Sex & Relationships

Progressive Religious Leaders Drowned Out in Conversations About Sex

Mainstream media perpetuate the false assumption that sex and family values don't mix by only talking to conservatives about religion and sexuality.
"Are there any boundaries left in the USA or will most traditions come tumbling down?" asks self-styled moral arbiter Bill O'Reilly in an interview lumping gay marriage in California with polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs' recently released photos kissing underage girls as young as twelve. Having risen to media stardom by fueling America's obscenely profitable culture war between God-fearing traditionalists and anything-goes secularists, O'Reilly morphs into the same threat a progressive court ruling for social justice and the sexually abusive culture of a traditional family-values religion. But media blowhards with a conservative agenda are not the only ones who think that progressive sex and family values don't mix.

Since 2004, when righteous culture warriors took credit for President Bush's second term and for sweeping a Republican Congress back into power, talking heads have painted moral rot as a liberal problem and the "family values" GOP as God's cleanup crew. Embracing religion -- understood to be inherently conservative -- was to be America's saving grace.

But by framing sexual issues into questions of purity vs. perversion, or virtue vs. vice, traditional media misses the progressive religious voices that speak out for ethics, morality and faith with respect for the dignity and decisions of all families, all individuals.

"Mainstream press treats conservatives as the only authoritative religious voice," says Rev. Deborah Haffner, director of Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. "If they bring someone in from the religious right, they feel they've got religion covered."

Last spring watchdog group Media Matters for America released an unprecedented report that shattered the false moral dichotomy of today's manufactured narrative that equates values with conservatives and liberals with libertines. Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media presented a simple analysis of the imbalance of conservative and progressive religious voices by counting who showed up how much where. Combining newspapers and television, the report found conservative religious leaders quoted, mentioned or interviewed in news stories nearly three times as frequently as progressive religious leaders were. On TV news, religious conservatives appeared nearly four times as often. The result is a skewed perception that only conservatives have religion or values. "There are articulate, ready and waiting progressive religious voices not getting called," says Karl Frisch, Communications Director for Media Matters. "So if you're pro-life, you're a values voter. If you're pro-choice, you're just someone with an agenda."

The most thunderous voice for the religious right comes from President Tony Perkins of Family Research Council (FRC), a politically divisive smear machine promoting "marriage and family and the sanctity of human life in national policy." Despite the numerous global challenges to its championed three Fs -- faith, family, and freedom -- FRC wails almost entirely about progressive stands on sex-based controversies. Recently FRC, along with Concerned Women for America -- whose mission is to "bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policy" -- denounced Congress for addressing skyrocketing costs of hormonal birth control for college students and low-income women, and both are part of a campaign pushing the Bush administration for a domestic gag rule that de-funds family planning groups that even discuss abortion.

President of CWA Wendy Wright has used her Biblically based platform on national TV to shamelessly slime cultural foes, such as sexual health educators: "In fact, they want to encourage [kids to have sex]," she said on Fox News, "because they benefit when kids end up having sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancies and then they lead them into having abortions, so you have to look at the financial motives behind those who are promoting comprehensive sex ed." Other rabidly conservative religious media stars are Catholic League's Bill Donahue and Southern Baptist Rev. Richard Land, named TIME Magazine's 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America, as was Bush cozy Rev. Ted Haggard, before his scandalous fall involving a male prostitute and crystal meth.

A major cable news personality, who spoke off the record, admitted the celebrity-driven corporate media "tends to use right-wing evangelicals as examples of morality much more so than progressive Christians, who aren't as high profile and don't seem to get as much air time." He adds, "As shows become more popular and well known, they're able to attract better-known guests, and so the people we put on, whether for religious, moral or sexual issues, are familiar faces to our audience. That creates a comfort zone, especially when discussing controversial issues."

Not shy of addressing moral controversies, Rev. Haffner agrees that authentic progressive religious voices supporting sexual justice are ignored. Haffner's institute offers a Religious Declaration endorsed by almost 2,700 religious leaders from more than 50 traditions that reads, "our culture needs a sexual ethic focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts."

But for sex-based debates, mainstream media will pit a religious conservative as the moral voice against a secular activist, but will not match different faith perspectives. Haffner points to a PBS-related show she was invited on, who would use her only if they didn't have to identify her as Reverend. "'We don't want to confuse the audience,' they said. Taking a positive view on adolescent sexuality -- on educating youth and giving needed services -- if they had to recognize me as religious, it would confuse the audience," Haffner says. "Audiences expect religious leaders to be negative on sexual justice. The show chose not to use me rather than to use my title."

The "Left Behind" report shows the progressive religious leader that gets the most play is Rev. Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners: Christians for Justice and Peace, who signed the recently released and disdainful "pelvic politics" Evangelical Manifesto. But Haffner says anti-choice Wallis is actually negative about sexual health and rights. "Progressive religious leaders used by the media, by and large, do not support sexual justice issues," she says. "If you don't care about women, if you don't care about adolescents, if you don't care about GLBT, you don't get to call yourself progressive."

You might call Haffner's position absolutist, but you can't call it morally relative: one of the media arrows most often shot by culture warriors at sexual heath and justice advocates.
Lara Riscol is a freelance writer who explores societal conflicts and controversies surrounding sexuality. She has been published in The Nation, Salon, AlterNet and other media outlets worldwide, and is working on a book called, Ten Sex Myths That Screw America.
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