My piece for Nothing Holy about Hatred

I just wrote a blog post for Nothing Holy about Hatred, a really excellent UK campaign that encourages religious communities to pledge to reject homophobia. Head over to their website to check out their amazing campaign and my post: http://nothingholyabouthatred.org/2012/08/30/this-i-believe-by-guest-blogger-sarah/

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Close, but not quite: an Evangelical weighs in on ex-Christians.

As an ex-Evangelical, I typically prepare to cringe when current Evangelicals decide to pontificate on why people leave the church. This piece by Roger Olson is better than most. That’s likely because he’s experienced religious abuse. His Bible college sounds eerily similar to mine: my alma mater has now relaxed some of its more insane rules, but the anti-intellectualism and legalism sound identical to what I experienced at a Southern Baptist university. So Olson left fundamentalism, as did I. Unlike me, he exchanged one version of Christianity for another.

And this is where I begin to take issue with his piece. Olson implores other survivors of religious abuse not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” In some ways, he’s correct. Religion isn’t without value. My first lessons in social justice may have been framed by “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God,” but that doesn’t mean that those lessons are somehow less profound or relevant because theology defined them. But I left the church completely, and I haven’t regretted it a day since. Olson assumes that those of us who leave ignore the good that is in Christianity, and that simply isn’t the case.

I left Christianity because I couldn’t think of an intellectually compelling reason to remain. It was an incredibly rational and difficult decision to make, it took me years, and this is probably why I don’t regret it now. Did emotion play a role? Without doubt. Religious abuse definitely contributed to the cracks in my faith. It’s a bit difficult to belief that salvation is this transformative, regenerative process when all available evidence indicates that Christians are really just like everyone else: prone to prejudice, and capable of great harm as well as good. Human, in other words. Still in need of redemption.

Olson writes that now that he feels more “comfortable in his own skin,” he’s able to reconcile theology with his traumatic past. That’s admirable. But I take issue with the implication that those of us who have left the church are somehow not just as comfortable in our own skins, or that we can’t also learn to reconcile the beneficial aspects of religion with the aspects that are demonstrably negative outside the framework of belief. For me, it’s simply maturation. It’s what allows me to heal. I can’t exist as two people, as an Evangelical girl and an agnostic woman. In a real way, I am both at once, and so for me, peace is the ability to admit that I’ve been shaped by Evangelical culture, and that I also possess the ability to adapt as I see fit. It’s the most sustainable peace I’ve found in my life. It certainly never came from the church.

Olson has some valuable insights. His story of religious abuse is valuable and is a narrative that needs greater play in religious circles. I applaud him for his closing statement, that evangelicals should “find ways to reward and not punish those courageous souls who dare to ask ‘why,'” even if I’m not optimistic that the sentiment will find much traction. But I’d ask him to seriously reconsider his characterisation of those of who do leave.

What’s a feminist to do?

Today, I awarded this week the title of Worst News Cycle of 2012. This is the week that brought us the Pussy Riot verdict and the ongoing slaughter of Syrian civilians in addition to a truly glorious phenomenon, one as rare as the birth of a white buffalo or a atheist in Alabama: unity on the right and left. Behold, ladies and gentlemen, that sound you hear is the sound of consensus! Is it about global warming, you ask? You’re hilarious! Is it concern over growing rates of domestic terrorism? LOL. Free speech? Well, funny you should mention that. Actually, excuse me while I beat my head against my desk, repeatedly, until I forget that Julian Assange and Todd Akin share an atmosphere with me.

This blog typically has an academic tone. Tonight’s post will be different. It’s derived from exhaustion, disappointment, and absolute fury because this week, I learned that the only belief that can successfully unite the right and the left is the belief that women aren’t to be trusted. Our rapes aren’t legitimate and our rights are secondary to the reputations of popular political heroes. As a feminist, rape culture isn’t news to me. As a leftist, I expect to see that culture reinforced by socially conservative policies. I don’t expect others in my own movement to adopt exactly the same rhetoric in the defense of an accused rapist.

