by Felice Lifshitz, guest contributor
A woman tends to a child during a Sacrament Meeting of the Washington DC 3rd Ward at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Chevy Chase, Maryland. (photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
In the March 8 Washington Post article "Feminism’s Final Frontier? Religion," Lisa Miller predicted that American women would soon abandon the Republican party in droves, just as they are reportedly quitting conservative Christian churches in historically large numbers. In both cases, women’s disaffection appears to be fueled by the disrespect shown to them by male leaders, a disrespect revealed in the ecclesiastical sphere by evangelical minister Jim Henderson’s new book, The Resignation of Eve, and visible in the political sphere to anyone who has followed the recent debates over access to birth control.
As “the men of the right” (as Miller calls them) insult women of faith, many of the latter are rejecting the communities that demean them, and creating leadership roles for themselves elsewhere. She suggests that a similar dynamic will soon govern American party politics. However, the implications of the current situation may not be that clear-cut, religiously or politically.
Miller believes women’s disaffection to be a new phenomenon, spurred by the incongruities between a newfound economic independence and an old-fashioned gender hierarchy:
"In churches (and synagogues and mosques) across the land, women are still treated as second-class citizens. And because women of faith are increasingly breadwinners, single moms and heads of households, that diminished status is beginning to rankle” (emphasis mine).
The assumption that previous generations of women of faith uniformly accepted an inferior position, that is, that religion constitutes “feminism’s final frontier,” leads the author to predict a major break with the patriarchal past due to a novel combination of propitious circumstances and female aspirations. But the “resignation” described by Henderson is not a new departure potentially signaling a major break with tradition; rather, it is the latest permutation of the gender conflict that has been part and parcel of the Christian tradition from earliest times.
Indeed, the struggle over gender and spiritual authority set in early enough to affect the canon of the New Testament. Many women supported Paul, the greatest early Christian missionary, including Prisca (Priscilla), who was instrumental in the apostle’s successes at Corinth and Ephesus, and whom he ordained as a congregational leader along with her husband Aquila (Acts 18). Yet, misogynistic editors of biblical manuscripts successfully obscured Paul’s respect for female religious leaders by falsely attributing to him — either through misplaced punctuation or outright interpolation — the sentiment that women should be silent in churches (1 Cor. 14:33-36).
Nevertheless, women persisted by, among other things, writing or supporting the composition of egalitarian texts, founding and governing monastic communities, pressing the liberationist claims of virginal feminism, exercising a number of liturgical (at times sacerdotal) functions, articulating a whole range of new theologies (including feminine theologies of the godhead), and establishing innumerable beguine communities that were absolutely independent of male ecclesiastical authority. In sum, women consistently found ways to control their own religious destinies and to assume leadership roles within Christian contexts, including during the European Middle Ages, a period popularly (albeit erroneously) conceived as particularly repressive of women. Yet, none of these activities ever fully erased the persistent commitment to gender hierarchy cherished by the “men of the right” whose values have determined the character of most mainstream hegemonic institutions.
Christianity has consistently been open to pro-feminist movements, but this has resulted neither in a fundamental egalitarian transformation of Christian institutions, nor in a mass exodus of disaffected women. The current wave of “resignations” fits squarely into a 2000-year-old tradition of tension over gender and spiritual authority; if proponents of patriarchal forms of religious organization do not feel particularly threatened by the alarm bells Henderson has rung for them, it is because historical precedent encourages complacency on their part. After all, their predecessors always managed to hold on to power.
"The men of the right" have found, in every generation, a substantial number of Christian women who considered the limited roles and secondary status allotted to them to be quite comfortable. It is certainly easier to execute simple, circumscribed tasks such as meal preparation than to shoulder the responsibility for major policy decisions. But every generation has also witnessed rebellion and discontent.
Today’s feminists of faith can draw on a rich heritage to stake out positions that might ultimately justify both Henderson’s warnings and Miller’s optimism. Success may well depend precisely on an awareness of that inspirational heritage. A radical egalitarian transformation will require an unprecedented struggle; it will not be the inevitable result of the rise of the female breadwinner.
Felice Lifshitz earned a PhD in History from Columbia University and currently teaches in the Program in Women’s Studies at the University of Alberta. She has published numerous books, articles, and essay collections concerning medieval Christianity.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute a deeper understanding of the world around us.Comments
This reasoning might be considered a hypothetical syllogism. If you are being sincere when making this deductive inference, I might suggest that you reevaluate the validity of your premises and redraw your conclusion. For clinging to this fallacious reasoning deceives yourself and others you are trying to persuade.
