The "First Amendment Defense Act"—who could quarrel with that?
I do. Maybe you do, too.
HR2802 prohibits the federal government from acting against anyone who "believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief" that gays shouldn't marry or that sex belongs only in heterosexual marriage.
Under this law, the feds couldn't withhold tax exemptions, contracts, or loans from people or corporations defying federal laws prohibiting discrimination against GLBT people. The bill would protect a business denying time off for a gay employee to care for a sick spouse. It would protect a private school refusing a child just because her parents are gay.
Along with "conscience clauses," this bill elevates "religious belief" into a convenient exemption from the laws the rest of us must follow.
Here is the First Amendment's entire guarantee of religious freedom:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The Founders' intent is clear and simple: to prevent the government:
- from "establishing"—sponsoring or requiring a religion, and
- from "prohibiting the free exercise"—confiscating books, banning churches, criminalizing blasphemy or heresy.
In America, we can believe what we want (unlike in Saudi Arabia). We can pray (or not) as we wish (unlike in Iran). We can urge our kids to make the private y choices we prefer about how to live their lives (unlike in China).
In America, the government may not regulate what to worship or how to worship. It must regulate how all people are treated, and the basic rights all people can expect. As that standard changes over time, everyone is expected to adjust as a condition of citizenship. Women now vote—you don't get to prevent them. Black people now move into your neighborhood—you can't exclude them with neighborhood covenants. Handicapped people get to use your restaurant—you don't get to say you can't afford an accessible bathroom.
Over the years, our civilization's ideas about health, child-rearing, women, and civil rights have evolved. But traditional religious ideas in these areas are lagging behind (by definition—their followers want to live by 2,000-year-old rules). This sets up a conflict between their religious ideas and their country's political ideas. For politics to accommodate those religious ideas, we'd have to go backwards, abandoning social, cultural, and technological progress.
Religious people apparently want to have it both ways—they want the modern advantages of cars, telephones, medicine, and the Designated Hitter, but they want to cherry pick which of civilization's advances they can't abide.
And most of them somehow concern sex. Respecting their Iron Age religion's obsessions with sex would strip us of many of our most cherished freedoms—many of which we have fought for, and achieved, in our own lifetime.
And so last week Paul and Teresa Wieland sued the government in federal court. They claim that the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate tramples on their family's religious rights even if they don't use of it. They want a law that doesn't affect them dismantled because it offends them.
And because they're afraid that the law more easily enables two of their daughters, who are not minors, to get contraceptive information or products. They lament a world in which their efforts "to nurture, educate, and raise" their daughters "according to Catholic principles" is threatened. They don't trust their own parenting—so they want America to roll back its laws to the way human needs were understood a millennium or two ago.
So are there any limits to the assertion of religious privilege?
The historic preference given to religious belief over philosophical, artistic, astrological, or psychotic belief is an anomaly we must bear. But empowering people to drag all of us back to the 1950s, 1850s, or the 50s in order to protect their bizarre vision of life's requirements is a tragic mistake that increasingly undermines our democracy.
With Americans like these, who needs other countries' religious fanatics?
As an everyday therapist, shame isn't some abstract idea—it's quite real to me. It's why people keep secrets. It's why they do exactly the opposite of what they want to—to prove that they don't want it. It's a big reason people behave self-destructively—unable to talk about their impulses, their feelings, or their curiosity, they act them out, despite the consequences.
(Note: When the behavior involves sex, this may be mistaken as "addiction." Nonsense.)
There is no part of being human about which Americans feel more shame than sex. Predictably, that leads to sexual secrets, sexual violence, sexual acting out, and dramatic sexual inhibitions.
And it's intertwined with sexual exceptionalism—the idea that sex is different than everything else, and needs special rules to govern it. For example:
You go to Mary's house for dinner, you tell her how you like your chicken cooked. You go to bed with Mary, you don't tell her you'd like less fingernails on your back.
You go hiking with John and you tell him to slow down a bit. You go to bed with John and you don't tell him you wish he'd slow down a bit.
You've seen the musical Cats a dozen times—which you know other people think is odd, but that's OK with you. You like a finger in your butt during sex—which you imagine other people think is odd, and that's definitely not OK with you.
You watch a NASCAR race knowing that the thought of someone crashing is actually kind of exciting. You go to bed knowing that the thought of your husband slapping you is kind of exciting—and you're terrified of what it "means" about you.
Enter the Internet.
On the Internet, we can be ourselves. We can also be someone other than ourselves: Shy people can be flirtatious or even aggressive. Females can be male. The old can be young, the young old, and everyone can have blue eyes and a flat stomach. Many people find these adventures to be liberating.
But there are games the government won't allow you to play, even within the relative safety of the Internet. Adults are not allowed to talk about sex with unrelated minors (it can look like grooming for abuse). Adults are not allowed to photoshop children's heads on nude adult bodies. Adults are not allowed to go to chatrooms where other adults pretend to be minors and talk with them about having pretend sex together.
You better not do that last one—what participants call erotic age-play or age role-play—because the government has planted detectives in these chatrooms to pose as adults pretending to be minors. If the adult you're involved with in age-play turns out to be a cop, you'll be accused of believing that the adult you've been playing with is an actual minor, and your life will be ruined.
Yes, it's that simple.
If the point of age-play is to pretend as believably as you can ("Is your mom home? No? Great! What are you wearing, honey?"), it's almost impossible to prove that you didn't believe you were talking to an actual minor (as opposed to an adult pretending to be a minor). And while the burden of proof rests with the government, juries play better-safe-than-sorry when confronted with someone who just might be a predator.
