Analysis Religion

STOKING FIRE: Research Underscores the Potential for a Pro-Choice Agenda Among Evangelical Youth

Eleanor J. Bader

Since evangelical youth have essentially the same career aspirations as everyone else, these kids need to understand how their bodies work so that ill-timed pregnancies don’t derail their plans.

The New Testament’s Timothy 2:12 pulls no punches: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”

While a tiny coterie of contemporary Biblical literalists take these words seriously, virtually no one else—not Michele Bachmann, not Bristol or Sarah Palin, and not the fundamentalist stay-at-home moms who home school their children—actually heeds this absurdly sexist notion. This fact was underscored in “What Teens Aspire To Do In Life,” a June 2011 report released by the Barna Group, a 27-year-old Ventura, California-based research firm founded by Catholic-turned-evangelical pollster George Barna. The company’s mission is to serve as a “catalyst in the moral and spiritual transformation in the United States,” a goal that can mean pretty much anything. [NOTE: Barna staff did not respond to my emails and calls requesting clarification.] That said, their research findings–gleaned from interviewing a small sample of 13-to-17-year-old fundamentalist Christian adolescents and their youth leaders and pastors–are anything but ambiguous.

According to Barna:

“Teenaged girls feel fully empowered to pursue any career they like. As expected, young women exhibit traditional preferences for teaching, fashion, interior design, and nursing. But teen females are more likely than teen males to aspire to work in journalism [7% versus 1%], business [6% versus 1%], and law [11% versus 5%]. Teen girls and boys are equally likely to be interested in the military, art and music, public safety including law enforcement and fire fighting, and government.”

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Perhaps most surprising, only one percent of the teens interviewed explicitly indentified homemaking as a career goal.

Yes, you read that right. Regardless of religious messaging, evangelical youth are as likely as their secular peers to believe themselves capable of becoming professional news reporters, police officers, lawyers, politicians, artists—or anything else.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the triumph of feminism and it partially explains why their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors are scrambling to defund Planned Parenthood and make abortion–and contraception–inaccessible in all but the most liberal bastions of the country.

Sure, numerous groups—among them Teens for Life, American Collegians for Life, Students for Life, National Medical Students for Life, and Crossroads Pro-Life—have made inroads in organizing teens and young adults to promote abstinence and oppose abortion and birth control, but they haven’t had the wide-scale influence they’d hoped for. Indeed, another Barna survey, released last January, queried Christian teens about their role models. Although Jesus ran neck and-neck with Barack Obama, other heralded figures included Tyra Banks, Lady Gaga, Demi Lovato, and Paul McCartney,

‘Tis pretty amazing, this—and it may represent good news for progressive pro-choicers. Since evangelical youth have essentially the same career aspirations as everyone else, these kids are not only going to need good, solid information about job training and higher education, they’ll also need to understand how their bodies work so that ill-timed pregnancies don’t derail their plans. Deny this and it’s easy to imagine a bunch of newly-radicalized men and women.

The key, of course, is organizing, reaching these teenagers so that they understand the concept of reproductive justice and can connect it to their lives and dreams.

Angela Ferrell-Zabala directs Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom [SYRF], a project of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an organizing effort that brings a pro-choice faith perspective to college campuses across the country. Ferrell-Zabala describes the people SYRF trains as “passionate about access to sex education, contraception, and abortion,” and eager to learn the basics of community organizing, from how to grow a pro-choice group on campus, to how to talk to people about reproductive justice. Although SYRF training includes hard facts about sexuality, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), birth control, pregnancy, and abortion, Ferrell-Zabala’s experience has taught her that:

“You can’t engage someone when you only use facts. You need to share experiences and stories, like what you personally went through because of abstinence only education or when you experienced an unplanned pregnancy. Our values are best understood through emotions,” she concludes. “When people connect to what happened to a real person, they get angry and want to do something to right the wrong.”

