Waiting to Exhale: An Advocate Struggles with the Debate Over Warren

Jodi Jacobson

Most of the public debate on Obama’s selection of Rick Warren for the inauguration has centered on his opposition to gay rights, his “good works” on poverty and global AIDS, and Obama’s promise to “disagree without being disagreeable.”  This advocate struggles with “getting to yes.”

Most of the public debate on Obama’s selection of Rick Warren for the inauguration has centered on his vocal opposition to gay rights and to some extent abortion, his “good works” on poverty and global AIDS, and Obama’s desire to embrace those of different viewpoints in an effort to “disagree without being disagreeable.”

Even those most publicly vocal about their anger at the selection have tried to balance their criticism.  Writing in the Washington Post, Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, cited Warren’s role as “a general in the campaign to pass California’s Proposition 8, which dissolved the legal marriage rights of loving, committed same-sex couples.”  At the same time he also nodded to Warren’s alter-identity by stating that he “has a sound message on poverty.”   On CNN’s After Party, Democratic consultant Donna Brazile disagreed with Warren’s positions on gay rights and abortion, but noted his work on poverty and global AIDS.

These two ends of the Warren spectrum have been cited by many commentators as evidence of Obama making good on campaign promises to find middle ground and move to meet the challenges we all face.  In Religion Dispatches, Anthony Pinn writes:

I personally reject Rick Warren’s theological orientation [and] conservative theological stances that demean, dehumanize, and limit life options.  [But] I understood what Obama’s call for common ground would entail long before I cast my vote for him.  “Getting to Yes,” as some might name it, would involve a surrender of some ground (in this case theologically-grounded viewpoints and stances) for the sake of larger, productive work on rather significant issues.

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And some, like Colbert King, also writing in the Washington Post, tell us all to just chill out.  

In all of recorded American history, no invocation preacher (not even Billy Graham)…has ever gone on to determine the course of U.S. policy, foreign or domestic.  Exhale, y’all.

I have been waiting to exhale, and have not yet found the place inside me to do so, despite the eloquent argument made by my colleague Scott Swenson on Reality Check that this is a long-term process of social change to which Obama is fully committed and that we are well on the road to realizing the changes toward which we have been working.

I wish I were this confident.  It is not the rhetorical promises about which I am worried.  It is the place where the legal rubber hits the road as we go forward about which I am less sure.  And it is the tendency in much of this debate, as Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen writes, to treat the “categorization of a civil rights issue — the rights of gays to be treated equally – [as] some sort of cranky cultural difference." 

I worry that many people have heard the “headlines” of Warren’s involvement on poverty and global AIDS so often they have failed to read the fine print. We treat the domestic and international sides of Warren almost as if they existed in alternative universes.  They do not.  His stands on women’s rights, gay rights, evidence-based prevention of HIV…these are the same domestically and internationally, though perhaps even more insidious internationally because the consequences of this type of thinking ingrained in our international policies often are hidden to us by the very distance between the US and countries recieving our aid, and the profound lack of power of those affected to speak out.

I worry that we use words like “disagreement and compromise” so frequently without specificity that we will fail to examine what tradeoffs we are talking about and whose interests we are trading off for what purpose.  Maybe it is just me: An Obama supporter from the beginning, I still felt much more comfortable when the nice but vague "The Change We Need" campaign slogan gave way to speeches and commercials that got down to brass tacks proposals about environment, economy, and health care.  Abraham is asked by God to make the unfathomable sacrifice of his son, but at least he knew what the sacrifice was and what the terms were on which he was being asked to make it. Abraham was an agent in the decision. 

I fear that legitimizing Warren and others with an extreme social conservative agenda makes it more likely that the kinds of compromises we have been making for the past 15 years—and which often are more in the hands of Congress and the states than the President to decide–will only become more rather than less pronounced.  

It is unlikely, for example, that there will be much controversy in working with Warren and his followers on issues like global warming.  I doubt the same is true of sexual and reproductive health and rights.

