Exit poll results indicating that 22 percent of voters ranked moral values as the most important factor in their support for a presidential candidate have occupied more than their fair share of media attention. While the religious right has seized on the results as a vindication of their opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights, the religious left has stumbled in its attempts to respond. Its unwillingness to deal with gender, sex and reproduction is its Achilles’ heel.
Part of the problem is that women are virtually absent from the leadership ranks of the progressive religious movements. These movements are run, for the most part, by men of good will who have eloquently opposed the war in Iraq, tax cuts and the lack of adequate healthcare. But they don’t understand the role that women and sex play in the modern world. Social conservatives have built their movement on hostility to women and women’s rights; they have brilliantly played on the fear that both men and women feel in the face of the demand that they be equal partners in faith and family. Many progressive religionists think they can build a movement of people of faith that ignores those issues and concentrates on the 1960s agenda of antimilitarism and the eradication of poverty. They seem annoyed that issues like abortion rights, teen sexuality, gay marriage, stem-cell research and shared power between men and women take up so much space–space they are excluded from because they will not take straightforward, honest positions on these issues.
In the case of abortion, schizophrenia abounds: First Jim Wallis, the moderate evangelical preacher who speaks frequently on behalf of religious progressives, tells us we shouldn’t focus on this issue at all; then he expounds on what the Democrats should do to attract “‘centrist’ Catholic and evangelical voters.” Wallis says the Democrats should “welcome pro-life Democrats–Catholics and evangelicals–and have a serious conversation with them” about how to reduce teen pregnancy, make adoption easier and conditions for low-income women better. It is odd for a progressive religious leader to suggest that Democrats, rather than Republicans, are the obstacle to helping teens and low-income women but perhaps not surprising from a man whose personal commitment to dialogue has included demonstrating at a nuclear plant and an abortion clinic on the same day.
Wallis is the most visible antiabortion cleric in the progressive movement, but even those who are personally pro-choice won’t touch the issue. The Rev. Bob Edgar, a pro-choice former member of Congress who now heads the National Council of Churches, has been active in a number of the new groups that are promoting a progressive religious agenda excluding women’s equality and reproductive rights. That’s because some of the council’s members hold different opinions on these issues, and it does not want to offend the Catholic Church. For the same reason, the oldest of the religious left groups, the Interfaith Alliance, refuses to take a position on controversial social issues, opting for a vague commitment to “tolerance.”
Such evasiveness not only works to the advantage of religious conservatives but hampers attempts to articulate a coherent religious left agenda. After all, these issues, especially international access to safe and legal abortion and recognition of the civil rights of gay couples, are as important to a comprehensive vision of a just society as is the eradication of poverty and the creation of a secure and peaceful world.
World leaders recognize this. Kofi Annan has acknowledged that without sexual and reproductive health and gender equality, poverty will not be eradicated. Perhaps part of the reason so many progressive religious leaders don’t get it is that so few of them have any track record within their own denominations of working for women’s or gay rights. How can we expect these men to speak out in civil society for causes they have not supported in their own denominations?
So what’s a feminist of faith to do? A small number of progressive religious women agree with their male bosses and are content. Mara Vanderslice, for example, went from a staff job working for Jim Wallis to become the religious point person for Kerry. Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL, recalls how Vanderslice cornered her at the Democratic convention and sought her help in convincing Catholics that Kerry was really against abortion. Others have followed the time-honored path of faithful accompaniment. They join the groups and try to gently prod the men, but in the interest of a partial but important justice agenda, they go along. And still others, particularly feminist clergy and theologians, have shunned the discriminatory world of religion, including progressive religion, to work in secular organizations for a social justice agenda that includes women’s and gay rights.
But few have directly confronted the problems of gender inequality and lack of vision that plague progressive religious politics; few have gone so far as to say that a progressive religious agenda for justice that fails to recognize the moral agency of men and women to make decisions about family planning, abortion and marriage partners is unacceptable. This is finally beginning to change. The feminist theologian Rita Nakashima Brock is an emerging voice for religious feminism and an effective advocate for a women-centered progressive agenda. More should follow her example. It is bad enough that so many male progressive clergy continue to put every interest above justice for women within the churches, synagogues and mosques they rule. The possibility that they might be able to expand the influence of their patriarchal mindset within the Democratic Party is unthinkable.