A reflection by Sarah
Within the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about how easy it can be to polarize discussions of controversial issues, particularly those that impact multiple groups of people with varied needs and interests. Conversations become more about adhering perfectly to religious or political dogma than learning from engagement with opposing viewpoints. When this happens, the level of verbal gymnastics a person has to perform in order to avoid being identified with the “wrong” side of a particular debate can get out of control very quickly. And if the controversy relates to your life in some direct, practical way, watch out. Unless your own perspective aligns completely with the party line at either extreme, there’s a fair chance your voice will get lost amongst those who are louder and more ideological.
When I was about thirteen, my already-unmanageable menstrual cycle became debilitating. Despite trying every supposed cure and method of symptom relief at my disposal, nothing helped the pain subside. Heat packs, herbs, over-the-counter medications, supplements, hot toddies: you name it, we did it. It’s possible that we could have done more if my family had been able to access more resources, but we had tried everything we could afford. I had reached a point where I was experiencing severe symptoms for half of every month and was unable to sustain a reasonable quality of life. I fainted at school, had persistent anemia, and was frequently doubled over with cramps. My deeply conservative mother (who had experienced more than her own share of reproductive health troubles) sympathized greatly with my pain and, after she had exhausted all of the alternative options, scheduled my first gynecology appointment. From the moment my mom first set up the appointment until the moment we entered the doctor’s office, she was concerned and warning me that the gynecologist might prescribe birth control pills. That’s exactly what happened. After the doctor had examined me and heard my symptom history, she reached immediately for her prescription pad to write a script for Ortho Tri-Cyclen.
My mother’s greatest worry was realized, and she made it clear to me on the drive home that we must never tell another person outside of the family that I was taking birth control pills. She stated that she didn’t think I was sexually promiscuous. However, she warned me that if anyone else found out, he or she would automatically assume that I was a whore. I had no doubt about my mom’s message: like it or not, I had to choose between being seen as a good Christian and being branded the loosest girl in the 8th grade. We couldn’t discuss birth control if there was the slightest possibility of anyone else hearing us. In my mother’s opinion, my voice was bold enough to be heard across a room even in my most hushed whispers. Her solution was to ask me to come up with a codeword for the pills. I wasn’t very fond of this idea, and though I couldn’t imagine any reason I would need to tell another person about the birth control pills, I felt a sense of shame unlike any emotion I’d ever experienced around receiving other prescriptions in the past. But I gave in and eventually suggested we could call my new medication “the caveman pill” (BC, of course. Yeah, I know…quite original). My little pink compact of caveman pills stayed in my top dresser drawer next to my hairbrush. Each morning, I would open my drawer, take the medication, and then put it out of my mind for the rest of the day. However, anytime I had friends over, my mother would panic about the compact in my dresser drawer. She would urge me to let her keep it until everyone left so that none of my friends would find out I was on the caveman pill. All this because morally upright people supposedly never talk about needing to take birth control because discussing the subject publicly brands one as promiscuous. Or at least that’s how things worked in Eastern Kentucky in the 1990s.
Few things set Facebook and Twitter alight with polarized commentary like contraception and homosexuality. The recent Supreme Court decision in favor of Hobby Lobby highlights how people can be deeply divided over intersections between public policy and religious belief. While reading initial reactions to the SCOTUS ruling, I experienced a vivid memory of how my mother responded to my need to take birth control pills. Those who share her perspective would say that “good, conservative Christians” know that you keep prescriptions for these medications discreet if you need them to treat a medical condition. Yet, as the recent Hobby Lobby case shows, both conservatives and liberals are more than willing to assert beliefs on contraception so long as the issue is framed in a polarized manner. At one extreme, there are people arguing that if one cares at all about women’s health, one should be absolutely appalled by the SCOTUS ruling. At the other, there are people claiming the decision as a victory for religious freedom in the United States and chiding feminists as overly entitled whiners. The space between the two extremes is a no man’s land as both sides continue to hurl slurs at one another: “No true respecter of women would ever approve of the Hobby Lobby decision. If you’re not appalled by the decision, then you’re a misogynist and a bigot.” Or, “If you’re not celebrating the decision as a major cultural win for conservatives, than you’re a progressive liberal out to destroy America. No true Christian should have any reservations about the ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby. If you empathize at all with the idea that free birth control might be a good thing, then you’re an enemy to life.” The polarization is deep, and there is virtually no room for moderate opinions. At least on the internet.
What’s especially interesting to me is that people on the left rightly consider it absurd when the religious right claims gay rights legislation is a slippery slope toward state-sanctioned human-animal marriages, yet they make almost the exact same assertion about the Hobby Lobby ruling: that the decision is a slippery slope towards a society where employers are free to engage in widespread religious discrimination of all kinds. And neither side seems to be aware of how its own rhetoric removes any possibility for meaningful dialogue. On the day of the Hobby Lobby decision, I was called idiotic for mentioning the importance of religious freedom in one conversation and a heretic for discussing why society might benefit from greater availability of contraception in another. It seems impossible to have an intelligent, nuanced conversation about any controversy within the current American political and religious climate.
Thus far, this post might not seem very relevant to the general purpose of our blog. However, as we’ve pointed out on other occasions, conversations about LGBT Christians are equally polarized. We mention frequently how the manner in which LGBT issues get discussed in Christian contexts leaves little space for moderates or those who care more about talking and listening than shouting. Lindsey and I regularly find ourselves pulled in all directions. Several of my more liberal Christian friends tell me I should just get over my internalized homophobia, dump the idea of a celibate vocation, and marry Lindsey even though that would involve defying the teachings of our Christian tradition. Some are quite blunt in telling us that we should leave our Christian tradition as it is not sufficiently welcoming to the LGBT community. Similarly, several of my more conservative Christian friends express their opinion that talking about “LGBT issues” (as opposed to “struggling with same-sex attraction”) places me outside the realm of orthodoxy, or at least precariously perched on the border gazing fondly toward “heresy.” Both camps are likely to proclaim, “Either you’re with us or you’re against us!” with one side saying, “You shouldn’t be talking about this at all,” and the other asserting, “You should be talking about this, but you need to have the conversation within progressive political parameters.” And no matter what we say, taking a more moderate approach leaves some people seeing us as wishy-washy and others claiming that we position ourselves on a moral high ground from which we silently judge one side, or perhaps both. In some ways, the linguistic mess that is the current dialogue on LGBT issues in the Church reminds me of the verbal gymnastics required for talking with my mom about the “caveman” pill: you can talk about these issues publicly if and only if you know the special code words that sound benign to everyone else around you.
The polarization of these conversations is extremely harmful. It’s harmful to tell a young girl who needs to take birth control pills that she must never talk about this medication to anyone lest she be perceived as a whore. It’s harmful to label everyone cheering the Hobby Lobby ruling as a bigot and misogynist. Similarly, it’s destructive to brand everyone who has a problem with the ruling as an enemy of the unborn and of and religious freedom. It’s damaging to say that the conversation about LGBT people in the Church only has two types of participants who are diametrically opposed on every issue. This is especially pronounced where one side insists that being LGBT is an illness of some kind that needs healing and the other argues that any person who does not fully affirm every aspect of an LGBT person’s life is an enemy. It’s a shame that people who do not identify as culture warriors for either side are dismissed from the discussion. When the poles are so present within every topic for debate, it’s hard to see any room for learning, growth, or the process of conversion.
Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.