How to Use the Bible against Abortion Protestors

It’s time to confront conception obsessed Bible-believers on their own terms, with language they understand.

Imaabortion-obama-jesusgine if we turned the Bible and Christianity’s highest values back on the Religious Right. This Saturday, February 11, the most conception-obsessed members of the Religious Right will be gathering at Evangelical and Catholic churches, loading teenagers into busses and cars, and surrounding Planned Parenthood with protest signs. Some will pray and sing church songs or shout Bible quotes or carry pictures of the Virgin Mary. But most will carry signs that say things like “abortion stops a beating heart” [so does oyster-eating] or “aren’t you glad your mother didn’t have an abortion?” [Yes; glad also that she didn’t have a headache that night] or “it’s a baby” [an acorn is an oak tree?] or “one life ended, one destroyed” [actually, factually not]. Some may carry “fetal squish” pictures—not  images of common early abortions but of the rare fetus that dies or is aborted late in gestation. In other words, they will try to sway the rest of us by speaking our language—the language of science, human rights and secular ethical values; and they will appeal to our moral emotions: compassion, love of life, and disgust.

Those of us who cherish the freedom to choose our own lives and families—and to live by our own moral values—could learn a thing or two from the more sophisticated of these protestors, both what they say and what they want to hide.

  1. They want us to think that it’s not about religion. Despite the smattering of non-religious opponents, it is. Ignoring this means we constantly fight a defensive battle on our turf, not theirs. Key take-away: Define this as a fight about theology, which is what it is. Use theological terms that are Christianity’s insider jargon and quote the Bible.
  2. They want us to think that they are on the side of women, that their stance against abortion comes from a deep place of love and concern. It doesn’t. Their conception obsession is deeply rooted in misogyny, and concern for women is a thin veneer. Here is what the anti-abortion movement would look like if it were driven by love. Key take-away: Expose the deep underlying religiously-motivated disdain for women. Quote degrading Bible verses, church fathers and modern pastors.
  3. By trademarking the term “pro-life,” abortion foes try to stake out the highest of the moral high ground. They don’t have it. Their crass indifference to the lives around them—to the wellbeing of both vulnerable people and even the whole web of life—shows their self-appointed title as defenders of “life” to be total bullshit. Key take-away: Shine a light on self-righteous hypocrisy. Expose the Religious Right’s indifference to Christianity’s own highest values, including compassion and reverence for life.

I said that abortion foes try to speak to us in language we understand, by appealing to our sources of authority, science and conscience. When we appeal to people who are on our side or neutral or secular, we should do the same. We must work to end abortion shame and stigma, to convey that abortion is normal and that family planning as a whole—including abortion until it becomes obsolete (we are headed that direction)—is a positive social good.

But when it comes to confronting and neutralizing abortion protests, we should attack the home turf of the abortion foes, not defend our own turf. We should speak in language of the protesters and convey that their position is a threat to their own core values. (Remember, this is what they do to move us.)

At the same time, they are playing to a broader audience, and we can, too. To outsiders, we can neutralize the tradition of incessant clinic protest by framing it as a theological dispute (most people want to keep theology out of healthcare), that is driven by archaic, ugly gender scripts (no thanks!), and that is being played out by people who have little moral credibility (everyone hates a mean-spirited, self-righteous hypocrite).

Here are a few examples of what the counter-protest signs might look like. *Some may make sense only to Christians and former Christians. **Thank you to all the former Bible-believers who offered suggestions on Facebook. ***If you have ideas of your own as you read the list, please add them in the comment section.

Define this as an insider dispute about theology

  • God aborts 60%. Who are you to judge the Almighty?
  • Fact checked: The Lord says he’s ok with it
  • God prescribes abortion potion – Numbers 5:22-27
  • Kill fetus, get fined – Kill woman, get death –Exodus 21:22-23
  • Infant becomes person after birth – Leviticus 27:6
  • Fetus fetish is idolatry
  • This is what bibliolatry does to people →
  • Conception obsession is a religious cult
  • Don’t say you follow Jesus if stopping abortion trumps love, truth, peacemaking, compassion, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor . . .
  • Life begins at ejaculation – Ask Onan
  • If the baby goes to heaven And the doctor goes to hell If the woman gets forgiveness What’s the problem pray tell!?
  • The Bible doesn’t define when life becomes “a living soul.” Don’t put your words in God’s mouth

