Women on the Verge of an Uprising
Go to your local church, mosque, or synagogue, and take a look around during worship. Who is leading the service? Who is preaching? Are women mentioned positively, negatively, or at all? Is God described exclusively as Father, as Father and Mother, or in gender-neutral terms? How are the women dressed—are they covered up, even on a scorchinghot day? Wait—where are the women, anyway? Oh, there they are—all the way in back. Or upstairs. Or in another room.
If you’ve witnessed the preferential treatment of men in America’s houses of worship, you will not be surprised to learn that there is an explosion of millions of women in this country rising up and demanding religious equality. More and more, religious women—Christian, Muslim, and Jewish—are declaring that they expect to be treated as equal to men in the religious sphere. They want the same meaningful spiritual connections enjoyed by their brothers, fathers, husbands, and sons. They arecritical of their faith’s male-oriented theology and liturgy. They reject the interpretations of their religious tradition that give women a different, and to their minds lesser, status.
These women agree with their priests, pastors, imams, and rabbis that the word of God is revealed in their faith’s sacred writings. And they embrace the word of God. Yet they believe that God always intended for women to be treated as equals to men. The problem is not God’s intention, but rather a distortion of God’s plan.
I am one of these women: I too live with deep conflict. I am com mitted to my religion, but increasingly I am frustrated with the place my tradition assigns me as a woman. In writing this book, I have connected with many of these women, and sharetheir experiences here to raise awareness that conflict and contradiction sometimes can be good things because they can impel positive change. For when there is tension between the desire to be religious and the desire to be treated as equal, religious women inevitably question the status quo, leading them to study the foundations of their faith. This process strengthens religion for everyone involved. Blind faith, on the other hand, weakens religion for everyone involved.
We are living at a pivotal moment. Catholics have been active in the movement for women’s ordination as priests since 1975,and the first woman was ordained as a rabbi three years earlier in the Reform Jewish denomination. In 2006 we saw the installation of the first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. But today the movement has deepened. It still pushes for ordination in those faiths where it remains forbidden, but it has widened its focus beyond that one issue. And it encompasses Muslim women, who are also speaking up against women’s discrimination. It has germinated a new class of religious women who are infusing their faith communities with palpable energy. That energy is alive: it is growingand spreading.
These women are not abandoning religion. Nor do they seek to overturn it. On the contrary: they want to stay within their religious heritage but make it better by allowing women full rights. They want to transform religion while maintaining tradition. Many of these women seek out like-minded folks, both men and women, in order to practice their faith together in a way that is spiritually fulfilling rather than spiritually disabling. Others work from within to reform their church, mosque, or synagogue to become more inclusive of women. All of these devout women recognize that religion, when practiced together with a commitment to gender equality, can empower women rather than limit them. At the same time, by creating opportunities for women, they are making their religion stronger and more durable.
Historically, men have monopolized God. Today, women are taking back God for themselves. Says forty-six-year-old Catherine Shannon, a practicing, churchgoing Catholic and stay-at-home mother of four in suburban Connecticut, "I don’t feel equal atall, and I struggle with it. I watched the installation of Pope Benedict XVI on TV, and I found it repulsive. It was all these men—no women. Women are allowed to become ‘Eucharistic ministers,’ but they’re not allowed to consecrate the Eucharist. Only a male priest is allowed to do that. I would feel better if women could do it."
Syeda Reshma Yunus, a forty-seven-year-old traditional Muslim woman who was born in India and lives in California, feels similarly. She is offended that many mosques forbid women from entering and exiting through the main door (a separate door for women is sometimes found on the side or rear of the building) and that nearly all mosques in the United States require the women to worship behind the men. "You know how you’re supposed to come back from the mosque feeling good and spiritually recharged? I never feel that way. When I come back from the mosque, I just want to throw something at those people!"
For her part, Ariele Mortkowitz, a twenty-seven-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman living in Washington, D.C., shares this sense that as a woman, she’s getting the short end of the religious stick. She disagrees with her tradition’s rule that women, but not men, must dress modestly. "You need to cover your hair [as a married woman] and you need to cover your body becausewomen are considered sexual beings. A male friend [not from my community] once said to me, ‘Doesn’t that make you feel good, though, knowing that you are looked at as a sexual being?’ But no, it doesn’t! I don’t want to hide who I am, but I’m supposed to because I’m a source of negative influence for my male counterparts in society."
