Jimmy Carter: How religion subjugates women

The former president speaks out against doctrine used to promote misogyny and abuse. Are you listening, Obama?


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Frances Kissling
July 16, 2009 8:17PM (UTC)

"The Words of God Do Not Justify Cruelty to Women": That's the title of an Op-Ed that ran in the U.K. Observer earlier this week. It wasn't written by a feminist theologian like Karen Armstrong or one of the women on President Obama's faith-based council -- but by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

In the article, Carter explains his painful decision to split with the Southern Baptist Church "when the convention's leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be 'subservient" to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service." 

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Carter left the Souther Baptists in 2000, when he was 76. He was writing this Op-Ed as one of a dozen world leaders organized two years ago by Nelson Mandela. The Elders, as they call themselves are, well, older and out of public office. They bring their stature and wisdom to the intractable, often unpopular political issues of our time and seek not to solve them but to make them more visible. They are the people many of us have come to love -- Desmond Tutu, Muhammad Yunus, Kofi Annan, men with sweet demeanors and nice smiles and real records of changing the world. Some of the world's strongest and most accomplished women are part of the group, too: Gro Brundtland, Mary Robinson, Aung San Suu Kyi, Graca Machel and Ela Bhatt, who has organized self-employed women workers in India into a powerful force for change.

Now they are taking on religious and traditional practices that harm women. And they chose Jimmy Carter to issue the opening salvo. Carter, it has been said, is a better man than he was president, and he has been proving it since he left office. He's gotten better with the passage of time. Carter once fired Bella Abzug, whom he had appointed to head his National Advisory Committee on Women. And as a Southern Baptist and Sunday school teacher, he never seemed much interested in women. But 10 years ago, when the Southern Baptist Convention definitively ruled out equality for women and blamed us for original sin, he up and quit the church.

Carter pulls no punches in his Op-Ed. Religious discrimination against women has, he says, "provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women's equal rights across the world for centuries. The male interpretations of religious texts and the way they interact with, and reinforce, traditional practices justify some of the most pervasive, persistent, flagrant and damaging examples of human rights abuses." He continues: "The truth is that male religious leaders have had -- and still have -- an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter."

Carter and the Elders are equal-opportunity critics. No country or religion, no practices go uncriticized. Discriminatory religious beliefs are described as “repugnant.” They are used to excuse “slavery, forced prostitution, genital mutilation.” They cost women and girls “control over their own bodies and lives.”

Carter touches on some of the most important aspects of discrimination that have an impact on development and poverty, noting that many women “face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.” The fact that over a half a million women die each year from preventable conditions during pregnancy and childbirth is one of the continuing tragedies of poor international leadership.

Islam does not escape criticism as Carter notes that “In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.”

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The U.S. is not let off the hook, either. Carter links the flawed conservative interpretation of scripture to the kind of “discriminatory thinking ... behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in Britain and the United States.”

The big question is whether Carter's message will get much play at the White House. Past efforts by the former president have not had much traction. For Obama, who has indicated a commitment to women's rights worldwide but who has approached religion with great deference, there is much to ponder in Carter's message.

Women's equality cannot be achieved without stepping on the toes of traditional interpretations of women's lack of rights that permeate the world's -- and Christianity's -- texts. Carter gets it: “I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge.”

His Op-Ed closes with the following words: “We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasise the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world's major faiths share. “

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Let's hope our Obama and his faith-based council are listening.


Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

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