On Health and Rights, What Happened to the Churches?

In a pair of blog postings last week, Dan Savage, a sex columnist based in Seattle, assigns the blame to negligent teachers and school administrators, bullying classmates and “hate groups that warp some young minds and torment others.”

“There are accomplices out there,” he wrote Saturday. In an interview, Mr. Savage, who is gay, said he was particularly irate at religious leaders who used “antigay rhetoric.”

“The problem is that kids are being exposed to this rhetoric, and then they go to the school and there’s this gay kid,” he said. “And how are they going to treat this gay kid who they’ve been told is trying to destroy their family? They’re going to abuse him.”

Statements like these from a recent New York Times article break my heart.  Break my heart because they are true and break my heart because I grew up religious.  But not the kind of religious Savage is referring to.  I grew up in liberal religion.

My parents insisted that I go to religious education classes at my congregation through seventh grade.  After that, I was free to decide whether I wanted to continue or not.  Why seventh grade you ask? Because that’s when they did the sex education class.  A few weeks before that dreaded first Sunday school class, my parents gave me a book, Ruth Bell’s Changing Bodies, Changing Lives. They didn’t say much. They just said that it was the book that went with “the class.” And you know what was in that book? What was in that class? Frank and straightforward discussions of things like sexuality, sex, homosexuality, gender, relationships, power, masturbation, abortion, and contraceptives.

I remember walking in a little late one Sunday to “the class.” An adult member of the congregation was visiting and the group was having conversation about homosexuality. At some point, I made a brilliant comment to the effect that you could always tell when someone was gay. The visitor said, kindly and pointedly, “well, could you tell that I’m gay?” My face turned bright red. I was never late to this church class again.

Church was the place I first heard the word feminism.  Church was the place I first practiced putting a condom on a banana.  It was the place where I had openly gay and lesbian adult mentors and ministers.  The congregation my father grew up in gave the local Planned Parenthood their first home.  My first minister was a member of the Clergy Consultation Service, a network of liberal clergy that referred women to safe abortion providers in the days before Roe versus Wade. But sadly, liberal religion has, in the past 50 years, waned in power and influence compared to conservative religion.   And then I think about “Louise.”

A few years ago, I attended my first abortion provider conference. Louise is a real veteran of the abortion providing community, running clinics in the South for many years.  I introduced myself to her as a theological students pursuing liberal religious ministry.  She smiled and said “Wonderful! You know, I consider what I do a ministry.  What happened to the churches? They used to be so much more helpful….”

What happened to the churches? I didn’t know exactly what to say to her, as I stood there sad and ashamed that she even needed to ask such a question.   There are a lot of reasons and people far more qualified than I will explain liberal religion’s decline, can explain to Louise “what happened to the churches.”  But this is, roughly, how I put it:

Liberal religions (particularly Protestants) feel guilty and ashamed on an institutional and cultural level.  Between the mid 19th and mid 20th century, liberal religion was at its apex. It lauded the possibility of human potential, placed science and empirical method right next to (if not above) Scripture, believed that human civilization was evolving morally and civically. Advances in science and medicine fueled and confirmed this hope and hubris.  Then the World Wars happened. The Holocaust happened, aided and abetted by liberal institutions, included liberal churches in Europe, governments, and academia.  Maybe evil really did exist in this world, maybe human beings were not so great after all.  Maybe the growth of liberal thought not only coincided with great democratic and medical advances, but also with brutal colonial and imperial endeavors; brutal injustices like Tuskegee Experiments and the recently revealed syphilis experiments in Guatemala.   Maybe liberalism was not as perfect and wonderful as we thought…..

I am one month into my first congregational ministry job. The day after Bill Harrison died, I  preached my first sermon to the congregation.  I met Bill at that same conference where I met Louise.  As a theological student, I was not quite sure what I was doing at that conference.  But when I introduced myself to Bill, he did not miss a beat—he seemed to understand why I was there.  He began telling me about the talks he had given at his local liberal congregation.  Louise and Bill got what I was doing even though I did not.