Many religious people consider these sentiments heretical. When excommunication wasn’t considered punishment enough, the medieval Catholic Church burned heretics at the stake. When women in our country during the colonial period challenged their congregations, their punishment was swift and fierce. In 1638 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Anne Hutchinson was excommunicated and banished from the colony because she had held meetings in her home to discuss the Sunday sermon and to provide aforum for her own theological ideas. In 1660, a supporter of Hutchinson who preached her own sermons, Mary Dyer, was hangedon the Boston Common. Other women who expressed provocative views about Christianity and the church hierarchy were also hanged, pilloried, or whipped.1 Some were lucky merely to be publicly insulted. In 1848 the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton—an evangelical Protestant who claimed that opponents of women’s rights were misreading the Bible—was stung when she was denounced as an "infidel" by her hometown preacher.2
Today’s equality-seeking religious women are sometimes considered heretics and branded as pagan, a term used to describe one who believes in more than one god. After an international conference of mainstream Protestant women, held in Minneapolis in 1993, participants were labeled pagan because they "reimagined" God as possessing both feminine and masculine characteristics. Even today, any religious woman who tries to broach the topic of alternate ways of representing God is at high risk of being silenced as a pagan—which also means one who stands outside the faith community. These women are told thatnothingcan change, because the way things are now is the way God decreed they should be, as revealed in the sacred texts.
Despite the insults flung at them, the women in this book remain deeply religious, faithful people. They are in awe of God as their creator, redeemer, and sustainer, and they wish to live lives that serve their God. By and large, they are mainstream, conventional people—schoolteachers, social workers, office managers, nonprofit directors, lawyers, physicians, church administrators, soccer moms, retired grandmothers. And they appear mainstream: they dress modestly—nothing too attention-grabbing, nothing outrageous. They tend to be particularly well educated (since higher education leads to critical thinking),yet they are also average Americans. For the most part, they just want to be left alone to worship Jesus Christ or Allah orHashem—quietly, without causing a ruckus, without being in-your-face about it. But also with dignity and not as second-class citizens within their faith.
They are activists by necessity. To get to the point where they can worship the way they want to, they know that action is required. And action they are taking. Catholic women are supporting female ordination ceremonies, risking excommunication by the Vatican because the Catholic Church not only forbids female priests but also forbids support and even discussion of the subject. Evangelical Christian women are engaging in serious, high-level Bible study in which they challenge scriptural interpretations that place husbands as heads over wives, who are instructed to be subservient. Muslim women are participating in prayer services in which a woman recites the khutba (sermon) and women pray adjacent to men, not behindthem. Observant Jewish women are attending prayer services in which the curtain dividing the women from the men is pushed aside so that a woman can layn (chant the words of ) the Torah.
I want you to get to know this new breed of devout women—who they are, why they are dissatisfied with their faith, and whatthey are doing about it. Millions of religious women, together with like-minded men, are having an enormous impact on churches, mosques, and synagogues across the United States: they are reshaping organized religion to become more inclusive ofwomen not only as worshippers but as leaders. There are no hard numbers, but everyone involved in the professional world ofwomen and worship agrees that more and more women are standing up for their religious rights. In no small part, these womenare gaining momentum through the Internet, which enables otherwise disparate individuals to come together.
"Women in these traditions are taking a very hard look at the conflict they have been living, between trying to be faithfuland coming against certain elements of their tradition that are baldly unequal to women," observes Cyra Choudhury, the executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Women in Religion. "We are seeing a groundswell. There are regular women, women not engaged in the academy, asking more questions. They don’t necessarily want to become priests or rabbis or imams, but they want their questions answered and they don’t want to just accept the answer, ‘Well, this is thesacred law;this is just what it is.’"
I have chosen to explore five communities of American women struggling for women’s religious advancement: Catholics, evangelical Protestants, "mainline" (nonevangelical) Protestants, Muslims, and Orthodox Jews. Obviously, there are many other communities in which women are similarly rising up. A website called Feminist Mormon Housewives offers a space for Mormon women to vent frustrations with their narrow role. There are disgruntled women in the Eastern Orthodox, Mennonite, and Pentecostalist churches and in the Jewish Conservative movement too, not to mention members of Eastern religions. Ratherthan attempt to tackle all denominations and movements, I limit this inquiry in order to paint a vivid landscape.