Now, if your deductive reasoning is intended to be hurtful (even through humor) rather than logical, I’d like to offer a perspective Martin Marty once shared with our program on how he measures a person’s character:
"I’ve often thought — I’ve often said, ‘If Billy Graham had been born mean, we’d be in terrible trouble,’ because he had so much power, so many gifts, and so on. One of my distinctions in religion is not liberal and conservative, but mean and non-mean. You have mean liberals and mean conservatives, and you have non-mean of both."
I hope you are one of those non-mean people whose influence betters the conversation rather than hastens its demise with sarcasm and weak logic.
Kind regards and happy new year,
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
by Tom Moore, guest contributor
photo: Helen Sotiriadis/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
"Where did you read the Bible?” she asked. My friend Karin used to teach religion in a Swedish public elementary school, which is why her question made so much sense to her but so little sense to me.
“In Europe,” she explained, “we see the clips of your news commentators, we see your President getting sworn in on a Bible, we know America is intensely Christian. But where do you learn it? Is it taught in the public schools, or do you just have really active Sunday schools, or what?” I quickly reassured her that in America, we keep religion out of the schools, since we are a secular nation.
“So where did you learn about Christianity?” she persisted. I had never considered the question before. I was raised Episcopalian, sort of, but my family rarely attended church. I only really started learning about Christianity when, having converted to Buddhism, I started reading books about world religions and would skim the chapter on Christianity on my way to the chapter on Buddhism. After I explained all this, Karin gave me a funny look and changed the subject. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about American religion.
American religion is very strange. At first, I thought my ignorance was an aberration, that I had been isolated in my private New England high school from the Bible-reading fervor that consumes America. The more I talked to my American friends, though — friends from all over the country — the more I began to get a sense for what I consider to be the unifying characteristic of nearly all American religion. It isn’t devoutness, or extremism, or reactionary zeal, but something much simpler: profound ignorance. One scholar, Stephen Prothero, summarizes the painful truth well in his book Religious Literacy:
“The paradox is this: Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion. They are Protestants who can’t name the four Gospels, Catholics who can’t name the seven sacraments, and Jews who can’t name the five books of Moses. Atheists may be as rare in America as Jesus-loving politicians are in Europe, but here faith is almost entirely devoid of content. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates.”
Prothero backs up these accusations with some quite compelling studies. To give just two examples: Only half of American adults could identify any one of the four Gospels, and only a third were able to name the founder of any religion other than Christianity.
Well, so what? Many of my non-religious friends would take that sort of statistic as a sign of the worldwide process of secularization and the weakening stranglehold of the religious right on American public life. For them, America’s religious illiteracy proves what Nietzsche wrote over a century ago: “God is dead.”
Well, is He? Because if so, Karin’s question is something of an anachronism: Why read the Bible if religion is on its way out the door? The notion that rationality and modernity have been hammering nails in religion’s coffin ever since the Enlightenment is what sociologists call the secularization thesis, and until very recently, the secularization thesis was pretty much taken for granted within academic circles.
The funny thing is, we don’t really have any evidence for it. We’ve been assuming for a long time that religion is dying, but the world around us seems to be demonstrating just the opposite. As Peter L. Berger, a sociologist, writes in his essay “The Desecularization of the World,” “The world today is massively religious, is anything but the secularized world that had been predicted (whether joyfully or despondently) by so many analysts of modernity.” He goes on to cite the two notable exceptions to this rule: Western Europe and academia.
Well, I guess God might be dead-ish for Western Europeans and academic elites, but Western Europe is a pretty small corner of the world, and even we academic types have to come down off the hill sometimes. When we do, we find ourselves crippled by an education system that pretends religion does not exist. As has become increasingly clear ever since September 11, religion is alive and kicking, and America is blundering its way through the 21st century, its education system trapped in the secularist fantasies of Thomas Jefferson and his Enlightenment pals.
This American secularity is strange, perhaps even stranger than American religion. We are okay forcing our children to swear a pledge of allegiance to one nation under God, but the vast majority of public schools aren’t okay teaching our children who Jesus, or Muhammad, or the Buddha was. These figures may or may not have been divine (how should I know?), but let’s not for a second pretend they don’t matter. Every American should graduate from high school with at least a basic understanding of the five major world religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism), religions which most Americans today have a hard time even naming.
So where did you read the Bible? What about the Qur’an? The Bhagavad Gita? Let’s turn our public schools into a safe, critical environment where these texts, so foundational to the cultures of the world, can be read. Until we do, America shall remain crippled, staggering blindly through a world where religion, like it or not, still matters.
Tom Moore is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences of Cornell University. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This commentary first appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun on September 27, 2011.
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