You may remember the "Compassion Forum" last April at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, where Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama spoke of their personal faith and America's response to poverty, AIDS and the environment. Unfortunately, there was little room at the Compassion Forum for women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender persons, whose issues were largely ignored. It didn't help that almost every questioner from the audience was a white male Evangelical, and the event was hosted by an institution hostile to LGBT concerns.
Now, on Saturday (Aug. 16), comes the "Saddleback Civil Forum" at Saddleback Church, the Southern California megachurch led by the Rev. Rick Warren. Rev. Warren, who will engage in separate, one-on-one conversations with Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, promises a dialogue dedicated to "civil discourse and the common good of all."
The question remains whether those of us who advocate for sexual and reproductive justice will be included in that "all." Rev. Warren is anti-choice, and he recently declined to meet with a group of gay and lesbian Christians who were visiting his church. Both the Compassion Forum and the Civil Forum made a point of addressing a social agenda that excludes sexual and reproductive justice. Rev. Warren intends to talk about "pressing issues that are bridging divides in our nation, such as poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate and human rights." Messiah College trumpeted these same concerns (in strikingly similar language) as "pressing moral issues that bridge ideological divides within our nation."
My fear is that, on Saturday, we will once again witness the politics of exclusion wrapped in the language of faith. Everyone from Newsweek to the New York Times has played up the story of how religious leaders from different points on the political spectrum have agreed to put aside the so-called "wedge issues" -- such as sexual health, reproductive rights and marriage equality -- in favor of other moral issues with broader appeal.
The problem is, while bridges can help us address certain critical problems, they create barriers for others. In marginalizing issues of sexual and reproductive justice, they marginalize millions of Americans, adults and children alike. There is no denying the numbers: One third of American girls get pregnant before age 20. At least 35 million American women have had abortions. The number of same-sex households in America is surely much higher than the 600,000 the Census Bureau officially reports. More than one million children are being raised in these households.
Sexual and reproductive issues also are directly related to economic justice. When Saturday's conversations turn to poverty, will Rev. Warren, Senator McCain or Senator Obama acknowledge the particular burden that marriage discrimination, inequitable access to reproductive health services and the lack of comprehensive sexuality education place on the poor?
I respectfully request that Rev. Warren consider asking the candidates these questions:
1. Recognizing that rates of unintended births are five times higher among low-income women, that more than half of the unwanted children in the U.S. are born into poverty, and that HIV/AIDS infections disproportionately affect poor communities and people of color, how will you ensure that all citizens, regardless of income or ethnicity, have access to affordable sexual and reproductive health services?
2. As more states move toward marriage equality or civil unions for same-sex couples, what will you do to ensure that the 1,138 federal benefits that come with marriage (including tax benefits, Social Security benefits and veterans' benefits) be made available to all legally joined couples and their families?
3. Now that a Congressional study acknowledges that abstinence-only-until marriage programs have no impact on reducing teen pregnancy, delaying sexual initiation, or reducing sexually transmitted infections, will you commit to reversing 10 years of failed investment and issuing a commitment to comprehensive sexuality education?
I recognize that Rev. Warren and the Saddleback Church are a big voice in American religion. Yet I can't help but wonder why CNN, and the campaigns themselves, have chosen once again to feature a specifically Evangelical Christian venue to discuss American moral values. Evangelical Christians speak for little more than a quarter of the people of faith in this country. America is the most religiously diverse nation in the world; no single religious voice can possibly represent all traditions.
Millions of progressive religious voters will be paying attention to the Saddleback Civil Forum on Saturday. Will our concerns get a fair hearing?