, and injustice. Fortunately, the public is smarter than that; in a new Center for American Progress poll, only 3% (PDF) of Americans named abortion and homosexuality as our country’s most serious moral issues.

The progressive religious movement must understand that it cannot successfully challenge the religious right while remaining silent on sexuality. As long as the right maintains its erotophobic emphasis, this lack of response by progressives undermines both our integrity and our ability to successfully challenge the moral authority of fundamentalists in the public square on other issues.

I understand there are those who identify themselves as progressive who are personally opposed to abortion and homosexuality. Ideally, however, a progressive sensibility would understand that, in Julian Bond’s words, “The right to reproductive freedom is as basic as the right to eat at a lunch counter or to cast a vote — or the right of two humans to marry.”

A progressive vision should recognize that only an individual woman can morally decide for herself if abortion is justified in her particular circumstances and that same sex couples deserve the same civil rights as heterosexual couples. At the very least, progressive religious leaders surely can agree and articulate that, in a pluralistic society, one religious voice cannot speak for all religions, nor should government take sides on religious differences.

It is well past the time for the progressive religious movement to provide leadership in efforts to end sexual injustice. We cannot call ourselves a progressive prophetic movement but be silent on women’s moral agency, on the rights of young people to honest sexuality education, on stopping the sexual abuse of half a million children a year, on prevention of HIV transmission, and on the full inclusion of gays, lesbians, and transgender persons in our faith communities and in society at large.

South Dakota and Louisiana have just passed the country’s first abortion bans in 40 years, and other states are poised to follow. Ten states will be voting on bans on marriage for gay people in November. People’s lives and their families’ well-being are at stake. How can those who call themselves progressive religious leaders sit out this moment?

Many religious leaders are already working to fully engage sexual justice as part of their larger efforts on social justice and have taken the initiative on issues including comprehensive sexuality education, HIV/AIDS prevention, women’s reproductive rights, and marriage equality. In fact, over 2,500 religious leaders from more than 40 faith traditions have endorsed the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. The Religious Declaration calls on faith communities and religious leaders to be truth seeking, courageous, and just and to advocate for sexual and spiritual wholeness in society.

Despite our differences over specific issues, we must find ways to build a movement that seeks sexual justice for all people. Surely it is time for the larger progressive religious movement to do just that.

Reverend Debra W. Haffner is the director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. The Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing is posted at www.religiousinstitute.org.

[1] Sexuality encompasses the sexual knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors of individuals. It is used specifically to include not only reproduction and sexual behaviors, but identity, roles, orientation, personality, thoughts, feelings, and relationships.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Allison Preiss (economy, education, poverty)
202.478.6331 or apreiss@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues, Legal Progress, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org