Julia Sweeney’s Reason Rally speech: Conservative Catholics too influential

Actress and FFRF Honorary Director Julia Sweeney spoke at the June 4 Reason Rally in Washington D.C. Here is the edited transcript of her speech.

By Julia Sweeney

Hello Reason Ralliers, I’m so happy to be here.

Who are we? What unites us here? We are people who use reason to make sense of the world, and use reason to advocate for the laws of the land. We resist superstition and supernatural explanations. We enjoy these things in art, in stories and in fantasy, but we understand the difference between our creative fictional imagination and the world as it really is. We are a big part of the citizenry, and we are people who want our voice heard here in the capital.

The religious fundamentalists and religious conservatives who base their worldview on the bible have a ridiculously outsized influence on the laws of this land. Part of the reason we’re here is to correct that.

I was born in Spokane, Wash., and was immediately baptized a Catholic. I loved being a Catholic. I loved the ritual of the Mass, I loved the priests and the nuns. (I always wanted to be a nun, and now, here I am, finally, a None!) And I loved the music of the church. (Bach probably is responsible for at least 10 years of my Catholicism.)

But then, as an adult, I decided to take a bible study class. And frankly, everything went downhill from there. We all know the Old Testament is a crazy jumble of legends, a grab-bag of myths that reinforce the tribalism of the Jewish people. But not that many people know that the New Testament often portrays Jesus as anti-social, obtuse and shockingly mean.

Jesus’ parables are often foggy, meaningless and even offensive. For example, Jesus helps us understand God’s relationship with humans by telling us a story about how God treats people the people treat . . . their slaves. They beat some more than they beat others.
In fact, the bible refers to slavery all over the place. And not only does the bible not say slavery is wrong, the bible actually gives lots of advice about how you’re supposed to keep your slaves and how slaves should behave obediently at all times to their masters. I thought the son of God would say that slavery was wrong. But no. Jesus does not say that. In fact, he uses slavery as an example of how God treats his people.

Here are some of Jesus’ words in the New Testament: In Luke, Chapter 19, Jesus says that he is like a king who says, “Anyone who does not recognize me, bring them here and slaughter them before me.” Or, in John, Chapter 15, Jesus says, “Anyone who does not believe in me is like a withered branch that will be cast in the fire and burned.” In Matthew, Jesus says, “I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” And in Luke, he says, “If you don’t have a sword, sell your clothes and buy one.”

Christians who find the Koran filled with murderous and hateful language would do well to look at their own bible. Sometimes the stone in your own eye is so enormous you are completely blind.

It’s ironic that the “family values” Christian Coalition, which has much political clout, bases its morality on a religious leader (Jesus) who discouraged his converts to have any contact with their own families, who did not marry or have children himself, and explicitly told his followers not to have children, and that if they already had families, they should just abandon them.

When it comes to the topic of women, the New Testament is offensive. St. Paul writes, “Man is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or have any authority over a man. She must be silent. If there is anything a woman desires to know, let her ask her husband at home.”

This is in the bible. The bible. The Good News.

And yet, much of our political culture is based on these archaic myths. This has translated itself into law — laws that negatively affect millions of people.
Because I come from the Catholic tradition, I’m going to use an example from that religious tradition.

About 20 percent of Americans are Catholic. Conservative Catholic organizations, such as The Catholic League and the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference, lobby hard and have an outsized influence in U.S. politics and law. But most Catholics themselves are not conservative, at least when it comes to issues like birth control and abortion. In fact, 60 to 65 percent of American Catholics are pro-choice, about the same as the rest of America.

But conservative Catholics have a big influence on American law. Five of eight Supreme Court justices are Catholic, and it was six out of nine when Scalia was alive.
While the Hobby Lobby case was filed by evangelical Christians, it was the Catholics Conference of Bishops who engineered the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case to block contraception as a standard health care insurance benefit by employers who object, regardless of the desires of their employees.

This has enormous impact. Seventeen percent of people who work at a hospital are working at a Catholic hospital.

You may say the new lovable Pope Francis is leading the Catholic Church toward sanity. Not exactly. At least not when it comes to women and reproductive control. With the Zika virus spreading, and many urging the pope to relax his views of contraception, he said that abortion was absolutely evil and that contraception is slightly less evil. Then he offhandedly referred to a special dispensation argued for by John Paul in the 1960s where he claimed it was permissible for nuns in the Congo to use birth control pills because they were being raped so often by the local militias that they were becoming pregnant and unable to continue their work.

Just let that sink in a moment. That’s the only case where the Church, or Pope Francis, can possibly imagine where contraception could be ethical. He seemed to halfheartedly and even blithely imply that might also be the case for women trapped in the Zika virus tragedy.

My mind boggles over that one. But then the pope did nothing to clarify, let alone codify, these sentiments. In the meantime, millions of poor women in South America who are Catholic, where abortion is illegal (mostly because of the Catholic Church) are at risk for bearing Zika babies that will, among other things, surely keep them and their children condemned to poverty. Not only that, the Zika virus is making its way here, and our own government is making birth control choices for women more and more limited. This is because of the Religious Right, including the Catholic Church.

Many of my Catholic friends tell me privately that they are nonbelievers — atheists — but they are still going to church for cultural and sentimental reasons. I get that. I really do. Some are even part of great groups like Catholics for Choice. But most are silent. Because of this, they allow themselves to be counted among the number that the conservative Catholic organizations say they represent.

I think conservative religious influence does not represent the American public. I think there are a lot of people out there, formally part of one religion or another, and by their silence they lend themselves to a very insidious political pressure toward fundamentalist, patriarchal, superstitious laws. As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”
This needs to change.

We here today, just by showing up at this rally, are counting ourselves among those without gods or masters, but as freethinking individuals, free from superstition and supernaturalism. Let our voices be heard. We are the Nones, and our voices are loud and clear. We want a separation between the church and state, just as our forebears envisioned. Let’s succeed at this great American experiment.

Freedom From Religion Foundation