Ferrell-Zabala is emphatic about story-sharing as an effective way to break stigma about sexual activity, sexual preference, and reproductive choice. “In college, people build relationships with their peers and meet people of different races, sexualities, and faith traditions. Those raised in conservative fundamentalist homes,” she continues, “often learn that the differences between people are not as significant as they were raised to believe. They then start to look at the other things they’d been taught and see that they’re not all true. We try to make sure that SYRF is a resource to help those students who grew up in opposition to choice open up to the idea of options,” she says.

It’s important work, but what happens on those campuses that SYRF never gets to? What of those teens who don’t go to college or go part-time, at night?

If the Barna report is accurate—and there’s no reason to think it’s not–it seem clear that we ignore evangelical adolescents to our detriment. In fact, if we’re serious about empowering young people, we’d be better served by turning our gaze toward fundamentalist teens as they head into adulthood.

Here’s my hope: If we find ways to talk to evangelical youth about reproductive and sexual health, we’ll fire up a whole new generation of militant advocates. After all, aren’t the fiercest fighters always those who respond to “you can’t” with “I will?”

Analysis Abortion

STOKING FIRE: Extremist Anti-Choice Groups Plan Five-State Assault

Eleanor J. Bader

Anti-choice extremists are at it again. Not to be outdone by Catholic bishops, Flip Benham’s Operation Save America has teamed up with Go Stand Speak, LifeLink, Jeremiah Cry Ministries, Personhood USA, and Repent America to make five states abortion “refuges.”

The fanatical fundamentalists are at it again. Not to be outdone by Catholic bishops clamoring for ever-increasing fetal protections, Flip Benham’s Operation Save America has teamed up with Go Stand Speak, LifeLink, Jeremiah Cry Ministries, Personhood USA, and Repent America to  make five states—Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming—abortion “refuges.”

The five were chosen because each has just one reproductive health clinic. What’s more, the campaign to make these states abortion-free will link grassroots activism—raucous picketing, complete with billboard-sized pictures of bloody body parts–with a media crusade geared to maligning those who support freedom of choice.

According to OSA’s website, the groups will return to Jackson Hole, Wyoming from May 16th to 20th and will visit Little Rock, Arkansas from September 12th to 16th and Jackson, Mississippi from November 7the to 11th. They’ll also be in Charlotte, North Carolina during the Democratic National Convention, July 21st to 28th. As of this writing, both North and South Dakota appear to have been spared a direct appearance from OSA activists.

But lest you write off these protests as same-old/same-old, please know that they’re not. OSA’s latest effort comes with a newsworthy difference–scope. The group has not only done outreach to legislators in each targeted state, they’ve also contacted 950 evangelical churches to solicit financial and on-the-ground support.

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Their appeal to largely African-American congregations included a copy of Maafa 21, a 137-minute documentary produced by Mark Crutcher of Life Dynamics Inc. in 2009. The film presents abortion and birth control as central components of a Caucasian plot to annihilate people of color; it further lambasts Planned Parenthood as a purveyor of racism and hatred of the poor. Predominantly white churches received The Abortion Matrix, a 10-part, 195-minute film, released in 2011, that posits the reproductive justice movement as a satanic cult comprised of witches and goddess worshippers.

While I have no idea who bankrolled this undertaking, the missive that accompanied the DVDs—signed by Benham and OSA Assistant Director Rusty Thomas—is clearly meant to rev up the fire-and-brimstone set. The Civil War took 630,000 lives, it begins, as payback for slavery.

”What do you think the toll will be when God Almighty demands an accounting for all the innocent blood that America has shed since the infamous Roe v. Wade decision,” the letter asks.

Released to coincide with the 39th anniversary of the Roe decision, the letter came at a time of such intense anti-feminist backlash that even the most absurd anti-woman pronouncements seem capable of gaining traction. And rest assured, the just-released Abortion Matrix is nothing if not absurd. The more than three-hour long narrative takes swipes at supposedly anti-Christian lawmakers and leaders, among them Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Barack Obama, and Margaret Sanger—but saves its most shrill condemnation for clinic workers, AKA members of Wiccan religious orders.

