Hey Girl w/ Pen readers! I’m excited to share with you an excerpt of a piece I wrote recently with sociologist, Orit Avishai, on how some evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews challenge stereotypes about conservative religion and sexuality that appears in the latest edition of the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) Contexts magazine. You can read the full article for free for a limited time here.

Orit Avishai and Kelsy Burke. “God’s Case for Sex.” Contexts 15(4): 30-35

The church conference in a small Midwestern town was called, “Intimacy in Marriage,” so Kelsy expected speakers and participants to talk about sex. A graduate student just beginning research on evangelicals and sexuality, she was not expecting the prayers for couples to experience “the deepest sexual pleasure in the name of Jesus Christ” or a raffle for a vibrating massager that sat on a table in the sanctuary. Her field notes were punctuated with exclamation points, like after the phrase, “There is a vibrator in a church!”

On the other side of the globe, in Israel, an Orthodox Jewish bridal counselor discussed with Orit the sexual education component of a twelve-session marriage preparation course. A stern looking woman in her fifties, she served as an example for brides-to-be of Jewish modesty codes—hair covered, she was dressed in a long skirt and shirt with long sleeves and high neckline. Yet she spoke enthusiastically and directly to the sexually uninitiated young women enrolled in the course, telling them to “Get the mood right. Tell him what you want.”

Were it not for the obvious markers of religion, these scenes might not be surprising in the 21st century. At least within western popular culture, “good sex” has seemingly won out over sexual shame and become a prerogative of modern adult life. From advice books like The Joy of Sex to TV shows like Sex in the City and popular podcasts like Savage Love, a fulfilling sex life is promoted as integral to happiness and personal fulfillment. But religious traditions are notorious for sexual rules and norms that seem to fly in the face of modern secular culture, with its emphasis on sexual expression, experimentation, and satisfaction. In fact, many observers associate the expansion of progressive sexual norms and practices with the decline of organized religion.

It is in this context that we examine how some religious followers live and love amid secular and religious messages about sex and sexuality. Kelsy observed, surveyed, and interviewed American evangelical Christians who used websites or attended workshops to discuss sexual pleasure in Christian marriages. Orit interviewed Orthodox Jewish women in Israel about the sexual education that is part of an elaborate marriage preparation. The believers, educators, and experts we interviewed and observed contradicted the stereotype that religiosity is incompatible with sexual pleasure. They self-identified as “traditional,” “conservative,” and “devout,” yet insisted that their religious traditions encouraged sexual pleasure and could even improve how they experienced sexuality. Our respondents learned to navigate the religiously prescribed boundaries surrounding sexuality and embrace “good,” religiously sanctioned sex.

Continue reading at Contexts.org

Less than twelve hours after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Omar Mateen’s father said to reporters that his son’s actions “had nothing to do with religion.” Yet religion was front and center to many people’s reactions to the tragedy. Why?

The most obvious answer is that Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic state of Syria and the Levant (commonly referred to as ISIS) in a 911 call he placed during the shooting (it is worth noting that he also claimed allegiance to other groups in conflict with ISIS).

We know that ISIS kills people for being gay. Yet social media users were quick to point out following the Pulse shooting the ways in which the LGBTQ community—particularly Latino/as and African Americans—also face physical and symbolic violence at the hands of other Americans.


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The same day as the shooting, Texas politician Dan Patrick posted this tweet (later apologizing and claiming that the tweet had been scheduled days earlier).


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But Patrick’s attitude is similar to religious conservatives who advocate against gay and transgender rights. Omar Mateen’s homophobia, while it aligns with terrorist groups like ISIS, could well be the result of watching the 700 Club. Andrew Sotomayor writes pointedly, “Every preacher, pastor, or priest who’s falsely claimed that LGBT people are ‘sinners,’ ‘perverts,’ or told someone to ‘pray the gay away’ contributed to this murder.”

Some Muslims have pointed out widespread homophobia within their religious communities (examples here, here, and here). But just as swiftly as conservative politicians blamed radical Islam for the incident, progressives responded by speaking out against Islamophobia and generalizations about Muslims as extremists or uniformly anti-gay.