In 2006 I traveled to Chicago to attend an international gathering of United Methodist clergywomen to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of their full clergy rights. Fifteen hundred women, most of them ordained, converged at the Hyatt Regency convention center at McCormick Place, their numbers limited only by lack of space. This was the last place I expected to find disgruntled voices—the event was, after all, billed as a celebration, a landmark anniversary, a weeklong gala party. Besides, aren’t mainline Protestants very open to women’s new roles?
When I showed up to claim my name tag, I encountered two cheerful volunteers overseeing the registration materials. At first they couldn’t find my name on their list; they leaned over the table and scanned the names, finally locating me under "Media."
"Media? Are you a reporter?"
I explained that I was writing a book about women who are devoted to their faith but ticked off about their status within it.
"Well," said one of the volunteers, a friendly woman with short white hair and vivid blue eyes. She straightened her shoulders and flashed me a wide, welcoming grin. "You’ve come to the right place."
More and more, any place where religious women gather is the right place to find women demanding equality.
What motivates them? To find out, I engaged in intense interviews with women seriously devoted to their faith, living across this country from far-flung rural Oregon to densely packed New York City. To seek them out, I attended five conferences of religious people in support of women’s advancement—in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a conference of the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus; in Chicago for the United Methodists’ fifty-year anniversary of clergywomen’s rights; in Milwaukee for the Catholic reform group Call to Action’s annual conference; in Manhattan’s Times Square for the historic Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity; and in Manhattan’s Upper West Side for the tenth-anniversary celebration and conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
Many other women reached out to me after seeing the advertisements I placed in the politically left-of-center Christian magazine So-journers, the feminist Jewish magazine Lilith, the progressive Muslim website MuslimWakeUp!, and the secular liberal journal The Nation. (Many women who read conservative publications also want equality. I chose liberal publications, guessing that in those venues I would have a good chance of finding women willing to speak with me.)
Overall, I spoke with ninety-five women—Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews. Their ages range from nineteen to ninety-five, and they live in twenty-four different states across the country. Some refer to themselves as feminist; others avoid the term as strongly as they wish Eve had spurned the serpent’s fruit. (In this book I describe people and organizations as "feminist" only if they already define themselves in this way.) Except for several interviewees who had left their religious community because they couldn’t reconcile their beliefs with their tradition, all are seriously committed to their religious tradition yet simultaneously believe that women are not treated as they should be. They base their beliefs on their understanding of the sacred texts of their faith.
These women collectively voiced four goals:
1. They want to see women in leadership roles within their church, mosque, or synagogue—even if they personally do not desire to hold such a position themselves. By extension, they believe that women should be permitted to participate in the same rituals available to men. Because conservative religious women do not plunge forward and claim for themselves a responsibility or ritual without authorization from a respected religious authority, they are educating themselves about existing interpretations that favor increased participation by women.
2. They want women represented in the language of their liturgy. In some cases this means wanting God to be described with feminine as well as masculine images (Mother as well as Father, Queen as well as King); in other cases it means simply wanting the liturgy to refer to human women (foremothers) as well as human men (forefathers).
3. They want religious recognition that their physical bodies are normal and not aberrant. Despite the millions of women who are proud of their bodies and enjoy wearing revealing clothes, many other millions—who grew up in religious households—have been taught that the female body, which menstruates, nurtures a growing fetus, gives birth, and lactates, is inherently offensive. Sadly, many women come to believe this is true.
4. They want to be recognized as people created fully in the image of God. The idea that human beings are created "in the image of God" and therefore share some aspects of the divine is very powerful and important in Judaism and Christianity. In Islam, it is believed that humans have the potential to share some characteristics of God but can never fully achieve a mirroring of God.
Genesis 1:27 reads, "And God created the human in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them."3 In mirroring God to some extent, humans are elevated. If God is compassionate and just (as all three religions maintain), and if we have the capacity to act as God acts, then we have the power and responsibility to behave in compassionate and just ways. Moreover, if all humans are like God, then all humans must be treated with respect. But what happens if only men are believed to be "in the image of God"? Christian leaders throughout the centuries have argued that only men reflect the divine image, while women require men to complete them to achieve the same status. As a result, many Christians believe that women are not as valuable as men in the eyes of God—and therefore, by themselves, cannot be "saved."
