The Politics of Being a Woman in a “Christian Nation” by Gina Messina-Dysert, Jennifer Zobair and Amy Levin


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The far right is pitting God against women. Mike Huckabee’s support for the decision to deny a 10-year-old rape victim an abortion is just another example in a long history that continues this election season.

At Fox News’ Republican Presidential debate in Cleveland, Jeb Bush boasted that, informed by his faith, he “defunded planned parenthood and created a culture of life in my state.” When Megyn Kelly asked Scott Walker if he would “really let a mother die rather than have an abortion,” he refused to temper his position that there should be no exceptions to his “pro-life” position.

Ted Cruz professed “God speaks to me every day through the scriptures and this informs my position on religious liberty, life, and marriage.” And Marco Rubio argued that even in the case of rape, women should not have the ability to make choices about their pregnancies. Sadly, such proclamations ignore individual rights, freedom of religion, and the fact that faith as a guiding principle can be dangerous when the foundational teachings of social justice are ignored.

In an effort to create a “moral” society, women’s health and welfare are nothing more than political pawns for too many Republicans. The supposed secular nature of the nation aside, the parameters of the pro-life conversation are severely limited in scope. Claiming they are focused on protecting life in the name of God, such views ignore the interconnection between such legislation and poverty rates. Politicians who brag about defunding Planned Parenthood ignore that nearly all federal funding received by the organization goes to contraception and other essential health services. Under Jeb Bush’s “culture of life,” Florida became one of the worst states for women’s health and wellbeing in the nation. Sr. Joan Chittister has explained these political notions are pro-birth; little attention is given to what becomes of children once they are born or to the women who have given birth.

Even Joe Biden, who acknowledged that his Catholic values – particularly in relation to reproductive health — should not be forced upon other Americans, fails to recognize that Catholicism supports the wellbeing of women. Reproductive health is a social justice issue and refusal to grant access perpetuates the oppression of women.

Perhaps Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it best: “Reproductive freedom is in a sorry situation in the United States. Poor women don’t have choice.”

It is no coincidence that the viable female candidate running for president, who also identifies as Christian, insists on prioritizing women’s rights. Hillary Clinton is campaigning hard on supporting funding for Planned Parenthood and recognizes the connection between legislation supporting reproductive health and tackling poverty issues plaguing women in the US.

Reproductive health is not the only women’s issue threatened by the right wing. The lack of paid maternity leave in the US is connected to the patriarchal idea that women’s roles are in the home, a notion reinforced by conservative religious ideals. Additionally, the fact that women continue to be underpaid, and salaries decrease for a woman with each child she births, are also directly connected to misogynistic conceptions of gender roles.

Lack of access to reproductive health, low wages, and limited access to childcare and maternity leave are major contributors to women being the most impoverished group in the nation. The inability for right wing politicians to make these connections and understand how their misguided notions of religious ideals play into the perpetuation of these issues is highly problematic and puts women, especially underprivileged women, in this country at serious risk. The result? Women’s rights continue to be diminished in favor of intolerance, ignorance, and supposed religious values.

This outcome is not only unacceptable for American women in the twenty-first century; it is also repugnant to feminists of faith who have done the hard work of showing that Christian and other patriarchal religions do not, in fact, require anti-woman readings or the policies that flow from them. It’s worth considering: If compelling pro-woman readings of religious texts exist, why would anyone choose to embrace those that result in our oppression?

The issues women are facing in the 2016 election are not new. With a majority of candidates being white, male, and Christian, the presidential race continues to be a platform to marginalize women based on misinterpreted Christian ideals. It’s time for Republicans to understand once and for all that they cannot ride our oppression all the way to the White House. Anyone who attempts to do so should be ashamed. And defeated.

It’s 2015 in America. Women have no intention of returning to Biblical times.

final-cover-faithfully-feministThis piece was co-authored by Gina-Messina-DysertJennifer Zobair, and Amy Levin, co-editors of Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay.