In my first sermon, I used the word trust 21 times; bodies 11; sex/uality 7; Love 7; Abortion 6; Life 6; Tiller 5.  It was well received and well liked.  A congregant sent me an email shortly after, expressing interest in organizing a video clip for Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” YouTube Project, showing how there are religious communities out there that welcome and even ordain gay and queer folks.

There was a time in this country when liberal religion gave progressive movements moral, ethical, spiritual, and religious grounding.  Liberal religion has funded, distributed, and taught what is widely regarded as the best comprehensive sexuality program out there—something we are still struggling to accomplish in the secular sphere. When I talk and teach about abortion, about why we need to support later-abortion and the people who provide them, I can do it because I was raised in a tradition that gave me an ethical and spiritual foundation to address such moral and emotional complexity.  My prayer is that liberal religion can once provide sanctuary to progressives fighting the good and hard fights—that we can provide moral and spiritual sanctuary to the gay and queer youths, to abortion providers, and to all those whose lives and work are grounded in radical compassion, justice, and love.

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  • arekushieru

    TW, I’m sure you’ve heard of organizations such as Faith Aloud, which is headed by a Baptist Reverend as executive director and a Unitarian Universalist (like myself) minister as President, Catholics for Choice and the Unitarian Universalist organization, Our Whole Lives.  These are all GREAT organizations for promoting feminism in religion.  They may not be completely visible, today, but they ARE out there, if you look for them!  :D 

    And, of course, on FB there is a group called the Christian Left.  I don’t think they’re a religious organization per se, but they are great advocates, for feminism (in religion).

  • hmprescott

    Overall this is a thoughtful post but seriously — liberal protestant churches were solely to blame for the Holocaust?  What about the Pope? Or  Father Coughlin who blamed the Depression on an international Jewish conspiracy?

    Also, what about the liberal church members, white and black, who participated in the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, and other movements for social justice in the 1960s?  Liberal clergy were also active in reproductive rights:  see Tom Davis’ book _Sacred Work: Planned Parenthood and its Clergy Alliances.

  • blackplates

    Where did the writer of the post say anywhere that the holocaust was “solely the responibility”  of Protestants??? nowhere.

  • hmprescott

    This is certainly implied by using the phrase “aided and abetted by liberal institutions” and neglecting to mention conservative ones.


    My main (and more important) point was that the author implies that liberal churches abandoned progressive politics somewhere around the time of WWII, when in fact the historical record shows otherwise.

  • crowepps

    My main (and more important) point was that the author implies that liberal churches abandoned progressive politics somewhere around the time of WWII, when in fact the historical record shows otherwise.

    I didn’t see that implication in the statement, but rather that:


    WW II, the Holocaust, etc., shattered the liberal churches unwarranted assumption that in this the best of all possible worlds, their liberality and sincere faith would be an irresistible combination that would lead inevitably to continuous improvement and prevent bad things from happening in future.  Think of the formation of the League of Nations and how confident people were that there was never going to another war!  When that rosy dream evaporated in the face of reality, they became much less vocal about their beliefs, and the backlash (which should have been expected) began rolling back their gains.


    Were the liberals appalled that conservative churches facilitated the Nazi takeover?  Probably, but they weren’t really SURPRISED by that.  Conservatives churches have a long history of accommodating the power structure in order to survive.  But having LIBERAL churches betray the cause?  That wasn’t supposed to happen.  The fact that liberal churches ALSO didn’t have the courage of their convictions led people to reconsider whether liberal Christianity was ‘the tide of history’ or merely self-delusion.


    In addition, the Civil Rights movement made it clear that liberal churches had to overcome not just the inertia of society, but would have to directly confront and overcome the resistence of conservative churches that would fight them tooth and nail to prevent fellow citizens from being equal.


