Commentator Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–Faith-based groups will compete with secular agencies for federal dollars to be spent on social services, if President Bush’s plan succeeds. Critics worry most about the church-state wall, but there’s another question: Will the health and well-being of women and children be compromised if some religious groups let their beliefs about male dominance intrude on their charity?

Some churches see the submission of women and the primacy of men as central to their theology. Preachers intone from the pulpit that the family should be based on the model of God’s relations with his flock: The father is the Godlike figure, the mother and children the disciples.

One woman I know, who belonged to a large Bible Belt congregation, said that most of her female friends had good jobs, but the minister railed, week after week, against women working. As a result, many of the women quit their jobs. In the economic downturn that followed, many of the men lost their jobs, throwing the families into economic chaos. Wrenching divorces followed.

Do I want my tax dollars going to family counseling by groups that preach a deeply sexist version of what the “proper” family should be? I do not.

The idea of government support for faith-based initiatives has disturbed even some of the president’s most ardent supporters on the Religious Right, and they are questioning its wisdom. But they are concerned that the Bush administration will not fund some of their most overtly evangelist programs or curtail their religious work, out of concern over the separation of church and state.

Their concerns confirm my worst fears:

Marvin Olasky, author of the book “Compassionate Conservativism” says he and other conservative Christians fear the secularization of their religious mission. Pat Robertson, the religious broadcaster, expressed deep misgivings that Bush’s plan could include non-Western religious groups as well as newer groups like the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church.

Intolerance of others’ views does not bode well for respect for women’s concerns.

Need to Counter the Myth of Male Superiority, Entitlement

Male dominance, when reinforced by religion, is often a factor in spousal abuse. Counselors who deal with batterers say that the men often take church doctrine that wives should obey their husbands to mean that they have divine sanction to use force to control women. Religious groups don’t condone battering, but as one man who counsels abusive men puts it, many violent men adhere to the myth of entitlement, which teaches that men are the heads of the household and that women must be subservient.

To wean men away from their abusive behavior, he says, men’s belief systems must be rebuilt to allow them to accept women as equals. I, for one, would worry that some faith-based counselors would treat men’s abuse simply as “sin” and would leave untouched the underlying dynamics at the root of much battering.

Do I want my tax dollars to support groups that believe men are superior, that wife-beating is a forgivable sin?

Perhaps women also ought to worry about faith-based groups that deal with teen-age pregnancies by preaching abstinence-only and opposing sexuality education. In fact, there’s considerable evidence to show that well-designed, medically accurate sexuality education programs do cut the incidence of teen pregnancies.

Does abstinence promotion work? Well, I went to parochial school in the fifties, when social strictures against premarital sex were at their height, where abstinence was preached daily and whiffs of hellfire were thrown in for good measure. That did not stop a number of girls from getting pregnant before graduation day.

Do I want my tax dollars used to promote a single, religion-based approach to preventing teen pregnancy, an approach that often does not work?

I would be worried that religious groups would jettison sensible programs in favor of religious ones that are ineffective. President Clinton fired Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders when she suggested, at a conference, that perhaps teen-agers should be taught to masturbate as one way to avoid teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. It was the outcry from religious groups that prompted the firing. But in fact, it is a very sensible idea for teens to be taught to experience sexual pleasure in ways that are harmless and carry no health risk.

Do I want my tax dollars going to groups that see sensible proposals like Elders’ as a return to Sodom and Gomorrah?

Conservative Groups Seek Expansion of ‘Covenant Marriage’

The position taken by some religious groups on divorce is also problematic. Louisiana and Arizona have already legalized “covenant marriage” which makes civil divorce difficult. Couples agree to waive rights to a no-fault divorce, and to wait at least two years before going to court if they do decide to divorce, except in cases of extreme behavior, such as abuse or drug addiction. Conservative groups are calling for the expansion of the concept, and bills to legalize it have cropped up in 17 states. In some parishes, ministers will not officiate at weddings for couples who do not accept this form of marriage. But such laws could damage, rather than promote the health of women and children.

Despite all the worry about the effects of divorce on children, there is a worse alternative for some families–staying together. Research tells us that when parents stay together in a high-conflict marriage, children suffer more than when parents divorce. When children have the love and support of at least one parent, they tend to do better emotionally than when they are tugged between two warring parents.

Do I want my tax dollars going to groups that believe that even bad marriages should remain intact?

The highest rates of divorce are in the Bible Belt. Why? Possibly because men and women are urged to marry very young to avoid the perceived danger of premarital sex. The result is that many couples enter marriage as very immature young adults. It is only after a number of years, and a number of children, that they realize they are totally mismatched and the marriage crumbles.

Do I want my tax dollars to fund groups that are so horrified by sex that they push kids into early marriage?

When Religious Dogma Conflicts With Patients’ Rights, Women Suffer

In the area of health care, we are already confronting conflicts between religious dogma and patients’ rights. As some Catholic hospitals take over secular ones, doctors complain that they can no longer offer such services as contraception, voluntary sterilization and some kids of fertility treatment to their female patients. Abortion is out of the question. A University of Pennsylvania study found that although emergency contraception is standard treatment for rape victims, some Catholic hospitals do not tell victims about that method unless they ask and then it may not be available.

This is not to say that all faith-based ministries should be barred from federal aid. Groups like the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and Jewish Family Services offer care without asking for conversion, and they hire professionals who know the most effective methods for dealing with family dysfunction, addiction and other social ills.

Certainly, some religious groups do wonderful work in prisons, with addicts and with kids. But if faith-based social services expand greatly with federal largesse, it will be very difficult to keep track of who’s doing what, and more important, who’s preaching what. We citizens may find ourselves subsidizing ideologies that we find personally repugnant.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.

Our Story

A special Women’s Enews feature during March.

In 1892, Ida B. Wells, editor of the small Memphis newspaper, The Free Speech and Headlight, denounced the lynching of three black grocers. Her life was threatened and the newspaper office was vandalized. Wells fled to New York, and later moved to Chicago. She continued to write, lecture and organize against allowing lynchings–mostly perpetrated by whites in the South to assert power over blacks–to go unpunished.

Wells, who married and took the name Wells-Barnett, was a leading voice in a black women’s anti-lynching movement that documented and publicized the crimes.

Mary Church Terrell, Mary B. Talbert, Jessie Daniel Ames and Mary McLeod Bethune were key organizers in the campaign. Wells-Barnett was a founder of the NAACP and active in the Negro Women’s Club movement. –Glenda Crank Holste