Perhaps more than any other western country, America is a nation where religion is increasingly tied to politics. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (a project of the Pew Charitable Trust) which carries out independent research, "Religion is a critical factor these days in the public's thinking about contentious policy issues and political matters."
Pew research also shows that most Americans seem comfortable with President George W Bush's references to faith and his reliance on his own religious beliefs in making policy decisions. (When asked if he had consulted his father, former President George Bush, on the crisis in Iraq, the President told reporters he had consulted "a higher Father".)
The US Association of Catholic Bishops recently considered denying communion to politicians who don't adhere to church policy when voting on public policy issues. In 2003, the same association called for Catholic politicians to block or repeal any legislation giving equal rights to same-sex relationships.
The growing demise of the American principle separating Church and State is particularly worrying to women who fear a huge rollback in the rights they've gained since the second wave of feminism began in the 1960s. Gays are another group that feels vulnerable.
In a 37-page letter issued to bishops by the Vatican in July 2004, feminism is cited as the basic cause of all social ills, including the move toward legalizing gay marriage. President Bush is on record as promising to "protect those homeland values from the latest big threat: gays who marry". Bush believes that gay marriages will destroy "the most fundamental institution of civilization".
The Vatican's "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World" claims that feminism leads to gay marriage and destabilizes the family. "The institution of the family," the letter says, "is called into question, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and the equivalence of homosexuality and heterosexuality is asserted in a new model of polymorphous sexuality."
Such rhetoric, says Frances Kissling, President of Catholics for A Free Choice, comes from "men who have no significant relationship with women and no knowledge of the equality the women's rights movement has meant for both women and men."
The Vatican letter, which claims that the Church is "expert in humanity", says that the Church has given "much reflection to the question of the dignity of women and to women's rights and duties", and it finds that "certain currents of thought are often at variance with the authentic advancement of women".
For example, the Vatican notes that "recent years have seen new approaches to women's issues", but it finds "a first tendency to emphasize conditions of subordination in order to give rise to antagonism: women, in order to be themselves, must make themselves the adversaries of men." This, according to the Church, "leads to harmful confusion" and denies the differences, both physical and cultural, between men and women.
The letter then argues that biology is destiny: that there is a biological determinism inherent in human development - an argument long put to rest by feminists and other gender specialists. The letter also reminds bishops that "the liberation of women entails criticism of Sacred Scripture" and that "the Son of God assumed human nature in its male form".
Citing biblical references, the letter admonishes women to remember that "your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you". A woman, the letter suggests, "exists 'for the other'" and will be most fulfilled by serving as what feminists have called 'the angel in the house' who meets the needs of her husband and children. "It is this 'mystical' identity, profound and essential, which needs to be kept in mind," the letter says, recalling "the figure of Mary...a mirror placed before the Church".
It is exactly this mystical identify mirrored by the Church and the Bush Administration that worries feminists like Gloria Feldt, President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and author of "The War on Choice: The Right-Wing Attack on Women's Rights and How to Fight Back" (Bantam Books, 2004). In her book, Feldt writes about "The Hidden War on Women's Reproductive Rights" which is coming from both religious and conservative political quarters. She cites actions taken to date by "anti-choice extremists" in the current Administration that have eroded women's reproductive rights, concluding that "the picture is really frightening".
For example, she notes that abortions are increasingly difficult to obtain because 87 per cent of US counties now have no abortion providers. Public funding for family planning services have been reduced or eliminated, and "laws intended to protect children from abuse [have turned into] 'sex police' laws, requiring that family planning providers file reports with state authorities about minors who have requested contraceptives, medical attention for sexually transmitted diseases, or abortion."
Abstinence-only education has replaced medically accurate sexuality education and healthcare providers have been forced to give state-mandated anti-choice materials to patients seeking abortion in some instances. Laws defining "personhood" as beginning at the moment of fertilization have been passed, and anti-choice judges are being seated in the federal courts. Ideological appointees now serve as "experts" on scientific advisory committees. "It's a hidden war on women's reproductive rights," says Feldt.
Others argue that the "war" against civil liberties and privacy, as in the policies dictated in the USA Patriot Act, is much more pervasive, extending beyond issues that affect women and gays. While they don't see overt collusion between religious zealots and political ideologues, they recognize that the wall separating Church and State is eroding.
In the face of that erosion, women are growing hyper-vigilant. And as the Vatican letter itself states, "It is women, in the end, who, even in very desperate situations, as attested by history past and present, possess a singular capacity to persevere in adversity."