The accusations made by over seventy women against entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein carved out a safe space for other women to come forward with their stories of sexual harassment, abuse and assault against Hollywood elites, namely big name actors who thought their fame translated to consent by unwilling women.
The latest allegations accuse Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual misconduct against a then fourteen-year-old year old girl in 1979 when he was thirty-two-years old. This week, fifty Alabama pastors signed a letter of endorsement for Moore, citing his unwavering biblical commitment to marriage between one woman and one man and anti-reproductive rights for women—all couched within the troupe of “religious freedom.”
For me, the Ray Moore scandal is especially noteworthy due to its theological underpinnings. How is it 37% of Alabama Evangelicals are more likely to vote for Moore since his sexual misconduct surfaced despite growing condemnation from their own Republican party? In his support for Moore, Jerry Falwell, Jr. states:
It comes down to a question of who is more credible in the eyes of the voters—the candidate or the accuser, and I believe the judge is telling the truth.
Bingo! Here, Falwell captures the true essence of the debate—women, i.e. the accusers, cannot be trusted. Both lay Evangelicals and tordained pastors endorse a theological view of women as temptresess. While volumes can and have been written about men and their sexual predatory behavior, I cannot help but wonder how the writings and behavior of “Church Fathers” and/or contemporary theologians contribute to a particular strain of emphasis on a theology-below-the-waist that subordinates and even abuses women.
In examining a theologian’s life, Roger Olson, Professor of Theology at Baylor, asks an important question, “If there’s something negative in their life story (as a theologian) should that affect how we value their intellectual contributions?”
Take for example Augustine, who is counted as the Church Father. While any scholar of Augustine would insist on placing him within a contextual timeline, i.e. early Augustine, middle or late, his writings on women, especially as they pertain to her standing before God or imago dei, directly contributed to women’s secondary status from a theological perspective. With emphasis on her bodily manifestation as matter, divorced from any spiritual or intellectual capacity via her will, women have a utilitarian function limited to reproduction. Augustine’s writings can have a negative influence on pastors. How much misogyny is passed down and endorsed based on the sexist writings of Augustine?
More recently, the life of prominent Protestant theologian Paul Tillich and his alleged sexual misconduct of female students at Union Theological Seminary begs the same inquiry as Augustine. After his death, his wife Hannah wrote From Time to Time, an account of Tillich’s own struggles with his shifting understanding of God in the wake of WWI and beyond. Apart from this self-inquiry, the text reveals Paul Tillich’s troubled marriage and numerous adulterous affairs. Critics of Hannah see her as a troubled and jealous women who envied her husband’s popularity as well as pointing to the seeming contradiction of opposing his affairs while having an open marriage. I understand the latter critique, but it’s a false equivalency to use it to shield Paul Tillich from condemnation for his sexual misconduct with students. Using his fame and power to abuse women places him in the same categories as those figures recently accused of sexual abuse, who feel their positions of privilege or even their XY chromosomes entitle them to abuse and mistreat women. So the question remains, do we treat the writings of Tillich differently given his sexual misconduct?
Finally I include the life and writings of 20th century Mennonite and pacifist theologian John Howard Yoder, accused of harassing and assaulting as many as one hundred women (yes, 100!) students during his twenty-four years as professor. In “Defanging the Beast: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse,” Rachel Waltner Goossen recounts Yoder’s desire to develop a new sexual ethic housed under a broader theme of a messianic eschatology “including the idea that intimate physical contact was an appropriate expression of non erotic Christian love, and asked select female students to help.” “Research” included fondling, oral sex and when necessary—intercourse. Additionally, Yoder’s eschatology advocates separation of church and state whereby the church is free to establish its own norms and practices absent state laws, for example sexual misconduct.
In my own theological study I raised similar questions after my reading of Augustine and certain Church Fathers. How do I reconcile their sexist theology with the rest of their corpus of writings? Are their views (sometimes held to be matters of doctrine) combatable with the full, theological imago dei of women and if not, why are they still being studied ? When I raised my discomfort in the valorizing of certain writers and writings, I was met with equal discomfort and ambiguity. Do we throw the errant, sexist theologian out with the bath water? When it comes to Augustine (on whom I have done the most reading and research), I continue to find fault lines with him, particularly when it comes to human sexuality and women. In Judith Stark’s Introduction to Feminist Interpretations of Augustine, she too wrestles with how Augustine’s legacy is to be understood:
If Augustine should be understood in the context of his times, does stance exonerate him from the charge that he provided powerful legitimation for the subordination of women in Western culture?
Where does this leave the feminist reader when evaluating the work of theologians who have written, as is the case of Augustine on the subordination of women, or have practiced sexual misconduct, as is the case of Tillich and Yoder? Do we completely dismiss their work, or is there another option to this theological quagmire? According to Stark, there are consequences to abandoning contested writings or theologians. If ignored, feminist interpretation of their work is left out of mainstream philosophy and Christian thought. I agree, to a point.
I believe the weight of an accused theologian’s sexual charges must be brought to the foreground before, during and after examination of their writings. Using a hermeneutics of suspicion let the student wrestle with the weight of said theologian and their sexual misconduct. Absent a full disclosure and examination, only a false exegesis is given. How would this rendering influence practical theology in seminaries?
By naming the sin of sexual abuse and sexism, how might this affect the behavior of future ministers or pastors? For too long the church and theological institutions have been complicit in either ignoring problematic writings that promote the second-class standing of women as sexually suspect, or are complicit (as in the case of Yoder) in the theologian’s sexual abuse of women. If we ignore theologians views of women, we will continue to see the manifestation of bad theology in the likes of Evangelicals like Roy Moore and those pastors who support him theologically.
Cynthia Garrity-Bond, feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate from Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion, with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. Her research interest includes feminist sexual theology, transnational feminism, animal theology/welfare, women and incarceration, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment and Mariology.