Sex, secularism, and religious influence in U.S. politics

To promote gender equality, feminist alliance politics in the U.S. needs to challenge Protestant hegemony in both its religious and secular guises, while recognizing religious diversity both among and within religious traditions. Anti-trafficking policies illustrate the effects of the current neoliberal/conservative consensus
Elizabeth Bernstein Janet R. Jakobsen
25 August 2010

Since at least 1980, the United States has been dominated by a political coalition in which conservative evangelical Protestants have played an important role. This coalition has typically operated within the framework of the Republican Party and has led to a pronounced conservatism in U.S. policy on issues of both gender and sexuality. As a result, much of the attention of progressive political critiques is devoted to the influence of the Christian Right on American politics. As we argue below, however, American secular politics includes gender and sexual conservatism that, while better than the intense conservatism promoted by the Christian Right, has also combined with neoliberal imperatives in support of policies that are punitive toward women and that undercut possibilities for true gender equality. Even for those proponents of neoliberalism who would not recognize themselves as religious and who would support an idea of the market as an amoral mechanism of economic distribution, U.S. secular politics carries with it a set of Protestant assumptions, including assumptions about gender and sexuality, that are shared by actors across the political spectrum.

These Protestant assumptions include the elevation of monogamous heterosexual marriage to a moral ideal and a focus on the market as a moral force. The Protestant Reformation promoted marriage to an ideal in contrast with the Catholic ideal of celibacy, and Charles Taylor has argued in Commonweal that the Counter-Reformation intensified the Catholic focus on sex as a major site of moral regulation. The ties between Protestantism and the market have long been documented, perhaps most famously by Max Weber, and in the United States they have intertwined with an extreme embrace of Protestant individualism as the marker of moral subjectivity. There are, of course, variations amongst Protestantisms, and among Protestants, Catholics, Jews and other adherents to the supposed “Judeo-Christian” heritage of the United States, but in terms of public policy the presumptions that dominate are those of individualism, marriage and the market. Tracy Fessenden has traced the development of this presumption in American culture from Puritan ideas of God-given dominion over the Native Americans to a larger project of “equating American Protestantism with American culture,” such that “those religious sensibilities that do not shade invisibly into ‘American sensibilities’ fail to command our attention as foundational to our national culture, while those that do shade imperceptibly into American sensibilities fail to command our attention as religious”. In this sense, U.S. politics, when secular, represents a hegemonically Protestant version of secularism. This hegemony means that when different actors are brought into the mainstream of U.S. public discourse, the connecting points tend to be those that emphasize similarity to the dominant Protestant heritage. So, for example, U.S. Catholicism is most publicly identified with the sexually conservative aspect of Pope John Paul II’s program for valuing “life,” while concern for the poor or opposition to the death penalty are rarely mentioned. Moreover, it is the alliance between Christian influence and conservative secular politics that has empowered the participants in this coalition over the past several decades. To focus on either religious or secular influences alone would be to miss the relational dynamics that have promoted conservative power.

The election of President Obama in 2008 fractured the Republican coalition, including the alliance with the Christian Right, and opened the door to a new alliance between the Democratic Party and ‘new evangelical’ Christians who identify as politically moderate or progressive. Overall, the 2008 elections made visible a shifting landscape both within and among politically organised Christian groups and in alliances between Christian and secular activists. For the past few years, new alliances driven by political allegiances around gender and sexuality have formed among religious groups that were previously divided, including conservative Catholics and Mormons in the campaign for California’s Proposition 8 against gay marriage, as well as in international policy circles among conservative Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims. As these religious connections have grown, the connections between Protestant evangelicals and the Republican Party have frayed, while the Democratic Party has taken up more openly Christian rhetoric. The development of a primarily libertarian Tea Party movement that is heavily engaged with the Republican Party has further complicated the role of Christianity in US political alliances. Sarah Palin, widely admired by adherents to the Tea Party, brings her brand of conservative Christianity into the public sphere, while other evangelicals, like the more moderate Richard Cizik, see the Tea Party’s libertarianism as definitively secular. Despite these shifting alliances, the Protestant presumption of American politics has remained intact and with it Protestant visions of gender and sexuality.

Alliances between Christian and secular politics – often organized around the politically potent combination of race, gender and sexuality – have long been the key to success in US politics. In the 1970s, Republicans formed a new working alliance that has been ascendant since the election of Ronald Reagan. This is the alliance between predominantly religious ‘social conservatives’ and predominantly secular ‘fiscal conservatives’ in the Republican Party. The ‘New Right’, as it was initially called, was characterised by the racially divisive “southern strategy” in combination with the emergence of culturally and politically powerful organizations such as the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and Focus on the Family, whose influence on behalf of Republican party politics would burgeon over the course of the next few decades.

As this alliance shifts in the current moment, the role of gender and sexuality as a “wedge” issue is also shifting. Although liberals, moderates, and some self-described conservative evangelicals are moving away from a direct focus on gender and sexuality (via staunch opposition to gay marriage and reproductive rights), the new issues of the day can also return gender and sexuality to the political center via other routes. In particular, the political right has recently been promoting anti-immigrant sentiment through a focus on the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, which grants citizenship to any child born within the borders of the United States. With a rhetoric that is reminiscent of the “welfare reform” debates of the mid-1990s and its focus on teenage girls who supposedly had babies simply to secure welfare payments, the Right is currently focusing hyperbolically on the supposed threat of immigrants having babies in a plot to “anchor” citizenship rights for entire families.

