When "reparative therapy" organization Exodus International folded in mid-June, the group's president, Alan Chambers, issued an apology to those the organization had hurt. His words seemed tailor-made to illustrate a recent report that likened many of today’s Christians to Pharisees.
When Exodus International (EI), a group established nearly 40 years ago to “mobilize the Body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality,” folded its tent in mid-June, EI President Alan Chambers issued an apology to those the organization had hurt. His words seemed tailor-made to illustrate an April 2013 report that likened many of today’s Christians to Pharisees, a political party and social movement that existed from 140-37 BCE and whose members are typically characterized as rigid and narrow-minded.
“I am sorry,” Chambers told his followers, “that so many have interpreted religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection. I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives.”
This announcement came a month after the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC), the largest Lutheran denomination in the country, elected its first openly gay Bishop to serve the southwest California synod. What’s more, a June ABC News/Washington Post poll revealed that 57 percent of U.S. adults support gay marriage.
While most Americans have greeted these developments with cheers and hosannas, arguing that they are proof that the country is moving in a positive direction on issues of sexual honesty, not everyone is jazzed about the end of EI or the new inclusivity of the ELC. In fact, skeptics wonder if these shifts are opportunistic attempts to fill the pews, sidestep lawsuits, or simply offer image repair for those “pro-life,” “pro-family,” Christians whose careers have been tainted by scandal.
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Among the most notorious evangelists are Jim Bakker, Creflo and Taffi Dollar, Ted Haggart, Marvin Gorman, Eddie Long, John Paulk, and Jimmy Swaggart. And of course it’s not just people of the cloth who have been caught with their pants down and their hands in the till. Larry Craig, John Ensign, Vito Fossella, Mark Foley, and David Vitter are just a few of the federal legislators whose pious public personas were eventually revealed to be far different from their hard-partying—and often gay—private ones.
The word sanctimonious comes quickly to mind.
This conclusion prompted the Barna Group, an independent Ventura, California-based research organization started and headed by evangelical Christian George Barna, to launch a survey this spring to determine if self-defined Christians are more likely to favor Jesus or the Pharisees. The nationwide study sought “to identify baseline qualities of Jesus, like love, empathy, and a desire to share faith with others—or the resistance to such ideals in the form of self-focused hypocrisy.”
Twenty agree/disagree questions were presented including: “I listen to others to learn their story before telling them about my faith,” “I see God-given value in every person,” “It is more important to help people know God than it is for them to make sure they know they are sinners,” “I feel compassion for people who do immoral things,” “I avoid LGBTQ people,” and “I think people who follow God’s rules are better than those who do not.”
Leaving aside the centrality of God and the implied judgments woven into these questions, the Barna Group’s findings are a surprising condemnation of Evangelical and born-again behavior. In fact, researchers concluded that a preponderance of people who call themselves Christians “identified as Pharisaical,” and only 14 percent “seemed to represent the actions and attitudes consistent with those of Jesus.” The poll also found that “most Christians lack Jesus’ care for others.”
The study’s denouement is especially critical:
It is a lot easier to point fingers at how the culture is immoral than it is to confront Christians in their comfortable spiritual patterns. Perhaps pastors and teachers might take another look at how and what they communicate. Do people somehow get the message that the right action is more important than the right attitude?
The report does not provide concrete suggestions for behavioral change, and the group refused Rewire’s request for an interview, so it is impossible to know exactly what types of messages and attitudes the authors are referring to. Still, it does not seem far-fetched to think that it might propel Christian anti-abortion zealots to reconsider the wisdom of standing at clinic entrances and berating women as sluts and baby-killers. Similarly, conservative activists might refuse to label gay people as sodomites and AIDS vectors because such words are antithetical to the spiritual values they profess to cherish.
Rebecca Turner, executive director of Faith Aloud, which describes itself as “the religious and ethical voice for reproductive justice,” agrees, but cautions that behaving in a Christ-like manner requires a deep transformation. She references an ideological stance that was articulated by devout believers for years—that they were able to love gay people without approving of their lifestyle, in essence loving the “sinner” but hating the “sin.”