Expose deep underlying misogyny

  • Wife is man’s property – Exodus 20:17
  • Girl babies twice as unclean as boys – Leviticus 12:1-8
  • Women should keep silent – 1 Cor. 14:34
  • Sell raped daughter to rapist – Deut. 22:28-29
  • Female? Cover your head or cut off your hair – I Cor. 11:6 [with picture of hijab]
  • Women will be saved through childbearing – 1 Tim. 2:15
  • Women make men dirty – Rev 14:4
  • Woman is a temple built over a sewer – Tertullian
  • Woman, you are the gate to hell – Tertullian
  • Man alone is the image of God – Saint Augustine
  • I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children. –Saint Augustine
  • Woman has a faulty and defective nature – Saint Albertus Magnus
  • The production of woman comes from a defect – Thomas Acquinas
  • Women were made to be either wives or prostitutes – Martin Luther
  • The second duty of the wife is constant obedience and subjection – John Dod, Puritan
  • Women are made to be led, and counseled, and directed – LDS Apostle Herber Kimball
  • Every single book in your Bible was written by a man – Mark Driscoll

Shine a light on self-righteous (religious) hypocrisy

  • Pro-guns, pro-greed, pro-Trump = “pro-life” Hmmm. Woe to you, Pharisees, hypocrites! Woe to you, Pharisees, hypocrites Woe to you, Pharisees, hypocrites Woe to you, Pharisees, hypocrites
  • ”Pro-life” Trump Hypocrites =“False prophets, ravening wolves” – Jesus
  • Woe to you Pharisees, hypocrites! — Jesus
  • Pharisees →
  • Take the log out of your own eye –Jesus
  • Judge not that ye be not judged – Jesus
  • [picture of immigrant child] – Let the children come unto me—Jesus
  • Jesus focused on real people
  • Pro-fetus, against Child Protection
  • Pro-fetus, oppose rights for children
  • Pro-fetus, defend parent right to hit kids
  • Pro-fetus, against UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • I was hungry and you did not feed me – Jesus If a man says ‘I love God’ and hateth his brother, he is a liar- 1 John 4:20
  • Jesus supported healthcare for women
  • Jesus cared for women, no matter what [echoes Planned Parenthood motto]
  • The screwed-up priorities of “pro-life” Christians kill real children
  • Trump Voter? Don’t talk to me about choosing life
  • Voted for Trump? Maybe that’s not the voice of God you are hearing

Planned Parenthood doesn’t organize counter-protests, because they don’t want to escalate conflict and because they have a job to do providing contraceptives, cancer screenings, STI tests, abortions and other basic healthcare for their patients. They have no desire to get involved in theological disputes. But I think it’s time for the rest of America, meaning religious moderates and non-religious Americans, to go on the offense against the Religious Right. For decades now—really, ever since Roe v Wade–we’ve been playing way too nice.

At some point in the future, pregnancy almost always will happen by mutual consent of two people who want to co-create a child. But we’re not there yet, in large part because patriarchal religious conservatives have opposed sexual health literacy and better birth control every step of the way. Right now, we could make elective abortion virtually obsolete if the Religious Right had any interest in doing so. They don’t. That means, for now, the only way that young men and women can live the lives of their choosing and form the families of their choosing and stack the odds in favor of flourishing children—is to have access to abortion so they can end ill-conceived pregnancies.

The Left has been squishy and apologetic about abortion care—leaving providers unprotected, and allowing brave, prudent young women to be shamed for making the best decisions they could under difficult circumstances. We’ve let the Religious Right bully all of us, including moderate Christians, into doubting our own moral convictions.

Sometimes, the only way to stop a bully is to hit back. In the spirit of courageous, unflinching, nonviolent resistance, we need to figure out together what that means. So, don’t forget to share your thoughts.

Oh, and if you decide to counter-protest on Saturday, remember that while you are taking a stand on behalf of women and families, Planned Parenthood employees will be serving them. Don’t interfere with traffic, stay away from the entry, keep off private property, and silently let your sign do the talking for you. Don’t distract from the ugly behavior of the Religious Right by engaging in ugly behavior of your own. You are a role model for any children and teens who have been dragged along; be the change fundamentalist parents don’t want their kids to see in the world.

Originally posted at ValerieTarico.com

Peeling Back the Polished Pro-Woman Surface of Prolife™ Rhetoric

anti-abortion-protesterProlife leaders trying to convince the world that they are actually pro-woman have failed to convince even their own followers.