Maybe I’m naive. Maybe I’m stupider than I thought. Maybe it’s really that I’m too gullible, and so I’ve merely exchanged religious oppression for a secularised version. But when I think of revolution, I think of freedom. I think of the ability to walk down the street without fearing attack or verbal harassment. I think of a day when I won’t be stigmatised as a liar and a slut for experiencing an attempted rape.  And that day seems further today away than it has in recent memory. So what’s left for me? Who do I stand with? Because I can tell you now that every man (and it has always been a man, this week) who demands that I do their research for them, who defies logic and fact to insist that Assange is a victim, is not my ally. You’re closer to Todd Akin than you are to me. When you say that Assange’s accusers are sluts or they are lying pawns of a political conspiracy you devalue my experience and the experiences of my friends. You tell me that my experiences aren’t legitimate, that I am not legitimate. And I hate to tell you this, because I wish it were true, but the female body does not actually possess magic anti-rape powers. We can’t “shut down” rape-induced pregnancies any more than we can “shut down” rape itself.

So what’s a feminist to do? We’ve known for decades that we will find no allies in the religious right. Todd Akin’s views are hardly news. But you tell me how to fight for gender equality when I’ve got to fight the left as well as the right. Please. Tell me, all you so-called revolutionaries and activists who support Assange. Explain to me why my rights don’t matter. Explain to me why gender equality and free speech are suddenly mutually exclusive and divergent causes. Explain to me why Todd Akin is the devil and Julian Assange is a hero when they possess fundamentally similar views about rape. You explain that to me, because I’ve done enough explaining myself this week.

Abortion, disability, and the need for a different debate

Sierra of No Longer Quivering has a truly excellent post at RH Reality Check the controversy over prenatal testing and abortion. It’s a response to a recent article by Christianity Today’s Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, who argued that prenatal testing will inevitably lead to a rise in abortions. Zylstra states that “raising a son or daughter with Down’s Syndrome can be a wonderful gift,” and selectively quotes anti-choice leaders. That includes Gary Rudd, president of the Christian Medical and Dental Association, who asks Zylstra: “Who are we to say that cystic fibrosis is such an overwhelmingly terrible disease that they shouldn’t be allowed to live?” This rhetoric is typical of the anti-choice movement. Rick Santorum, formerly in the running to be the Republican presidential nominee, used his campaign as a platform for his unequivocal opposition to prenatal testing.

Sierra does a thorough job of unpacking the problems with Zylstra’s piece and I don’t intend to repeat her work. She correctly identifies it as a fetishization of disability that dehumanizes disabled children. But there is a perspective missing from this debate, and it is a perspective not represented in Zylstra’s piece, or in the rhetoric produced by her movement. That perspective belongs to individuals diagnosed with a genetically based disease.

I am one of those individuals. A month before I turned 22, I received a diagnosis of hereditary spherocytosis (HS), sometimes called Minkowski-Chauffard disease. It’s a rare illness: I have only ever met one other individual with the illness, and he happens to be my brother. For me, HS means chronic pain from an enlarged spleen and occasionally, liver inflammation caused by my spleen’s dysfunction. HS can make me very tired, and it leaves me susceptible to certain common infections. For you, influenza is an inconvenience. For me, influenza means at least a month of illness, and possible serious side effects.
My diagnosis occurred during a four month period of constant illness due to walking pneumonia, which did not respond to antibiotics and eventually led to a severe lower respiratory infection. Sometimes my skin turns yellow. My brother is yellow most of the time, and fends off questions and comments from strangers and classmates about his condition. He’s already had surgery to remove a gallbladder destroyed by the illness, and at the moment, I’m awaiting a doctor’s decision about the removal of my spleen. It’s a serious decision because the removal of my spleen means that although my HS symptoms will disappear, my immune system will be permanently damaged. I’ve required extensions on nearly all of my assignments in graduate school because I’m often simply too tired and too much in pain to function properly.