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For many, religion is an indirect villain in this tragic story—fueling the hate of a violent man; straining the relationships between victims and their friends and families; and contributing to a climate in which LGBTQ people may not feel safe in their homes and jobs. Yet in the days following the shooting, many religious communities have become places of solidarity and support. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly half of the LGBT population in America is affiliated with a religion. And a sizable minority (17 percent) report that religion is “very important” in their lives. LGBTQ Christians, Muslims, Jews and their allies have organized countless vigils, written commentary, walked in Pride marches, addressed the Pope, mourned in gay bars. For LGBTQ people, religion may often be the villain, but it is important to recognize that it is sometimes also the healer.

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As more reports and statements about the Zika virus circulate, the more readers/viewers are reminded of its greatest threat: “malformed babies” or infants with “defects.” Pregnant women are warned against traveling to regions where they could contract Zika as a means to protect their fetuses.

But responses to this disease also reveal a troubling underlying attitude about disabilities and the people who live with them. The message is clear: Disability is something to be prevented at all costs.

Zika is believed to be the cause of a growing number of babies born with “birth defects” like microcephaly (a disorder characterized by a disproportionately small head) and others that affect a child’s vision and hearing. Symptoms of an actual Zika infection are relatively minor, so much so that some mothers who delivered babies with related physical impairments (Zika babies) have trouble remembering even being sick.

Photos credit: Felipe Dana
Photos credit: Felipe Dana

Whereas news stories about Ebola since 2014 have often included images of supine suffering bodies surrounded by white hazmat suits, recent images about Zika feature babies born with small heads on the laps of parents (interestingly, often with their own heads cropped out of the frame). The story of this disease is one of disabled children.

Information about a disease gives rise to fears, which is something the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization have to negotiate when a new outbreak of a disease occurs. Remember the H1N1 pandemic in 2009? President Obama declared a national emergency to ensure people took the threat of the disease seriously, yet he played golf the same day to assuage fears that declaration was likely to inspire. People fear the pain, inconvenience, disruption, unknown effects, and expense of a disease as well as the potential loss of life.

As news about the Zika virus in South and Central America spreads, so does its companion anxiety—the anxiety about children being born with disabilities. This is surely a serious concern because these children may require additional care and resources, and in many cases, they are born into relatively poor families.

However, the fears associated with this disease are less about the care that will be needed for the children born with disabilities and more about their existence. Their birth is presented as the devastating outcome of the infection as a death count for Ebola or Cholera might be.

Images of children with microcephaly reinforce this point. We can see the impact of this disease and stare at the “malformed” body with the impunity of a computer screen. On January 27, NPR’s Renee Montagne, who interviewed Monica Roa, reported, “It would be fair to say we’re going to be seeing more of these babies being born with the birth defects of the Zika virus.” And seeing these babies is the real threat of Zika.

People with visible disabilities frequently experience staring and gawking as if they were on display. In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Disabilities Discrimination Act are meant to protect against the kind of prejudice that can prevent disabled people from securing work, health care, housing, and the assurance of a quality life. The real disabling aspect of life with a disability is the way able-bodied people perceive, react to, and even ignore disability.

Disease—Ebola, H1N1, Cholera, etc.—expose social inequities like contaminated food or water, restricted access to health care, or a break down in public health. And while disability is not a disease, the Zika virus brings a light to cultural attitudes about disabilities as objectionable.

A life with disabilities has challenges and complexities that vary from one person to the next, but it is a life. We need to stop treating the birth of Zika babies as the outcome, the end point of the narrative of the Zika virus and focus on the lives the children and their families will live.

A simple way to begin focusing on the Zika babies as new lives and not tragedies is to change the language used to discuss them. A simple shift from “malformed” and “birth defect” to impairment or disability changes the story. Rather than a medicalized diseased body with its “defects,” we have a human being with a challenging life ahead.

sarah.schuetzeSarah Schuetze is a visiting assistant professor of English at St. Norbert College. She specializes in narratives of disease in American Literature, and she’s currently working on a book project called Calamity Howl: Fear of Illness in Early American Literature and Culture.