Join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #FaithfullyFeminist.

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Categories: Feminism, Gender and Power, Politics

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21 replies

  1. I think the Republican logic is that if women are not married or divorced, it is their fault: they should have taken advantage of patriarchal “love” and financial support, and if they don’t, they should not be rewarded for not “making whatever compromises are necessary” to land and keep a patriarchal breadwinner, including letting him “rule” and of course only having sex within marriage. This is the “logic” behind their positions.

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  2. As in the past under patriarchy, “moral” laws are written large on women’s bodies.

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  3. The most charitable thing I can say about these guys is that they are demented. They are not “Christian”, but use the name to foster their own brand of oppression while trying to scare us with foreign “terrorists”. It’s the home-grown ones we need to be concerned with.

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  4. Do the Republicans–and other politicians, including The Donald–understand that this is not a Christian nation? Here’s what the First Amendment says. Are they able to read??

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

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    • Hi Barbara – agreed! The title deleted the quotation marks around “Christian Nation” and no, I don’t think they get it – as many do not given the religious rhetoric used in this nation on a regular basis – God made an appearance at the debate – it was disturbing to me.

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  5. Of course these men know every argument that you are making in the this article, disempowering women is exactly what their goal is

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  6. I respect where you are coming from but are you really saying it’s the Republicans doing this and NOT the theology that is and has already been in place?

    You say – “This outcome is not only unacceptable for American women in the twenty-first century; it is also repugnant to feminists of faith who have done the hard work of showing that Christian and other patriarchal religions do not, in fact, require anti-woman readings or the policies that flow from them. It’s worth considering: If compelling pro-woman readings of religious texts exist, why would anyone choose to embrace those that result in our oppression?” People DO choose to embrace this type of theology and therefore the political embodiment that comes with it. Have we forgotten about Reagan or George Bush Jr.? And now this field of individuals who are trying to do the same thing. You can sit there and reinterpret scripture all you want but at the end of the day, like with the Kim Davis situation (that is still ongoing), no matter how much logic, arguments of faith or whatever you choose to use in your defense of your anti-(insert your oppressive flavor of the day here) views, the simple answer is that people REALLY do believe this type of theology and rhetoric and are unwavering in their relentless attacks on the people and communities that do not fit into their constructed ideologies and lifestyles that they create in their individual and communal minds. You end by saying: “It’s 2015 in America. Women have no intention of returning to Biblical times.” I struggle to see where this is not already true or happening.

    I guess this article just brings us back to the binary of: are you better working for change inside the church or outside of it?

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    • Exactly. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Theology of the Body? Love and Responsibility? Mulieris Dignitatem? Humane Vitae? On the Ordination of Women? I mean, the list goes ON AND ON AND ON.

      But lets blame Republicans, not the Church that has pushed this for thousands of years? And then the money that funnels in from pews to further this agenda? The homilies every Sunday that happen during election season? The Catholic Cardinals who not only back the Republican agendas, but actively deny communion to politicians who disagree with their own agendas?

      ……

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  7. Marci and John, I appreciate that people do in fact believe their misinterpretations. That does not mean they are correct and our voices are needed to continue to work for positive social change within and outside of religious institutions. This essay is not “blaming” republicans vs. the Church – rather it is acknowledging how candidates in the party are using misinterpretations to further their own agendas and continue a culture that is damaging to women. I appreciate your own decisions in relation to your religious identities, however I think my work as a Catholic feminist should not be discounted because of my decision to work for change from within and point out the ways the ongoing abuse of tradition is impacting political dialogue in our nation. Hope you both are well!