For years now, the professional class of abortion foes has been working to polish the Prolife brand, claiming that they are not mere fetal fetishists but actually protectors of women, who are being exploited by profit-hungry abortion doctors. They bolster their pro-woman positioning with false claims that abortion causes cancer (it doesn’t), or sterility (it doesn’t), or death (it’s a hundred times safer than carrying a pregnancy to term), or that women regret their abortions and suffer depression (as with any major life decision, some do; but most experience relief).

Even ignoring the disinformation, just beneath the thin layer of chivalry lies a toxic stew of religion, sexism, and judgmental certitude. Religious right politicians seeking to regulate abortion out of existence with bogus safety laws may have memorized their lines, but rank-and-file believers keep saying what they really think.

The Comment Thread Conundrum

Like most writers, I send articles to a variety of outlets, but I also cross-post to my own website, where religious conservatives and abortion foes not infrequently send me an unedited earful. (Do the people ranting or even making threats not realize that I have editorial control at my own site?) I don’t always publish such comments, but I do keep them, in part because they so clearly illustrate the dark underbelly of religious conservatism and its obsession with controlling sex and reproduction.

Consider a few of the recent tidbits:

  • “These clinics are greedy and if a woman leaves there is no profit for them. Most of these women could meet a mother that desperately wants a child and would provide their baby with a great life, but these women are too self-absorbed to care about that. These women don’t want anyone knowing they were pregnant and gave their baby up, they would rather murder their child to save face.”
  • “Sorry but nothing justifies abortion that’s why god condemns premarital sex in the first place because of its consequences if everybody obeyed gods rules instead of doing what they want there would not be any unwanted pregnancies or children being born out of wedlock or any other things I doubt that the majority of abortions are of women use birth control and the birth control failed that’s why the bible says that are going to see good as something bad and the bad as something good that’s why the world is so messed up today because the wicked one is misleading the entire earth.”
  • “You are nothing but a wicked woman who loves to murder babies. You are a Satanist, a Devil worshipper. I pray for you to trust in Jesus and be saved, Valerie. I pity you because you will one day face a HOLY GOD named the LORD JESUS CHRIST who created those babies and those children who you advocate for the mass murder of. To support abortion, aka, baby slaughter, baby murder, is to be complicit in it. God can forgive you if you will trust in His eternal Son the Lord Jesus Christ and His shed blood atonement alone, Valerie.”
  • “Abortion should be illegal and the participants charged with murder and punished.”
  • “Shooting an abortionist is as “wrong” as shooting a sniper on the roof of a school, you do what you have to do to save the lives of children, both born and unborn.”

Once Set in Motion . . . .

Prolife™ leaders may cringe and seek to distance themselves from comments like these, or from the prayer circles and rosaries and gauntlet of hell-threats outside of abortion clinics—or worse, from stochastic terrorism like the murders at Colorado’s Planned Parenthood. But ordinary Evangelicals and conservative Catholics really can’t be blamed for their difficulty in getting the branding right.

Many have been taught from childhood that every fetus is a teeny weeny baby, and that God values each from the moment of conception. Scientifically or statistically this may be implausible, but it’s black and white, beyond question like other points of theology. Some abortion opponents—most—retain an intuitive sense that the difference between an embryo and a child is morally consequential. But others simply follow that line of thinking to its logical conclusion: An abortion provider is a sniper on a school roof. A woman aborting a pregnancy might as well be drowning her preschooler in a bathtub. The only possible explanation is that those who disagree lack morals or are in the thrall of Satan.

The Fruit of the Prolife Spirit

One of the New Testament writers made the mistake of saying that Christians would be known by their “fruit,” meaning their actions and the consequences of those actions. If this is the case, the motives and morality of ProLifeTM Christians are laid bare not only by their own ugly words and behavior but by the fruit of their relentless, obsessive campaign to obstruct abortion access while simultaneously denying prospective parents the information and contraceptives needed to time their pregnancies. Pro-woman? Guess again.

  • Over 200 women in the U.S.—and over 200,000 globally—dead each year from an unsought pregnancy.
  • Millions more with permanent changes to health or mental health.
  • Pregnant teens and young women forced to drop out of school, floundering for years or decades instead of flourishing.
  • Fragile families locked into deeper poverty by mistimed and unwanted fertility.

Underlying all of this is the foundational assumption that women don’t know what is best for them and their families, can’t know what is best, can’t be trusted as autonomous moral agents—which is why God put men in charge. Women were made for childbearing. The Bible says so!

