Overcoming Religiophobia


The Rev. Debra W. Haffner is the Director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing.

I went into the ministry following a 25-year career as a sexologist. People are often surprised when I introduce myself as a minister and as a sexologist. But I believe that our sexuality and our spirituality are intimately connected, and that at its foundation, my work in the sexual and reproductive health field, and now my work as a minister, share a common moral vision – to teach people how to treat each other with love, dignity, and respect.

People in the SRH field come to work each day because of our values and because we want to make a difference. In theological terms, we are called to tikkun olam, to save the world – to heal the brokenness that so many suffer around unintended pregnancies, coerced and exploitive sexual experiences, attacks on bodily integrity, soul-numbing denial of one's sexual or gender identity, violence against women and sexual minorities, and children who are not loved or wanted. We believe that injustice and suffering in the world are intolerable and that the work we do empowering people to make and live healthy decisions about their sexuality and reproductive health makes a difference.

But too many SRH organizations are characterized by what I have labeled "religiophobia": a fear of religion, which translates into a reluctance to engage faith communities in their work or to directly address moral values. Many of us are bone weary of the religious right and on a personal level turned off by organized religion. Yet faith communities can be important partners in SRH. Readers of this blog may request a complimentary copy of our new booklet, "Reaching Out to Faith Communities: A Guide for Sexual and Reproductive Health Organizations" that provides practical, concrete suggestions for engaging faith communities.

Organized religion has contributed to our cultural and often personal confusion about sexuality. Many of us grew up in faith communities that taught that our sexual feelings were wrong. We may have learned that homosexuality, masturbation, premarital sex, or even pleasure is wrong. Or our religion may have simply been silent about sexuality, ignoring the intimate connection between sexuality and spirituality.

But that is changing. There is a growing movement in the United States to reclaim the authentic religious voice that affirms our sexuality as one of God's most life fulfilling and life sustaining gifts. It is a movement that is firmly based in Scripture and religious tradition.

More than 2500 clergy and theologians from more than 40 religious denominations have endorsed the Religious Declaration for Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. The Religious Declaration calls for a new paradigm for sexual morality that is not based on specific sexual acts, but on personal relationships. It calls for relationships that are loving, mutual, committed, honest, and pleasurable, and a moral ethic that accepts no double standards.

The Religious Declaration calls for sexual justice. It asks for full inclusion of women and sexual minorities in the life of the faith community. It calls for sexuality education and a faith-based commitment to sexual and reproductive rights.

These 2500 religious leaders are challenging the voice of the religious right on sexuality issues. As people of faith, we are speaking for abortion rights, for full inclusion of gays and lesbians, for faith communities free of sexual abuse and harassment, for comprehensive sexuality education, and for stem cell research.

We are challenging the so-called morality of the Religious Right, asking, "Is it moral to coerce women into carrying a pregnancy to term? Is it moral to deny young people life saving information? Is it moral to tell committed couples that they cannot marry or gays and lesbians that they are not welcome in our pulpits?"

People of faith believe that God rejoices when we celebrate our sexuality with holiness and integrity. Join with us.

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