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    • See, I think this is an incredibly harmful view of Catholic doctrine. I also think the consistent pitting of those who left vs. those who stayed with the card of “discounting our voices” is not what is happening here. Honoring dissent (which I obviously do) does not discount misogynistic institutions or doctrine. I value the discussions of dissenting theologians (and clearly view them as the future of the Church), but they are not the current church. Just because someone is a feminist inside a traditional religion does not inherently make that religion feminist–or their doctrines. The teachings I stated above are current doctrine upon which decisions are made and lives are affected (just yesterday a woman was denied a lifesaving surgery here in the US because of the teachings of Humane Vitae at a Catholic Hospital). It takes a supreme amount of privilege to discount the doctrine that is in action today as “misinterpretations” when there is no other option upon which any actions are being taken. No one in the Church is making decisions on women’s bodies based on the work of Margaret Farley (though we all wish they were, right?). Its not a personal attack on any feminist identity–everyone deserves to identify how they wish within the parameters they want–but to say that the Church itself is not the issue and we(both the Church and those of us who left) are somehow misinterpreting doctrine is just harmful. No one is questioning the voices of current feminists who wish to stay within–what I am questioning is the dismissal of acknowledging present harm and current power and who holds it (its not us–the dissenters–its them). Without consistently telling people what doctrine is today, what the church teaches, and how it is not changeable for now, there is no winning against the Church. Most Catholics don’t even know where their money goes every Sunday, having no idea that Catholic Charities is one of the biggest anti-LGBT groups in the nation and also that the RCC actively campaigns and donates to groups that are currently taking down Planned Parenthood. Its only when people know what ACTUAL doctrine is, what it teaches, and how much actual harm it inflicts in the world (including its preceding influence on politics), that change will happen. It has never been an us vs. you. Its them vs. us. But they benefit from this type of divide.

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    • Gina – being dismissive of dialogue ends up feeling like apologetics here time and time again. Critique is not attack. However, as Marci stated above, and I bears repeating –

      “This doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Theology of the Body? Love and Responsibility? Mulieris Dignitatem? Humane Vitae? On the Ordination of Women? I mean, the list goes ON AND ON AND ON.

      But lets blame Republicans, not the Church that has pushed this for thousands of years? And then the money that funnels in from pews to further this agenda? The homilies every Sunday that happen during election season? The Catholic Cardinals who not only back the Republican agendas, but actively deny communion to politicians who disagree with their own agendas?” You may not be blaming Republicans but you are working in the same system where they are now representing you and the religion you are working to change. I hate to always go back to the Lorde’s quote but “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

      Individuals who choose to stay in these religious systems DO operate in a vacuum and through their own decisions to continue working inside a tradition that promotes the ongoing abuses of women, LGBT, and others does nothing to change the conversation but rather reiterates the need to radical change from the outside. Check out this weeks Fresh Air where they discuss the Pope’s upcoming trip to America; the church is not changing, they are just getting more clever with how they do PR.

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      • John and Marci, perhaps I am misunderstanding your comments. Carol’s critique is very fair – I should say “problematic interpretations” instead of “misinterpretations.”

        That said, John’s comment “You can sit there and reinterpret scripture all you want but at the end of the day, like with the Kim Davis situation (that is still ongoing), no matter how much logic, arguments of faith or whatever you choose to use in your defense of your anti-(insert your oppressive flavor of the day here) views, ” sounds more like an attack than a critique.

        I am not defending anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-anything teachings. Rather, what I am saying is that if you look at the foundation of the tradition, the teachings of which Christianity are founded on, they do not support oppression.

        John said: “being dismissive of dialogue ends up feeling like apologetics here time and time again. Critique is not attack.” No one is dismissing dialogue – this blog is about dialogue and creating a space for it. My statements are not “apologetic” – I believe the work of individuals within the Church and from the outside are equally critical. We can see that from the work of RRR and Mary Daly.

        John also said: “You may not be blaming Republicans but you are working in the same system where they are now representing you and the religion you are working to change. I hate to always go back to the Lorde’s quote but “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.””