Not Gender Justice, Not Social Justice

If there’s one thing that can be said for the ancient texts gathered in the Bible, it is that many of them have a strong social justice message. Prolife leaders, recognizing this, often claim that they are advocating justice for the most vulnerable members of society, which includes children and racial minorities as well as women. They relentlessly link abortion with genocide or with the misguided eugenics push of the early 20th Century, proclaiming for example that Black babies are in particular danger of being aborted. (Poor Black women do abort somewhat more than white women but also carry more pregnancies forward because of a higher rate of pregnancy.)

In reality, families living at the hardscrabble edges of life are those most negatively affected by the Religious Right’s obstruction of family planning services.

I was in Singapore when my husband and I discovered that my first trimester pregnancy was infected with Toxoplasmosis. The consequences can be much like Zika, so we decided to abort and start over; and we received supportive, competent abortion care from a Singaporean doctor trained in Canada. Had timely care not been available in Singapore, we could have gone wherever we needed. Our privileged reality is inconceivable for most couples or women facing an ill-timed or unhealthy pregnancy.

Abortions have always been more available to upper and middle class couples than families struggling to get by. Knowing that they can’t control women of means, the Religious Right has doubled down on poor women who rely on public healthcare services, denying them insurance coverage and forcing on them long distance travel and childcare costs that [abortion foes hope will] become insurmountable barriers. In the Pacific Northwest, poor women in need of abortion turn to complete strangers for financial support via a program known as the CAIR Project, one of several “underground railroads” providing housing, transportation and funding for women in need.

Nationally, advocates for poor women and families are fighting through the coordinated campaign All* Above All to overturn the Hyde Amendment, which for 40 years has stripped abortion coverage out of Medicaid. Women of color—long denied the full right to manage their own fertility and disproportionately impacted by this restriction—are taking the lead.

Pro Woman, Pro Family, Pro Child

Not all women and men want children, but for all of us decisions about parenthood are among the most important and life-shaping choices we will ever make.

As parents, we all want to stack the odds in favor of our children flourishing. Those who can, seek prenatal and pediatric care, and provide nutritious food, and read stories, and help with homework, and get up bleary-eyed and go to work, and sock away a little financial buffer. Even men and women whose lives are destitute or desperate, or who are plagued with illness or mental illness, want what is best for their kids.

Religious rhetoric aside, we all know that parenting begins before conception, not at some magical moment when a sperm penetrates an egg. We know that the timing and circumstances of birth can shape the course of a child’s life. Mindful of our own limits, most of us try to time and limit our pregnancies, and we sometimes end them, so that we can bring our kids into the world under the best possible conditions available to us, with enough bounty to thrive.

Real pro-life passion is more than just lipstick on a pig in a clerical collar. It means thinking about what makes life so precious to all of us, regardless of our religion or circumstances. It means doing what we can to create genuine reproductive empowerment so that perhaps, someday, all children will come into loving families who are ready to welcome them with open arms.

Originally published at ValerieTarico.com

Responding to Bill Maher on Islam

In response to the massacre in Orlando, Bill Maher criticized conservatives for opposing gun control and criticized liberals for refusing to blame Islam.

Bill Maher criticizes conservatives for opposing gun control and criticized liberals for refusing to blame Islam.

As a liberal I can respond: “Sure, radical Islam is a problem but (1) the West provoked them by attacking numerous Muslim countries and by supporting brutal regimes. (2) It’s only a minority of Muslims that are the problem, not Islam in general. Is the problem Islam or is it radical Islam? Or is the problem (fanatical) religion in general? Should we blame all Christians for the evil acts of a few Christians? (3) So what? Should we attack Muslim countries or ban all Muslims from entering?”

The Law of Conservation of Good and Evil

Physics has physical laws such as Law of Conservation of Energy.

I propose the Law of Conservation of Good and Evil.   In systems/people/institutions to which it applies, the LCE says that over the long run, the amount of good and evil evens out.   It’s an empirical question whether the law applies to specific systems on earth.  My guess is that it applies to most religions.

On the one hand, religions teach people to care for others and help the poor and the sick.  Abolitionism and the Civil Rights Movement were largely led by religious folk.   Many devout religious people are loving and humble. Often they donate money, both to help their religious organization and to help disadvantaged people.

