Friday, February 10, 2012

Faith and Sexuality

The Religious Right’s Sexploitation

Have you noticed that celebrities generally make themselves publicly available when they have a product to hawk? 

One of the celebrity pastors of the Evangelical mega church movement, Ed Young, Jr. of Grapevine, TX, with his spouse Lisa,  in mid –January published their co-authored book titled Sexperiment: 7 Days to Lasting Intimacy with Your Spouse. (I am reminded of Marabel Morgan’s 1973 anti-feminism book The Total Woman that recommended seducing one’s husband for 7 consecutive day, including a nude/saran wrapped seduction greeting when he arrives home after a long day of work.)

For their book, Sexperimentation, the Youngs disclosed the following in a press release:

"Sex sells" is a popular phrase for professionals looking to catch the attention of the public. This philosophy has most notably taken root in mainstream culture; however, Pastor Ed Young has built many of his sermons around the bedroom. The pastor and his wife have announced the release of a book that illustrates how sex can contribute to marital bliss without straying from God's intentions. The Senior Pastor at Fellowship Church, Ed Young, Jr. has been preaching the importance of sex for many years.

Ordinarily a controversial topic within the halls of religious buildings, Ed Young has brought the issue of sex to the forefront of his sermons. His latest of 14 books, called Sexperiment: 7 Days to Lasting Intimacy with Your Spouse, details a path to intimacy that follows the teachings of God while allowing married couples to become closer than ever before.

Ed Young, Jr. recognizes that there is more to a marriage than sex, but he also insists that sex is a key component of a happy, lasting relationship. Through Sexperiment, Ed Young teaches couples how to create a more intimate connection with one another, improve their sense of purpose and their understanding of God's plan, and achieve a higher degree of open, honest communication.

Published by FaithWords, Sexperiment teaches that sex within a marriage is to be treated as a positive activity, not a chore. In this book, Ed Young, Jr. shares his insight into the intimacy that can be fostered by regular sex and the value that it holds for a marriage.

Less than a week after publication, the co-authors staged a 24 hour bed-in on the roof of the Grapevine Church.  (Young said he was inspired by Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s love-in antics from the 1960s.)  It proved a chilly sexperience, despite the covers, so the Youngs kept their coats on, while hosting a variety of social media networks.

And on Tuesday this week, the 7th of February, Pastor Young challenged every couple, everywhere (heterosexual and in a marriage, that is) to have sex for SEVEN consecutive days.

A quick survey indicates that Evangelical Christians have jumped on the 20th century’s Joy of Sex bandwagon as it has progressed into the 21st century.  The most respected Evangelical pastor in the country, Rich Warren, of the Saddleback Church in Riverside, CA has been twittering about sex, to wit:  “Husbands & wives should satisfy each other’s needs. 1 Cor 7:3”  Or another tweet of his with the whiff of personal testimony: “Sex with 1 wife ISNT like playing 1 record over&over but learning 1 instrument well for yrs of beautiful music.”

The mid-January release of another Evangelical pastor’s sex manual, “Real Marriage,” caused the author, Mark Driscoll of Seattle, who, with a flair of the prurient, to list all the acceptable varieties of sex acts.  Within marriage just about anything goes and the wife should be agreeable.  Not surprisingly, Pastor Driscoll has a vein of misogyny that places the performance burden on women.   He also managed to disrespect his spouse, whom he uses as a foil, while crossing privacy boundaries of their relationship.
To be balanced, there are those in the Evangelical community who push back against salacious sex from the pulpit and in the bookstore, recognizing the tone as part of the self-serving, publicity mega pastor persona.

Commentators, within and outside the Evangelical community speak of a deeper objective—to bring a new generation into their churches.  Studies show that Evangelical youth engage in one form or another of sexual behavior, perhaps 80% as compared to the larger populations 88%.  And a growing 31% of youth are non-affiliated.  What would bring young people back to church—SEX.

As in all aspects of American life, sex sells.