And contrary to King’s assertion, for example, Warren is indeed already heavily involved in making policy ranging from domestic policy (Prop 8) to international policy (global AIDS, trafficking).

Warren and other religious leaders helped ensure passage of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), legislation that over the past 5 years has brought HIV treatment to between 1.5 million and 2 million people suffering from AIDS-related illnesses.  This is to be applauded.

But it is also true that Warren is one of the most powerful supporters of PEPFAR’S ideologically driven abstinence-only prevention policies.  In sub-Saharan Africa, where unprotected sex is responsible for 80 percent of new HIV infections, we’ve been funding programs that simply do not work.  With an estimated 5 to 6 new infections for every person put on treatment, sound prevention policies are fundamental to ending the AIDS epidemic.  But we constantly sacrificed these to compromise with the religious right.

Also during the first 5 years of PEPFAR, policies supported by Warren and other members of the social conservative far right led to the denial of funding to groups working with men who have sex with men and with sex workers.  Our policies on human trafficking reflect similar ideological approaches to a highly complex problem.  The result is to make highly marginalized groups even further marginalized.  When you raise these issues, you are labeled as divisive.


During the recent reauthorization of PEPFAR, which approved spending of $48 billion dollars on global AIDS through 2013, Warren lobbied heavily for maintaining restrictions on prevention that had been rejected by both government agencies and the public health community, as has been described in several recent articles on Reality Check.  To satisfy social conservatives, the bill purposefully omits mention of the links between HIV prevention and family planning.  Under pressure from the far right, guidance was written forbidding use of PEPFAR funding for the purchase of contraceptives for HIV positive women who wish to avoid a future pregnancy.  The law also contains a conscience clause allowing discrimination in the delivery of prevention, treatment, and care based on ideological objections to the individuals or groups in need.  

All of these policies were dressed up as “compromises” made to pass PEPFAR.  The problem is that the actual compromise effort never included representatives of any of the groups whose interests were on the chopping block.  So while we are treating people on one hand, we are also leaving others at greater risk of HIV infection in that same period, slowing progress toward ending the HIV epidemic.  From where I sit, these policies are neither morally or ethically sound nor financially responsible.  But they came out of the “compromises and common ground” in a Democratic Congress that primarily satisfied the ideological agenda of the far right.

And this is what worries me.  Is it a compromise when someone gives away your rights and you are not even there to object?  Why is it that the most fundamental issues of women’s health and basic human rights are always labeled as "cranky cultural differences" and as "too divisive?"  Why is that the place we are always forced to compromise?  The culture war is invariably invoked when it comes to women’s rights
and health, abstinence-only versus comprehensive sexual health, and a
host of other issues having to do with reproduction and sexuality. 
Never mind the facts and the overwhelming scientific evidence.  At some point, we need to draw a line, as I imagine many of my fellow citizens in the gay community may also feel.  When we do, we are "divisive."  Why is it divisive to stand up for your beliefs when others are doing the very same thing?

I am not against reaching out to or “hearing” the other side.  In fact, as someone who has worked for over 20 years on reproductive health, violence and HIV and AIDS, I’ve tried to find common ground with and negotiate with and compromise with many players.  And I am not advocating for disruptive action at the invocation.

But I am very clear on one thing: I have a fundamental disagreement with the religious right (as I have come to know it over the past 15 years) on core issues regarding safer sex, reproductive and sexual health, women’s rights, contraception, abortion, and a host of other issues.  Though I am an active participant in my own faith community, I don’t believe there is “one way” determined by God.  I believe there is the right way for each person, given their circumstances, their religious beliefs, their value system and their moral standards.  I believe all people have both rights and responsibilities when it comes to sex and sexuality, but it is not for government or religion to decide how responsible consenting adults can or should live, when and whether they choose to have consensual sex, or when and whether they choose to have children.  I believe women have the right to make decisions about their bodies.  I believe basic reproductive and sexual health care is primary health care.  I believe that people should have the right to marry whomever they desire.  I believe public health and human rights objectives should drive health and development policy.

