“Junk Religion”: White House Fills Remaining Faith-Based Slots

Today was one of those days when the tenuous thread that binds me to a religious identity was further frayed. It is not easy being a feminist and a Catholic. In fact it is not easy being a feminist and a member of any institutional religion. No matter what modest advances have been made within faith groups on overcoming religion’s historic antipathy to women and our sexuality, the fact remains that the religious world is one in which women are still woefully undervalued and represented and where the gender lens and commitments to women’s well being made in the larger world are still ignored. And when that larger world, particularly the political world engages with religion, it is almost always prepared to ignore religion’s failure to meet even the lowest standard of respect for women’s rights.

Today’s disappointment was the White House announcement of the full President’s Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Fifteen members had been previously appointed. Ten new names were released today. Among the 25 members are six representatives of non-religious, community based organizations. The only Hindu member of the Council and the second Muslim appointed, both women, are in this category. In fact, were it not for the women representing secular organizations (four of the six secular members of the Council are women) the gender distribution would be grotesquely unbalanced.

Perhaps one of the reasons to include community groups is because there are so few women leaders in religion that the White House considers suitable representatives of faith.

But the main purpose of this Council is to establish a formal link between religion and state. It seeks religion it believes can be a partner in the mainstream process of governance—exactly the kind of religion I want to change. It is of course, unreasonable for me to expect that any administration would seek to partner with my brand of religion. But it is still disappointing when I see not a single person like me on the White House Council. OK, it is a little egocentric, I confess, but I am not alone. And changing what is wrong with religion is important. It’s another reason why people like me—feminists—are for separation of church and state. We always lose when the two get together.

Nineteen members of the Council represent religious organizations. Not one of the organizations they represent has played a strong role in reforming religion; in fact they have defended themselves against internal reform. There is not a single academic theologian in the batch. Thinkers are sorely absent. The majority of the men representing religious organizations who have been named to the Council either personally or institutionally represent the most conservative religious thought on women’s nature, identity and reproductive choice. Of course, views on reproductive choice are not the only issue—and certainly not the most important issue—facing the Council.

In fact, under the Bush administration the views of Council members on these issues were largely irrelevant. President Obama has made these views important as a substantial part of the Council’s mission relates to women’s role and sexual and reproductive rights. The Council will deal with reducing the need for abortion; preventing unintended pregnancy, and the role of fathers (one cannot deal with the role of fathers without dealing with the role of mothers). Additionally the Council has a mandate to support women and children. Male clerics deciding how women should be supported has some shortcomings.

Why, I ask, am I faced once again with the task of calling attention to abortion, to women, and to reproduction in an administration that has in almost all areas and departments taken strong stands in favor of women’s rights, empowerment and reproductive health? And why bother? The Administration received ample suggestions from the women’s community. We submitted many names of religious and community leaders who would balance out the over-representation of male evangelicals that dominated the first religious appointments. We were largely ignored. The final list makes clear that other groups lobbied as well. The Catholic bishops got a seat at the table. Orthodox Judaism, the National Council of Churches. Establishment lobbyists prevailed. Not all appointments were problematic.

The National Council of Jewish Women’s president Nancy Ratzen, a committed advocate of women’s rights and reproductive choice assumes a heavy burden on the Council. She is joined by two other women who represent religious institutions that are prochoice: Sharon Watkins of the Disciples of Christ and Peg Chemberlin, a Moravian clergywoman. Bishop Vashti MacKenzie, the other religious woman representative is a member of the African Methodist Episcopal church, which is opposed to abortion rights—although the Bishop has not been outspoken on this issue and is a supporter of women’s leadership. Of the men who represent religious institutions only Rabbi David Saperstein and Rev. Harry Knox are known to support women’s rights and sexual and reproductive freedom.

That leaves a majority of religious leaders on the Council who are likely to lead the nation down a road in which respect for women’s rights will be as absent from their recommendations for government policy and funding as they are in the religious institutions they represent.

For me, and for many feminists, President Obama’s Council on Faith based and Neighborhood Partnerships will be about as respected as President Bush’s Council on Bio-ethics. As with that Advisory group, the majority presence will drown out the minority and in this case, it will not be junk science that prevails but junk religion. I am so sorry that I have to draw this conclusion.