“Maybe some of the people who said this have come around and realized that this is actually not a loving attitude, that to have compassion means putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, especially if they think they are doing immoral things,” Turner said. “Being able to identify with someone relates to how much compassion they feel. If you understand why someone might have an abortion or love someone of the same gender, it can have a profound impact.”
At the same time, the need for increased empathy ups the challenge—not just for people of faith, but for atheists, agnostics, and the spiritually confused—pushing us to move from the expedience of a verbal apology to real, lived acceptance of others. Exodus International is a case in point. Making real amends requires action to undo the bigotry and hatred that was promulgated both organizationally and by individuals; it also requires those who were victimized to begin the slow, time-consuming work of healing. By fading into oblivion, EI is foreclosing the possibility of dialogue with the people it hurt. Perhaps Alan Chambers will make himself personally available. I certainly hope so, for at the end of the day, he has a great deal of power—and he can choose to emulate Jesus or behave like a Pharisee.
Representatives from radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue praised Trump’s commitment to its shared values during the event. “I’m very impressed that Mr. Trump would sit with conservative leaders for multiple questions, and then give direct answers,” said the organization's president, Troy Newman, who was in attendance at a question-and-answer event on Tuesday.
Making a play to win over the evangelical community, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump met with more than 1,000 faith and anti-choice leaders on Tuesday for a question-and-answer event in New York City and launched an “evangelical advisory board” to weigh in on how he should approach key issues for the voting bloc.
The meeting was meant to be “a guided discussion between Trump and diverse conservative Christian leaders to better understand him as a person, his position on important issues and his vision for America’s future,” according to a press release from the event’s organizers. As Rewire previously reported, numerous anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ leaders—many of them extremists—were slated to attend.
Though the event was closed to the media, Trump reportedly promised to lift a ban on tax-exempt organizations from politicking and discussed his commitment to defending religious liberties. Trump’s pitch to conservatives also included a resolution that upon his election, “the first thing we will do is support Supreme Court justices who are talented men and women, and pro-life,” according to a press release from United in Purpose, which helped organize the event.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List, told the New York Times that the business mogul also reiterated promises to defund Planned Parenthood and to pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a 20-week abortion ban based on the medically unsupported claim that a fetus feels pain at that point in a pregnancy.
In a post to its website, representatives from radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue praised Trump’s commitment to their shared values during the event. “I’m very impressed that Mr. Trump would sit with conservative leaders for multiple questions, and then give direct answers,” said the group’s president, Troy Newman, who was in attendance. “I don’t believe anything like this has ever happened.” The post went on to note that Trump had also said he would appoint anti-choice justices to federal courts, and repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Just after the event, Trump’s campaign announced the formation of an evangelical advisory board. The group was “convenedto provide advisory support to Mr. Trump on those issues important to Evangelicals and other people of faith in America,” according to a press release from the campaign. Though members of the board, which will lead Trump’s “much larger Faith and Cultural Advisory Committee to be announced later this month,” were not asked to endorse Trump, the campaign went on to note that “the formation of the board represents Donald J. Trump’s endorsement of those diverse issues important to Evangelicals and other Christians, and his desire to have access to the wise counsel of such leaders as needed.”
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Much like the group that met with Trump onTuesday, the presumptive Republican nominee’s advisory board roster reads like a who’s-who of conservatives with radical opposition to abortion and LGBTQ equality. Here are some of the group’s most notable members:
Though former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann once claimed that “women don’t need anyone to tell them what to do on health care” while arguing against the ACA during a 2012 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, her views on the government’s role in restrictingreproductive health and rights don’t square away with that position.
During a December 2011 “tele-town hall” event hosted by anti-choice organization Personhood USA, Bachmann reportedly falsely referred to emergency contraception as “abortion pills” and joined other Republican then-presidential candidates to advocate for making abortion illegal, even in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. During the event, Bachmann touted her support of the anti-choice group’s “personhood pledge,” which required presidential candidates to agree that:
I stand with President Ronald Reagan in supporting “the unalienable personhood of every American, from the moment of conception until natural death,” and with the Republican Party platform in affirming that I “support a human life amendment to the Constitution, and endorse legislation to make clear that the 14th Amendment protections apply to unborn children.