On the other hand, religious intolerance and superstition often lead followers to support demagogic and reactionary politicians who cause wars, discrimination, corruption, inequality, and waste.   The ascendancy of the Republican Party in the late 20th century was largely due to support by the religious right.      Republican policies resulted in much death, destruction, and injustice:  unnecessary, corrupt wars that killed and maimed millions and wasted trillions of dollars; reckless deregulation that harms our health, crashed the economy, and damages our economic well-being;  violation of rights of women and gays; and increasing concentration of wealth and power.

Also, while many religious people are loving and humble, many religious people are self-righteous, deluded, condescending, intolerant, and  vindictive (especially if you question the veracity of their religious dogmas).

The LCE may be a consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that the entropy (disorder) in an isolated system always increases.  Both good and evil would seem to require effort and order: it takes work to help someone or to harm someone.

The LCE would bode poorly for Martin Luther King’s hope that the arc of history bends towards justice.

There is some evidence that the arc of history does bend towards justice:  there is less war, violence, and exploitation now compared to the past.  Slavery is outlawed in most places. Women are gaining rights.  Education and government (yes, governments!) have brought peace and civility for most people.  It’s unclear whether such progress will continue.

Seven World Views in brief

The Theist (Western)

There is a compassionate God who cares about you. Happiness comes from love, service, and surrender to God. (But, according to many Christians, God is vengeful and jealous and may torture you if you disobey Him.)

The Theist (Eastern)

Your Higher Self (atman) is identical with God (Brahma). Purify yourself, meditate and surrender so that you become One with God.

The Buddhist

Craving, anger, and delusion cause unnecessary suffering. Let go of your attachment to these defilements and free yourself from the insubstantial ego. Then settle into your original empty nature (which is good, kinda, but not good enough to quality as an essence or soul).

The New Age Mystic

There are benevolent angels and spirits that will guide you, but also malevolent forces you must resist.

The Badass Cynic

The world is a dangerous and cruel place. Kick ass and you can be on top.

The Depressive Loser

The world is a dangerous and cruel place. If you’re not angry, scared and depressed, there’s something seriously wrong with you and you should see a trained professional.

The Mature Atheist

Life is both wonderful and dangerous. Grow up and don’t expect perfection, eternal life, or someone to save you. Study hard, work hard, be nice to people, be careful, and enjoy the ride.

Seven World Views

Jerry Falwell’s Endorsement of Trump Reveals Who He Worships—And It Ain’t Jesus

If believing oneself to be the Only Begotten Son of God makes one a follower of Jesus, then maybe Trump qualifies. Either way, Jerry Falwell has a truth problem.

On Tuesday, January 26, Jerry Falwell Jr., President of Liberty University, endorsed Donald Trump for President, saying that Trump is “a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.” The endorsement is no surprise: Falwell had previously likened Trump to his own father and even to Jesus himself, saying “In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the Great Commandment.”

Is Trump a faithful follower of Jesus?

Set aside for the moment the fact that he’s biblically illiterate. That doesn’t necessarily disqualify him. In fact, research suggests that atheists typically perform better on tests of religious knowledge than Christians do. So, maybe the fact that Trump can’t name a favorite verse, can’t decide whether the Old Testament or New is more important, and doesn’t know how to pronounce 2 Corinthians, is just a way of establishing credibility among the faithful. Same reason he uses a 4th grade vocabulary. Clever guy, that Trump.

But let’s take a look at what Falwell said about the Great Commandment.

What is the Great Commandment?

Falwell’s effusive words reference a story from the book of Matthew. In it, the Pharisees, who are the religious authorities of the time, ask Jesus which is the greatest of all the commandments in the Torah. Levitical law recommends capital punishment for 30 different felonies, so some legitimate moral confusion could arise: Is sassing your parents really as bad sex before marriage, being a witch, or committing murder? And faced with an offense, what’s a decent person to do? In the words of the now-famous “Dr. Laura Letter,”

“I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?”

As I said, the long list of Levitical crimes and punishments can be confusing, but in Matthew’s story, the Pharisees are just trying to trick Jesus into saying one sin is worse than the rest so that they can show he’s a bad Jew. But Jesus slips the noose by answering that the whole of the Torah can be summed up in two principles: 1. Love God with all your heart; 2. Love your neighbor as yourself. The way you know you’re doing well on Commandment 1 is if you’re doing well on Commandment 2.

