Progressive Revival

Timothy Palmer is the Director of Communication and Outreach at the Religious Institute: Faith Voices on Sexuality and Religion

People of faith will be conspicuous at the National Equality March in Washington this weekend.  I don’t remember hearing religious voices at my first March on Washington in 1993, so I consider this a sign of progress.  But no matter how many more of the faithful may be marching with us this year, the Church, writ large, is late to the party. 


With the exception of the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalists and the Jewish Reform and Reconstructionist movements, much of organized religion still struggles to shed its homophobic past and to liberate its sexual ethic from moralism and shame.  No wonder growing numbers of Americans find the Church irrelevant to their lives, particularly their sexual lives.


This is not to say the Church is a hopeless case.  Far from it.  As this summer’s actions at the Episcopal and Lutheran general assemblies demonstrated, our religious communities are finding their way forward on the long journey from “sexuality is sinful” to “sexuality is holy,” and from “God created sex for procreation” to “God created sex for pleasure.”  That journey requires a transformation in religious thinking, followed by a transformation in religious teaching. 


This week I attended the annual alumni gathering at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where the workshops and panels centered on the theme of “Sex and the Church.”  Marvin Ellison, professor of ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary, pointed out that much of contemporary heterosexual sex is “queer sex” in the eyes of traditionalists.  Contracepted sex, non-marital sex and casual sex challenge centuries of religious moralism, yet progressives are finding the theological grounds for defining queer sex as sinful increasingly shaky.


Ellen Armour, a feminist theologian from Vanderbilt, noted how feminist and queer theory has helped break the shackles of sexual and gender binaries (straight or gay, male or female) and opened our eyes to the diversity of sexualities and genders in the human population.  What queer people themselves have learned, though, is that even the broader array of new identities we have created – gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer – do not nearly define human experience, which can be remarkably fluid over time.  Sexuality and gender is not only diverse across humanity, but within individual lifetimes as well. 


Debra Haffner, executive director of the Religious Institute, said the attention paid to gay and lesbian issues has created space for organized religion to rethink its relationship with sexuality more broadly.  How do we break the silence surrounding sexuality in our congregations, how do we raise children to be sexually healthy and make ethical decisions, how do we recognize the connections between sexuality and spirituality? 


David Carr, a Biblical scholar at Union, concluded that “affirming human erotic connection is a central, if not the central, human vocation.” 


Religious progressives marching in D.C. this weekend are taking a stand for equality and social justice.  May their activism awaken the larger Church to its responsibility, long overdue, to shed outdated moralism and embrace humanity it all of its queer, sexual, spiritual glory. 

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