From my perspective, the Evangelical initiatives regarding sex, dating  back to the 1980s and continuing with a new vigor today, are all something of putting “new wine into old skins,” the old skins being Bible-based theologies.  I like the following observation by a sympathetic commentator: “Evangelical sex manuals have an apologetic undercurrent that suggests that because God made it, Christians should be having better and more frequent sex than everyone else.  As two scholars who analyzed sex manuals from the early 80s put it, we are apparently ‘God’s chosen people in matters of sexuality.’”

I’ve been sketching a contemporary trend regarding Faith and Sexuality in America among the Religious Right, at least the Protestant sector—a transformed attitude toward the human condition’s sexuality.   I say Protestant sector, since the Roman Catholics have had to deal in the past few decades with wide ranging sexual abuse by their clergy.  And then, the Catholic male hierarchy sworn to celibacy and living outside a family style of life isn’t  culturally authoritative compared to married Evangelical pastors, when speaking to human sexuality/spousal concerns.

I have a strong reaction to the way the religious right looks at human sexuality.  In my estimation, it’s male focused, essentially fearful regarding both women and same-sex relationships, unrealistic as well as late to the party in our sex-saturated culture, and in its contemporary redactions, adolescent.  (I think the bed-in of the Youngs was an adolescent stunt, not to mention creepy.)

The religious right’s outlook, though representative of a significant number of cultural and practicing Christians, isn’t the only religious outlook in our culture.

Liberal Religion and Human Sexuality

There is a liberal religious presence regarding human sexuality that Unitarian Universalists have contributed to (rather significantly) and in which we continue to be a mature and thoughtful, faithful and even theological presence.  Of particular note is an advocacy organization known as the “Religious Institute: faithful voices on sexuality and religion.”  A UU ministerial colleague, Debra Haffner, founded the Religious Institute and continues to be its Director.  Here’s the perspective and aims of a faithful, progressive organization dedicated to morality and justice:

Sexuality is God's life-giving and life-fulfilling gift.  We come from diverse religious communities to recognize sexuality as central to our humanity and as integral to our spirituality.  We are speaking out against the pain, brokenness, oppression and loss of meaning that many experience about their sexuality.

Our faith traditions celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality.  We sin when this sacred gift is abused or exploited.  However, the great promise of our traditions is love, healing and restored relationships.

Our culture needs a sexual ethic focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts.  All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent and pleasure.  Grounded in respect for the body and for the vulnerability that intimacy brings, this ethic fosters physical, emotional and spiritual health.  It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status or sexual orientation. 

God hears the cries of those who suffer from the failure of religious communities to address sexuality.  We are called today to see, hear and respond to the suffering caused by sexual abuse and violence against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons, the HIV pandemic, unsustainable population growth and over-consumption, and the commercial exploitation of sexuality.

Faith communities must therefore be truth-seeking, courageous and just.  

We call for:

·        Theological reflection that integrates the wisdom of excluded, often silenced peoples, and insights about sexuality from medicine, social science, the arts and humanities.
·        Full inclusion of women and LGBT persons in congregational life, including their ordination and marriage equality.
·        Sexuality counseling and education throughout the lifespan from trained religious leaders.
·        Support for those who challenge sexual oppression and who work for justice within their congregations and denominations.
·        Faith communities must also advocate for sexual and spiritual wholeness in society.  We call for:
·        Lifelong, age-appropriate sexuality education in schools, seminaries and community settings.
·        A faith-based commitment to sexual and reproductive rights, including access to voluntary contraception, abortion, and HIV/STI prevention and treatment.
·        Religious leadership in movements to end sexual and social injustice.
God rejoices when we celebrate our sexuality with holiness and integrity.  We, the undersigned, invite our colleagues and faith communities to join us in promoting sexual morality, justice, and healing.