From what I have heard to date, Warren and his colleagues in the institutional evangelical and Catholic Church believe that it’s “god’s way or the stairway to hell.”

So when we talk about “getting to yes” and “compromise” in such a vague way on such a large scale, it worries me.  Historically, that means giving away women’s rights.  I have seen this movie repeatedly.  We have compromised with the social conservatives for years—indeed they have in many ways controlled the debate by using misleading statements and by flouting evidence to steadily reduce access to sexual and reproductive health care here and abroad.

Where does it stop?

I sincerely and truly hope we can find common ground on policies that seek to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies, but I also would maintain that we will never eliminate the need for access to safe abortion.  We must provide education, information, and training to adolescents and encourage them to delay sexual activity–I have a 12-year old and a 9-year old and believe me they are being taught these values.  But they still have to be equipped for the day they do have sex, whether or not they are married.  We can decide to hold our own individual beliefs on—and choose as individuals whether or not to join a faith community that denies–the rights of gays to marry, but for me it is morally indefensible for religious leaders to use the law to prevent gays from having the same legal rights in partnership as others.

The generational change about which Scott speaks on gay rights came on reproductive health came long ago.  The vast majority of the American population supports family planning, comprehensive sexuality education and access to safe abortion.  Laws and policies that infringe on these rights do not represent “compromise” but rather capitulation to a small minority of voters by politicians who have not acted on their own moral authority to stand up and oppose the erosion of these rights.

So I wonder, at the inauguration, could we not have had a voice whose message could propel the Administration into its first few months by unapologetically claiming as moral and ethical those very areas that have been contested for so long only through one lens?  

Scott writes that “Obama demonstrates that progressive ideas on gay issues, sex ed, contraception and abortion are moral choices.  He invites Warren to join him, even while disagreeing on gay rights and abortion, to find new common ground.”

I wish, for one day, that this could have been part of a seamless and unequivocal message to Americans:  “These are moral choices and we embrace them as a critical component of the “significant issues” on which we are going to be working together from today forward.”  Having made this statement unapologetically, having established this framework and this platform—we all are making moral choices as we understand them, but we have a communal responsibility to public health and human rights–we could have moved forward.  We—all Americans as responsible and vested parties in the future of our country—could have moved forward with the new President and the new Congress into the next four years of critical work to address pressing issues, and worked through negotiation and compromise with all the stakeholders at the table.

If we had started on that footing, I would be a lot less worried.  I pray I have no reason for concern.

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Republicans Can’t Help But Play Politics With the Judiciary

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Republicans have a good grip on the courts and are fighting hard to keep it that way.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

Linda Greenhouse has another don’t-miss column in the New York Times on how the GOP outsourced the judicial nomination process to the National Rifle Association.

Meanwhile, Dahlia Lithwick has this smart piece on how we know the U.S. Supreme Court is the biggest election issue this year: The Republicans refuse to talk about it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging doctors to fill in the blanks left by “abstinence-centric” sex education and talk to their young patients about issues including sexual consent and gender identity.

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Good news from Alaska, where the state’s supreme court struck down its parental notification law.

Bad news from Virginia, though, where the supreme court struck down Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) will leave behind one of the most politicized state supreme courts in modern history.

Turns out all those health gadgets and apps leave their users vulnerable to inadvertently disclosing private health data.

Julie Rovner breaks down the strategies anti-choice advocates are considering after their Supreme Court loss in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.   

Finally, Becca Andrews at Mother Jones writes that Texas intends to keep passing abortion restrictions based on junk science, despite its loss in Whole Woman’s Health.

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

Let’s Stop Conflating Self-Care and Actual Care

Katie Klabusich

It's time for a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities.