That’s my life with a genetic illness. I don’t believe this illness makes me less of a human. It certainly doesn’t deprive me of a right to live. Nor do I regret my birth. Despite HS, I’ve been able to accomplish most of my current goals. I also don’t see the point in stating my desire for a life free of HS; it should be obvious that any ill person would rather not be ill. And that is exactly why, if I had the choice, I would choose not to pass on my illness. My version of HS is autosomal dominant, which means there’s a 50% chance I’ll pass it to my biological children. This is not an abstract intellectual debate for me. It is my life. And so I resent it when individuals like Gary Rudd, Rick Santorum, or any of the other individuals quoted in Zylstra’s piece, decide they have a right to comment on the implications of prenatal testing. An able-bodied person cannot possibly comprehend the reality of a disabled life. You can only ever perceive it as an outsider, and so to comment on it dehumanizes those who live that reality.

This piece by Emily Rapp, a disabled woman with a profoundly disabled son, is probably the best piece I’ve read on the subject. It’s raw and desperate and honest. It reflects anything but a disregard for life; rather the opposite. It’s a paean to life and its horrors and its beauty. And anti-choicers vilified her for writing it. The comments section on her original piece is a narrow glimpse into the extent of that vilification. And my own experience with the anti-choice movement is similar. When I dared suggest that someone without a genetic illness really didn’t have the right to make decisions on behalf of those of us who do, I was told to go kill myself because I clearly didn’t appreciate my mother’s gift of life.

Irony aside, it’s clear that it’s time for a different debate on the subject of abortion and disability. I can appreciate my life while also believing that it would be irresponsible of me to knowingly subject a child to suffering. And that’s in regards to an illness that doesn’t cause the same level of suffering as cystic fibrosis or Tay Sachs. Gary Rudd, Sarah Zylstra and their anti-choice peers are not in a position to decide that disability is a gift. Nor should parents of disabled children fetishize their children’s illnesses. It may be a gift to you but is most certainly not a gift to your child. It is a challenge, and it is painful, physically and emotionally, and that reality shouldn’t be diminished. By all means, exercise your choice. But you are not superior to parents who decide to spare their children suffering. And you will never, ever be as qualified to speak on this subject as a disabled person, so don’t pretend to us that you’re an expert on disabled lives, that your opinion on prenatal testing is more valid than ours, or that it ought to influence public policy when it is completely uninformed by lived experience.

Why you need to know about David Barton

News that Christian publisher Thomas Nelson had decided to pull David Barton’s latest book, the Jefferson Lies, catapulted another major figure of the religious right into the public consciousness. Like Dan Cathy, Barton has been known to evangelical Christians for years. Think of him as the Ken Ham of US history: an apologist for an alternative reality that enshrines American exceptionalism as the manifestation of God’s work on earth. In Barton’s version of history, Thomas Jefferson professed orthodox Christianity, never raped his slaves, and mandated Christian worship services in the US Capitol. It is a version of history so far removed from fact that it has come under attack from other conservative Christian historians. Yet Barton’s influence in the evangelical world clearly dwarfs whatever power these genuine historians wield. He is a prolific writer and the history he tells is exactly the sort of mythology necessary to sustain the existence of America’s religious. For this reason, TIME has named him one of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals, and he enjoys his own personal webpage at the Southern Poverty Law Center, where he is listed as one of the leading figures of the contemporary radical right.

Barton’s credentials as a historian have been repeatedly shredded. It’s common knowledge that he holds only a bachelor’s degree in Christian Education from conservative Oral Roberts University, and therefore possesses no training whatsoever as a professional historian. But this lack of credentials appeals to a right wing movement that associates intellectualism with secularism and leftist bias. That is exactly why universities like Oral Roberts (and my own alma mater exist). They’re ostensibly a sanctuary from secularist brainwashing. It’s also why the homeschool movement is dominated by evangelical families that rely on books published by institutions like Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College. The version of history taught in these books mimics Barton’s work: America is a Christian nation, and liberalism has perverted it. The fact that this a minority view, considered discredited by mainstream historians, only bolsters evangelical support for it. Barton is a prophet, crying out in America’s liberal wilderness.

