The Femisphere: Blogging on Faith And Religion, Part 2

In the second part of our Faith & Religion Femisphere roundtable (see part one and meet the participants here), we tackled the upcoming election and abortion as well as the place of religion within feminism.

The Femisphere: What was your reaction to the way Martha Raddatz framed her question on abortion during the Vice-Presidential debates?

Nahida: The framing of the question seemed calculated to be as inoffensive as possible, which I find highly unfortunate. I’m not interested in hearing how each of these men’s “personal lives” and faith are incorporated into their decision on abortion policy. I practice a religion that allows me an abortion up to 120 days of the pregnancy, and in cases of rape and life endangerment. I am pro-choice irrespectively. That includes late-term abortions. Ryan wants to talk about infringing on religious rights–he doesn’t have the right to practice his religion on someone else’s body. Let’s talk about the right to religion. An inalienable right is inalienable because it does not require consent: The right to religious belief is an inalienable right. It does not require consent. But the right to religious practice is a civil right, derived from civil interactions, and when the practice of your civil right infringes on the inalienable right of another–and you need a woman’s consent in all matters of her body, rendering bodily autonomy inalienable–inalienable rights always trump civil rights. Likewise, a fetus, a baby, a human being, is entitled to life, but not to the sustenance of that life, and that means NOT to the body of the mother. At the point a woman is forced to provide sustenance to the fetus or baby or human being she is carrying is at the point upon which her inalienable right is infringed.

The framing of the question, and the subsequent answers, drew conclusions without clear definitions regarding bodily autonomy and civil and inalienable rights, and this is the very ambiguity that has allowed the War on Women to rage on. Religious patriarchs have seized the opportunity to throw around words like “this infringes on our religious right!” without any regard to what those words mean. The practice of religion is not an inalienable right–only the belief. And civil rights, like practicing religion, cannot override the inalienable rights of a woman’s bodily autonomy. A fetus is no more entitled to the sustenance of a woman to live under the guise of the right to life than is a grown man to a kidney. If a woman does not want to provide for the fetus, she has the right to expel it from herself and abort her provisions to it.

Libby Anne: To be honest, I thought Raddatz’ framing of the abortion issue in terms of individual religious beliefs was atrocious. As a secularist, I hold that individual religious beliefs should only influence one’s personal choices, and not be used as a basis to dictate policy to others. I very much agree with Obama’s 2006 statement that

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

I don’t think a candidate’s personal religious beliefs on abortion are relevant– what is relevant is what that person’s policies will be. And that, quite simply, is what I wanted to hear about, not personal beliefs. As for the answers, Biden’s answer was very much in step with the principle I just outlined, separating personal beliefs from political actions that affect the entire country and those with a whole spectrum of beliefs. Ryan, in contrast, came right out and said that secularism, the divide between personal religious beliefs and political policies that affect everyone, should not exist, and for him does not exist. In a country as religiously plural as the United States, that is not only an extremely frightening answer–and I think Ryan’s views on secularism help account for the hyper-partisanship we face today–but also out of step with historical precedent.

Danielle: While the question itself was beyond irritating, it was fascinating to hear the diversity in Biden’s and Ryan’s responses, since they both are practicing Catholics. However, their responses were inherently ironic because what do two white, middle-aged, incredibly privileged men really have to say from their “personal” experience on this issue? On one hand–and I can’t believe I’m going to say this–I agree with Ryan that who you are as a person of faith (“private” life) cannot be completely separated from who you are in your work (“public” life), even though I completely disagree with the next step he takes in using his faith as a justification for unraveling reproductive rights in our country. On the other hand, I agree with Biden that we live in a pluralistic society and therefore cannot impose our personal views on others who may not share our beliefs. Biden also mentions the “consistent ethic of life” and “Catholic social justice teaching”–something a lot of Protestants and Ryan himself don’t seem to grasp. As a Catholic woman and feminist, I am inherently skeptical of (mainly) men advocating against abortion while not promoting comprehensive sex education, prenatal care, birth care, postpartum care, child care, etc. Failing to promote these critical–and proven–ways to decrease abortions (while not curtailing rights) communicates that they are only pro-birth, not pro-woman or pro-children. And I can’t see that as anything other than an age-old strategy to keep women in their place, lacking in bodily agency and autonomy.

Erika: What bothered me was that [Raddatz] asked the candidates about their personal beliefs on abortion when it really shouldn’t matter. As Nahida said, I really don’t care how they personally feel about abortion when abortion has nothing to do with them. I found Ryan’s response to be patronizing and smug, and I appreciated Biden’s response and the fact that he understands that his personal religious beliefs shouldn’t inform his political stance.

Her second question, “Should people be worried about the legalization of abortion under a Romney/Ryan” question was more important–and I wish there was more time for the candidates to answer that question. Ryan skirts around the question, but basically says that judges should make the decision–which is bullshit! He’s saying (or not saying) that under a Romney/Ryan ticket they would appoint judges who could make that decision for women. Which is the problem.

Abortion shouldn’t be in the hands of politicians, it is up to the individual women. For lack of a better word, it stinks. Government doesn’t decide whether or not I can get cancer treatment or make it illegal for me to reject treatment to wait it out without medical care, but the government has a right to say what a woman can/cannot do with her own body?