        Feminism is about uprooting oppression wherever it exists, and that includes religion. We all choose different paths in this work – every path is important. Are you saying it is impossible to work within a tradition for change? If that is indeed what you are saying, then you are discounting the work of religious feminists.

        Marci, you said: “Just because someone is a feminist inside a traditional religion does not inherently make that religion feminist–or their doctrines.”

        Obviously not – but there is scripture that can be retrieved, and once again, I believe that the foundation of the tradition is about peace, justice, and love – and that is the place that I work from.

        Marci, you also said: “what I am questioning is the dismissal of acknowledging present harm and current power and who holds it (its not us–the dissenters–its them).” I never dismissed these things – I/we called out the statements of Republicans as using religion in a secular nation to control women’s bodies. Yes, the Church holds the power – but so do the privileged politicians who demand to keep women in their place based on their interpretations of Christianity.

        Marci, you also said “It takes a supreme amount of privilege to discount the doctrine that is in action today as “misinterpretations” when there is no other option upon which any actions are being taken.”

        First, that sounds a little bit like an attack rather than a critique. Second, I agree that the language misinterpretation is incorrect and I should have stated problematic interpretation. Third, I think there are many movements within the Catholic Church, as well as other religious traditions that are seeking justice: Roman Catholic Women Priests, Women’s Ordination Conference, Ordain Women, Catholics for Choice, Call To Action, etc. I see action happening everyday based on religious principles and interpretations of teachings. Have you attended a service at All Saints in Pasadena? The homilies are about social justice, challenging the problematic rhetoric, and working for change. There are lots of churches like this out there.

        I believe in Sharon Welch’s idea of a feminist ethic of risk. To not take action because you will not see immediate change is an immature attitude – and unfortunately, many people feel that way. However, I believe our efforts now will support change in the future, and that keeps me invested.

        Finally, I am sure you know that all-caps communicates a particular tone. If you want to engage in dialogue, I’m all for it – but it should take place in a respectful manner.

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      • Gina – Sadly, feminist reinterpretation or interpretation are NOT doctrine or considered canon in Catholic theology, you know this. I again hope you can listen to the Fresh Air episode where they talk about the Pope and the church’s new PR plan especially when it comes to topical issues on current interest here in America (gay marriage, abortion, women’s rights, etc.). The church is still vehemently anti-woman, the Pop is just putting a new flavor and twist upon the anti-woman dogmatism to draw crowds and attention to this new “progressive” Pope.

        Additionally, the “caps” are about emphasis. It’s like attempting to read into a text message. Please do not assume that the meaning behind it is disrespect because it is not; again I’ll say – critique is not attack.

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  8. I appreciate the above dialogue. I agree with John and Martha that there are misogynistic and anti-gay passages in scripture and that it is not “misinterpretation” to use them to promote an anti-feminist and anti-gay agenda. It really is up to us as individuals and communities to “choose” how “we will interpret” sacred texts and traditions. It is also possible to “admit” that sexism permeates every (or almost every) aspect of scripture and or tradition, and still to “choose” to work within traditions to “transform” (not just correctly “interpret” them). This is Judith Plaskow’s position with regard to Judaism and it is one reading of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s position with regard to the New Testament. I agree with John and Martha that to call all homophobic and sexist (and God of war) interpretations of scripture “misinterpretations” is not only to assume that there is an “essential core” of tradition that is not homophobic or anti-woman, but also that everyone would agree what that essential core is. The “essential core” is sometimes said by progressive Christians to be Exodus, the prophets, and the teachings of Jesus. As I have argued for years, Exodus is based on a holy war theology with God as the holy warrior, and the prophets continue in this tradition. Every word the prophets say about caring for the poor is followed up by the threat that “if you don’t” I (God) will destroy you, dash your infants into pieces, and so on. I have no problem with feminists who want to claim that “for them” the essential core does not include the notion of a destructive, violent, God–but this involves a selective reading of the prophets. That’s fine, but just don’t say that anyone who says America can go to war “with God on our side” is misreading scripture. They simply have another interpretation scripture and another understanding of what its “essential core” is.