“Witchcraft is endemic to the abortion industry,” narrator Eric Holmberg declares. “It is a key component in a vast conspiracy in the tradition of paganism.”

Luminaries of the feminist spirituality movement including Starhawk, Zsuzsanna Budapest, and Ginette Paris are slammed, not only as man-haters, but also as proponents of infanticide. As the film unfolds the kind of music typically heard in campy horror flicks envelops the viewer. Throughout, Holmberg describes a litany of evil. Looking the viewer straight in the eye, it’s as if he wants to share a dastardly secret. Yes, he assures viewers, the goddess Aphrodite demands child sacrifice—or, in today’s parlance, abortion. Close-ups of a Florida clinician’s bumper sticker—In Goddess We Trust—is, he says, proof of this phenomenon.

Abigail Seidman, the daughter of a Midwestern clinic worker turned anti-abortion activist, is trucked out as the star witness. Clinic employees, she rails, are heathens who see abortion as a necessary rite of passage. Among her more inane assertions: Each spring, several staffers at an unnamed health center intentionally become pregnant so that they can have abortions. This, she reports, is meant to appease the blood lust of the female deities these vixens worship.

Yes, that’s really what she says.

Toward the end of The Abortion Matrix a section called Defeating Jezebel reveals the filmmaker’s political intent: Activating the fundamentalist base to stop abortion by whatever means.

“Without out-and-out spiritual warfare, what are our chances for victory where one million children are sacrificed each year?” Holmberg bellows. The imperative to act is boosted by an injunction to “heavenize the world…Deliver blows as hard as we can hit…Nothing but forked-lightening Christians will count,” he concludes.

You can imagine Benham’s glee at seeing The Abortion Matrix. In fact, its presentation of God-fearing Christians battling Godless baby-killers underscores the message he’s been delivering for 35 years. Furthermore, by sending copies to churches and legislators he’s made clear that he sees the film as a useful tool in the campaign to make some states abortion free.

Whether fundamentalists will take Matrix — or, for that matter, Maafa 21— seriously or laugh it off the screen is hard to predict. That said, Vicki Saporta, CEO and President of the National Abortion Federation, believes that Benham’s efforts are a direct violation of his current legal status.

“This effort is obviously meant to intimidate abortion providers so that they will stop providing care to women,” she begins. “It flies in the face of Benham’s 18-month probation which began in August 2011. At that time the judge ordered him to curtail his intimidating behavior.”

NAF is presently investigating this possible infraction. Meanwhile, if anyone knows how to turn antis into frogs, this seems like the perfect moment to cast a spell.

Analysis Religion

STOKING FIRE: Millennials Stifled by Evangelical Doctrines

Eleanor J. Bader

The results of a five-year study of the Millennial Generation—people born between 1982 and 1993—are in. We now know that conservative evangelical churches are losing formerly–affiliated “young creatives:” Actors, artists, biologists, designers, mathematicians, medical students, musicians, and writers. The report implies that once Millennials abandon evangelism, the barriers to progressive change can begin to crumble.

The results of a five-year study of the Millennial Generation—people born between 1982 and 1993—are in. Thanks to the Barna Group, a 28-year-old, California-based, Christian research firm, we now know that conservative evangelical churches are losing formerly–affiliated “young creatives:” Actors, artists, biologists, designers, mathematicians, medical students, musicians, and writers.

Some leave because they oppose the church’s doctrinal stance. Others are turned off by its hostility to science, and still others reject the limitations placed on permissible sexual activity. The report cites the tension felt by young adults who find it difficult—if not impossible—to remain “sexually pure,” especially since most heterosexuals don’t marry until their mid-to-late twenties. “Young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers,” Barna concludes. What’s more, the report admits that Millennials see the evangelical church as an exclusive club, open only to those who adhere to every rule. This runs counter to values that rank high on the Millennial playlist—among them, open-mindedness, tolerance, and support for diversity.

