On Wednesday, several religious leaders are launching a new campaign to reorient the conversation around religion and sexuality. Specifically, the coalition of faith groups is interested in speaking up in favor of abortion rights, contraception access, and comprehensive sex ed. They’re encouraging their fellow religious Americans to join them.
At a press conference on Wednesday morning, representatives from several faith traditions will join with advocates from secular reproductive justice groups to kick off “It’s Time To Talk,” an effort to model a new way forward on these issues.
A religious call for reproductive rights may seem like a contradiction. Many Americans assume that these issues are always in conflict with faith, particularly when it comes to Christianity. But Rev. Harry Knox, the president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), doesn’t think that’s true.
“Part of the conversation is not getting out there in this country,” Knox explained in an interview with ThinkProgress. “For too long, the extreme Religious Right has dominated the public conversation about religion and sexuality. But the truth is that most people of faith, like the majority of Americans overall, support access to contraception, comprehensive sexuality education, and reproductive health care — including abortion.”
Indeed, the majority of religious groups don’t actually support overturning Roe v. Wade. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, many religious Americans are able to separate their own beliefs from other women’s bodily autonomy — so even though they’re personally opposed to abortion, they don’t want to make the medical procedure unavailable. Some faith traditions officially recognize a woman’s right to choose. And some churches even teach sex ed on Sunday mornings.
Knox explained that he’s served as a pastor to many people who have sought counsel for decisions related to reproductive health, and strongly believes that faith leaders have an important role in supporting these people through their journeys. Knox also sees an opportunity for religious communities to foster environments that promote sexual health and fulfilling relationships.
“We hold this view not in spite of our faith, but because of our faith,” Knox said in reference to the wide range of faith leaders who have joined him at RCRC. “When we talk about these issues, we don’t talk about them from a place of shame and judgment. We talk about them from a place of community building, care, compassion, and support for each other. Wrestling with those difficult issues out loud, with other people of faith, within your own family or within your faith family, will empower a more sexually healthy atmosphere.”
There’s actually a long history of faith leaders standing up for reproductive health and safety in this way. Before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion across the country, a group called the Clergy Consultation Service formed to help refer women to safe abortion options. The estimated 1400 pastors and rabbis involved in that group believed it was their ethical responsibility to help women exercise control over their bodies and avert medically risky situations. And they ultimately helped pave the way for changing societal attitudes about the need for legal abortion.
But now, as states have passed record-breaking numbers of restrictions on abortion and family planning, Knox is worried that one very narrow religious view of abortion and sexuality is increasingly being enshrined into law. Fittingly, RCRC timed the launch of its new campaign right as the House of Representatives passed a national anti-abortion bill that would disproportionately impact low-income Americans and communities of color. And over the past year, state lawmakers have rushed through abortion restrictions in the middle of the night, churches have filed lawsuits over their right to deny birth control coverage, and public figures have repeatedly cloaked their language about restricting women’s rights in religious imagery.
“It’s Time To Talk” hopes to start slowly shifting this dynamic. The campaign encourages religious Americans across the country to take a pledge to help change the conversation. The pledge involves committing to take action when religion is used “as a tool of judgment and shame rather than a positive force for compassion, force, and healing.” It also includes a call to model a different kind of conversation about faith, abortion, sexuality, and justice — encouraging a respectful dialogue that’s often lacking in this space.
At least, that’s the long-term goal. But RCRC has some short-term goals, too: the group wants to create an alternative religious presence in situations when reproductive rights are under attack. This past fall, when a 20-week abortion ban was up for vote in Albuquerque, religious leaders spoke out against the proposed restriction on behalf of RCRC. Later this year, the coalition plans to peacefully protest in front of the Supreme Court while the justices hear a controversial case brought forth by for-profit companies who claim providing birth control coverage violates their religious beliefs. Faith leaders are planning to convene in Texas, Tennessee, and Colorado to speak out against harmful state legislation.
“Our campaign is very much based on the idea that compassion begins at home,” Knox explained. “We should be thinking first about our own family circles, our own congregations, our own communities, and then building out from there to state and national political levels.”