Love your neighbor as yourself? That’s a high bar for a guy whose narcissistic personality disorder is so florid that experts have broken the normal professional taboo against diagnosing a public figure. Clinical psychologist and professor George Simon told the press,

“He’s so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example of his characteristics. Otherwise, I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.”

Epic Fail

Ok, ok, so love your neighbor as yourself is a stratospherically-high bar for a narcissist, rather like a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Some would argue that it’s an impossible (or unhealthy) bar even for those of us without personality disorders. How about some of the other teachings that have made Jesus a figure of inspiration for the last 2000 years?

Jesus says blessed are the meek (Matthew 5:5). Trump boasts that he’s so popular that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

Jesus advocates nonviolence (Matthew 5:39). Trump vows to use brute force against America’s enemies, and then take their assets to pay for the war. “To the victor belong the spoils.” He promises to strengthen the military so that it’s “so big and so strong and so great” that “nobody’s going to mess with us.” At Liberty University, he championed gun ownership, telling Christian college students, “We’ve got to have the right to protect ourselves.”

Jesus says not to call other people names (Matthew 5:22). Trump has made headlines with his public insults of (among others)  Fox reporter Megan Kelly, disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski, competing presidential candidates, and the people of Iowa.

Jesus says give all your money to the poor and come follow me (Luke 18:22). Trump’s tax returns show him to be one of America’s least charitable billionaires, “a miser, not an ‘ardent philanthropist’.”

Jesus spends his time among the poor, living as one of them (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Trump’s opulent Manhattan penthouse and Palm Beach estate rival the quarters of Marie Antoinette.

Jesus heals the sick (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Trump vows to take away an insurance program that has made healthcare accessible to 10 million Americans.

Jesus welcomes the downtrodden. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).  Trump envisions an “artistically beautiful” wall of steel rebar and hardened concrete along the southern border of the United States. “I will build a great wall—and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me—and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

Jesus says not to shirk taxes, even if you don’t agree with the government (Mark 12:13-17). While promising to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure, Trump pledges to cut taxes for wealthy individuals and corporations.

Jesus heals a woman who practices a despised minority religion, affirming her faith (Matthew 15:21-28). Trump intends to create a database of Muslims in America and suspend further immigration.

Jesus teaches that sometimes a “Samaritan,” a member of a despised minority, can show us how to live and love better (Luke 10:25-37). Trump proposes halting immigration from war-torn Syria and shipping 11 million Latin Americans back to the countries they came from.

Jesus willingly endures the criticism of his detractors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Offended at being asked hard, critical questions by conservative Fox journalist Megan Kelly, Trump announced he would refuse to participate in any debate where she was a moderator.

Falwell might have gotten away with likening Trump to Jehovah–the petty, racist, sexist, war-mongering, temper-tantruming God of the Old Testament who seeks constant adoration. But Jesus is a different character.  If believing oneself the Only Begotten Son of God makes one a follower of Jesus, then maybe Trump qualifies. Otherwise, the two have as little in common as Napoleon and Gandhi.

Either way, Jerry Falwell has a serious truthiness issue—which in biblical terms raises questions about who he really worships. In the Bible, one of the core attributes of God is truth, while Satan is described as the Father of Lies—one who can even appear as a divine messenger.

Needless to say, a liar, whether human or supernatural, can appear as a divine messenger only to those who believe in such things. Perhaps that is why few people other than conservative Christians have been swayed by Falwell’s adoration of a man who so obviously is Not Like Jesus.

If Liberty University students are paying attention, Falwell’s endorsement of Trump may help some of them realize why so many former Bible believers now stand on the outside, refusing to take our guidance from self-proclaimed messengers of God and instead assessing presidential candidates and university presidents alike through the lens of our own reason and conscience.

Originally published at ValerieTarico.com

The Sex-Negative Message in the Virgin Birth—It’s Worth a Family Conversation

The birth story of baby Jesus celebrates the promise of new life, but for girls it also sends a harmful message. How can we acknowledge this without spoiling the rest?

Most Americans, even many who are not very religious, look forward to Christmas as a time to celebrate warmth, friendship, generosity and good cheer. Familiar festivities weave together stories and traditions from many cultures, which makes it easy to find something for everyone. But maybe it’s time to look a little closer at the Christmas story itself.

The birth story of the baby Jesus is heartwarming and iconic—the promise of new life and new hope in a time of darkness. It has inspired centuries of maternal art and is the best loved of all Bible stories. It also has a darker subtext, especially for someone like me—the mother of two daughters.

