U.S. Religions Quietly Launch a Sexual Revolution

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A religious think tank has issued a manifesto about breaking the silence in religious communities about a host of sexuality issues. It hasn't stirred much media attention, but Frederick Clarkson thinks it could be revolutionary.

Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

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Frederick Clarkson (WOMENSENEWS)--The Religious Institute has just issued a 46-page report on the state of sexuality in religious communities and a manifesto that seeks to transform the status quo.

Goals include improved pastoral care of marital relationships, domestic abuse and infertility, and training for prospective clergy in sexuality-related matters.

The institute calls for religious leaders to provide lifelong age-appropriate education for youth and adults and to become more effective advocates for comprehensive sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health in society.

Clergy are often first responders in matters of domestic violence and potential (and actual) suicides by young people struggling with sexual identity. The Religious Institute points out that these first responders have usually received little to no training for the job.

A singular strength of the document is that it offers an uncompromised progressive vision that does not conform to recent fashions in seeking "common ground" with conservative evangelicals and Catholics.

Particularly striking in this regard is its call for a society in which there is full access to reproductive health care, including abortion, marriage equality and full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the life of religious communities.

Since it was announced two weeks ago, the report, "Sexuality and Religion 2020: Goals for the Next Decade," has generated little media attention beyond a few regional newspapers and online news sites.

Sometimes, this is the quiet way revolutions begin.

Manifesto Seen as Subversive

Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., immediately responded to the manifesto on his blog. He saw it as "evidence of the continued subversion of biblical authority and confessional integrity that characterizes the revolt against orthodoxy in so many churches."

Nevertheless, he acknowledged: "Our pews are filled with people worried about their sexuality, wondering how to understand these things, struggling with same-sex attractions, tempted to stray from their marriages, enticed by Internet pornography and wondering how to bring their sexuality under submission to Christ."

And while he thinks evangelicals "will rightly reject just about everything" in the Religious Institute's report, he did conclude that "they should not avoid its urgency in calling pastors and Christian leaders to teach and preach about sex and sexuality."

Indeed, he seems to be worried about the competition. "The Religious Institute wants liberal preachers to talk more about sex. My guess is that they will. But what about evangelical pastors?"

Rare Experience Spawns Effort

The Religious Institute, based in Westport, Conn., has a national network of more than 5,000 clergy and religious leaders from 50 religious traditions, from which they seek to build an activist Faithful Voices Network to take their agenda forward.

Rev. Debra Haffner, founder of the Religious Institute, brings a unique background to the effort.

After several years as executive director of SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States), the nation's leading association of sex educators, she attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City, became a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Association, headquartered in Boston, and founded the Religious Institute. Her mission: to break the silences and transform the conversation about sexuality.

The report grew out of a consultation held by the Religious Institute last summer with two dozen theologians, activists, clergy and academics from Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Unitarian Universalist traditions. They sought to envision how in 10 years "all faith communities will be sexually healthy, just and prophetic."

The report also summarizes dramatic progress in the past 10 years.

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