No-Pro-Choice-Christians-11608235528By now you’ve read that Robert Dear, accused of killing three people at a Colorado Planned Parenthood, is a religious zealot. Most likely, you were not surprised when he was described as “Christian” and “extremely evangelistic.” News coverage of anti-abortion terrorists like Dear often cites religious motivations for violence. This coverage implies an automatic link between extreme religious beliefs and anti-abortion terrorism. But read beyond the headlines and the relationship between religiosity and pro-life attitude and action becomes much more complicated.

Yes, a majority of U.S. Catholics and Protestants identify as pro-life (54% of those in both religious groups according to a Gallup poll), but stopping there paints an incomplete picture. Because this means 46% of Catholics and Protestants are not fundamentally opposed to abortion. More surprisingly, 39% of Protestants and 38% of Catholics identify as pro-choice. A Pew Research Center poll finds that white evangelical Protestants are the religious group least likely to support legalized abortion (31%), but 54% of Black Protestants and 63% of white mainline Protestants support it. 89% of Jewish Americans believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

AbortionViewsByReligionWhen it comes to anti-abortion activism, sociologist Ziad Munson finds that religion permeates the rhetoric of the pro-life movement, but that many activists do not claim religion as the reason for their activism, nor are they significantly more religious than their non-activist pro-life counterparts. Through in-depth interviews with activists, he learns that many develop a religious framing of the abortion issue after they become involved in the movement, not before.

There is not a simple connection between pro-life convictions, religious beliefs, and protest. There is, however, a much more straightforward link between abortion attitudes and religious “nones,” or those who claim no religion. According to the Pew Research Center poll, 72% of those unaffiliated with a religion support legalized abortion. Another survey finds 80% of Americans who profess no religious identity are pro-choice. In other words, our assumptions about who is likely to be pro-life or pro-choice may be reflective of the strong relationship between lack of religion and pro-choice attitudes.

Yet media stories consistently portray religion as the driving force behind pro-life activism. Take the example of Norma McCorvey, better known as Jane Roe in Roe vs. Wade. In 1995, McCorvey converted to Christianity after being baptized by Philip “Flip” Benham, an evangelical preacher and the national director of the militant pro-life organization Operation Rescue/Operation Save America. McCorvey quit her job in a Texas woman’s clinic, started working at Operation Rescue, and committed to “serving the Lord and helping women save babies.” Stories of anti-abortion conversion can be constructed to progress according to a conventional morality tale: “Pro-choice. Born-again. Pro-life. Peace.” These accounts suggest that the way to make even the most committed pro-choice advocate into a darling for the pro-life cause is to add religion and stir.

One of the most infamous examples of anti-abortion violence in recent years is perhaps the best illustration of the puzzling relationship between religion and abortion attitudes. In 2009, George Tiller, a Kansas physician who provided late term abortions, was murdered by Scott Roeder, at middle-aged,“born-again Christian who believes abortion is a sin.” What you may not remember: Tiller was killed while volunteering as an usher at his church. A doctor we associate with providing access to late term abortions was also a devout member of the Reformation Lutheran Church.

RCRC_bumpersticker_PrayerfullyThough less visible, religious pro-choice groups and activists fought to maintain access to abortion since Roe’s inception and remain active today. From the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice to Pastors For Moral Choices (a South Dakota group that opposed a 2006 state bill banning most abortions), religious leaders have risked their reputations and sometimes their jobs in order to advocate abortion rights. The stories of pro-life activists and terrorists oversimplify the connection between religion and anti-abortion attitudes. Pro-life religious voices are the loudest and most often heard in American debates. Yet they do not encompass the totality of religious positions on abortion rights and the fight to preserve and expand reproductive health care.

Dr. Alexa Trumpy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at St. Norbert College. She is currently researching the role converts play in social movements and protest.

Dr. Kelsy Burke is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at St. Norbert College and regular contributor to Girl w/ Pen.