To achieve these goals, much more is required than to "add women and stir." Theology itself—the ideas that undergird the religious practices—must reflect the lives of women too. Since the 1970s, academics in the area of religion andwomen have reexamined and reinterpreted Christian and Jewish theology. More recently, Muslim academics have also turned to women’s issues in theology. They have called attention to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as religions created by men. Whether or not one believes in a supernatural God, there is no arguing against the fact that the architects of each religious tradition were people—men. Historically, women have been shut out of the power structures of each faith. As a result, a male point of view has molded each faith’s core ideas about God and about who has access to the privilege of serving God.
More fundamentally, the three religious traditions have tended to regard women as inferior and subordinate to men. "It is not possible for woman to achieve equality with man," is how the theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza sums up the prevailing belief, "because this is against divine law and biblical revelation."4 There are, to besure, exceptions and ambiguities that also are part of the theology of these religions, but speaking generally, it has beenunderstood that there is a hierarchical relationship between man and woman, that man is the one with the power, and that this is the divine truth.
Woman’s supposed inferiority, it has been explained, is innate or circumstantial, caused by (pick your favorites):
Sin (eating from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden)
The capacity to sexually arouse men, who might then participate in forbidden sexual relations
Having a woman’s body, which does not reflect the image of God
Having a woman’s body, which is closer to nature than man’s body, and therefore removed from transcendent reason, which is godlike
Having been created second instead of first
The fact that Jesus was a man and not a woman
The fact that God is most often described as male and not female
When you take a step back and examine each explanation, you can’t help but see the flaws:
Adam ate the forbidden fruit too.
Child-rearing responsibilities do not last a lifetime, and besides, doesn’t the capacity to give birth make women more godlike than men?
Men can learn sexual restraint, and if men are natural leaders, why are they so weak?
The Bible says explicitly that both women and men are created
in the image of God.
A person can give birth and also possess the ability to reason.
If being first is better than being second, why are animals not superior to humans?
Jesus was not only a man but also Jewish, yet Christians don’t consider themselves inferior to Jews.
The Hebrew Bible (also accepted as sacred by Christians and Muslims), as well as the Qur’an, refers to God in feminine as well as masculine terms and images, and Jesus refers to himself
in female imagery.
The whole enterprise of explaining man’s supposed superiority to woman is specious and suspicious.
The feminist theologian Mary Daly was one of the first modern thinkers—along with Valerie Saiving, Rosemary Ruether, Letty Russell, Judith Plaskow, and a few other trailblazers—to analyze the woven bond of sexism and religion. She wrote in 1971,
The Judaic-Christian tradition has served to legitimate sexually imbalanced patriarchal society. Thus, for example, the image of the Father God, spawned in the human imagination and sustained as plausible by patriarchy, has in turn rendered service to this type of society by making its mechanisms for the oppression of women appear right and fitting. If God in "his" heaven is a father ruling "his" people, then it is in the "nature" of things and according to divine plan and the orderof the universe that society be male dominated . . . Within this context, a mystification of roles takes place: the husband dominating his wife represents God himself. What is happening, of course, is the familiarmechanism by which the images and values of a given society are projected into a realm of beliefs, which in turn justify the social infrastructure. The belief system becomes hardened and objectified, seeming to have an unchangeable independent existence and validity of its own. It resists social change which would rob it of its plausibility. Nevertheless,despite the vicious circle, change does occur in society, and ideologies die, though they die hard.5
These are stinging words. Daly was arguing that Christian theology reinforces sexism in society. To put it another way, there is something wrong with Christianity because it is sexist. But she also hinted at the possibility for reform: social change could happen; it just wouldn’to be easy or pretty. At the time she wrote this passage, Daly was personally committed to feminist reform of the Catholic Church. But since 1971 she has changed direction. Today she believes that the Christian tradition is inherently oppressive to women because its core symbols,such as a male Christ, are essentially sexist. She now argues that Christianity cannot be reconciled with the drive for women’s equality—and therefore it must be abandoned.
I disagree. Reform is not impossible. To my mind, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are strong enough that they can withstand a little reform without compromising their core values. The issue is not a matter of "if," but "when." We can reread our sacred texts and interpret them through the lens of women’s equality. There are many truths to our sacred texts, not just one, and we can expose multiple meanings that enrich, not strip away, the validity of our faith.
