On Health and Rights, What Happened to the Churches?


Church was the place I first heard the word feminism, and where I first practiced putting a condom on a banana.  So what's happened to liberal religion?

In a pair of blog postings last week, Dan Savage, a sex columnist based in Seattle, assigns the blame to negligent teachers and school administrators, bullying classmates and “hate groups that warp some young minds and torment others.”

“There are accomplices out there,” he wrote Saturday. In an interview, Mr. Savage, who is gay, said he was particularly irate at religious leaders who used “antigay rhetoric.”

“The problem is that kids are being exposed to this rhetoric, and then they go to the school and there’s this gay kid,” he said. “And how are they going to treat this gay kid who they’ve been told is trying to destroy their family? They’re going to abuse him.”

Statements like these from a recent New York Times article break my heart.  Break my heart because they are true and break my heart because I grew up religious.  But not the kind of religious Savage is referring to.  I grew up in liberal religion.

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My parents insisted that I go to religious education classes at my congregation through seventh grade.  After that, I was free to decide whether I wanted to continue or not.  Why seventh grade you ask? Because that’s when they did the sex education class.  A few weeks before that dreaded first Sunday school class, my parents gave me a book, Ruth Bell’s Changing Bodies, Changing Lives. They didn’t say much. They just said that it was the book that went with “the class.” And you know what was in that book? What was in that class? Frank and straightforward discussions of things like sexuality, sex, homosexuality, gender, relationships, power, masturbation, abortion, and contraceptives.

I remember walking in a little late one Sunday to “the class.” An adult member of the congregation was visiting and the group was having conversation about homosexuality. At some point, I made a brilliant comment to the effect that you could always tell when someone was gay. The visitor said, kindly and pointedly, “well, could you tell that I’m gay?” My face turned bright red. I was never late to this church class again.

Church was the place I first heard the word feminism.  Church was the place I first practiced putting a condom on a banana.  It was the place where I had openly gay and lesbian adult mentors and ministers.  The congregation my father grew up in gave the local Planned Parenthood their first home.  My first minister was a member of the Clergy Consultation Service, a network of liberal clergy that referred women to safe abortion providers in the days before Roe versus Wade. But sadly, liberal religion has, in the past 50 years, waned in power and influence compared to conservative religion.   And then I think about “Louise.”

A few years ago, I attended my first abortion provider conference. Louise is a real veteran of the abortion providing community, running clinics in the South for many years.  I introduced myself to her as a theological students pursuing liberal religious ministry.  She smiled and said “Wonderful! You know, I consider what I do a ministry.  What happened to the churches? They used to be so much more helpful….”

What happened to the churches? I didn’t know exactly what to say to her, as I stood there sad and ashamed that she even needed to ask such a question.   There are a lot of reasons and people far more qualified than I will explain liberal religion’s decline, can explain to Louise “what happened to the churches.”  But this is, roughly, how I put it:

Liberal religions (particularly Protestants) feel guilty and ashamed on an institutional and cultural level.  Between the mid 19th and mid 20th century, liberal religion was at its apex. It lauded the possibility of human potential, placed science and empirical method right next to (if not above) Scripture, believed that human civilization was evolving morally and civically. Advances in science and medicine fueled and confirmed this hope and hubris.  Then the World Wars happened. The Holocaust happened, aided and abetted by liberal institutions, included liberal churches in Europe, governments, and academia.  Maybe evil really did exist in this world, maybe human beings were not so great after all.  Maybe the growth of liberal thought not only coincided with great democratic and medical advances, but also with brutal colonial and imperial endeavors; brutal injustices like Tuskegee Experiments and the recently revealed syphilis experiments in Guatemala.   Maybe liberalism was not as perfect and wonderful as we thought…..

I am one month into my first congregational ministry job. The day after Bill Harrison died, I  preached my first sermon to the congregation.  I met Bill at that same conference where I met Louise.  As a theological student, I was not quite sure what I was doing at that conference.  But when I introduced myself to Bill, he did not miss a beat—he seemed to understand why I was there.  He began telling me about the talks he had given at his local liberal congregation.  Louise and Bill got what I was doing even though I did not.

In my first sermon, I used the word trust 21 times; bodies 11; sex/uality 7; Love 7; Abortion 6; Life 6; Tiller 5.  It was well received and well liked.  A congregant sent me an email shortly after, expressing interest in organizing a video clip for Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” YouTube Project, showing how there are religious communities out there that welcome and even ordain gay and queer folks.

There was a time in this country when liberal religion gave progressive movements moral, ethical, spiritual, and religious grounding.  Liberal religion has funded, distributed, and taught what is widely regarded as the best comprehensive sexuality program out there—something we are still struggling to accomplish in the secular sphere. When I talk and teach about abortion, about why we need to support later-abortion and the people who provide them, I can do it because I was raised in a tradition that gave me an ethical and spiritual foundation to address such moral and emotional complexity.  My prayer is that liberal religion can once provide sanctuary to progressives fighting the good and hard fights—that we can provide moral and spiritual sanctuary to the gay and queer youths, to abortion providers, and to all those whose lives and work are grounded in radical compassion, justice, and love.

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