Such a policy, if enacted by lawmakers, could outlaw abortion and many forms of contraception. A source from Personhood USA told the Huffington Post that Bachmann “signed the pledge and returned it within twenty minutes, which was an extraordinarily short amount of time.”
Televangelist Mark Burns has been an ardent supporter of Trump, even appearing on behalf of the presidential candidate at February’s Faith and Family Forum, hosted by the conservativePalmetto Family Council, to deliver an anti-abortion speech.
In March, Burns also claimed that he supported Donald Trump because Democrats like Hillary Clinton supported Black “genocide” (a frequently invokedconservative myth) during an appearance on the fringe-conspiracy program, the Alex Jones show. “That’s really one of my major platforms behind Donald Trump,” said Burns, according to the Daily Beast. “He loves babies. Donald Trump is a pro-baby candidate, and it saddens me how we as African Americans are rallying behind … a party that is okay with the genocide of Black people through abortion.”
Burns’ support of Trump extended to the candidate’s suggestion that if abortion was made illegal, those who have abortions should be punished—an issue on which Trump has repeatedly shifted stances. “If the state made it illegal and said the premature death of an unborn child constituted murder, anyone connected to that crime should be held liable,” Burns told the Wall Street Journal in April. “If you break the law there should be punishment.”
Kenneth and Gloria Copeland
Kenneth and Gloria Copeland founded Kenneth Copeland Ministries (KCM), which, according to itsmission statement, exists to “teach Christians worldwide who they are in Christ Jesus and how to live a victorious life in their covenant rights and privileges.” Outlining their opposition to abortion in a post this month on the organization’s website, the couple wrote that abortion is wrong even in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. “As the author of life, God considers an unborn child to be an eternal being from the moment of its conception,” explained the post. “To deliberately destroy that life before birth would be as much premeditated murder as taking the life of any other innocent person.”
The article went on to say that though it may “seem more difficult in cases such as those involving rape or incest” not to choose abortion, “God has a plan for the unborn child,” falsely claiming that the threat of life endangerment has “been almost completely alleviated through modern medicine.”
The ministries’ website also features Pregnancy Options Centre, a crisis pregnancy center (CPC) in Vancouver, Canada, that receives “financial and spiritual support” from KCM and “its Partners.” The vast majority ofCPCs regularly lie to women in order to persuade them not to have an abortion.
Kenneth Copeland, in a June 2013 sermon, tied pedophilia to the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, going on to falsely claim that the ruling did not actually legalize abortion and that the decision was “the seed to murder our seed.” Copeland blamed legal abortion for the country’s economic woes, reasoning that there are “several million taxpayers that are not alive.”
Copeland, a televangelist, originally supported former Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (TX) in the 2016 Republican primary, claiming that the candidate had been “called and appointed” by God to be the next president. His ministry has previously faced scrutiny about its tax-exempt status under an investigation led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) into six ministries “whose television preaching bankrolled leaders’ lavish lifestyles.” This investigation concluded in 2011, according to the New York Times.
James Dobson, founder and chairman emeritus of Focus on the Family (FoF), previously supported Cruz in the Republican primary, releasing an ad for the campaign in February praising Cruz for defending “the sanctity of human life and traditional marriage.” As Rewirepreviously reported, both Dobson and his organization hold numerous extreme views:
Dobson’s FoF has spent millions promoting its anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ extremism, even dropping an estimated $2.5 million in 2010 to fund an anti-choice Super Bowl ad featuring conservative football player Tim Tebow. Dobson also founded the … Family Research Council, now headed by Tony Perkins.