Even if one is adamant that the divine voice is unalterable, it still cannot be denied that the divine voice always has been, and always will be, filtered and interpreted by humans. It is our job to figure out the most authentic way of understanding this voice, and to do so, we must use human knowledge. Today, we know that women are full human beings with the same intelligence, leadership skills, and spiritual capabilities as men. It is incumbent upon us to use this knowledge in our understanding of sacred texts.
Christian women seeking equality emphasize that Jesus treated women as fully equal to men, that men and women together were equal disciples in the earliest Christian mission, and that Jesus lived his life and suffered his death to be in solidarity with all who had faith, including the marginalized—women, poor, outcasts, sinners. And yet how many Christians today are even aware that their religion valued what we call inclusiveness? Christians must look back at the early history of the church and recapture the gender equality that was part of its foundation.
Muslim women seeking equality similarly point out that the prophet Muhammad treated women very positively, but that throughthe centuries this has been forgotten or ignored. The Qur’an—the Muslim holy text believed to be the literal word of God as it was revealed to Muhammad—gave women legal rights of inheritance and divorce, which was revolutionary in seventh-century Arabia. One revelation addressed women directly (something not done at all in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament) and stated that women and men are morally and spiritually equal. The prophet’s first wife, Khadijah, was a successful merchant and an older woman, and it’s clear that Muhammad held women in general in high esteem. "Islam gave women rights," the author and translator Laleh Bakhtiar tells me, "and the men took them away." Muslim women seeking equality want to return to the attitudes toward women expressed in the Qur’an and through Muhammad’s example.
Observant Jewish women seeking reform remain committed to halakhah, the code of Jewish law, which is built upon a foundation of gender inequality. Nevertheless, these women say that even within halakhah their roles can and should be expanded greatly. They point out that halakhah has always been fluid and flexible and has changed throughout the centuries when rabbis have deemed change necessary. These rabbis have found interpretations in Jewish law to support their changes. If the leading rabbis of today wanted to give women rights, they could and they would.
"The problem with much theology," writes the theologian Judith Plaskow, "is not that it speaks from male experience—it must speak from some experience—but that it claims universality for its particular perspective . . . Theology cannot deal with ‘universal human experience’ not simply because human reason is finite, but also because experience itself is so varied." Plaskow, unlike Daly, does not throw up her hands and walk away. Instead, she calls on groups that have not been represented to speak up so that their insights can be included in "a multifaceted theological exploration of the human situation."6 The challenge is to avoid repeating the error of our forefathers, who presented their own male experiences as universally human ones.
If we accept this challenge, we can achieve our goals. Women can take on leadership roles in their churches, mosques, or synagogues. Women can be represented in the language of their liturgies. Women can be taught that their bodies are normal. Women can be recognized as having been created in the image of God. We can achieve these things. We do not have to abandon our faith communities. We can stay and make them stronger. And for this to happen, we cannot be polite. The religion reporter and papal biographer David Gibson observes that with the Catholic priest shortage, laypeople, women and men, are effectively running the parishes. "If all these people went on strike for one week, the Church would come to a grinding halt."7
And for those who would prefer that Catholics go a week without confession before they would allow a female priest, remember that without women, there is no religion. Says the religious studies professor Christel Manning,
Women are still the heart of most families. When parents divorce, mothers usually get primary custody. When Christian families homeschool their children, it is almost always the mother who does the educating. It is the mother who determines how closely a Jewish family will observe the kosher laws. And it is women who, by joining the labor force, are challenging traditional religious gender roles. Women therefore have a powerful influence both on what it means to be [religious] todayand what it will mean for the next generation.8
In other words, even if religious leaders don’t care about justice for women, they should give it to them anyway—for the sake of the continuity of their tradition. It is shortsighted not to.
The ancient sage Hillel asked, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" Meaning: If I don’t look out for my own interests, who will? He continued, "If I am only for myself, what am I?" Although I must look out for my own interests, I can’t look out only on my behalf. I must also help others in need. Otherwise, what kind of person would I be? Hillel’s questions point to the conflict between the interests of the individual and the interests of the community to which she or he belongs. So which one takes precedence? The answer is embedded in the great rabbi’s final question: "If not now, when?" Meaning: There will always be conflict between the individual and the community, and this conflict might never be resolved. But that need not stop me—and you—from doing what needs to be done now.
