There’s little doubt, outside circles filled with self-delusional reactionaries, that religion is probably the most important force in continuing the oppression of women worldwide. Around the world, various abuses from coerced marriage to domestic violence to restricting reproductive rights are all excused under the banner of religion. More to the point, women’s rights have advanced more quickly in societies that put religion on the backburner, or like the United States, have strict laws separating church and state. But even in the U.S., the main result of the growing power of the religious right is the rollback of reproductive rights and other protections for women’s equality.
Former president Jimmy Carter, who is probably the country’s most prominent liberal Christian, is willing to set aside his enthusiasm for faith to admit this. While doing press promoting his new book A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power, Carter told the Guardian that “women are treated more equally in some countries that are atheistic or where governments are strictly separated from religion.”
This isn’t because atheists and secularists have fewer people in their ranks that have ugly and backwards attitudes toward women. It’s because, by never having religion in the discourse about women’s rights in the first place, discourse in secular circles and societies never gets mired in endless, irresolvable debates about what God wants. Instead, secular societies can get straight to the facts and policy debate. When you stop worrying what God wants and start worrying about what people want, it’s much easier to argue that women should have full human rights. After all, women are half the human race. When everyone is talking about what God supposedly wants, it becomes very easy to forget that ultimately, the issue of women’s rights is about ordinary, everyday men and women and what goes on in their lives.
It’s hard not to suggest that what you need is more religious people making full-throated religious arguments for women’s equality, to counter the inevitable reactionaries that use religion to oppress women. It’s clear that Carter thinks he can lead such a movement. He is an evangelical Baptist, albeit a fairly liberal one, and hopes this will help him reach audiences that perhaps would be less interested in this kind of pro-woman argument coming from, say, atheists and secular feminists.
It’s certainly a breath of fresh air having Carter explain, in his patient and comforting way, that there is no reason whatsoever to believe that religion mandates sexism. On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the fact that religiosity and sexism go hand in hand, and the solution might need to be something more than simply demanding better, less sexist religions.
Carter, like many liberal Christians, is happy to criticize more conservative religious leaders who want to oppress women. Still, it’s hard not to have doubts that Carter’s own devout Christianity might make him less critical than he should be of the role religion plays in the oppression of women. The sticky point when it comes to advocating for a kind of Christian feminism is that the Bible is undeniably sexist. And it’s not just the Old Testament, where women are told they were created from men and told, repeatedly, that they are basically property to be disposed of as men see fit. The New Testament has plenty of verses that should cause feminist eyebrows to shoot up.
Consider Ephesians 5:22-24, the verse that the Southern Baptist Convention upholds but Carter disagrees with:
“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
There’s not a lot of wiggle room around that, as Carter freely admits. The Bible is pretty straightforward in its description of women as inferiors who should treat their husbands like masters. Fundamentalists who cite this verse in order to justify the continued oppression of women have a pretty strong argument.
Jimmy Carter’s rejoinder to this is that it’s cherry-picking. He went on the Diane Rehm show and argued, “If you read the words and actions of Jesus Christ, he not only never discriminated, but he also exalted women far beyond any status they had ever enjoyed before that, and even since then. But there are some verses in the 36,000 or so in the Holy Bible that you can extract in their isolation, and you can prove almost anything you want.” He also tried to sell audiences on the idea that Paul commanding women to be silent and submissive in churchwas somehow just a local issue and not somehow reflective of a broader view of women’s roles, though he did not explain how on Earth it could ever be okay to tell women that they are to be silent and submissive “as the law says.”
The problem is both Carter and the fundamentalists he denounces are cherry-picking Bible verses. Carter likes to cite Galatians 3:28, which states, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” as proof that the New Testament supports a view of female equality. But there’s no real reason to think that verse “counts” more than the number of verses that are quite clearly stating that women are inferior to men.
Indeed, it’s worth noting that it’s not just liberal Christians that ignore Bible verses that are just too reactionary for our times. There’s some parts of the Bible that are too conservatives or backwards for every stripe of conservative, no matter how conservative. Protestant fundamentalists ignore the parts of the Bible that instruct women to be silent in church, and even the Catholic church doesn’t take that part so literally that nuns and female Sunday school teachers are not allowed to teach religion. And pretty much all stripes of Christian, from the most conservative to the most liberal, pointedly ignores the parts of the New Testament that endorse slavery and instruct slaves to obey their masters.
What we’re left with is the unavoidable conclusion that both fundamentalist and liberal Christians have a tendency to decide first how they feel—do they believe women are equal to men or inferior to men?—and then they start mining the = Bible for verses to back up the point of view they’ve already decided on. Since there’s no outside reference point to show which verses are the truest, best ones, this is the only way that it could work. All stripes of Christian, in addition, are happy to switch up what verses they believe “count” and what do not according to the changing tides of their time.
Carter touches on this briefly, writing, “There is no need to argue about such matters, because it is human nature to be both selective and subjective in deriving the most convenient meaning by careful choices from the thirty-one thousand or so verses in the modern Christian Bible.” However, it’s a brief thought, almost an aside. He is far more interested in playing the verse vs. verse game, even though he tacitly admits that it’s a pointless game that no one will ever win because, as he says, religious authorities will always end up just accepting “the version they prefer.”
It’s a shame, really, because exploring this idea—that all religious people are, on some level, making it up as they go along—would be a lot better use of a liberal Christian’s time than trying to match fundamentalists verse for verse, hoping your Galatians cancels out their Corinthians, all while knowing that no one is ever persuaded this way. What liberal Christians could do, instead of quibbling endlessly with conservatives over theology, is stand up and say, “No one knows either way what God wants or what Jesus would have wanted, so let’s table the argument and start discussing the facts and evidence instead.”
Jimmy Carter is running around doing press arguing that Jesus didn’t want to oppress women. It’s probably helpful for the press to remember that “religious” is not the same thing as “misogynist.” But reminding people that liberal Christians exist does very little to convince them that liberal Christians somehow have a better read than fundamentalist Christians do when it comes to what God thinks about women’s equality. What would be better is if Carter broke the mold and demanded a different debate between Christians about these issues? Carter has a unique opportunity to go on TV and ask his fellow Christians to stop trying to suss out what God wants when it comes to women.
The biggest fallacy in our modern political discourse is this belief that because one believes in God, one has to involve God’s wishes in your decision-making. The problem with that, as Carter understands, is no one actually knows what God is thinking and so they are simply asserting what they believe and assuming God is along for the ride. The best thing Carter could do to advance the cause of a liberal, feminist Christianity is to challenge his fellow Christians to get past this endless loop of Bible-mining and instead to join the secular world in putting the real-world evidence first and seeing where it leads them.