As a chronically ill, chronically poor person, I have feelings about when, why, and how the phrase “self-care” is invoked. When International Self-Care Day came to my attention, I realized that while I laud the effort to prevent some of the 16 million people the World Health Organization reports die prematurely every year from noncommunicable diseases, the American notion of self-care—ironically—needs some work.

I propose a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities. How we think about what constitutes vital versus optional care affects whether/when we do those things we should for our health and well-being. Some of what we have come to designate as self-care—getting sufficient sleep, treating chronic illness, allowing ourselves needed sick days—shouldn’t be seen as optional; our culture should prioritize these things rather than praising us when we scrape by without them.

International Self-Care Day began in China, and it has spread over the past few years to include other countries and an effort seeking official recognition at the United Nations of July 24 (get it? 7/24: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) as an important advocacy day. The online academic journal SelfCare calls its namesake “a very broad concept” that by definition varies from person to person.

“Self-care means different things to different people: to the person with a headache it might mean a buying a tablet, but to the person with a chronic illness it can mean every element of self-management that takes place outside the doctor’s office,” according to SelfCare. “[I]n the broadest sense of the term, self-care is a philosophy that transcends national boundaries and the healthcare systems which they contain.”

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In short, self-care was never intended to be the health version of duct tape—a way to patch ourselves up when we’re in pieces from the outrageous demands of our work-centric society. It’s supposed to be part of our preventive care plan alongside working out, eating right, getting enough sleep, and/or other activities that are important for our personalized needs.

The notion of self-care has gotten a recent visibility boost as those of us who work in human rights and/or are activists encourage each other publicly to recharge. Most of the people I know who remind themselves and those in our movements to take time off do so to combat the productivity anxiety embedded in our work. We’re underpaid and overworked, but still feel guilty taking a break or, worse, spending money on ourselves when it could go to something movement- or bill-related.

The guilt is intensified by our capitalist system having infected the self-care philosophy, much as it seems to have infected everything else. Our bootstrap, do-it-yourself culture demands we work to the point of exhaustion—some of us because it’s the only way to almost make ends meet and others because putting work/career first is expected and applauded. Our previous president called it “uniquely American” that someone at his Omaha, Nebraska, event promoting “reform” of (aka cuts to) Social Security worked three jobs.

“Uniquely American, isn’t it?” he said. “I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)”

The audience was applauding working hours that are disastrous for health and well-being, laughing at sleep as though our bodies don’t require it to function properly. Bush actually nailed it: Throughout our country, we hold Who Worked the Most Hours This Week competitions and attempt to one-up the people at the coffee shop, bar, gym, or book club with what we accomplished. We have reached a point where we consider getting more than five or six hours of sleep a night to be “self-care” even though it should simply be part of regular care.

Most of us know intuitively that, in general, we don’t take good enough care of ourselves on a day-to-day basis. This isn’t something that just happened; it’s a function of our work culture. Don’t let the statistic that we work on average 34.4 hours per week fool you—that includes people working part time by choice or necessity, which distorts the reality for those of us who work full time. (Full time is defined by the Internal Revenue Service as 30 or more hours per week.) Gallup’s annual Work and Education Survey conducted in 2014 found that 39 percent of us work 50 or more hours per week. Only 8 percent of us on average work less than 40 hours per week. Millennials are projected to enjoy a lifetime of multiple jobs or a full-time job with one or more side hustles via the “gig economy.”

Despite worker productivity skyrocketing during the past 40 years, we don’t work fewer hours or make more money once cost of living is factored in. As Gillian White outlined at the Atlantic last year, despite politicians and “job creators” blaming financial crises for wage stagnation, it’s more about priorities:

Though productivity (defined as the output of goods and services per hours worked) grew by about 74 percent between 1973 and 2013, compensation for workers grew at a much slower rate of only 9 percent during the same time period, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute.

It’s no wonder we don’t sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been sounding the alarm for some time. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend people between 18 and 60 years old get seven or more hours sleep each night “to promote optimal health and well-being.” The CDC website has an entire section under the heading “Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Problem,” outlining statistics and negative outcomes from our inability to find time to tend to this most basic need.