Dobson’s own personalrhetoric is just as extreme as the causes his organization pushes. As extensively documented by Right Wing Watch,
A Fox News contributor and senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Jeffress once suggested that the 9/11 attacks took place because of legal abortion. “All you have to do is look in history to see what God does with a nation that sanctions the killing of its own children,” said Jeffress at Liberty University’s March 2015 convocation, according to Right Wing Watch. “God will not allow sin to go unpunished and he certainly won’t allow the sacrifice of children to go unpunished.”
Jeffress spoke about the importance of electing Trump during a campaign rally in February, citing Democrats’ positions on abortion rights and Trump’s belief “in protecting the unborn.” He went on to claim that if Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) or Hillary Clinton were elected, “there is no doubt you’re going to have the most pro-abortion president in history.”
After Trump claimed women who have abortions should be punished should it become illegal, Jeffres rushed to defend the Republican candidate from bipartisan criticism, tweeting: “Conservatives’ outrage over @realDonaldTrump abortion comments hypocritical. Maybe they don’t really believe abortion is murder.”
As documented by Media Matters, Jeffress has frequently spoken out against those of other religions and denominations, claiming that Islam is “evil” and Catholicism is “what Satan does with counterfeit religion.” The pastor has also demonstrated extreme opposition to LGBTQ equality, even claiming that same-sex marriage is a sign of the apocalypse.
Richard Land, now president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, was named one of TimeMagazine‘s “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America” in 2005 for his close ties with the Republican party. While George W. Bush was president, Land participated in the administration’s “weekly teleconference with other Christian conservatives, to plot strategy on such issues as gay marriage and abortion.” Bush also appointed Land to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2002.
According to a 2002 article from the Associated Press, during his early academic career in Texas, “Land earned a reputation as a leader among abortion opponents and in 1987 became an administrative assistant to then-Texas Gov. Bill Clements, who fought for laws to restrict a woman’s right to an abortion” in the state.
Land had previously expressed “dismay” that some evangelicals were supporting Trump, claiming in October that he “take[s] that [support] as a failure on our part to adequately disciple our people.”
In a political landscape that seems destined to pit bibles against birth control for as long as the culture wars shall persist, the Religious Institute is just one of numerous organizations advocating for contraceptive access, abortion rights, and LGBTQ rights motivated by—and not despite—Christian faith.
“When I introduce myself, I tell people I’m a sexologist and a minister. The most likely response is that people laugh,” says Reverend Debra Haffner. “They see those terms as oxymorons, kind of like ‘jumbo shrimp.’”
Haffner, the jumbo shrimp in question, is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. She is also the co-founder and president of the Religious Institute, a multi-faith organization that advocates for sexual health and education—including abortion and contraception access—in religious communities and beyond.
In a political landscape that seems destined to pit bibles against birth control for as long as the culture wars shall persist (see: Hobby Lobby), the Religious Institute is just one of numerous organizations advocating for contraceptive access, abortion rights, and LGBTQ rights motivated by—and not despite—Christian faith.
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Considering where most Americans stand, this makes sense.
According to most major polls, a slim majority of American adults support abortion rights: 51 percent of American adults think that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 43 percent think it should be illegal in all or most cases.
Yet some research suggests that Americans’ thinking on abortion is more complicated than this simple binary—and that more people than previously thought support the right to choose. Only a small minority of the public believes abortion should never be legal, and large majorities think that if a woman gets an abortion, the experience should be supportive, comfortable, and non-judgmental.
Americans’ stances on abortion are more complicated than the political rhetoric may lead us to believe. Our understanding of religion and reproductive rights should follow suit.
The majority of Americans are religious. Over 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, while 22.8 percent don’t identify with any particular religion at all. And despite the growth of these so-called “nones,” over 90 percent of Americans still believe in God.
It’s a statistical inevitability: Many, if not a majority of, Christians in this country support reproductive rights. Of Christians, 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used some kind of contraception at one point or another. Over three-fourths of Catholics believe that the church should permit birth control, while 53 percent of white Catholics, and 43 percent of Latino Catholics, think abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Why do I find this so surprising?
