Theorizing Religion in the Age of Trump: Megan Goodwin

The election of Donald Trump has given rise to new kind of politics that has already increased tensions between competing groups, including religious groups over issues such as public education, science funding, and a proposed travel ban impacting several Muslim majority countries. In this new series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars how they might go about theorizing these issues from the perspective of the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here

Planned Parenthood? Forsaking American Women for the Mother of All Bombs

by Megan Goodwin

By way of introduction: I realize that this is a theories and methods blog, and thus perhaps not an intuitive fit for a post like this. But I have taught and thought and written American political religions [i] exhaustively for the past several years, and my teaching and thinking and writing have been fundamentally changed (some might say warped) by our most recent election. I have always emphasized to my students that we cannot understand American politics without theorizing religion; but I have also striven to demonstrate that there is smart thinking all along the political spectrum. This election cycle decimated my liberal “both sides now” approach. I cannot—we should not—shy away from the frank acknowledgment that religion and its agents are doing concrete political work on our nation and our bodies, often to the detriment of both.


I was tempted to begin and end this essay by plagiarizing the response of my favorite political writer, Spider Jerusalem, to the election of a candidate he called the Beast. But the editors of the Bulletin are probably not interested in publishing a piece that just drops the F-bomb eight thousand times, so let’s talk about other bombs instead.

The United States celebrated Mother’s Day this past Sunday. I cannot divorce the observation of this holiday from the knowledge that our current president dropped the GBU-43, the largest non-nuclear bomb ever deployed by the US military in combat, just over a month ago in Afghanistan. The bomb is a Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), colloquially known as the Mother of All Bombs. [ii]

This past week, Pope Francis decried this appellation: “I was ashamed when I heard the name. A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother. What is going on?” the pontiff asked students visiting the Vatican. [iii]

What is going on in this statement is that the pope is condemning a confessed sexual predator for deploying a death-giving device called “Mother” while failing to censure American bishops and other Roman Catholics lobbying for policies that impoverish and kill women. Because let us be clear: limiting access to contraception and abortion impoverishes and kills women. And since 60% of those seeking abortions already have one or more children, limiting access to abortion kills mothers.

What is going on in this country is business as usual. The United States is blowing up a Muslim majority country on specious grounds, making it harder for the women of that country to survive. The leader of a politically influential religious institution is criticizing an elected official without taking responsibility for the role that religious institution plays in our elections and the governance of our nation. Roman Catholic sexual morality universalized as “American values” has directly influenced national policy for decades. [iv] Roman Catholic lobbyists and plaintiffs have largely focused their efforts on restricting women’s reproductive autonomy[v]

Hyde Amendment-opposing Hillary Clinton won the Catholic vote by a narrow margin [vi] despite well-publicized if undertheorized observations to the contrary, but religiously-informed reproductive politics played a “yuge role in electing our current leaders. If there can be no theorizing the 45th president, there must nonetheless be theorization in the age of his dominion. There is no making sense of this political moment, but we cannot hope to effectively resist institutionalized oppressions without historicizing and theoretically contextualizing this moment.

What is going on is that in the wake of the 2016 election, our elected officials seem emboldened to forsake the lives of women to establish dominion over their bodies. As Margaret Atwood notes in her recent reflection on The Handmaid’s Tale, “the control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet.” In 2013, I sat in the North Carolina General Assembly while those elected officials insisted their attempts to close dozens of clinics providing access to legal abortion services were motivated by a desire to keep women “safe.” Indeed, these are attempts to safen women: to render them docile, to rob them of their agency and autonomy, to secure the body politic by policing the bodies of its female citizens. This is what I mean when I speak of contraceptive nationalism.

The evidence that our elected officials are forsaking women’s lives, women’s safety, women’s health, and women’s personhood to rule over women’s bodies is as abundant as it is damning. And so—for Mother’s Day?—an incomplete litany of accomplishments in these first long one hundred days:

*An inauguration that inspired a series of global protests organized and led by women, including what was arguably the largest protest in American history.

*A presidential memorandum reinstating and expanding the global gag rule, banning all foreign NGOs that receive global health funding from the United States from counseling clients about abortion or advocating for abortion law liberalization.

*A presidential declaration of April 2017 as National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month signed by an avowed sexual predator accused of sexual assault by no fewer than thirteen women.

*Two executive orders limiting immigration from Muslim majority countries, immigrants from whom have perpetrated no terrorist attacks against US citizens, justified in part by a stated concern for preventing violence against women and gender-based oppression.

*The signing into law of House Joint Resolution 43, allowing states to withhold Title X Family Planning funding to facilities that provide abortions, for no other reason than that those facilities provide abortions. This legislation repeals protections President Obama instituted following attempts by more than a dozen Republican-controlled states to defund Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers. [vii] This resolution also increases the precarity of women “too undocumented for healthcare,” who rely on Planned Parenthood to treat them regardless of their immigration status without the risk of medical repatriation.

*The passage of the American Health Care Act through the US House of Representatives by a small group of white men, among them a Vice President who once signed a law requiring burial or cremation for aborted fetuses. The AHCA in its current incarnation allows insurers to decide what counts as a pre-existing medical condition; before the passage of the Affordable Care Act, providers denied coverage to customers who survived sexual assault and domestic violence. While insurers may not deny coverage based on these conditions, they can make coverage unaffordable for customers with such conditions. Pre-existing conditions which have universally been used to deny customer coverage include diseases that disproportionately affect women (like multiple sclerosis), procedures more likely to be performed on women (like C-sections), and conditions more likely to be experienced by women (like pregnancy). This version of the AHCA also makes pregnancy 425% more expensive[viii]

*The passage of major abortion restrictions in five states (Arkansas, Arizona, Kentucky, Utah, and Wyoming) and the introduction of bills banning some or all kinds of abortions in twenty-eight state legislatures during the 2017 state legislative session. In a “60 Minutes” interview given shortly after his election, the current president of the United States suggested women “will have to go to another state” if their home state eliminates access to this legal medical procedure.

