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Rev. Debra Haffner Headshot

Don't Call Yourself Progressive If You Don't Support Sexual Justice

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You know when marriage equality comes to Iowa that lesbian and gay equality has become a mainstream American value. Yet the Iowa court decision recognizing marriage rights for same-sex couples arrived the very week that new articles appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Post and U.S. News and World Report about which religious leaders in America can claim the progressive mantle. Sexual justice, the area in which I focus my ministry, seems to be the clear dividing line.

Let me be clear: You cannot call yourself a religious progressive if you don't support full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens, if you don't support women's moral agency regarding abortion, or if you don't support comprehensive sexuality education that gives our young people the life-saving information they need. But you won't hear certain self-described "progressive religious leaders" standing up or speaking out for these issues.

The growing rift between the religious left and religious progressives, which Dan Gilgoff explores in U.S. News, has been brewing for a while, and sexuality is at the heart of it. Many religious leaders who call themselves progressive believe there is much common ground to be found with conservative evangelicals. I agree, when the issues are poverty, immigration, Iraq and climate change. But they also contend (naively, in my view) that there is common ground on sexuality issues, such as abortion and LGBT rights, that will bring about what Newsweek terms "a ceasefire in the culture wars."

For instance, there are evangelical and Catholic leaders, and those who court them, who insist that the Obama Administration is promoting an "abortion reduction" strategy. This misrepresents the administration's commitment to reducing unintended pregnancies and the need for abortion, as clearly stated on the White House web site. This may sound like semantics, but there is a large, pragmatic gap between "abortion reduction" and "reducing the need for abortion," and therein lies the controversy.

"Abortion reduction" is promoted by those who support restricting abortion access, through such measures as parental notification, waiting periods and mandatory sonogram laws, or by making it illegal outright. No true progressive would advocate any strategy to make abortion services more difficult to obtain. For progressives, reducing the need for abortion means comprehensive sexuality education, family planning and contraceptive services to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy. Yet conservatives insist on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and argue that many common means of contraception are abortifacients.

Those advocating a centrist position are even more reticent on matters of LGBT equality, although that too is increasingly a mainstream position. A Newsweek poll last year found that 87% of Americans believe in equal rights for lesbian and gay Americans in terms of job opportunities. That same poll, and others, demonstrated majority support for legalized same-sex partnerships (marriage or civil unions), adoption rights and military service for openly lesbian and gay citizens. How can any self-described progressive religious leader not be a vocal advocate of such positions?

I have fought for sexual justice my entire life. It is a progressive value I hold dear. So I say to my colleagues across the religious spectrum: Join me in supporting sexual justice, or stop calling yourself progressive.

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