In all of these alliances and in the rhetoric that supports them, religious positions that depart from the dominant Protestant vision of appropriate gender and sexuality become invisible. The range of religious positions on these issues is rarely mentioned in political debate, and the very meaning of ‘religion’ comes to be conservative. For example, in the run up to the 2008 Presidential election, Barack Obama found it to be politically imperative to voice his own opposition to gay marriage on religious grounds, despite the fact that the denomination of his church prior to the election, the United Church of Christ, officially supports gay rights, including marriage. Meanwhile in the debate over immigration, even conservative Catholicism has become a scapegoat because a rhetoric of large Catholic families can be used to distinguish Latinos from their Anglo and Protestant neighbors.

To illustrate the ways in which a conservative vision of gender and sexuality continues to drive U.S. policies amongst shifting alliances, we can follow the development of anti-trafficking policy from the election of George W. Bush in 2000 through the current Obama Administration. A number of aspects of anti-trafficking policy make it particularly useful for a consideration of the influence of religion on the politics of gender equality. It provides a clear example of the way in which alliances between explicitly religious and secular parties drive U.S. policy – in this case between evangelical Christian NGOs (both conservative and moderate) and secular feminists. This case also shows how effective alliances in U.S. politics are often enabled by underlying assumptions that are shared by parties that might otherwise be found on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Moreover, trafficking has become one of the most important sites for the politics of gender and sexuality in the last decade. Trafficking was identified by the Bush Administration as its major focus for gender policy and has been a central focus of the work of the current Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

As a result of the coordinated efforts of evangelical Christians, abolitionist feminists, and bipartisan government officials, human trafficking, something previously of concern only to relatively small numbers of committed feminists, has come to occupy the center of an ever-spiraling array of faith-based and secular activist agendas, human rights initiatives and legal instruments. Given that feminist political influence around this issue has been enabled by a partnership with conservative Christians as well as with bipartisan state actors, it is important to consider the expanding range of ideological commitments that these various groups have come to share.

An examination of government-funded evangelical and secular feminist anti-trafficking efforts, and both groups’ pursuit of avowedly pro-business social remedies, reveals the political limitations of secular, as well as faith-based variants of the so-called “modern-day abolitionist” cause. For example, the International Justice Mission has been at the forefront of recent media-friendly, government-funded evangelical anti-trafficking interventions. In the criminal justice oriented model of activism that the organization has patented, male employees of the organization go undercover as potential clients to investigate brothels, partnering with local law enforcement to rescue underage and supposedly unwilling brothel occupants and to deliver them to state-sponsored or faith-based rehabilitation facilities. Although the organization’s operations have attracted some controversy (as in Cambodia, where the rescued women escaped from the rehabilitation facility by knotting bed sheets together in order to return to the brothels from which they had been ‘liberated’) the undercover and mass-mediated model of activism that IJM propounds has become the emulated standard for evangelical Christian and even some secular feminist organizations.

Significantly, many new-abolitionist evangelical anti-trafficking activists reveal a set of political commitments that connects conservative Christians’ sexual worldviews to a secular neoliberal agenda. In the succinct words of one IJM staff member who described IJM’s successful transformation of Cambodia’s Svay Pak (a district formerly known for child prostitution) into ‘a nice tourist town’, ‘Our real goal is to bring people out of slavery into the free market’. This view is also manifest via the practices of a growing number of Christian humanitarian organizations that orient former prostitutes towards entry-level jobs in the service economy, teaching women to bake muffins for Starbucks and to prepare Western-style drinks and food. Evangelical as well as secular feminist groups have increasingly committed themselves to this approach, no longer framing the problem of human trafficking in terms of broader dynamics of globalization, gendered labor, and migration, but rather as a humanitarian issue that global capitalists can help combat. For modern-day abolitionists, campaigns against sex trafficking effectively locate contemporary injustice and social harm outside the institutions of corporate capitalism, the state apparatus, and the nuclear family.

The Protestant vision of marriage and the market as ultimate values, which underlies the faith/feminist alliance that has guided current anti-trafficking efforts, raises questions about the best means of accomplishing gender equality. For example: Is reliance upon the criminal justice system and corporations the best way to address the multivalent social causes of ‘trafficking’ as a social problem and gendered issue? These questions shift the focus away from the singular question of whether religious influence is dangerous to gender equality, to a focus on questions about both the specific frameworks promoted by religious groups and the often contradictory effects of such influence. In the case of anti-trafficking policies, these effects include, on the one hand, the elevation of this issue to greater political and cultural prominence, as well as the rescue of at least some individuals who are grateful for these groups’ efforts. On the other hand, the effects of these interventions have also included the increased criminalization of local sex workers and other members of the street-based economy who work consensually, the deportation (and often subsequent arrest) of migrant sex workers who are captured in anti-trafficking raids, and, even for officially certified trafficking victims, the funneling of survivors into dead-end, minimum wage jobs which increases the likelihood that they will pursue similarly risky employment strategies in the future.

An alternative feminist approach to human trafficking that is distinct from what either the major secular or religious actors have thus far proposed would shift the focus to the structural conditions that propel people of all genders to engage in risky patterns of migration and diverse forms of exploitative employment. Of necessity, it would also entail a critical interrogation of the trademark policies of neoliberal globalization—such as linkages between international debt and lending guidelines, price fluctuations in global commodity markets, and economic development policies--which encourage indebted nations to respond to economic crises and to enhance local cash flow through migrant workers’ remittances.

Because alliances play such an important role in U.S. politics, we further suggest that a crucial question for progress toward gender equality will be the effectiveness and form of alliances formed by feminist advocates. In hoping to promote gender equality, feminist alliance politics would need to challenge Protestant dominance in both its religious and secular guises, while recognizing religious diversity both among and within religious traditions, including Protestantism.



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