Religion – Women – Politics – Equal Access

The answers by President Barack Obama and his challenger, Governor Mitt Romney, left much to be desired.  But more disturbing is the fact that in 2012, we are still asking the gender equality and access questions. This reality and my work on gender-based violence and human trafficking has led me to the following reflections or questions: Should our faith influence our behavior?  If yes, should we worry that an individual’s faith, often expressed through one’s religion, will in fact shape or determine one’s attitudes or behavior in the broader society?

Despite the constitutional requirement to separate church and state, the American people often make their political decisions based on their religious biases or orientation.  To be sure, we are entitled and protected by the First Amendment to have those opinions and to even base our votes on them.  I have seen among my Facebook friends the promotion of a Christian voter’s guide––again a First Amendment protected right. There is of course, the Christian Coalition, an organization that has promoted Christian principles in the political process. The guide and the organization both clearly indicate that you should vote your faith values.  But, what happens when those faith values conflict with constitutional protections or rights?

Before the emancipation of slaves in the United States, Southern slaveholders and many Southern theologians justified slavery with elaborate biblical exegesis and theological analysis that made slavery look like a gift to mankind.  Suffragettes in the 19th century and, unfortunately, women in the 21st century have had to fight the same type of exegesis and analysis to gain equal and protected access––including equal pay. Whether it is our attitude toward slavery, our attitude toward African-Americans, or our attitude toward women, religious institutions have been slow to keep up with an individual’s quest for freedom.

What intrigues me today is the religious orientations that relegate women to secondary or subservient leadership positions.  There is no shortage of them––particularly in the monotheistic traditions––Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  In these patriarchal traditions, women have had to fight to be at the table or to be heard. In their scriptures, the acts of women are often viewed as heroic instead of part of the mainstream of history, politics, or social change.

The fact remains that the source of our discrimination against women is often anchored in a religious belief that is patriarchal and antithetical to the core messages of love, justice, and compassion.  The tension is represented in the following assumptions that permit us to rationalize our support of a religious system that fails to provide equal access and consequently, influences the slow progress on gender issues:

  • Faith is personal.
  • My personal faith supports a theology or tradition that denies women the right to the priesthood or to leadership because she is a woman.
  • My participation in that faith means I must acknowledge my church’s right to relegate women to positions of support versus equal access to all positions of ecclesiastical leadership.
  • I should bring my values into the voting booth and vote my conscience.
  • Therefore, if my religious tradition denies women a role in spiritual leadership––then this begs the question––why would I believe they have an equal right in the public square to equal pay, or that they possess the leadership experience to govern a nation?
  • The values of my religious tradition form my conscience and that tradition says women cannot hold leadership equal to men.
  • Sitting in a corporate board room or the cabinet room of the presidency, my personal faith and my obedience to a particular religious tradition will influence my commitment to equality in gender, race, or ethnicity.

There is strong biblical evidence that Jesus spent a good part of his ministry affirming a woman’s right to salvation (something unheard of in 1st century Palestine).  Further, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he affirmed the following:  “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28).  Obviously, this is one value that did not make it into the mindset of the founding fathers who drafted our constitution.  Despite Yale historian Gordon Wood’s assertion that our founding fathers approached the writing of the constitution with the Bible in one hand and Cicero in the other, only parts of those values influenced the writers––those that protected a patriarchal and European orientation.

Perhaps in the 20th century, there was no greater articulation of the call to separate church and state than in John F. Kennedy’s September 12, 1960, address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.  Kennedy, with great success, assured the nation that his religion (Catholicism) should not be a reason to vote for him or against him. However, despite your view of the presidency of John F. Kennedy, the issue of values, ethics, and its application in policy left much to be desired.  Regardless, it is worth noting Kennedy’s concerns about why the nation would reject him because he was Catholic.  I quote him at length:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; . . . .

Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

Fifty years later, Kennedy’s words still seem relevant.  Most of us salute the principles he articulated in this now famous speech.  You can perhaps forgive him for his gender exclusion, but then again, maybe we should not.  When he said, “Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice;”  he did not mention women in his speech.  It is not simply a historical artifact of the next generation of Democrats that he ignored women––very few women served in leadership positions in his administration.  Of course, fewer served in Eisenhower’s administration or in Nixon’s.  That aside, Kennedy and about every other male of his generation belonged to religious traditions that denied a woman’s access to ecclesiastical leadership.  He might affirm their right to that leadership in the public square but was content to deny it in the religion of his faith.  Unfortunately, nothing has changed.

Alas, the battle that must be waged regarding equal access for women must first be fought in the sanctuaries, the synagogues, and the mosques of our nation’s religious institutions.  If we believe that our values shape our behavior and that our behavior will manifest itself in the private and public arena, then we must go after the values that shape our behavior.  Right now, and in large measure because of the patriarchal society we have tolerated, women do not have equal voice in those religious institutions.  How in the world, would we expect them to have equal access in the public square?

The constitutional protection of separation and Kennedy’s lofty goals in his Houston speech are noble political achievements, but until we are prepared to challenge our faiths’ religious institutions that deny women equality, we are whistling in the wind when it comes to equal access.  I want to know if Romney and Ryan will challenge the gender bias values of their own religious traditions.  I want to know if Obama and Biden will do the same in their traditions?  Probably not, because we have come to accept that it is OK to believe that one’s faith allows you to deny women equal access and it is OK to apply that faith in the public square.

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