Faith, Sex and Religious Liberty

Bill Keller’s Sunday New York Times column, “The Conscience of a Corporation,” gets to the heart of the current fuss between Hobby Lobby and the Obama Care provision that employers of 50 people and above insure contraception. Recently, the Obama administration made allowances for religiously affiliated non-profit organizations to not cover contraception – yielding to arguments from the Catholic Church, the religious lobby, and the argument that covering such costs infringes on the religious liberty of the NGO. The jump from individual religious liberty to corporate religious liberty is tied to the Supreme Court’s decision known as Citizens United, which asserts that corporations are protected by the first amendment. Hobby Lobby’s case asserts that forcing corporations to make contraception available goes against its moral conscience. So forcing it to make available the very thing it is fighting is anathema to its religious values. Hobby Lobby’s case argues that a private company falls under the same allowance made to faith-based NGOs if the owner runs his company on similar religious principles. It is not a coincidence that the very site of conflict between religious liberty and democracy has arisen regarding sexuality.

Several things to think about here, and I’d like to start at the core of the issue. It seems to me that Christianity today is without a healthy sexual ethic. Sexuality is the crux of this conversation because sexuality and sex reveal our deepest sense of self and vulnerability; our ability to love and hurt one another seems to be amplified in intimacy.  Democracy, religious liberty and sex might seem to naturally conflict when Christianity as an institution fails to adequately understand how intimacy and sex works itself out in peoples’ lives.  Sex reveals our deepest commitments and loves on the one hand, and our tragic ability to use and be used by others, on the other.  Thus when thinking through a Christian sexual ethic we must face our moral and ethical commitments about who we are as a people, how we want to be with each other, and what is more, how easily we can wound each other with our judgments about something so vulnerable and indelible to our beings.  A Christian ethic regarding how we are to be a democratic community must take this into account: the question to Hobby Lobby is how it understands this freedom of religious liberty being expressed in the world. Is it really infringing on its first amendment rights to insure morning-after contraception?  At least, a Christian sexual ethic requires an understanding of individuality, democracy and tragedy, and as such this ethic requires us to come together, engage our different ways of life and hold each other accountable to our democratic convictions.

As an institution, Christianity (evangelical, liberal, mainline protestant, and Catholic branches alike) is befuddled on how to go about talking about sex, sexual practices, let alone safe sex, GLBTQ issues, and sexual abuse. For mainline institutional religion today faith and religion means getting your head right –– adhering to a static dogma wherein religious communities are called to be examples to the world, set apart, nearly sectarian with essential moral and ethical laws guiding their ways of being.

In my view, Christianity might be better seen as a set of faith claims about this world that then direct our hearts and minds into a more healthy ethos, or way of being in a community. This “getting your head right” as I’ve dubbed it, forgets the responsibility, as Francis Greenwood Peabody has called us, to figure out the facts of the world, what the facts then mean, and what we ought to do about them.[1]  It forgets that Christianity and faith are about reconciling the reality of this world with our faith conceptions of how this world ought to be: moving the “is” to the “ought.” Part and parcel of that undertaking is broadening our understanding of human relationships to encompass all their dynamic diversity.  This interplay between how the world is, what my desires, loves, needs, hungers are, and what my faith tradition finds most life-giving, beautiful, forgiving and healing is not a one-way street in either direction. We must have a faith that is constantly in conversation with our world and the actual experiences of the people in it.

American democracy is held in the tension between the individual and the community, the “is” and the “ought.” Difference has always remained a large factor in this tension. Notions of self-reliance and creative democracy, of critical intelligence and reasoned exchange have guided the American democratic project for more than two centuries.  Christianity in America needs to reclaim this tension of a faith that swings back and forth from self to faith, from individual to community, from the “is” to the “ought” if it is to truly embrace an adequate idea of religious liberty and to uplift a deeper, more honest sexual ethic that resonates with our lives as sexual beings.

In my mind, Hobby Lobby’s fight seems to be predicated on the assumption that rights are essential instead of contingent, but this new ethic must understand that rights are rights in relation to others, and constituted through a communal conversation about who we are as a people, what we believe we ought to be, and how to get there. This does not mean moral laws, such as human dignity, are constructed; it means the manner in which we enact this truth looks different in each context. In the course of this conversation, however, Christianity has forgotten that people are beings moved by deep emotions that at points surprise us. Perhaps James Baldwin’s character, David, in Giovanni’s Room has said it best: “We do the things we do, and feel what we feel, essentially because we must – we are responsible for our actions, but we rarely understand them.”[2]  A faith that embodies this depth of understanding of the human as a loving, tragic, beautiful being has a chance to speak to people about sex, about contraception, and about how best to live together in a democracy that understands difference.  We are not talking about controlling people’s sexual lives and practices, but simply about creating a faith-based ethic of how to talk to people about their daily lives and loves; we are bringing faith back down to a democratic way of life and instilling it with hope.

The challenge, as it has always been, in creating a democracy that can uphold difference, is a challenge of expressive freedom:  we are called to recognize ourselves as relational beings, all the way down to our core.  The task of creating a religiously plural yet free public square requires me to meet you in your experience, and to engage in conversation with you on your terms (while you in turn engage me in my own and thus engage in “immanent” criticism). The task is then for us to mutually recognize, establish and hold each other accountable to our actions and commitments to others and ourselves.  This expressive sort of freedom can, but does not have to, include faith claims of similar and varying traditions. This is a faith-based ethical project that has honest thoughts about humanity as sexual, different beings, while nonetheless striving for, and always hoping for, a more democratic, loving, equal, and empowering public arena.


[1] Gary Dorrien Economy, Difference, Empire (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010) 357.

[2] James Baldwin Giovanni’s Room in James Baldwin Early Novels & Stories (New York: Library of America 1998) 668.

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