If you remember my remarks last Sunday about UU’ism becoming a religious movement beyond the walls of our local societies, Debra Haffner and her Religious Institute is an apt example.  Her organization’s purposes mirror our movement’s evolving understanding of the human condition as it pertains to sexuality, while seeking a coalition with a larger liberal religious community.  (For example one of my colleagues on the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Larry Greenfield, a prominent American Baptist minister/theologian, co-founded the Religious Institute with Haffner.)

Unitarian Universalism’s Attitude Regarding Human Sexuality.

The history of Unitarianism and human sexuality chronicles several important, evolving foci.

As early as 1930 Unitarians advocated birth control.  At the 1930 Annual Meeting of the AUA, the following resolution was passed unanimously:  “[For individuals and congregations to affirm] the fundamental social, economic and eugenic importance of birth control, to the end that they may support all reasonable efforts in their communities for the promotion of the birth control movement.”  Remember that access to contraceptives, as a privacy issue, wasn’t confirmed by the Supreme Court until the mid-1960s.  Unitarians and UU after 1961 have had an informal alliance with Planned Parenthood regarding contraception, sexual education, access to services, and reproductive choice and health dating to Planned Parenthood’s origins and Margaret Sanger’s advocacy.

In the 1960s and 70s Unitarianism was transformed by 2nd Wave Feminism with its spectrum of concerns to raise the so-called second sex to a cultural equality between the sexes.  Included in those concerns were the fundamental privacy issues of contraception that included abortion.

As an association, the UUA supported and continued to support the legalization of abortion as established in the 1973 Supreme Court Case, Roe v. Wade.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, UUs were prominent in advocacy of the broad rights of the LGBT, Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender community.  In the 21st century, that advocacy has embraced the notion of same sex marriage.

One of the greatest contributions our liberal religious movement has made to the larger culture regarding human sexuality involves age-appropriate, value rich, and medically accurate Sex Ed.   In the 1970s the UUA created a program for teens known as AYS, About Your Sexuality. It became a rite-of-passage for our youth, an acknowledgement that they had passed a threshold toward adulthood.   Now the curriculum, OWL or Our Whole Lives, while still having a major component meant for adolescents, teaches human sexuality from the earliest childhood years through the elder years.  The creation of this curriculum was a major undertaking and was accomplished in partnership with the United Church of Christ, generally considered as within the liberal Protestant faith group.

I’m proud of our rich and evolving UU perspectives on human sexuality.  We are sexual creatures, perhaps foremost; and a philosophy of life or a theology that doesn’t realistically incorporate that into its notions of meaning and happiness is deficient. 

Very Recent Events

It’s been fascinating, relative to my theme, this past week or so to note how reproductive choice and health have played out in the political/cultural wars that continue as our cultural SHADOW. 

First there was Susan G. Komen for the Cure flap when the organization attempted to defund a standing contribution to the Planned Parenthood Foundation of America for breast exams for women who couldn’t otherwise afford one.  The consensus indicates that an operative of the religious right, a vice president of  Komen for the Cure, initiated the defunding.  (She’s since resigned.)  But the national support for Planned Parenthood was remarkable.

Now there’s an even more recent flap regarding the Obama administration’s proposed rule that all employers, including religious institutions such as hospitals and universities, including, yes, the Catholic Church, to provide health insurance that includes contraception coverage.  The Catholic push back on this has resulted in a significant brouhaha about the foundational American right of religious freedom, along with the role of religion on public policy.

How we deal with sexuality as UU’s is one of the complex of reasons that makes me so glad to be a UU.

I’m going to recast Debra Haffner’s Religious Institute’s words just a little in closing:

Sexuality is a life-giving and life-fulfilling gift.  We … recognize sexuality as central to our humanity and as integral to our spirituality.  We are speaking out against the pain, brokenness, oppression and loss of meaning that many experience about their sexuality.

Our faith tradition celebrates the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality. We figuratively sin—miss the mark of our humanity-- when this sacred gift is abused or exploited.  However, the great promise of our tradition is love, healing, and restored relationships.