- - Wednesday, January 24, 2018


You’d think by now we’d be comfortable about sex, but we’re not.

Sex galvanizes and polarizes American politics in 2018 just as it has for the past hundred years. Disagreement about what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to sex is so fraught that the very meaning of the word, “morality,” has come to refer exclusively to sex.

The latest political expression of our sexual obsession is the Trump administration’s proposal to safeguard the rights of health care workers to refuse to provide services on religious or moral grounds. “Religious or moral grounds” in this

context can mean only one thing. And that thing is so important that while rest of government is cutting back, the Department of Health and Human Services has created a brand new bureaucracy to accommodate the proposal. The job of the new Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom is to protect doctors, nurses and others who refuse to take part in procedures like abortion or treat particular patients because of moral or religious objections.

Again, for “moral or religious” read sexual. Health workers will be able to refuse services to pregnant women, and to those with gender identity and sexual orientations the workers deem objectionable. They will undoubtedly not be
protected if they refuse treatment to other patients they might find morally objectionable.

And there are lots of patients whose behaviors are morally or religiously objectionable to their doctors. Take people with addictions, as just one example. Some major religions forbid drinking alcohol. On that basis, is a doctor free to deny
treatment to patients with alcohol-related injuries and illnesses? Will nurses whose religion or conscience prohibits smoking be protected when they refuse to treat an emphysema patient who continues to smoke?

Of course not. In American politics, religion and moral conflict revolve intensely and exclusively around sexual issues, and those conflicts go back a long way. Long before abortion was legal, the nation’s moral struggles and culture wars raged over sex in such battles as interracial marriage,
censorship of sexually explicit literature and birth control.

Back in the 1920s the Catholic Church, which considers most contraception intrinsically evil, fiercely opposed the political movement to make birth control information and products available to the public. Liberal Protestants had a different view and supported birth control. Similarly, in the 1960s, the movement for sex education in public schools was led by mainline Protestants, including Mary Calderone, a devout Quaker. They believed that ignorance and miseducation led to sex laced with guilt, and proper sex education would enable healthier relations.

The intertwining of religion, sex and politics continued and became more nuanced, with conservative Protestants aligning with conservative Catholics, and liberal Protestants with liberal Catholics on the polarizing issues of legalizing
abortion and more recently, same-sex marriages.

As divisive as the sex-politics-religion triad issues are, there continue to be areas of agreement. These days no one makes light of sexual harassment or abuse of power in the
workplace — unless the harasser is their own party’s candidate or president.

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