Oh My God! Christonormativity and Sexual Politics

Public spotlight has focused intently on reproductive justice lately: in the campaigns of presidential hopefuls, in the media, and in the procedings of the U.S. legistlature. Debates have culminated this fall in a show-down on Capitol Hill as members of Congress attempt to de-fund Planned Parenthood. The House and Senate both voted to de-fund the organization, which amounts to cutting off Medicaid payouts to the non-profit that millions of low-income people depend on for healthcare. These payments are the most significant source of government funding to the organization. This drastic move by Congress follows shortly after the tragic shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorodo Springs in late November. Fortunately, President Obama has promised to veto the bill and prevent it from going into effect.

But wait a second: why are lawmakers making such a stink over Planned Parenthood anyway?

The tempting answer for those on board with reproductive justice is "THEY'RE TERRIBLE PEOPLE WHO HATE WOMEN!" But this answer leaves out a lot of key pieces of information. Most lawmakers, we can assume, believe they are doing the right thing for their country. So how can their actions be so terrible when their intentions are, on some level, good? Fact is, people everywhere, everyday, harm others without even realizing what they’re doing when they buy into beliefs that support oppressive systems. Let's unpack what that means and looks like.

Here at Scarleteen, we talk a lot about "heteronormativity:" the ways that heterosexual relationships are portrayed as the standard or default. You don't have to be a "bad" person to buy into heteronormative beliefs, yet heteronormativity is harmful to non-straight people all the same. This and other social dynamics such as sexism, racism, ableism, transphobiaadultism, etc. affect each person's experience of the world around them. Each person exists at a point of intersection between the many forces that influence their life: some that help them, and some that hurt them. We exercise free will within the social systems of privilege and oppression that already existed before we entered them, and each person moves through these systems differently depending on their unique characteristics.

Because social systems intersect, they reinforce one another like the columns and support beams of a skyscraper. In this "skyscraper"--a metaphor here for society--some people have access to the elevators while others must use the stairs; some people are born in the penthouse, others in the cellar; some people are given the keys to the rooftop garden, and some people don't even know it exists. Tearing down the skyscraper and building something new sounds really scary and difficult, so even those--the majority--who would benefit from a more equitable structure choose instead to work hard within the structure and settle for whatever advantages they can earn, no matter how small.

One powerful, reinforcing component of our social structure or "skyscraper" is Christonormativity, the assumption that Christian values are, and should be, the norm, standard or default.

The term was coined by scholar Abby Ferber in her 2012 article "The Culture of Privilege: Color-blindness, Postfeminism, and Christonormativity." Like heteronormativity, Christonormativity involves mostly assumptions and norms, rather than outright criticism of alternatives. Whereas homophobia refers to negative beliefs about queer people, heteronormativity captures the fact that even without outright animosity, a world that privileges straight (and typically cisgender and monogamous) couples as the norm erases queer people and thus marginalizes them. Queer people only have to come out of a closet because heteronormativity created the closet in the first place. In a similar way, Christonormativity stakes a claim on what is moral, valuable and normal, effectively erasing other points of view. Of course, not all Christian people view the world the same way, just like being straight doesn't mean someone is queerphobic. Yet the privileged status of the commonly understood norms and values of Christian communities in the U.S. closets people who may not hold those views.

Christonormativity can look like a store clerk wishing someone a "Merry Christmas" without knowing whether or not that someone actually celebrates Christmas, or the presence of Bibles in hotel rooms without any other texts present, or the inclusion of "under God" in the pledge of allegiance, or the fact that every U.S. president has been openly Christian. Christian people may not think twice about any of these things, while these realities may make others feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or just invisible. Christian people thus benefit from Christonormative privilege.

Christonormativity is, and has been, a key component of the structures of privilege and oppression in our society. Christian values have been used by various groups to support everything from colonialism, to slavery, to the subordination of women, to the oppression and marginalization of queer people. Christonormativity provides a moral veneer to systems of privilege and oppression, in that it suppresses criticism by upholding a status quo as normal, natural, godly and in accordance with biblical teaching. The shifting nature of these claims, however, exemplifies the extent to which any religious text is subject to interpretation. For example, while religious leaders may have defended slavery hundreds of years ago, such claims would be totally unacceptable in most communities today. Religious doctrines are not just a matter of texts themselves, but also a matter of the interpretations of those texts. And interpretation is colored by the norms and values of a given time and place.

Moral claims about women's reproductive decisions, including abortion, are key examples of Christonormativity at this historical moment.

While the Bible doesn't address abortion, vocal Christian groups have taken up the anti-choice cause. Their position has inherent moral appeal because of the assumed moral superiority of Christianity and Christian people. Yet those who idenitfy as "pro-life" have a very specific understanding about what that term means. These folks are concerned, above all, with the lives of the fetuses that other people are carrying, and voice much less concern about the lives of the women carrying those fetuses, or the welfare of babies born to women who didn't intend to become pregnant.

Women pursue abortion for many complex reasons. In fact, each person who chooses abortion has a different story about why and how she made her decision. Roughly one in three women will make this decision, and it is pretty consistent across religious groups. Yep, you read that right: just as many women who are Christian or Catholic choose abortion as those of other faiths or non-faiths. But if this apparent contradiction happens so frequently, why don't these women just stand up and call for an end to the madness, for a more compassionate and holistic approach to abortion and reproductive health than pro-life advocates have taken? Why don't they show the world that all types of women have abortions? Because Christonormativity has set up the pro-life position as a powerful, moral identity that these women are understandably unwilling to give up, even after they have violated one of its central principles. Christonormativity also grants permission to men, in the case of pro-life politics, to claim the moral high ground even as they attempt to take women's control of their bodies and reproduction away from them.

Christonormativity thus reinforces sexism in our society, whereby women's autonomy is subordinated by patriarchal authority. It also reinforces structural classism and racism, as women who are poor and of color are more likely than wealthier white women to need abortion services. Simply writing off such women as immoral is to ignore and invalidate the struggles and life stories of millions of people, which contributes to further marginalization.

Lawmakers who buy into all of the pro-life nonsense are under the sway of Christonormativity, both because such a position reflects the beliefs of their constituencies, but also because Christonormativity gives a powerful identity to Christian-identified people: that of the social moralizer. In occupying this position, lawmakers truly believe their decisions are morally superior. Yet this position of power has been , and is, used to reinforce the broader systems of privilege and oppression in our society. This power has little to do with the faith and beliefs of individual people, and everything to do with Christianity as an institution.

Just as straight people have a role to play in dismantling heteronormativity, those of us from or in Christian communities have the obligation to combat the negative effects of Christonormativity, even if what we want to do most is distance ourselves from it.