*The appointment of Stephen Miller, a senior adviser who has argued against paid family leave and dismissed the gendered wage gap, to work on “women’s issues” with the president’s daughter, a fashion designer.

*The appointment of Tom Price as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Price is an advocate of faith-based treatment programs and a vocal opponent of the ACA’s contraceptive mandate. Price claims both that providing contraceptive coverage is “trampling on religious freedom and religious liberty in this country” and that no woman cannot afford birth control despite evidence to the contrary. Price has expressed staunchly anti-choice views, including cosponsoring two “Right to Life” bills in 2005 and 2007 and voting for Rand Paul’s 2007 “Sanctity of Life” Act, which would have extended the protections of the 14th amendment to zygotes.

*The appointment of Teresa Manning to oversee Title X family planning funding for the Department of Health and Human Services. Manning has stated that contraception doesn’t work and that “family planning is what occurs between a husband and a wife and God.” [ix]

*And finally, a presidential executive order “promoting free speech and religious liberty.” While scholars and activist organizations have dismissed the order as “a whole lot of nothing” and “an elaborate photo op,” Section 3 bears scrutiny in its explicit provision for protections of religious conscience against the ACA’s contraceptive mandate. This provision must further be read in light of the vehemently anti-choice vice president’s recent address to the anti-choice March for Life, in which he pledged to “restore a culture of life in America.” [x]

This list does not touch on women as victims of increased detention and deportation or mothers facing increasingly unstable federal protections for the housing and education of their children. And it bears noting that America was not doing well by its women before the 2016 election. Trans women of color are being murdered at an alarming rate. Hispanic women make 54% of what white men make for comparable employment. The United States already ranked 97th in women’s participation in government and “dead last” among developed countries in providing paid maternity leave before the ninth of November.

But this administration threatens to take America from merely remedial to heretofore-presumably-fictional levels of gender-based oppression. It should not surprise us, then, that we’re seeing women dressed up as Atwood’s handmaids to protest anti-choice legislation. (Or as, Sady Doyle put it, that many of us are “counting down the days until life as we knew it be[comes] a full-time, non-consensual LARP of The Handmaid’s Tale.”) If these first 100+ days are any indicator, we should anticipate increasing attempts to restrict women’s reproductive rights in the name of religious liberty.

We must also recall, then, that restricting women’s reproductive rights is also forsaking American women. Limiting access to abortion does not prevent abortion. It kills poor women, young women, rural women, undocumented women, women of color. It kills mothers.

Facing the closure of clinics, the slashing of funds for effective family planning, the intimidation of care seekers and providers, we can only assume this administration would advise us to turn to prayer. Let us then pray together in the words Margaret Atwood taught us:

“Keep the others safe, if they are safe. Don’t let them suffer too much. If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves.”

Megan Goodwin is a Visiting Scholar with the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University. Her current project is Women and Children Last: Sex, Abuse, and American Minority Religions.


[i] In his 2008 Religion of Fear, Jason Bivins asserts that he “use[s] the term ‘political religion,’ hoping that avoids the essentialism of “religion and politics”—as if each of these were a fixed, discrete entity—since whatever we mean by the political or the religious, it is most analytically fruitful to see them modifying each other rather than necessarily and a priori existing separately.” Political religion forms the bedrock of my own theorization of religion(s).

[ii] Scant though it may be, my training in biblical studies will not allow me to leave the coincidence between the acronym and the Torah go unremarked upon. Moab is the product of an incestuous coupling between Lot and his eldest daughter, according to Genesis 19:37-38, and the site at which G-d renewed the divine covenant with the Israelites before they entered Canaan, according to Deuteronomy 29:1. This may be entirely accidental; however, the scripturalization of US military weapons is not without precedent.

[iii] While critical of the American president’s actions, Pope Francis has not cancelled their meeting, scheduled for later this month.

[iv] As Fessenden notes, “What remains of the Catholic Church’s aspirations to universality in a secular age, then, inheres almost entirely in the register of sex and gender.”

[v] discussions about religious authority and women’s reproductive autonomy frequently and justifiably focus on religious institutions’ attempts to limit the latter to maintain the former. Gil Frank’s recent piece, “The Surprising Role of Clergy in the Abortion Fight Before Roe v. Wade,” provides an important counternarrative.

[vi] Unless we’re talking about young Catholics, Hispanic Catholics, or Catholics in the American West; all three demographics preferred Secretary Clinton by a wide margin.

[vii] Reminder: abortion is legal. Second reminder: abortion providers were already prohibited from using federal funds to subsidize taxpayer abortions, except in cases of incest, rape, or danger to the health of the mother. Third reminder: cutting funding for Planned Parenthood does not and will not end abortion in the United States. It will make access to contraception, cervical cancer-detecting pap smears, breast cancer screenings, STI testing, and sex education inaccessible and/or unaffordable for many of the five million people who use their services each year.

[viii] The Senate version of the AHCA bill is being drafted exclusively by white men, who suggested the inclusion of a single woman in its design would signal “identity politics,” as though “white man” were not a protected political identity.

[ix] HHS has also hired anti-choice advocate Charmaine Yoest as Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs.

[x] To say nothing of the baroque horror that is the rumor of the Vice President calling his own wife “Mother.”

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