Which brings us back to shame: shame that we have the sexual fantasies we do, that we yearn to play the sex games we love, that our body parts are wired for pleasure a little differently than some others' (you know, "normal" others).
Learning about it hour after hour, decade after decade, as a sex therapist I'm privileged to know exactly how kinky the human family is. Are my patients super-strange? Nah—when I compare what I hear with what my colleagues hear, it's pretty much the same.
Age-play. Fetishes. Erogenous zones that no one would dream of (except for the millions of people with the same one). And fantasies: ranging from Cleopatra to Henry Kissinger, from a lonely farmhouse to a not-so-lonely space capsule, from the most violent and cruel to the most docile and eerily innocent.
If people weren't ashamed of their idiosyncratic eroticism, if we all had a more accurate sense of human sexual desire, fantasy, imagination, and curiosity, we'd each realize just how gloriously ordinary our sexuality is. We wouldn't have to hide in the anonymous bulrushes of the internet, wouldn't have to suffer silently through others' irritating sexual techniques, wouldn't need special sexual etiquette. As in other things, paying attention, being respectful, and keeping a sense of humor would cover most situations.
Until then, people will keep sexual secrets from their mate (and their therapist). They'll stop having sex with their partner, or they'll compulsively pursue their partner every day, regardless of practicality ("I and the baby are both sick, Mario, do you really think I want sex?"). They'll drop out of therapy rather than risk my judgement about how weird they are.
A terrified patient once said, "I bet if I tell you my story, it'll be the weirdest thing you ever heard in this room." "Listen," I replied, "I'll bet it wouldn't even be the oddest story I've heard since lunch."
And that's the day he started changing his life.
As delegates land in Cleveland International Airport for the Republican convention next week, they can expect to hear the following announcement: "As our plane descends into Cleveland, passengers are reminded to set their watches back 15 years."
Yes, the proposed Republican Party platform is seriously behind the times. It urges that the legalization of same-gender marriage be reversed; endorses the professionally-discredited "conversion therapy" (attempting to "cure" GLBT children); wants transgendered people barred from bathrooms that don't match their birth gender; and of course demands that abortion be criminalized—or made so onerous that no actual person could get one.
And it declares that pornography is a Public Health Crisis, especially for children, which "is destroying the life of millions;" and it urges states to fight this "public menace," pledging their "commitment to children's safety and well-being."
Them's fightin' words.
It's words we didn't hear forty years ago, and it's not because Playboy was considered good for the soul back then. Preachers and civic leaders everywhere were talking about it: it was immoral, it was "smut," and users were ostracized (and vendors were sometimes jailed). It was said the Bible condemned porn and the lust it encouraged, and that masturbation was sinful (a deliberate misreading of Genesis 38, in which Onan is struck down for refusing to participate in levirate marriage—not for masturbation).
These days critiques of pornography don't mention masturbation much, don't mention sin much, and rarely discuss morality. The anti-pornography narrative has changed.
It's no longer about immorality; it's about public welfare and public danger. The porn user is no longer seen as endangering just himself, but his family, his community, and millions of children across the country as well. Porn itself is dangerous, and porn users are supposedly converting this dangerous substance into public danger.
In this critique, porn use has been converted from a private activity to a public activity. As a result, the number of stakeholders who can legitimately oppose it has skyrocketed, and now include those who oppose human trafficking, domestic violence, child abuse, sex work, rape, the exploitation of women, and anything that "demeans women."
Other new stakeholders include those promoting covenant marriage, those who treat "porn addiction," and those who believe masturbating to porn creates sexual dysfunction or a lack of interest in real women.
These various parties now talk about pornography with great authority and passion, as if they suddenly know something about it (their bizarre statistics, extreme examples, and unproven associations show otherwise).
These new stakeholders all talk about internet porn as if it is a completely new creature about which we must develop entirely new concepts of human beings. Internet porn—with us less than twenty years–is seen as somehow responsible for social ills that have been with us for centuries, like rape and disrespect for women.
And yet according to the FBI, the rate of rape has gone down steadily since broadband internet brought porn into everyone's home. And who wants to argue that respect and opportunities for women were higher in the 1950s, the 1930s, the 1890s, or any other decade in human history? Of course we want things to improve. That doesn't mean things haven't improved at all.
Internet porn does have a problematic impact—boys and young men, and therefore girls and young women, are learning about sex from it. But don't blame porn for that.
American parents have completely abandoned the idea of effective school sex education, and they run screaming from any actual conversation with their kids about porn—its unrealistic bodies, its stylized version of sex without affection, its portrayal of sex games without the label "this is a sex game—don't take it literally."
If your neighbor gave his teen a car without teaching him how to drive, you wouldn't blame the car if the kid had an accident. If we give our kids access to porn either personally (by giving them smartphones) or culturally (via a wide-open internet) and don't give them instruction in this complex adult product, it's unfair to blame them for their unsophisticated interpretation of what they see. It's ludicrous and irresponsible to blame the porn—yet that's what most grownups opposing porn do.
Sure, Republicans, keep trying to turn the clock back on regulating our private sexuality. Some of you are already trying to criminalize birth control, and your local zoning commissions keep attempting to eliminate adult entertainment—which judges keep reminding you is illegal. Keep shutting down performances of Vagina Monologues, as if that will stop people from acknowledging their vaginas. Keep insisting that discrimination is OK when directed at others' sexual choices—cab drivers refusing to take people to abortion clinics, bakers refusing to bake wedding cakes for gays.
Americans are frightened by ISIS, paralyzed by climate change, disgusted with their government, crippled by second-rate public education, and increasingly overweight and overworked.
So good work, Republicans, coming together in these complex times to give Americans what they really need: restrictions on other people's sexual expression.