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    • Carol, I appreciate your comments here and understand that the issue is that I/we should be using “problematic interpretation” rather than “misinterpretation.” That is a fair critique and I appreciate the tone with which you expressed it.

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      • “I am not defending anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-anything teachings. Rather, what I am saying is that if you look at the foundation of the tradition, the teachings of which Christianity are founded on, they do not support oppression.”

        I think you may need to reword this as well. If Exodus is the foundation of the tradition, it does support oppression insofar as God is called a “man of war” and He throws the horses (surely innocent lives) and horsemen of the Pharaoh into the sea. If the NT is chosen, well there are some passages that support oppression there too. If the words of Jesus, which words, and so on. I don’t think you can say that there is a non-sexist “foundation” in the Christian tradition. I do think it is reasonable to say, I know there are bad things in my tradition as well as good things, and because I find inspiration as well as meaningful community and history in my tradition, I choose to stay to bring the good parts of my tradition forward in order to transform it. This theological “move” bypasses the question of whether there is more good than bad in the tradition and how we decide that. In other words, the question of whether x religion really is sexist… or not, is not the only question. The right question may be, acknowledging that the tradition is and has been sexist … , I choose to stay within a community that has other layers of meaning for me in order to change it. In so doing I will choose the parts of tradition that have meaning for me and that do not support oppression, in order to work towards creating a non-oppressive church.

        Of course, those who do not stay in traditions may also be following the feminist ethic of risk, because we too are trying to change the world.

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      • “Of course, those who do not stay in traditions may also be following the feminist ethic of risk, because we too are trying to change the world.”

        I could not agree more Carol! We too are trying to change the world and I feel that even though we are not “inside” the tradition we are often discounted because we lack some type of moral or religious obligation to stay and therefore are viewed as “quitters.” I hear this argument a lot with LGBTQ individuals who leave religious traditions versus those that do not; those that stay have been able to negoiate something that those who leave have not. The opposite is true too for the lack of acceptance of people who too stay in patriarchal and oppressive religious traditions as well! Where is the middle ground?

        Thank you for your comments! You provided more context for the larger narrative I was trying to allude too in my comments.

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  9. I am encouraged by your work promoting religious feminist perspectives in support of women’s rights in the United States. Our political debates are too often framed as religious conservatives versus women’s rights advocates. Excluded from this binary are myriad voices of people of faith concerned about violence against women, feminization of poverty, and other forms of injustice against women. Such faith perspectives are vital to the movement to prevent women’s rights in our country from being eroded and to the ongoing struggle to secure women’s equal rights.

    Like you, I puzzle at how political conservatives have managed to claim the religious mantle in our country, while sidestepping or outright opposing social justice concerns that I take to be central in the biblical tradition. While the Bible is a complex, polyphonic text, which cannot be simply or squarely applied to our contemporary context, out of its multitude of voices I hear a consistent, resounding call to care for widows, orphans, aliens, prisoners, and all the poor, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. When politicians decry the provision of much-needed education, health, and welfare measures to assist our society’s neediest, I find their claims of reliance on the scriptures for their policy choices untrustworthy. And when they fail to show compassion for the poor suffering in their midst, their claims of benevolent concern for the unborn, whom they cannot see, ring hollow.

    Conservative politicians of the religious-political right infuse their position on abortion with unique religious importance, failing to consider other religious values in the process. It seems they implicitly privilege the abortion issue over the massive problem of injustice against women, without analyzing or explaining why. In my view, they have it backward: if ours was a just society that respected the dignity and worth of women and girls (and all those on the margins) and treated all as equal citizens, women would experience far less need to terminate pregnancies. But as long as children are raped by caretakers and motherhood is the number one risk factor for poverty, abortion will be something women (and girls) desperately, understandably need.

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