    Conservatives and conservative churches are STILL fighting to return to the days when churches encouraged the average person to ‘obey their betters’ and supported the elite.  Read the paper.  Social Security, public works programs, unemployment insurance, welfare supporting ‘in home’ care by mothers rather than warehousing poor children in orphanages, even public health, public education that respected parents’ religious freedom, all of those ‘liberal’ programs put into place during the high tide of liberal hope are now under attack.


    And since the ‘public face’ of Christianity as identified in the media flows from the savvy publicity agents of the conservative churches and organizations PROMOTING all of that anti-humanity, anti-freedom nastiness, Christianity itself comes across more and more as a religion that isn’t interested in improving society or helping people live better lives but rather in ‘blaming the victims’ for their troubles and then punishing them for being ‘sinful’.

  • eric-arthur-blair

    When it comes to compassion and concern, it seems to me that the only time conservative religionists offer them to anyone is before they’re born or after they’re dead. 

  • corey

    “There was a time in this country when liberal religion gave progressive movements moral, ethical, spiritual, and religious grounding.”


    Why does any “movement” need religion to teach it moral, ethical and spiritual guidance? Looking over history, more harm has come to mankind because of religion, any religion. It makes me sick to see how many conservative Christians have taken over US congress and travel the world on taxpayer’s dime to teach hatred. I suggest, instead of being concerned with what the “progressive” movement has to look find its moral, ethical and spiritual religious grounding, you start fighting off those who want to make the USA a theocracy. My first suggestion is that people join ‘Americans Unites’: http://www.AU.org, Freedom From Religion Foundation: http://www.FFRF.org, Interfaith Alliance; http://www.InterfaithAlliance.org, and/or look into the many other organizations that are generally NOT anti-religion, with many religious members and staff, who are Humanists and/or Secularists and know that ‘Separation of Church and State’ is one of the most important challenges that the USA faces due to all the Conservative Christians in positions of power in both local and national areas, not to mention school boards and other areas where they have power to rewrite the history of the USA.

  • crowepps

    Having somebody be all ‘concerned’ and ‘compassionate’ about the existence of a fetus is totally worthless when AT THE SAME TIME they cancel funding for the prenatal care that might actually prolong that existence and prevent birth defects.

  • beenthere72

    This conversation makes me wish I had watched “God in America” on PBS last night, but I was too busy watching Modern Family and Cougar Town.

  • frazere

    Liberal religion matured, it’s called atheism.

  • crowepps

    As matter of fact, I watched all three nights.  Unfortunately, the treatment was superficial, and used the current modern production method of those appearing being ‘ALL EXCITED and EMOTIONAL’ with the camera right up in their faces to try to hype up the excitement.


    I suppose it would be a good first step for people who are totally ignorant of the actual facts about our country’s history.  There is lots of access through the internet to original source documents about America’s religious history that could fill people in on the details.


    One quibble that I would have is that the series tended to cherrypick to present the ‘good’ side — lots of coverage of Billy Graham, no mention of Aimee Semple McPherson.

  • meg

    I do not believe it is justified to blame liberal religious institutions for some of the great evils in the world of recent decades. These events were accomplished by orchestrated evil, not a lauding of the possibility of human potential, the discovery of science and a love of wisdom and life. I am not willing to forget the role that liberal, intelligent American and British Christianity played in the ending of the trans-atlantic slave trade and the beginnings of early feminism. And the (unfinished) Civil Rights Movement as well. Liberal Christians of Europe can be counted among those perecuted and killed during the WWII Holocaust and its precursors. We have lost something in that this very genuine American Christianity has been much overshadowed by a very vocal and damaging “Conservtive” Christianity. I think it is the responsibility of these real Christians to help us put this “conservatism” in its place.


  • arekushieru

    I suggest, instead of being concerned with what the “progressive” movement has to look find its moral, ethical and spiritual religious grounding, you start fighting off those who want to make the USA a theocracy.