In the story, an angel appears to a virgin girl, announcing that she will conceive a baby boy. Her fiancé Joseph decides to stick with her only because her baby bump is of divine origins. The author of Luke makes a point of telling us that he refrains from sex with her till after the baby Jesus is born. All of this emphasis on Mary’s sexual history, or rather lack thereof, sends a message that can be shaming and harmful: Only an unbedded, unsullied, unused female—a virgin—could be good enough to birth a perfect child, the son of God.

Virginity Equals Purity

Girls who have sex are soiled. That may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we see a picture of Madonna and child or hear a Christmas carol, but the message is clear all the same, and the fact that it is subtext may make it all the more insidious for young women.

Mind you, Christianity is not the only religion that has assigned such extraordinary status to the pristine vagina or, conversely, treated female sexuality as something lesser or tainted. For example, Buddha’s mother Maya, called the “best of all women,” becomes pregnant after a god in a dream enters her womb from the side. Adding insult to injury, Buddhism tells us that a

“Bodisat leaves his mother’s womb erect and unsoiled, like a preacher descending from a pulpit or a man from a ladder, erect, stretching out his hands and feet, unsoiled by any impurities from contact with his mother’s womb, pure and fair, and shining like a gem placed on fine muslin of Benares.” — Mahapadana-sutra, Digha ii. 12

In the Ancient Near East, the birthplace of Christianity, some cultures saw the woman’s body as a vessel for a baby, which grew from the seed of a man or sometimes a supernatural being, much as a seed might grow in the earth. In this way of thinking, heroes and powerful men must have come from divine seed, and claims of a sexless conception underscored their supernatural origins. The Pharaoh Amenhotep III, Perseus, Romulus . . . even Augustus, Pythagoras, and Alexander the Great all were the subject of miraculous birth claims.

Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe

The enormous value that patriarchal cultures and religions place on female virginity has roots in biology. We’ve all heard the saying, “Mama’s baby, Papa’s maybe.” From time immemorial men have sought to control female sexuality to ensure that the children in which they invest their time, money and life energy are their own; and also to maximize their own offspring. Male animals of some other species do the same. For example, when a new male lion comes into a pride, he may kill all of the cubs from the previous male, which brings the females into heat so that he himself can mate them.

Man’s Instincts Become God’s Edicts

In the tribal, herding cultures of the Near East a young woman’s sexuality—her ability to produce purebred offspring of known origin—was an asset that belonged to her father. In the Hebrew Bible’s legal code, a rapist can be forced to purchase the goods he has damaged and to then keep her as a wife. A girl who voluntarily destroys this family asset by having sex before her wedding is to be stoned—the same penalty that persists in Islam today.

A woman’s reproductive capacity is also valuable booty of war. In the battle between the Israelites and Midianites, for example, God’s messenger instructs that the Israelites are to kill all of the women who have been with a man but to keep the virgin girls for themselves. (These and other horrible references here.)

Culture and religion transform biological urges into legally binding prescriptions from God himself. Once that happens, patterns that may have started for practical or biological reasons take on a momentum of their own, and we see this in the history of the Virgin Mary.

The Sexless Union of Israel and Rome

The earliest sects of Christianity disagreed with each other about when and how Jesus became uniquely divine. Some believed that he was adopted by God at the time of his baptism or resurrection. But as Christianity, with its Hebrew roots, adapted to the cultures of the Roman Empire, the story of a supernatural, sexless birth won out. It beautifully merged the god-man tradition of the Empire with Judaism’s obsessive and multifaceted focus on purity—pure bloodlines, pure foods, unblemished bodies, monotheism, unblended fabrics, and, of course, virginity.

The Roman Catholic Church took the last of these new heights, turning Mary into a perpetual virgin for life and then for all of eternity, and eventually making vows of sexual abstinence a requirement of monastic life and the priesthood.

Actress Julia Sweeney, in her funny, tender monologue, Letting Go of God, describes an encounter with two fresh-faced Mormon missionaries. Finding herself incredulous at some their beliefs, she pictures door-to-door Catholics enthusiastically endorsing the faith of her childhood:

If someone came to my door and I was hearing Catholic theology and dogma for the first time, and they said, “We believe that God impregnated a very young girl without the use of intercourse, and the fact that she was a virgin is maniacally important to us . . .” I would have thought that was equally ridiculous. I’m just so used to that story.

