Religion, politics, and the political economy of care

by Angelia R. Wilson

At the time of writing, 30 states and DC now allow same-sex marriage. So, was this a good time to publish a book claiming American would never be ‘gay and lesbian friendly’? Yes, I still think so.

Why Europe is Lesbian and Gay Friendly (and why America never will be) (SUNY), reflects the intersection of values, welfare, feminist critiques of family policy and the in/exclusion of lesbians and gay men to address why Europe appears to be advancing more rapidly than the US on lesbian and gay policy issues. I consider the various answers offered in the current literature including the advancement of the ideology and language of human rights, the activity of the European Courts, windows of opportunity opened with growth of governance in the European Union and the professional activism of European based lobby groups. All of these are good answers to the question. As such they also testify to the fact that there is no one answer. There is no political ‘magic wand’ that could be transferred across European countries or to the US.

Why was Catholic Spain one of the first countries to grant same-sex marriage? In short, Spain has a very residual welfare state that was not coping with an aging population, a demographic shift of women joining the workforce and significant urbanization. The Catholic church nor the state were able to step in sufficiently to cover this emerging ‘gap in care’. Faced with such a crisis of care, it is not surprising that redefining the family to include same-sex couples became an economically attractive option for increasing the number of available carers. In the UK, Gordon Brown argued that allowing gay men and lesbians to become  foster parents would save the government money otherwise spent on state childcare provision. Various European governments argued that recognizing same-sex couples tied them together financially and therefore lessened the risk that the state would have to provide welfare.

What struck me about previous answers to the question was the lack of discussion of what feminist have labelled the political economy of care. To me, this was odd. It was odd because the policy progress for lesbians and gay men was often in areas of marriage, access to adoption and fostering, next of kin arrangements, immigration based on same-sex partnerships, access to fertility treatments, etc. Why Europe? explores this terrain by examining ‘families of nations’. I consider similarities and differences across countries, arguing that there is no one route to equality. The political economy of care – the complexity of care arrangements provided by the individual, family, religious groups and the state – differ substantially in each country and therefore had to be negotiated differently by lesbian and gay activists. Some were better prepared for this negotiation than others. Similarly, those with an investment in providing care – particularly religious groups – were differently equipped to challenge or welcome proposed changes.

I recently read a review of my book which expressed concerned that there was no clear answer to how Europe became more, in the words of feminist policy analysts such as Sarah Childs, ‘friendly’. That is true. There is no one answer. That is the point: each countries’ political economy of care is different. In all cases, various stakeholders sought to define the national values through care policies. In some cases, these values became somewhat easily rearticulated to be more inclusive. But in many, these fundamental values had been deeply written into the cannon of welfare that the fight for redefinition was an epic religious-laden battle. The political economy of care has been so intertwined with the investment of religious leaders – either as providers of care or as those empowered to define the family – that even nations appearing to be secular, such as Sweden, the battle over value redefinition was fought with religious discourse.

What does all this have to do with America? The extent of government commitment to welfare in many European countries is fundamentally different from the residual welfare promise in the US. With that historical commitment, and when faced with austerity and demographic change, some European states entertained the possibility of redefining the family to increase the pool of carers. Where religious voices where stronger, the process took longer. In the US, I argue, where conservative Christianity is politically powerful, where most religious organizations are financial investors and providers of care, where there is substantially less commitment to welfare, and where the parameters of care are often set by the state rather than the federal government, progress towards equality will take longer. The outcome, reflected in the current judicial route towards same-sex marriage, is a fragmented piecemeal battle over one or two issues. When one considers the more substantive commitment to ‘friendly policies’, it simply may never happen.

The last claim is supported by my more recent research on the American Christian Right. Having spent five years conducting participant observation at various Christian Right events, I can testify that any reports of its demise over the next fifty years, is sadly overstated. They will never concede defeat in the culture war. The courts may eventually allow/enforce same-sex marriage in all fifty states, but at least a third of those will resent such federal intervention and will probably never accept gay men and lesbians as equal citizens – a story all too familiar to African-Americans living in the South.

My argument in Why Europe is Lesbian and Gay Friendly is a cautionary tale about ignoring the importance of the political economy of care and the economic and ideological investment of religious communities in providing and defining its parameters. Twenty-five years ago I left my Texas Panhandle home and embarked on an academic career in the UK. Over that time, at least one lesson I learned growing up in parsonages across West Texas remains true across the borders of ‘the West’: never ignore the power of religion to define social values. This is particularly true, and oddly ignored, in the telling of LGBT advances in the political economy of care.

Angelia Wilson (University of Manchester) is currently researching the intersections of social conservatism, Christianity, feminist political theory and policies regulating sexuality. Her new book, Why Europe is Lesbian and Gay Friendly (and why America never will be) (SUNY, 2013), compares European and American differences in politics, welfare policies and social values which lead to divergent policies regulating the lives of lesbian and gay citizens. Her recent edited a collection, Situating Intersectionality (Palgrave, 2013), brings together international scholars employing an intersectional analysis of politics and policy outcomes. Her work has appeared in New Political Science, Politics & Religion, Politics & Gender, Contemporary Politics, Culture Health & Sexuality, Critical Social Policy, Sexualities and the American Review of Politics. She is co-editor of the journal Politics & Religion (Cambridge University Press).


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