Debra W. Haffner: Churches must see spirituality, sex as linked

I often begin my presentations on sexuality and religion by asking the audience, "What did you learn about sexuality in your church or synagogue while you were growing up?" There is often an amused titter, then silence.

The answers come tumbling out.

"Sex is bad."

"Sexual thoughts are bad."

"Women are the reason for the fall."

"Birth control, abortion, and masturbation are sinful."

"One word – don't."

Someone always raises a hand at this point. "Nothing. My church was absolutely silent." Other people nod.

I then ask, "How many of you grew up in a religious community that taught you that your sexuality was a gift from God?" Only one or two people ever raise their hands.

But what I have learned during my studies about sexuality and religion is that nearly every denomination has an official policy that sexuality is a sacred gift. Moreover, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament affirm that sexuality is good, that bodies are good, that sexual pleasure is a gift, and that there are many forms of blessed relationships. Our experience teaches us that one of the ways we can experience transcendence is through our intimate relationships. There is nothing more important than how people treat one another.

Yet too many people have been alienated from their sexuality by official policies that are exclusionary or preaching that is condeming. Likewise, many people have been alienated from their religious homes because they feel that they are not welcomed because they are single, divorced, feminist, gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Last year, I left my position as president and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States to pursue full-time seminary studies and ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister. I hope to develop a full-time national ministry on sexuality and religion, by working with denominations on developing policies on sexuality, by helping congregations become sexually healthy faith communities, by training clergy and seminarians to deal with sexuality issues, and by offering pastoral counseling to those who struggle with integrating their sexuality and their religious lives.

There is a growing recognition that our sexuality and our spirituality are inexorably linked. Last year, more than 2,000 clergy and religious leaders endorsed the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing.

The declaration affirms that sexuality is God's life-giving and life-fulfilling gift. It calls for a religious sexual ethic that is based on personal relationships and social justice. It states that all persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure. It calls on faith communities to be truth seeking, courageous, and just, including affirming full inclusion of women and sexual minorities in religious life, providing comprehensive sexuality education through the lifespan, and calling for a faith-based commitment to sexual and reproductive rights. (The full declaration is available at

Nearly every religious denomination is dealing with issues of sexual justice. More than 10 denominations have developed sexuality curricula in the context of their faith traditions. More than 15 have organizations that are seeking to welcome and affirm sexual minorities as full participating members of the religious community.

Four denominations now officially perform same-sex unions. Twelve major denominations are on record as supporting reproductive choice. More than 2,000 clergy are members of Planned Parenthood Federation of America's clergy action network.

The word gospel literally means "good news." And there is good news for those of us who believe that sexuality is central to our humanity and integral to our spirituality. God rejoices when we celebrate our sexuality with holiness and integrity. And so may it be.

Debra W. Haffner is the author of From Diapers to Dating, Exploring the Dimensions of Human Sexuality and W