You can consider Barton, and his organization Wallbuilders, directly analogous to Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis. Neither actually possesses any credentials in their fields and both enjoy positions of respect because they act as the public faces of the religious right’s alternative to academia. They legitimize the evangelical movement and promote it in the political sphere: Barton has been active with the Texas GOP, and acted as an “expert consultant”  to the Texas School Board. That same school board voted to approve changes to the state social studies curriculum that included the claim that the Founding Fathers were Christians.

Despite the controversy over the Jefferson Lies, the religious right will not abandon David Barton. It needs him to legitimize itself. It does not matter how times his books are debunked, any more than it has ever mattered that Ken Ham’s version of biology can be torn apart by anyone with a high school diploma. These controversies merely reinforce the right’s perception that it is a martyred movement, ordained to struggle because of its adherence to “traditional values.” These are the roots of Chik fil A Appreciation Day and statements like this. It’s why, as a veteran of homeschooling and private Christian education, I had to reteach myself history. It’d how I made it to graduate school without ever sitting through a basic lesson in evolutionary theory. If that disturbs you, I urge you to educate yourself about Barton and his version of America, because education is the best defense against the movement he represents.

The Chik fil A debacle is not about free speech

Instead of my planned piece about David Barton (that’s still on its way, trust me), today’s post is going to be Bigotry 101 for conservative Christians everywhere.

1. There is no such thing as a “homosexual lifestyle.” It’s a sexual orientation. Try referring to the “heterosexual lifestyle,” and ask yourself what the hell that means.  Continuing: sexual orientation is not a choice. To state otherwise is to contradict all available evidence to the contrary. It ignores the well-documented failure of “reparative therapy.” It places human sexuality in a binary system that is not supported either by psychology or biology. If you believe that a GLBT orientation is a choice, you demean it. You place it below your own identity. So if you say this, you are a bigot.

2. So no, you cannot “love” gay people if you think their sexuality is wrong. It is patently absurd to refer to a sexual relationship between consenting adults as wrong. You cannot respect someone’s personhood if you believe that an intrinsic aspect of their personhood is sinful. We’re talking about sexual orientation, not a personality trait. It is no different from stating that someone’s skin color is wrong, or that someone’s disability is wrong. If you say this, you are a bigot.

3. Boycotting Chik fil A is not an attempt at censorship. Those of us who have decided to boycott this restaurant chain do so because we do not want our money going to support hate groups. That is because anti-gay language correlates with hate crimes against LGBT individuals on basis of sexual orientation. Anti-gay legislation, like bans on same-sex marriage, also correlate to increases in suicide among LGBT youth. This isn’t a simple matter of free speech, and it’s facetious to portray it as such. Nor is it really a matter of religious freedom. Your religious freedom ends where someone else’s civil rights begin. If you believe otherwise, you are a bigot.

And now a personal anecdote: I have had the misfortune of hearing Chik fil A CEO Dan Cathy speak in public. In fact, he was my commencement speaker. I have the commemorative baton and Chik fil A coupon to prove it. And after listening to him speak, I’m convinced that the only person Cathy loves more than Jesus is himself. He spoke obsessively about his father’s business acumen, which of course he believes he inherited. He also uses his “Christian testimony” as a business tactic. In fact, he seems to directly conflate the two. So don’t expect an apology from him. That would require humility. Furthermore, he’s also a committed ideologue. This has only bolstered his reputation as a lion of the religious right.

A year before Dan Cathy spoke at my graduation, I interviewed one of the co-authors of Unchristian for the student newspaper. If you’re not familiar with the book, I highly recommend it. It’s based on a Barna Group poll that revealed the top reasons members of the Millennial generation left the organized American church. The top result? 91% of Millennials polled felt that the church was blatantly anti-gay. Dan Cathy’s remarks only reinforce this perception. They contribute to the marginalization of GLBT Americans, and to my generation’s mass exodus from American Christianity.

So, conservative Christians, if you want more LGBT suicides and hate crimes, if you want your church to continue its path to irrelevance, then by all means, enjoy that chicken sandwich. If you’re concerned about the future of your church, and feel compassion for the individuals marginalized by rhetoric like Cathy’s, then I advise to put that sandwich down and seriously re-examine your support for this corporation.