WBC sign on Kim DavisI couldn’t decide if I was surprised or not when I read that Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) was protesting Kim Davis. WBC is notorious for their protests, and their targets have ranged from U.S. soldiers killed in combat to country western singer, Blake Shelton. Add Kim Davis to a long list. But of course it is peculiar that the “God Hates Fags” church would protest the person who, at least this month, epitomizes religious resistance to gay rights. Dr. Rebecca Barrett Fox, who has studied WBC for more than a decade, generously agreed to answer some questions about this seeming contradiction.

Rebecca first encountered Westboro Baptist Church when she accidently stumbled into Fred Phelps’ kitchen where his wife was frying eggs for breakfast. She was a graduate student interested in studying the congregation and arrived on a Sunday morning to find all doors locked except for one to an adjacent building, which happened to be the pastor’s house. That was in 2004 and since then, she has spent countless hours observing church services, conducting interviews, watching pickets, and witnessing arguments at the Supreme Court. A book based on her ethnographic work with the church, God Hates: Wesboro Baptist Church, the Religious Right, and American Nationalism, will be released in 2016 by the University Press of Kansas.

 KB: Most readers know about Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) from the media storm they have created by protesting gay people and military funerals. Can you explain the religious ideology that fuels their attitudes about what and why to protest?

RBF: In WBC theology, all people are sinners by their nature; all people are totally depraved and unable to do a single thing to bring them out of sin or closer to God. This includes every member of WBC. The good news is that God has elected some people to love and save and others to punish and damn. And if God has elected you, you cannot resist him, so you will heed his call and turn toward righteousness. That is, you live a godly life, even though you are by nature a sinner, because God has elected you; you don’t get into heaven because you live a godly life. It’s important in this theology not to reverse the cause and effect.

Same-Sex Marriage Dooms NationsWhile we can’t know who is going to heaven (since righteous living is only a hint that you might be elect, not a reason for it), we can know who is going to hell—or at least some of them. If you aren’t living a godly life, it’s because God hasn’t elected you; and he hasn’t elected you because he hates you, which is his prerogative as your creator.  Remember that the elect can’t resist living a righteous life, so the only people left to dwell in disobedience are the damned, those chosen by God for his holy hatred before they were even born.

That theology is not unique to WBC; it’s called hyper-Calvinism, and while it is not popular, it informed a lot of the work of Puritans. We are seeing, more broadly, a neo-Calvinist revival here in the US, with a few churches even using the word “Puritan” in their name again.  Even so, WBC’s particular strain of theology seems mean-spirited to most Christians.

What is striking, I think, is though nearly every conservative Christian church condemns Westboro’s pickets and disagree with their theology, they actually end up at the same place: that gay people (and their supporters) are destroying America. For WBC, God doesn’t hate people because they are gay; they are gay because he hates them. This is different from the “love the sinner, hate the sin” theology of other conservative churches, which Cynthia Burack and others have artfully explored, which say that God loves gay people but just hates that they have same-sex relationships. In the end, though, both groups have God casting those people into hell. Does it matter if God sends you to hell because he hates you (the WBC perspective) or because, despite the fact that he loves you, you just won’t stop being gay? I’m not sure that the Religious Right’s “loving” God here is more appealing than the angry God of WBC.

Both WBC and the Religious Right argue that America’s acceptance of gay people is leading to our doom, both in practical terms—like a weakening of important institutions such as the military and marriage—and in spiritual terms, as God grows angry with us for failing to adhere to his moral code. WBC takes this message to scenes of national tragedy, including military funerals as well as scenes of gay pride. The link seems strange to some, but here it is: In 2003, the US Supreme Court, in Lawrence v. Texas, codified acceptance of same-sex intercourse by striking down state anti-sodomy laws. When it did that, according to WBC, the nation became the enemy of God. And, of course, God punishes his enemies through national tragedies and by destroying the military. Thus, every bad thing that happens to us as a country—every mass murder, every oil spill, every economic downturn, every tornado, every military death—is actively ordered by God to punish us for our acceptance of homosexuality.

But why protest at all and why these moments?