Devout American women of different faiths are arriving at the same conclusion: religion must become more inclusive of women, and action must be taken now. These women are living with an enormous conflict—between their needs and the long-held interpretations of their religious tradition. But they are moving beyond the impasse of conflict to take matters into their own hands.
Even if you feel no personal stake in religion, it has an enormous influence over your life. More and more, religious values influence the political direction of our country. In fact, religion affects everyone in the United States, whether they are Episcopalian, Quaker, Buddhist, Reform Jewish, Wiccan, or atheist. A whopping 90 percent of Americans believe in God.9 Only 10 to 14 percent of Americans have no ties to a congregation, denomination, or faith group.10 Of those with religious ties, the overwhelming majority are Christian. A quarter of adult Americans are Catholic (51 million) and 52 percent are Protestant (105 million), making three-quarters of all adults in this country self-described Christians. Less than 2 percent are Jewish (2.8 million), and less than 2 percent are Muslim (2.35 million).11 The Jewish and Muslim figures are slippery; if a Jew is defined as anyone with Jewish parentage, the number could be as high as 5 million, and many Muslim organizations claim that there are between 5 to 7 million Muslims in the United States. Moreover, for those who are spiritually hungry but turned off by the more popular U.S. religions, there is a smorgasbord of alternate options ranging from Hinduism to Scientology to the mystical religion Madonna strangely calls Kabbalah (it bears only a passingresemblance to the Kabbalah of Jewish tradition).
No matter how you crunch the numbers, it is indisputable that America is a country filled with religious people, the overwhelming majority of them Christian, and that most take their religion seriously. The 2008 presidential campaign was strewn with Bibles. Recognizing that Americans take politicians’ religion into account on election day, each candidate jostled for the position of Most Pious and Authentic Christian. Even Rudy Giuliani, not a religious man, described himself in spiritual terms.
A full third of Americans describe themselves as born-again or evangelical12—the word "evangel" means "good news," and evangelicals believe they are obligated to spread the good news that Jesus can save sinners. Millions of evangelicals believe in the inerrancy of the Bible—that it is without error and that there is only one "true" meaning of the words of the Bible, which was written by God. Among those who hold this belief are some—commonlycalled fundamentalists—who believe that interpretations other than their own are false and not worthy of attention, perhaps even blasphemous. If a Christian strays from the accepted understanding of key biblical passages, she may not have "faith" (appropriate belief in Jesus Christ as savior) and therefore may not be "saved" (brought to heaven instead of hell after death) by Jesus. When Christine, a white thirty-eight-year-old stay-athome mother livingin rural North Carolina, was growing up, she would occasionally tell her evangelical parents that she disagreed with some verse in the Bible. "My parents would tellme, ‘Well, you really need to work on your faith.’"
Many evangelicals are politically right-wing. Some don’t support the separation between church and state, religion and politics. Instead, they make a concerted and often successful effort to align the political and social landscape with fundamentalist Christian ideas. Known as the religious right, they are members of well-organized, politically conservative Christiangroups such as the Christian Coalition, Moral Majority, and Focus on the Family, and along with groups like the Catholic Council, they have massive grassroots support. These groups include enormously influential people with the power to determineand enforce national and state laws, people who want to impose their own vision of what America should look like onto everyone else.
Faith-based politics have led to classrooms in which attempts are made to replace the science of evolution with either "intelligent design" or creationism.13 Religion in politics has tied the hands of medical researchers who want to use fetal stem cells to save existing lives and has led to massive support of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages. Meanwhile, "Faith Nights" at football and baseball games around the country (not only in the Bible Belt) offer Christian music, giveaways of Christiantoys, and testimonials from the players themselves. Some Christian faculty members at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado have proselytized the cadets, who include Jews and other religious minorities. When George W. Bush tapped Harriet Miers to sit on the Supreme Court in 2005, he indicated to Americans that they could trust her because she is a born-again Christian like himself.14
To say that the religious right does not support equality of the sexes would be like saying that Noah’s ark got wet during the flood. Many on the right don’t even support adequate education for females. Because of the political muscle of the religious right, millions of girls do not receive complete information abut sexuality and contraception, as they are subjected to "abstinence-only sex education," which has been shown to be both ineffective and dangerous. Boys don’t receive decent sex ed either, which is also tragic, but it’s the girls who get pregnant. Some of these pregnant girls or adult women seek help in health-care institutions that receive federal funds but do not inform women about their full options, which include abortion.