These findings, of course, don’t necessarily mean that young evangelicals are becoming progressively engaged, but they do suggest that an opening exists for prochoice, feminist, and pro-LGBTQ activists to touch the hearts and minds of Generation Y. Angela Ferrell-Zabala, director of Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom, a project of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, says that former Evangelicals are hungry for information about alternative faith and lifestyle options. “Technology has given Millennials access to philosophies and people from all over, and they tend to think in ways that are bigger than where they came from or how they were raised,“ she begins.” At the same time, “young folks are not necessarily throwing in the towel on their faith. They’re working to reconcile the pieces of their lives, asking, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is my place in the world?’“

The relationship between seemingly disparate issues, or intersectionality, holds great appeal to Millennials, Ferrell Zabala continues. “When we speak about reproductive justice we’re speaking about the whole person–being able to access jobs and higher education as well as contraception. When we talk about voter suppression or immigration, the conversation leads back to the choices a person is able to make.” And regardless of whether Millennials ultimately join a mainline Protestant church or live as atheists or agnostics, Ferrell-Zabala is adamant that the desire to respect others and be respected is of utmost importance to them.

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That said, it is often difficult for ex-evangelicals to break away from family and childhood friends. Carol Hornbeck, an Indianapolis-based Marriage and Family therapist, stresses that when an individual’s worldview begins to unravel they typically feel unsettled. “People’s ideas usually begin to shift when a personal experience runs counter to their expectations,” she begins. “This may be because they’ve learned that a trusted friend or colleague is gay or has had an abortion. As long as the issue is at arm’s length, they can hate it, but it changes the paradigm when it’s your next-door neighbor or your friend’s sister. When the person is one step removed from your inner circle, it’s hard to be judgmental or condemning.”

But it may still be unsettling. “If the young person continues to want a connection to Christianity, he or she will need to find a church that welcomes uncertainty,” Hornbeck concludes.

Writer/activist Brittany Shoot grew up in Anderson, Indiana, the headquarters of the Church of God, in a deeply religious evangelical family. Her move away from the church was gradual. “When I was a child I was told that someone I cared about was HIV-positive. I somehow learned that he was gay and had contracted the virus through sex. There was such shame around the diagnosis. I knew that I shouldn’t tell anyone he was sick because they might shun me. Even as a kid I thought, ‘something is wrong here.’” Later, when Shoot was in high school, a friend disclosed his homosexuality. “You didn’t come out in the Christian culture we lived in,” she says. “He didn’t feel safe; we also knew that no church in the area would love and protect him.”

Now 29, Shoot no longer attends services but frequently writes about religion, feminism, and sexuality. Although she is critical of evangelism, she is also protective of people of faith. “In progressive circles it’s common to trash talk religion. This is damaging,” she says. “Most people who’ve moved away from evangelism still have family members who are religious. Those outside the community need to be sensitive and not make churchgoing people their target.”

Activists should also be open to questions about sexuality, Shoot says. “Despite Internet access, kids raised in the church were told, ‘don’t do anything until marriage,’ so when they finally get to a place where they can talk freely, they need it to be judgment free. Don’t hate on the girl who doesn’t know what a vibrator is or who knows next to nothing about reproduction.”

Writer/activist Mandy Van Deven agrees. Van Deven grew up in small-town Georgia where schools taught nothing but abstinence. “When you grow up in communities where sex outside of marriage is stigmatized, you see the effects of not having access to comprehensive sex education or reproductive health services—high rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, and sexually transmitted infections.”

While outsiders can certainly organize in these locales, Van Deven puts the onus for outreach on former evangelicals. “It’s helpful for the people who have already started to sway to the reproductive justice end of the continuum to preach to those who haven’t yet made the leap,” she says. “They know better than others what it takes to reconcile a more liberal ideology with the conservatism of their upbringing.”

Whether or not former evangelicals will do this remains uncertain. Nonetheless, the Barna report implies that once Millennials abandon evangelism, the barriers to progressive change can begin to crumble. Stay tuned for developments.