Pickets are one way that God can reach the elect. When you hear WBC, you either dismiss them or hear God’s voice. You don’t get saved by WBC preaching or picketing since your election happened before your birth. However, by your response to WBC, you reveal your election or damnation. Additionally, church members have to picket because they see it as something that God demands of them; they need to do it regardless of how it is received. From a sociological perspective, picketing also serves to discipline the group, to create and maintain boundaries between the inside world of the church, where people have hope for election, and the outside world, which is evil, and to invest people in the church. The picket is as much about the picketers’ performance of their faith as it is about the reactions of passersby, which usually reinforce the church’s view of the world as hostile. And they picket tragic moments, in particular, they say, because this is when people are most vulnerable and thus most open to hearing their message. It seldom works to find new members, of course, as few people hear their words as the words of God, but the point is as much to help people see their damnation as their salvation, so every picket is a victory in that sense.

Were you surprised when you learned that WBC was speaking out against Kim Davis? Why focus on the private life of Kim Davis, when her public voice aligns with what seems the most pressing beliefs of WBC? What about forgiveness of sin? 

Christians Caused Fag Marriage Isaiah Phelps-RoperIf religion and sex are in the news, WBC usually weighs in. The Davis case is an example, in WBC eyes, of how Christians have failed to prevent the advancement of the gay agenda by failing to adhere to God’s standards about sexuality more broadly. WBC sees homosexuality as the last sin a culture will accept; by the time we decided to legally recognize gay marriage, we’ve already legalized divorce and remarriage, made adultery commonplace, and legalized abortion. Homosexuality is the last stop on a train we should never have boarded, in this line of thinking. And that is not unique to WBC. The Southern Baptist Convention just excluded a church whose pastor questioned the Convention’s willingness to allow pastors to follow their consciences on marriage for divorced people but not gay people. Many church leaders, including Albert Mohler of the SBC, have had to figure out how to defend a long history of marrying divorced people while denying marriage to gay people.

Kim Davis, from WBC’s perspective, can’t fully endorse their message because she is living with a man who is not actually her husband. What Davis should do, according to WBC, is to repent of her three most recent marriages and return to her first husband; if he has remarried or is no longer interested in pursuing a relationship with her, she should remain single.  For WBC, divorce is only part of the sin; remarriage is also a sin, and you can’t both live in a state of sin and ask for forgiveness for it—just like you can’t both be sexually active in a same-sex relationship and ask for forgiveness for it, a premise shared by WBC and conservative Christian churches. Many Christians, far beyond those at WBC, are willing to call out non-celibate gay Christians as unrepentant but would never ask a divorced and remarried person to abandon their marriage. WBC sees that as hypocrisy.

Are Kim Davis and WBC two sides of the same coin? Or are they really different factions of fundamentalism? 

In the end, they both want to deny gay people rights and respect. The theology behind that matters very little in couples’ and families’ lives, and our democracy should not carve out religious exceptions that allow the denial of rights to individuals.

On the other hand, I find Kim Davis far more threatening to democracy than WBC. She is more powerful, able to immediately shape the lives of people in dramatic ways because of her role as an elected official. She is attractive to the Religious Right, and already conservative pundits are using her case as a litmus test for the Republican presidential nomination.

Kim Davis—and the anti-gay Religious Right more broadly—has a friend and a foil in WBC, in that the church recalibrates the scale of hate to make the Religious Right look more reasonable and tolerant. As long as Westboro Baptist Church is there, the Religious Right can point to them and say, “We’re not like that! We love gay people! We just hate their sinful ways!”

People like Kim Davis and members of WBC are an increasingly marginal group in the contemporary U.S. Should we pay attention to what they say?

 Yes, I think we must. These groups are marginal in the sense that they are small and often times reviled. But they do important work for those who oppose hate by revealing, in a community’s response, where it fails to protect those on its own margins. It’s easy to rally against hatred in general; it’s harder for a community to rally against homophobia and even harder to really question its own investments in heteronormativity. It’s easy to organize a counterpicket and drive a small group of people you already see as nutty out of your town, especially when they are really only in town for an hour or two anyway; it’s harder to build coalitions across long-standing prejudices and suspicions held by neighbors. Can communities embrace those challenges? I’m hopeful.

rebecca.barrett-fox Dr. Rebecca Barrett Fox teaches sociology at Arkansas State University, where she continues her research on religion and hate groups.