“The American public by and large on some level has bought the myth of the far right,” Haffner says, in answer to my unvoiced skepticism. She’s referring, of course, to the myth that religion and reproductive rights are mortal enemies. “The reality is that the majority of people of faith in this country support all of those things.”
In fact, Haffner says, religious peoples’ advocacy for reproductive rights is almost as old as modern birth control itself. “It might surprise you to know that the very first denominational statement on reproductive health and birth control was in 1929,” she tells me.
It does and here’s why: I’m Catholic. Well, okay—I was raised Catholic. Italian Catholic from New Jersey.
In a red town where “It’s Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve” was still considered a clever punchline, we were Black Sheep Catholics, cultural-heritage Catholics, Kerry- and Obama-supporting Catholics, the Catholics the nuns didn’t like. My mother, a feminist physician who attended Catholic school, was known to get into “disagreements” with church people about contraceptive access, abortion rights, and the war in Iraq.
During mass, I learned to mouth—not say—the prayers for the little aborted fetuses. I learned I would not be permitted marriage in the Church. I learned that I had to choose between my rights as a woman and a queer person, and my belief in God.
So, like youths from time immemorial, I flipped God the bird and pulled my pants down.
Reverend Harry F. Knox says there are a lot of people like me. Knox, president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC)—a coalition of faith organizations that promotes reproductive health and education access—has a slow, gentle voice with a twang.
“It often surprises people when Christians are pro-choice,” Knox tells me. “This normally comes from folks whose particular faith backgrounds have a narrow view of reproductive health and rights.” This narrow view, says Knox, can sometimes make it difficult for people in the secular reproductive rights movement—people like, you know, feminist journalists—to collaborate with people of faith.
In some ways that’s understandable. When right-wing politicians affront our rights under the guise of “religious liberty,” it can be easy to see politics as a rumble between Obamacare-covered progesterone and, well, God. “We have a few partners who sometimes have trouble allowing the faith voice to be heard because of the very real hurt that has been done in the name of religion to women over the years,” Knox says of this tension. “One of the roles that RCRC plays in the larger movement for reproductive health, rights, and justice is a bridge role in helping our allies deal with that pain.”
Knox would know. First denied ordination in two denominations for being gay, Knox, finally ordained in the Metropolitan Community Church, served for years in justice ministry for LGBTQ people. He came to reproductive rights work through what he calls an “abortion crisis” in his own family.
“The Christian church often seeks to control people through shame,” says Knox. Part of his job, then, he says, is to help people “tell their own stories about sexuality, about their own experience as spiritual people who are also sexual beings, fully embodied, and made in the image of God.”
And Haffner and Knox tell me that Protestants aren’t the only pro-choice Christians. There are, my mother will be delighted to know, Catholics in the game, too. “We say that good Catholics do and can use reproductive health-care services,” says Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, domestic program director at Catholics for Choice.
Catholics for Choice educates and advocates for sexual health—including, yep, abortion rights—both in religious organizations and government.
Ratcliffe, and Catholics for Choice’s materials in general, put a lot of emphasis on conscience: The idea that decisions about the morality of abortion, contraception, and other sexual matters must be decided in—as they used to say in mass—“the silence of our hearts.” This line of thinking comes with a real anti-authoritarian streak vis-à-vis the Church authorities. Their very sassy mission statement reveals some of this tension, calling out the “Catholic hierarchy” for “punish[ing] and publically sham[ing]” pro-choice Catholics.
Ratcliffe elaborates: “As Catholics, we actually have a right to dissent from teachings.” She identifies this as a mission of religious liberty. “The idea that someone would tell you what you can and cannot believe, or what you can and cannot access because of what they believe, is anathema to Catholics.”
How did I not know about this group as a little gay kid?
Probably because—to no one’s surprise—both the American and Canadian Conference of Bishops have denounced the organization. (A choice excerpt from the denouncement: “CFFC is, practically speaking, an arm of the abortion lobby.”)
