When I was in college, a group
of radical women dressed as witches ran around major U.S. cities doing
zap actions, placing hexes on male-dominated institutions like Wall
Street, the courts, even wedding fairs. I really didn’t get what W.I.T.C.H.,
or the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, was trying
to say, and it made me nervous. I’m happy to report that forty years
later, they make perfect sense to me. Their brand of in-your-face political
work was all about sticking to principles.
Recent inside-the-Beltway behavior
has caused me to think again about the value of drawing a line in the
sand. We are told, often with a patronizing tone, that stubborn entrenchment
blocks reform. But compromise can lead to unintended consequences.
The Third Way, a D.C. think
tank that seeks to mobilize the large population of evangelical centrists,
has put forth a call to find common ground between progressives and
evangelicals in the attenuated battle in the culture wars. This group
of progressives, working with evangelical leaders, has written "Come
Let Us Reason Together" and is, no doubt, attempting to find common
Digging Under the Surface
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On the surface Third Way’s
"Come Let Us Reason Together" attempts to address the "root causes
of abortion," or the need for abortion services through a refusal
to ban or restrict abortion, support for prevention of unintended pregnancies,
and increased access to comprehensive sex education, contraception,
services for pregnant women and adoption. Sounds good. How can this
be a problem?
As Fred Clarkson, an analyst
of the Religious Right, has pointed out, the evangelicals involved in
Third Way thinking are some of the same ones like Jim Wallis and David
Gushee who authored their own bottom-line document in 1996, "The America
We Seek: A Statement of Pro-Life Principle and Concern." Their own
line in the sand was that there is no right to abortion and that those
who attempt to claim that right are ruining the moral fiber of the country.
While common ground initiatives can be first steps in logjam breakthroughs,
it’s hard to imagine why pro-life religious leaders would agree to
the Third Way’s language.
The bill that has emerged from
this document, the "Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting
Parents Act," is what really counts in Washington, and this bill has
multiple "compromise language" provisions pro-lifers favor. It would
provide grants for ultrasound equipment (a favorite of pro-life crisis
pregnancy centers since ultrasounds are claimed to deter women from
abortions) and informed consent regulations that dump anti-abortion
propaganda on pregnant women.
Conventional wisdom says that
compromise forces those with less power to concede more to their more
powerful adversaries. The reality is in 2009 that pro-lifers are less
powerful than they were. The major concession they are making — that
abortion will remain legal — has already been determined by Obama’s
election, so it’s not really a concession at all. Pragmatically it
makes sense for them to wait it out and continue their incremental chipping
away at authentic access to reproductive services for women. Meanwhile,
they appear to be conciliatory, while negotiating to get federal funds
to block abortion access.
What appears to be an attempt
at reconciliation could be another in a long line of tactics to limit
women’s rights, and those progressives involved need to heed the warnings
of analysts like Jodi Jacobson and Sarah Posner.
Common Disdain for Liberation
Women and queers share common
enemies, because we share the same goal: liberation from rigid sex roles
and other oppressive restrictions on our lives. The cultural traditionalists
who resist the rapid social change around them, like the Family Research
Council, the American Family Association, and Concerned Women for America,
scapegoat the women’s and LGBT movements as the forces they claim
are destroying our culture. By focusing on the vulnerable targets of
those who have not yet experienced full equality, the Right’s leaders
have been able to use existing sexism, homophobia, and transphobia to
fan the flames of prejudice for its larger agenda of seeking and maintaining
It’s hard to believe that
there still is no federal workplace protection for LGBT people. ENDA,
or the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, has been around in one form
or another since 1974, struggling to become law. Again, that seems to
be a good enough reason for some compromise language to break the impasse.
Religious conservatives have disingenuously argued that their religious
freedom would be compromised if they were required to hire LGBT people,
cloaking outright prejudice in the vestments of the church. And what
emerged has been the willingness of liberal politicians to exclude transgender
people from protections against employment discrimination. What kind
of a message is that?
To those who say the time is
not right, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "Letter from a Birmingham
Jail" is a powerful response. King answered criticism that he was
divisive and "untimely" by pointing out that no real progress has
ever occurred without a struggle by the oppressed for their freedom,
however uncomfortable that process feels for people nervous about conflict.
Even the centrist gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign has changed
its position and now demands that protections for transgender people
be included in the bill. Besides, there is a lot more to gay liberation
than employment rights. When Congress takes up the bill again, we cannot
let bickering over its wording distract us from the fundamental goal:
the guarantee of basic human rights for all people.
In the midst of the attempts
to negotiate, it is just too easy to forget the reasons we are in the
fight in the first place. Women and LGBT people continue to be the targeted
by those who wish for a past we never really had and are threatened
by a future that we cannot control. Too often the Christian Right has
mobilized this group to think and act in ways that obstruct civil and
human rights. It’s our responsibility to hold firm to our principles
and not let anyone negotiate them away.
This post first appeared on On the Issues.