    Why not, Corey?  Even progressive, liberal religions are complicit in the gradual erosion of the rights of certain groups of people.  I am a Christian.  I absolutely believe that those who invented prejudice (which includes even those who may have just been involved on the periphery) should have most of the responsibility placed on them to take steps towards eliminating these practices of discrimination.  And I apply that to people from ALL walks of life.

  • arekushieru

    No, liberal religion is called Unitarian Universalism, Ethical Humanism, Anglican, United, Episcopalian, etc….

  • arekushieru

    Liberal religion WAS complicit, Meg, unfortunately, as Crowepps pointed out, though. 

  • hmprescott

    are on my blog:



  • prowomen

    It isn’t only religions.  According to some state Republican Party platforms, the GOP thinks gays should have fewer rights.  The Texas GOP platform says homosexuality “tears at the fabric of society, contributes to the breakdown of the family unit, and leads to the spread of dangerous, communicable diseases,” opposes same-sex marriage, child custody rights for gays, and insurance and retirement benefits for same-sex couples.

    Montana Republicans would like for gay sex to be against the law, promoting legislation “to keep homosexual acts illegal.”

  • meg

    Crowepps pointed out that liberal religion was WIMPY and ineffectual at critical times, and failed to challenge orchestrate evil. I will concede that wimpiness is a form of complicity, but it is not the same as collusion, aiding and abetting, or direct participation. Crowepps also said that “…the Civil Rights movement made it clear that liberal churches had to overcome not just the inertia of society, but would have to directly confront and overcome the resistence of conservative churches that would fight them tooth and nail to prevent fellow citizens from being equal.” Which could be interpreted to mean that at least some churches – or church members who were true believers – were up to this challenge and participated in this direct confrontation with conservative church resistance.

  • meg

    I meant to say: Crowepps pointed out that liberal religion was WIMPY and ineffectual in failing to challenge orchestrated evil at critical times.

  • crowepps

    I don’t think there is A ‘liberal religion’ or A ‘conservative religion’.  Just in the Catholic Church alone there’s a spread from the conservative Opus Dei/’let’s all mortify ourselves with whips’ to the nun who was disciplined for being a clinic escort.  The pending split in the Episcopal Church over gay officiants echoes the sundering of the various American churches during the Civil War over slavery, when Baptist became distinct from Southern Baptist.


    Particularly in America, there is a stubborn resistence to letting ‘the authorities’ dictate social doctrine to any individual church.  A pastor from a denomination whose leading lights are conservative may lead his particular congregation in a far more liberal direction and he and his congregation may be obdurant in the face of some national board trying to get them to fall into line.


    And it wasn’t just liberal churches that were disappointed by the failure of progressive ideas.  WW II was a watershed moment for many activist groups because BOTH Hilter/Nazis and Stalin/Communism demonstrated that THEIR PET THEORIES about ‘human progress’ and ‘bettering the race’ and ‘social evolution’ could all be easily corrupted through nationalism and oppression.


    It was very difficult for those progressives to choke down the stunning revelation that the idea of ‘World Government’ didn’t necessarily guarantee a BENIGN government, and that their hope that the use of psychology and social theory and modern propaganda methods could be used as ways to ‘uplift’ everyone was naive.


    It’s actually kind of hard to read some of the contemporaneous essays back at the turn of the century, or even in the 20’s after The War To End All Wars was over, to see all these bright young intellectuals so enthusiastic about how if people were just RATIONAL, and everyone accepted LOGIC and SCIENCE was honored, and these great new economic and social theories were put into place, everything would be wonderful and problems would all be solved, etc.  Doomed, all of it futile, knowing now that they wouldn’t just be disappointed by falling short but that their failure would be so crushing that many components of it would be discredited for decades.

  • arekushieru

    Which also does not mitigate any of the blame that we were discussing should be placed on them.