Indeed, the group’s been ruffling papal feathers ever since its beginnings. In the 1970s, a woman leader of the group had herself crowned Pope, and a member priest baptized a child who had been forbidden baptism by the Archbishop of Boston because his mother was pro-choice. In 1984, the group took out a full-page New York Times ad calling for the Church to accept pro-choice Catholics. It was co-signed by, among others, two priests, two brothers, and 27 nuns.
Which brings us to the nuns themselves. Lay people aren’t the only Catholics advocating for reproductive freedom—there’s also the nun contingent.
Here’s how the most prominent among them got their start. In 1969, a group of women religious with the Catholic Church—many of them radicalized by the women’s movement—created the National Coalition of American Nuns (NCAN), whose support for abortion and contraception rights and belief in the ordination of women continue to fly in the face of official church teachings.
The organization has been headed for the last few decades by Sister Donna Quinn, herself an activist with a much-storied history. Quinn has been a vocal spokesperson for reproductive rights in (or adjacent to) the Catholic Church for years. A photo of her in an abortion “Clinic Escort” vest is iconic.
NCAN was active most recently in the midst of the Hobby Lobby hullaballoo. The coalition of came out in support of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate and a “Stand with the Nuns” petition garnered signatures from over 12,000 pro-contraceptive rights people of faith.
“The institutional church men forget that we are women who are educated, articulate, seekers of truth and very, very holy,” said Quinn in a 2012 article in Reuters of her and her fellow pro-choice sisters’ work.
While remaining active in contemporary debates, however, many activist nuns like Quinn are aging, and according to some a new generation of nuns is less inclined to ruffle feathers.
At the same time, the overall Church’s influence may also be waning, as more and more millennials leave the church.
Still, with 65 percent of millennials identifying as religiously affiliated, the question of religiosity and support for reproductive rights is far from obsolete. And it’s more complicated than the political debate would have us believe, with more young people than ever—even religious ones—supporting causes that have traditionally been met with religious opprobrium, like marriage equality.
For Haffner, the continued relevance of these questions reflects our collective need for meaning.
When Haffner tells me that the majority of Americans attend worship services (at least a couple times a year) I let out an involuntary “Wow.”
Right, because it’s not your friends, she says.
It’s true. I’m a writer for a feminist blog and my voice over the phone sounds 22 years old, suburb-raised, and Ivy-educated, all of which I am. Two of my four college roommates were presidents of the atheist club. I’ve got “friends are non-church-going” written all over me.
But when I was researching this article—poring over the Religious Institute’s website or the nuns’ social justice writings—I found myself crying. Not hard, not uncontrollably, but I kept getting this lump in my throat.
And then it occurred to me, washed over me like a watercolor, all weepy and treble clef—like, oh, duh—that I am actually, in a lot of ways, a very religious person. And I think that the polarization of faith and reproductive rights that the contemporary political landscape so naturalizes does us all a big disservice.
Don’t get me wrong. I still think we are all fortuitous conglomerations of cells and St. Teresa was having an orgasm. I don’t think that every sperm is sacred or that a guy named Jesus had a sadistic father and a redemptive run-in with the Romans (too soon?).
But I was raised by a family raised on Vatican II, on Sacco and Vanzetti, on the Beatitudes, and every time someone starts talking about the inherent dignity of humankind, and social justice, and mercy, and compassion, I want to weep.
Because I know that my grandmother votes Democrat and is mad about police violence and thinks I should have abortion rights and loves me as a feminist and loves me as a lesbian because she loves God. And God loves the most vulnerable.
Haffner, of course, is onto me.
“An anecdote that is really interesting to me is the number of weddings and memorials and baby christenings I’ve done since I became a minister in the reproductive health field,” Haffner says. “People call me because they still need somebody to marry them, they still need somebody to bury their mother.”
Yeah, you might no longer go to church, she seems to be telling me. You might have forgotten the Nicene Creed when the mass was re-translated from Latin and you might only take the Eucharist at Christmas because you think when you cross yourself and your cleavage jiggles you look like Madame Bovary.
But you know what? You may be back. You may be back because all those things you believe in, all those things about humanity and dignity and choice? Yeah, Haffner seems to be saying. We’re working on that.