Let’s Talk About Sex, Says New Religious Institute Report

Wendy Norris

Encouraging spiritual leaders and congregations to promote open, factual discussions on sex, sexuality and social justice is the focus of a new report by the Religious Institute.

The intersection of spirituality and sexuality is often fraught with contradictions that bear little resemblance to the intimate lives of clergy or their flock.


Or as Martin Marty puts it, "Religion is just like sex. If you get it right, it’s beautiful. But if you get it wrong, it really messes you up."

The religious history scholar and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago was only half joking.

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From thunderous condemnations of sensuality outside of married procreative sex to embarrassed fidgeting in pastoral counseling sessions, theologians have struggled for eons to talk about personal intimacy and gender-based social justice.

Encouraging spiritual leaders and congregations to promote open, factual discussions on personal relationships and social justice within a faith-based context is the focus of a new report by the Religious Institute .

The newly revised declaration, Sexuality and Religion 2020: Goals for the Next Decade , builds on the initial confab of progressive faith leaders held at the millennium:

In 2000, the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing proposed a new sexual ethic – an ethic focused on personal relationships, integrity and justice, rather than on particular sexual acts. This ethic upholds the right and responsibility of all persons to lead sexual lives that express love, mutuality, commitment, consent and pleasure. Grounded in respect for the body and for the vulnerability that intimacy brings, it fosters physical, emotional and spiritual health. It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status or sexual orientation.

The original declaration was endorsed by 3,300 religious leaders and 50 faith traditions, according to the Rev. Debra Haffner, executive director of the institute.

The updated ten-point plan outlines specific recommendations for modernizing seminary and pastoral continuing education on sexuality, demonstrating a commitment to healthy sexuality as a tenet of social justice, collaborating with multi-faith, health and GLBT advocacy organizations, and to stop ceding the national debate on relationship issues to conservative religious leaders.

While progress has been made on the ordination of women, gays and lesbians and same-sex marriage among other concerns, Haffner expressed a need to move their work from the pulpit to the pews.

"Religious leaders need to hear and respond to the needs of congregants," said Haffner. We need to break the silence around sexuality that persists in too many of our faith communities."

Haffner cited a 2008 institute study that found 70 percent of progressive Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist clergy did not preach about reproductive justice though they support the concept. That silence results in religious advisors struggling to provide pastoral care on the full flower of intimate relationships, sexual dysfunction, domestic violence and life span sexuality.

One of the key remedies outlined in the report is to include sexuality education as a part of religious training. The report notes that a survey of 36 mainline Protestant, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist seminaries, ministerial candidates could graduate without taking a single sexuality course in all but one program.

In response, the Unitarian Universalist Association released a statement coinciding with the Tuesday’s report that it will now require all ministerial candidates to "demonstrate competency" in sexuality issues before ordination. With more than 1,000 congregations nationwide, it is the first major denomination to integrate sexuality education into its seminary curriculum.

Tim Palmer, who co-authored the institute report with Haffner, raised recent news accounts as examples of the importance of progressive religious leaders also speaking out on sexual justice issues away from the pulpit and counseling office.

Palmer pointed to the debate to repeal the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell" ban on openly gay service members in the military, continued legal battles over California’s Prop 8 marriage amendment and renewed calls for federal funding of ineffective abstinence-until-marriage sex education as opportunities for clergy to provide moral guidance to the public at-large.

One aspect of that work is in empowering the religious community to become more vocal in political and policy debates where conservative views dominate. The Faithful Voices Network, a new initiative launched in conjunction with the report, is the first multi-faith grassroots network that will advocate for sexual, health, education and justice issues at the state and local level.

Nancy Ratzan, president of the National Council of Jewish Women , was careful to note that "We need to remain ever vigilant that the work for social justice policies isn’t intended to and doesn’t impose religious doctrine on others." 

"We often need to remember that were not seeking to enshrine in law our religious beliefs about these issues but rather to be inspired by our beliefs to seek public policy that reflects tolerance, equality and promotes religious freedom."

While secular community members may be relieved to know they won’t need to engage in policy battles from their left flank not all progressive-leaning organizations are completely on board with the reports’ goals.

Rev. Ann Tiemeyer hinted at objections to the more controversial aspects of marriage equality and issues regarding sexual orientation. Unlike their more uniformly homogeneous conservative brethren, the 45-million member strong National Council of Churches USA is the largest and most demographically diverse group of Christian churches in the country. Tiemeyer admitted but did not elaborate on disagreements within the council’s 100,000 congregations on some positions taken in the report.

"Every congregation whether liberal, conservative, evangelical, orthodox or progressive has a responsibility to address the sexual needs of its congregants in the context of its own beliefs and teachings," Tiemeyer demurred.

However, she did point out that the council would encourage its members to participate in the Faithful Voices Network to help move sexual health and ethics as a pastoral priority in its local churches.

For Haffner that’s half the battle.

“Sexuality is too central to our lives, too connected to our spirituality, and too potentially harmful for the silence in our faith communities to continue,” she said. 

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.