We also don’t get to the doctor when we should for preventive care. Roughly half of us, according to the CDC, never visit a primary care or family physician for an annual check-up. We go in when we are sick, but not to have screenings and discuss a basic wellness plan. And rarely do those of us who do go tell our doctors about all of our symptoms.

I recently had my first really wonderful check-up with a new primary care physician who made a point of asking about all the “little things” leading her to encourage me to consider further diagnosis for fibromyalgia. I started crying in her office, relieved that someone had finally listened and at the idea that my headaches, difficulty sleeping, recovering from illness, exhaustion, and pain might have an actual source.

Considering our deeply-ingrained priority problems, it’s no wonder that when I post on social media that I’ve taken a sick day—a concept I’ve struggled with after 20 years of working multiple jobs, often more than 80 hours a week trying to make ends meet—people applaud me for “doing self-care.” Calling my sick day “self-care” tells me that the commenter sees my post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as something I could work through if I so chose, amplifying the stigma I’m pushing back on by owning that a mental illness is an appropriate reason to take off work. And it’s not the commenter’s fault; the notion that working constantly is a virtue is so pervasive, it affects all of us.

Things in addition to sick days and sleep that I’ve had to learn are not engaging in self-care: going to the doctor, eating, taking my meds, going to therapy, turning off my computer after a 12-hour day, drinking enough water, writing, and traveling for work. Because it’s so important, I’m going to say it separately: Preventive health care—Pap smears, check-ups, cancer screenings, follow-ups—is not self-care. We do extras and nice things for ourselves to prevent burnout, not as bandaids to put ourselves back together when we break down. You can’t bandaid over skipping doctors appointments, not sleeping, and working your body until it’s a breath away from collapsing. If you’re already at that point, you need straight-up care.

Plenty of activities are self-care! My absolutely not comprehensive personal list includes: brunch with friends, adult coloring (especially the swear word books and glitter pens), soy wax with essential oils, painting my toenails, reading a book that’s not for review, a glass of wine with dinner, ice cream, spending time outside, last-minute dinner with my boyfriend, the puzzle app on my iPad, Netflix, participating in Caturday, and alone time.

My someday self-care wish list includes things like vacation, concerts, the theater, regular massages, visiting my nieces, decent wine, the occasional dinner out, and so very, very many books. A lot of what constitutes self-care is rather expensive (think weekly pedicures, spa days, and hobbies with gear and/or outfit requirements)—which leads to the privilege of getting to call any part of one’s routine self-care in the first place.

It would serve us well to consciously add an intersectional view to our enthusiasm for self-care when encouraging others to engage in activities that may be out of reach financially, may disregard disability, or may not be right for them for a variety of other reasons, including compounded oppression and violence, which affects women of color differently.

Over the past year I’ve noticed a spike in articles on how much of the emotional labor burden women carry—at the Toast, the Atlantic, Slate, the Guardian, and the Huffington Post. This category of labor disproportionately affects women of color. As Minaa B described at the Huffington Post last month:

I hear the term self-care a lot and often it is defined as practicing yoga, journaling, speaking positive affirmations and meditation. I agree that those are successful and inspiring forms of self-care, but what we often don’t hear people talking about is self-care at the intersection of race and trauma, social justice and most importantly, the unawareness of repressed emotional issues that make us victims of our past.

The often-quoted Audre Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

While her words ring true for me, they are certainly more weighted and applicable for those who don’t share my white and cisgender privilege. As covered at Ravishly, the Feminist Wire, Blavity, the Root, and the Crunk Feminist Collective recently, self-care for Black women will always have different expressions and roots than for white women.

But as we continue to talk about self-care, we need to be clear about the difference between self-care and actual care and work to bring the necessities of life within reach for everyone. Actual care should not have to be optional. It should be a priority in our culture so that it can be a priority in all our lives.