Aphrodesia or Death

“Maniacally important” may be a quirky Julia Sweeney turn of phrase, but it contains an oversized grain of truth. The Catholic pantheon of saints and martyrs is peopled with females who, with Mary as their model of virtuous womanhood, valued their virginity (and their chaste yet semi-sexual devotion to Jesus) more than their lives: St. Agatha, in an attempt to break her virtuous resolve, was handed over to Aphrodesia, “an abominable woman, who, together with her daughters, publicly professed immodesty.” St. Lucy, “was yet very young when she offered to God the flower of her virginity.” St. Barbara’s “father, carrying out her death sentence, beheaded her himself, and in turn, legend says, was consumed by a fire from heaven;” and St. Ursula, was martyred on a prenuptial pilgrimage with 11,000 other virgins!

The glories of female virginity have spawned tributes ranging from paintings to pilgrimages and poetry to place names. Christopher Columbus christened the Virgin Islands in honor of St. Ursula and her untouched entourage, while the State of Virginia was named after England’s Elizabeth, “The Virgin Queen.” Virginia remains a popular girl’s name in the U.S., along with a host of variants such as Ginny, Ginger, Gina, Lagina, and Gigi. All of these mean chaste, fresh and maidenly—virginal.

Promise Rings and Purity Balls

Protestant Christianity is a rebel offspring of the Vatican, and even though the Protestant reformers rejected the cult of Mary, Catholicism’s supreme value on female chastity was deeply imbedded in their DNA, where it persists to this day. Among the more quixotic manifestations are purity balls and promise rings through which a young girl can pledge her maidenhead to her father for safekeeping until such time as he should hand it over to a mutually agreeable young man.

The image of a girl in a white dress dancing with her daddy, like a beautiful painting of Madonna and child, may evoke a feeling of sweet nostalgia. But rituals and icons like these are artistic residual of the ancient Near Eastern culture in which women (along with children and slaves and livestock) were literally possessions of men. As writer Jessica Valenti outlines in her book, The Purity Myth, they are the bright surface of a dark, deep cultural current that denies and shames women’s sexuality.

A woman used is a woman soiled. A woman raped is a woman ruined. A girl who explores her body with a boy is a licked lollypop. A divorced woman shouldn’t get married in white. Only an unbedded and so unsullied female—a virgin—could be pure enough to birth a perfect child, the son of God.

Beyond Virginity

How can sex-positive people who also enjoy Christmas affirm what it means to be fully female, including the physical pleasures of the female body, not merely its reproductive potential? How can all of us teach our daughters that their bodies are wholesome and beautiful, whether or not they have been molested or assaulted or have had sexual experiences of their own choosing? How can we help to break down the harmful virgin-whore dichotomy, with the only alternative being asexual motherhood?

Some Christian theologians have returned to emphasizing the earliest Christ birth narratives, in which Jesus came into the world in the normal way. Two Church fathers, Origin and Justin Martyr, mention sects of Christians who believed Jesus was the natural son of Mary and Joseph. The Apostle Paul and even the writer of Luke appear to have held this perspective, and the virgin birth is now thought to be a late addition to the gospel narratives.

Episcopal priest, Chloe Breyer summarizes the long history of Christian debate over the virgin birth in her article, “The Earthly Father.” Even after virgin birth stories emerged, a countervailing illegitimacy tradition persisted for centuries. By the time the Bible congealed in the fourth century, such perspectives were considered heretical, but they have been revived in recent years. Such arguments admittedly go against the current, but they show that belief in a virgin birth—with all that implies about female sexuality—is not necessary to Christianity or to appreciating many kinds of symbolism in Christmas story.

Progressive Christians, do not treat the Bible as the literally perfect word of God but instead understand it as a human-made set of documents containing moral and spiritual insights (and failings) of our ancestors. Secularists, though they may not prize the Bible, understand all sacred texts in this way, which allows us to glean through, keeping the parts that fit and treating the rest as a window into human history and psychology.

For those who share this mindset, whether or not they retain some belief in the supernatural, the Christmas story and season offer valuable opportunities to open up conversation with young people about many aspects of humanity’s long moral arc, including perspectives on the female body. Simply leaving youth to internalize negative messages about sexuality or waiting for them to bring up awkward topics is asking them to do our job. The wise parent or aunt or friend tunes in to readiness and explores ideas and values as opportunities arise. Perhaps one of your gifts during this holiday season could be the gift of a conversation.

Originally published at Valerie Tarico.com