There’s been a lot of evangelical Christian commentary in response to the Supreme Court ruling last month that legalized marriage for gays and lesbians. Jimmy Carter says that Jesus would approve of gay marriage. Franklin Graham says that God might strike the White House with lightning for its rainbow makeover on the night of June 26.

6-8-2015-11-28-12-AMWhite conservative Protestant evangelicals have been the obligatory homophobes in the political controversy over same-sex marriage in America since its beginning. And for good reason. According to Pew Research polling since 2001, these evangelicals consistently lag behind the rest of the country when it comes to favoring gay unions. The National Association of Evangelicals released a statement on June 26 confirming that, despite the Supreme Court ruling, God defines marriage as a “covenant relationship between a man and a woman.” Yet, there is an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that evangelicals are, in fact, changing their minds when it comes to who should be able to legally marry. Sociologists Lydia Bean and Brandon Martinez analyze national survey data to argue that evangelicals are increasingly ambivalent about same-sex marriage. Evangelicals have become more supportive over the past decade, though they still have lower level of support than all other religious groups. A 2013 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute finds that Evangelical Millennials (18-33 year olds), in particular, seem to defy evangelical stereotypes with 43 percent of whom support same-sex marriage.

Now that same-sex marriage is legal throughout the nation, it seems inevitable that evangelicals will continue to increase their support for it. But what does this mean for conservative Protestant evangelicals, whose beliefs are structured around ideas about gender difference and heterosexuality? Will evangelical beliefs fundamentally change by allowing gays and lesbians into the sanctity of marriage? I believe no.

My evidence: pegging. Yes, pegging: the sex act referring to the anal penetration of a man by a woman, usually with some sort of strap-on device (thanks, Dan Savage). In my book, Christians Under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet (forthcoming 2016, University of California Press), I examine Christian sexuality websites—online stores, message boards, blogs, podcasts, and virtual Bible studies—that promote the idea that God wants for (straight) married couples to have great sex. For many users of these sites, this can include kinky sex. For some of these users, this includes gender-deviant sex like pegging. Their rationale goes like this: if a couple is straight, married, monogamous and—crucially important—devoted to God, any consensual sex in which they engage is permissible according to the rules of their faith. Godly sexuality, for evangelicals, is personal as much as it is objective. It gives believers a sense of control, autonomy, and choice amidst a belief system that is predicated on limits and boundaries to avoid sin.

I find that when engaging in sex that removes them from their role as active penetrator, Christian men must find other ways to construct their masculine identities. They draw on the sense that their relationships with their wives and with God are spiritually exceptional, and that these relationship, more than anything else, are what construct their identities as Godly men. I call this gender omniscience, which defines gender through a spouse and God’s unique ability to know the unknowable: a man’s “true” gender. This renders even non-normative sex quintessentially heterosexual and gender normal.

An optimistic reading of evangelicals’ sense of permissible sex might suggest that they are on a trajectory toward acceptance of multiple kinds of sexual expressions and identities. At what point does the technically heterosexual sex between a woman penetrating a man with a strap-on dildo lose its “straightness?” Or to put this another way, at what point does a gay man penetrated by his husband become a part of what evangelicals deem Godly sex? It is a blurry line. Evangelicals see gender as predetermined, natural and mutually exclusive between men and women, but malleable enough to accommodate a diverse array of actions and behaviors. They see heterosexuality as a clear line in the sand distinguishing right and wrong but make the boundaries of heterosexuality expansive enough so as to incorporate a diverse arranging of men’s and women’s bodies to engage in sex acts other than penile-vaginal intercourse.

Yet as I think about some Christian sexuality website users who guiltlessly engage in pegging, I become increasingly convinced that their logic actually reinforces and bolsters sexual boundaries, not diminishes them. Relying on the relationship between a believer, spouse, and a God who is presumed to condemn homosexuality, evangelicals make claims about who gets the Godly advantage of limitless sexuality, and who is stuck outside this charmed circle. If the prediction is correct that a majority of evangelicals, like the broader American public, will eventually support same-sex marriage, my research suggests that they may do this while still excluding gays, lesbians, and other queers from Godly sex.