Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Freedom of Religion, Sexism, Reproductive Rights

A key issue for some evangelical Christians is attestation. What is that? It is a new policy whereby organizations that receive federal summer employment grants -- these are to hire students over the summer -- must agree to that they support the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Here is the precise wording:

"CSJ applicants will be required to attest that both the job and the organization’s core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as other rights. These include reproductive rights and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression."

You can find the larger description here. Some of my friends who are evangelicals are reading this as a direct attack on their views and on freedom of religion. In New Brunswick, this issue has popped up in the past -- on the provincial level -- with regard to state funding of post-secondary education and, in particular, the fact that students attending Crandall University do not qualify because it is a private school that maintains a faith-statement commitment.

The problem -- for at least the people that I have seen comment on this -- is that some evangelical Christian organizations believe they cannot attest to this statement because of their religious believes but rely on job grants to run, in part at least, their summer programs. I don't believe my church applies for federal grants (I'd need to check that one out) but they do apply for provincial grants and hire high school/college kids to run summer camps and the like. Are they right? Is this attestation requirements a threat to freedom of religion?

I will confess that I am not sure. I don't think it is, but I'd also like to argue that there is some room for discussion and that there should be.  The issue, in other words, for all concerned might be more complex than we allow. They issues are "reproductive rights" and "sexual orientation or gender identity or expression." Some evangelical Christians see themselves as ardently anti-choice and opposed to anything but hetero normative and patriarchal gender and marriage relations. Others -- a larger group, in my opinion -- would not make an unqualified statement on either of these points, but argue that individuals retain the right to hold views regarding reproductive rights and gender identity and *not* suffer discrimination for these beliefs. All, they would argue, should enjoy equal *benefit* of the law.

I want to come back to this point -- equal *benefit* of the law -- because it is an important standard that is often neglected in consideration of equality issues. I should begin by saying, however, that I find it very difficult to speak about reproductive rights, as a man and this is the key point that I want to make today. My general view is that this is an issue in which there is an unequal burden, as it were, and that unequal burden creates a necessarily unequal authority to speak on the subject. I want to be clear: I am *not* saying that men should not speak on this issue but that the weight of authority must necessarily rest with women. A man cannot, quite simply, claim an equal right to a woman's body.

This is a point that I don't think enough evangelical Christians have considered because they have gotten so used to debating the merits of abortion and choice. I do think that the issue of children affords evangelical Christians many opportunities to be constructively involved in the world. I am not certain that forcing often young, poor, marginalized women to bear the burden of someone else's ethics is, however, one of those constructive ways. There are children to adopt, poor families in need of assistance, food banks that will nearly run out of food sometime shortly after Christmas, school supplies to be bought, access to minor sports and music programs to be provided, and a range of other things. There is tutoring and mentoring and driving (which often takes two people owing -- rightly -- to new regulations about ensuring that no one adult has supervisory control of children who are not there own). I recognize that many churches are involved in these things right now. Mine is. But, my point is this: there is no shortage of ways to be active in the world in support of children and families. There is poverty and need and  loneliness that can and should be addressed right now, as I write and as you read this. But, whether or not this extends to control of another person's body is not at all clear to me.

Let me unpack that sentence a bit more. Childbirth and child raising are difficult, time-consuming tasks that challenge who we are as people.  Men do not have to experience pregnancy and childbirth and will never experience these things first hand. Hence, to say that a man -- any man -- should have an equal voice in reproduction is theoretically interesting but in practice *must* confront a stark reality. I am a man. The price of my having a say on this issue, or even a determining voice, is born by someone else. I will not have to be pregnant. I will not have to give birth. I recognize that there is an unequal burden to child care, as well, on a macro scale but let us leave that off because there are a lot of exceptions.  The issue that we have to address is whether I get a vote on what someone else will do with their body? If we were talking about two men and one man controlling what another did with their body for, say, nine months ...  would we even be having this discussion? I deeply and fundamentally doubt it.

This is what I mean by someone else bearing the burden of my ethics. For me to say "see I have done the right thing," I, as a man, never have to address the implications of me feeling that I have done the right thing, if I so choose. Other people do, and they will not get that choice; often people I will never meet, never know their story, never understand their circumstances, never share their aspirations or cry with them for the things that have gone wrong in their lives. In other words, I not only claim control over their bodies, but over the bodies of women I have never met, will never meet, and will not ever try to understand what is going on in their lives. I will make up my mind on the basis of what I think is right and without any regard for them, their circumstances, the child for which they will care, the choices they will have to make, the heartache and pain I can bring to them.

And ... make no mistake about it: this will not *only* be one person controlling another's body. It will be control exercised through the state. What those who oppose choice seek to do is make it illegal for women to have abortions. This means that the police, the courts, even the medical profession will be used as instruments to control the choices women can make with their bodies. This is not an abstract, Philosophy 101, debating club type of discussion. This is a discussion with real implications: women being arrested and forced against their wills to have children. I really wish I were exaggerating but before anyone accuse me of doing so, let me ask you a few questions: what do you think will happen if abortion becomes illegal? What do you think the word "illegal" means? Who do you think enforces the law?

I will need to come back to this issue -- and it might not be a bad thing because I've blogged way too much on freedom of speech so perhaps I should address another issue -- but the first problem that evangelicals need to address is not their supposed right to their religious beliefs. And, this is the key point I want to make. I think this issue is miscast as a freedom of religion issue. I support freedom of religion. Indeed, I think spirituality is just way too important to allow anything but individual freedom.

But, I am less than certain that my freedom of religion is the same as to my ability to control someone else's body. Is this actually what those who argue for freedom of religion mean? Is this their definition of freedom of religion: the right to use the state to control other people's bodies? Thus, rather than asserting a right and demanding equal treatment on its basis (which might be fine; we will come to that in the future), I'd argue that evangelical Christians should, as it were, "go back to the drawing board." Pause in their certainty that they know what is right and that they are acting according to the will of God, consider their options, and think about the implications of the rights they are asserting. Phrased in the way I just phrased it, you can see the gender bias inherent in the assertion of this supposed freedom of religion. Evangelicals -- including myself -- need to ask: is this really what we want to do? Legitimize men's control over women's bodies? We've had that in the past and there is far too much of that in the present. It has not worked well and that is why the advocates of equality want to get rid of it. Is this really what we mean by freedom of religion: the right to have men force women to have children against their will?

I'd argue, no.
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