Not all evangelicals are fundamentalist or politically right-wing. According to Anne Eggebroten, a research scholar with the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA, herself an evangelical Christian and one of the founding members of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus in 1974, the religious right "is a cultural movement that gives people a black-and-white world where abortion is wrong and homosexuality is wrong. Their belief is that if you just stay within certain boundaries, you will be safe and happy and have a strong spirituality. And that approach has worked for a lot of evangelical churches." Eggebroten is a white fifty-nine-year-old woman living in Santa Monica, California. When I meet her, she looks relaxed in khaki pants and Birkenstocks, her chin-length gray-blond hair tucked casually behind her ears. But she is anything but laid-back when it comes to her commitment to women’s and gay rights. She is a tireless critic of fundamentalist Christian politics in her columns for Women’s eNews and in her groundbreaking book, Abortion: My Choice, God’s Grace, in which evangelical Christian and Catholic women discuss their decisions to have abortions.She asks me,Why are abortion and gay rights the big issues right now? People didn’t care all that much in the 1950s. The common denominator pushing all of these conservative groups is fear. You have women controlling their own bodies and the empowerment of gays and lesbians. There is a lot going on in society that is still relatively new and scary. So I think there’s a huge appeal to a time that never was when things were safe and nice and women and gays were in their place. There’s a tremendous attraction to that, and I think that it fuels the popularity of forms of faith that give people a clear sense of rights and wrongs and going back to a mythic time when things were easier and answers were clearer. People also want a scapegoat. If they have a scapegoat, they don’t have to look at their own behavior. A lot of fundamentalist preaching is about how bad gays areand how they’re going to take over the world, how bad feminists are and abortions are. If you look at the men who have beenactive in fighting abortion, the way they got into it is the mentality of, "Wow, these people are so bad, but I can save the world!"
Given the political-religious environment today, the inclusive vision of today’s equality-seeking religious women creates not only an alternate way of worshipping God but an alternate way of being a citizen in this country. We believe that those who are politically conservative should not have a monopoly on religion. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Democratic senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton appealed to the spiritual side of voters, weaving religious themes into their campaign rhetoric. Although I usually become concerned when politicians invoke religion, because this can lead to theblurring of church-state separation, at the same time I found it refreshing that Democrats were the ones referring to God. Every yearat its annual convention, Planned Parenthood Federation of America holds an optional interfaith prayer breakfast. To me, this is encouraging. No, I don’t think being religious is a prerequisite for being pro choice—or, for that matter, for being anything. Being religious has no bearing on whether someone is a moral, kind, empathetic person or whethershe is cruel and hurtful. Religion is used to justify any and all behavior. But I want people to be aware that many women who support the full range of reproductive health care, including the legal right to an abortion, are religious too.
There is a history of devout women in the United States agitating for social reform. Today’s ticked-off religious women have illustrious predecessors: Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, leaders of the first wave of the women’s rights movement, were raised in religious Households—Mott as a Quaker, Stanton as a Presbyterian. They were vehemently antislavery and called for immediate abolition based on their understanding of God’s law. These women organized the Seneca Falls, New York, convention of 1848, in which they unveiled a Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence, that called for women’s suffrage and reform of marital and property laws. Historians date this convention as the beginning of the organized women’s movement in the United States. The two founders were motivated by their understanding of the Bible, which they believed taught the message of equalityof all human beings.
Vivian Gornick, the essayist and biographer of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, reminds us that when the great women’s rights leaderwas coming of age, religion was as inescapable as the air she breathed:
In the Cady household, as in innumerable American homes at the time when she was growing up, there prevailed an unreconstructed Presbyterianism that posited original sin as one given,and the ever-present threat of an eternity spent in hell as another . . . It is hard to overstate the religious cast of this culture. In 1800 the rhetoric of Christianity informed the dailiness of American life, all popular notions of virtue were visibly bound up with a Christian definition of moral obligation, thousands of young men routinely contemplated a life in the church, and in colleges and universities religious thought and practice were thoroughly intermingled with every kind of intellectual inquiry.15
Excerpted from Taking Back God by Leora Tanenbaum.
Copyright © 2009 by Leora Tanenbaum.
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
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