There’s a lot of talk within feminism about intersectionality, yet the reality does not always live up to the ideal. Looking at religion/faith specifically, how can feminism and faith work together and find common ground to create progress in both spheres?

Danielle: Last weekend at my church, the pastor preached on the passage in 1 Timothy that outlines rules for caring widows in the church, most of whom were the most vulnerable in society. (Libby, I’m curious to hear what you learned about this growing up.) The pastor first discussed the cultural and historical context underpinning those verses that, at first glance, are quite confusing and even offensive (welcome to the Bible!). Then the pastor asked who would be our modern-day “widows”–the most destitute and marginalized in our society: widows, orphans, single mothers, the elderly, the disabled. The pastor especially explained the intersectionality of race, gender, socioeconomic status, immigration status, etc., with being a single mother. And then the pastor shared stories from the single mothers in our church for how they wanted to be helped and loved. There was no “othering.” There was no over-simplification á la Romney and the single mothers/gun violence parallelism. There was humanization and personalization of “the least of these.” Hearing that sermon solidified my disgust with so-called Christians who demonize, blame and shame single mothers. My faith doesn’t call me to condemn those in need; it calls me to help and to love.

Libby Anne: I’ll incorporate Danielle’s question to me in with my answer to this question. I grew up in a community that combined aspects of conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism with right-wing politics. This was essentially preached from the pulpit. Passages like the one to which Danielle refers, regarding the care of widows, was used as proof that the church, not the government, should be involved in providing for the poor. Any government aid was seen as something to be eliminated. In other words, that passage was treated as a political point while at the same time the church never actually stepped in with any sort of concrete social justice plan. Instead, everything was focused on personal salvation, aka the need to pray the sinner’s prayer in order to avoid heaven and go to hell. Even efforts to give people aid–soup kitchens, etc.–were always aimed at winning a person’s soul for the afterlife. Only the future was seen as truly important. How does this relate back to the original question? When I lost faith in religion, I looked around for a comprehensive worldview with which to replace it, and I found Humanism. I found that there was comprehensive secular thought that combined the need for social justice, equality and care for the planet with a belief in inherent human dignity and worth, in the here and now. My Humanism has completely changed how I view those around me, and especially how I view those who are different from me. I am a much less judgmental and much more loving person today than I was as a conservative evangelical. Rather than dividing the world into saved versus unsaved, us versus them, I have expanded my circle and found the world a much more complex place than I had ever thought. And I have a lot of respect for those religious individuals, like Danielle’s pastor, who use their tradition’s teachings to work toward social justice, equality and the good of humanity in the present rather than, as I so often saw growing up, simply turning them into right-wing talking points.

Nahida: I really appreciate when feminists who don’t identify themselves as practitioners of any religion offer their alliance, even when they (simultaneously) struggle to understand why a feminist would maintain that particular faith. But the best way that feminism and faith can work together is through realizing that alleging a woman of faith can’t be a “true” feminist because of institutionalized religion is awfully selective, considering that no interpretation–whether of culture or law or religion–is free of patriarchal influence. Religion needs to be reclaimed, just like medicine or education, and we do that by recognizing that–like medicine or education–the power men wield in their interpretation of religion is an appropriation of the power given to women. The patriarchal base of Islam is an artificial one; it is the result of men confiscating influence that was never meant to be theirs. Acknowledging this contributes to a reclamation of institutionalized religion through a rightful shift of power, rather then continually reinforcing the assertion that exegesis is only “valid” if men have monopolized it. Attempting to convince someone that her faith is detrimental to her feminism is to take away something very integral to her person–and that’s anti-feminist. Feminism restores identity. Feminism doesn’t strip women of what they love the most, of the things that are most quiet and intimate to them.

Erika: I was lucky to go to high school in a rather diverse, all-girls Catholic school. Feminism wasn’t a dirty word at Notre Dame Academy. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people, the notion of feminism conjures other scary words: lesbian, man-hating, etc.

Separately, when you look at religious texts–monotheistic, specifically–feminism is there, in our holy books. Yet, through translation to modern-day languages and the lack of female rabbis when the Talmud was codified, we lost much of that. But when you look at Torah, the women are there. Sometimes they don’t have names (bad translations, if you ask me), but many times they do. They make the prophets we honor today and they’ve sustained our people (Miriam’s well). It’s all there–it’s just a matter of using our most basic text as evidence to lift up women and honor them.

Having spent the majority of my time in more progressive and liberal Conservative and Reform synagogue communities, I can honestly say that there is a fabulous overlap happening within the movements. From rabbis who are women to honoring matriarchs in prayers, to women receiving aliyah–It’s refreshing, and one of the deciding factors in my choosing Judaism.

In addition to the bloggers that joined our roundtable, please check out these other feminist bloggers who write about religion and faith:

Infographic (top) designed by Lisa Huynh. 


A former teacher and a lifelong learner, Avital Norman Nathman is a writer whose work has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Mothering Magazine, and more. You can catch her musing online about motherhood and feminism at her blog, The Mamafesto, as well as at Gender Across Borders and Bitch Media. Her passion for feminism and gender equality (and fluidity!) can be found both in her activist lifestyle and body of work. When she's not hosting dance parties in her kitchen, she's knee-deep in dirt in her teensy urban garden, nose deep in some young adult lit, or off in search of the perfect cup of Chai.