Monday, September 8, 2008

Feminism and Sarah Palin

As Sarah Palin burst onto the national political and religious scene, I at first wondered if there would be an across-the-board shifting of political alignments. Palin, a pro-life conservative, has clearly been speaking and acting in some definitely feminist ways. Indeed, she has been riding on the coat tails of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which encouraged women to utilize their talents and abilities outside the home in vocational fields previously reserved largely for men. Will conservative, staunchly patriarchal evangelicals support a woman who holds some feminist views (“This is America; a woman can go through any door”), and who is a member of Feminists for Life? While she evidently has been a good mother to her five children, her executive responsibilities would necessarily require her to assume a “man’s role” in the world while her children are attended to by others. And what about the secular feminists? Will any of them come over to Palin’s side? After all, if she and McCain win the election, she will be the first female Vice President in the White House. Now that would definitely be a “feminist” accomplishment!

Before proceeding further, we need to make a distinction between feminism and biblical equality. Feminism is and always has been rightly applicable to culture at large. It has to do with how men and women should interact in society. Feminism has wrought many changes in society; little by little restrictions placed on women have been chipped away—sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. (Restrictions are not always bad; some are necessary for a good and godly society.) On the other hand, biblical equality has to do with exegeting, theologizing, and applying the truth of Scripture to male-female relationships in various arenas, especially in the church and marriage. Thus, to assert that someone who defends the view of biblical equality is ipso facto a “feminist” is a category error. On this blog we have not previously addressed or defended feminism, but only biblical equality—namely, how best to understand Scripture on the question of spiritual authority between women and men. But now we are discussing…feminism!

So then, how have the various culture warriors responded to Sarah Palin, whose behavior and beliefs seem to fall into both conservative and feminist camps, yet cannot readily be defined by either? As it turns out, the old alignments have for the most part remained intact, yet with some subtle shifts, and the priorities of the right and the left regarding the women issue have been clarified in some surprising ways.

Actual feminists hate Sarah Palin. With one voice. There is no accommodating her in that camp. These are the left-wing, non Bible believing, abortion “choice” fanatics. Adherence to abortion “rights” is their litmus test, and it is enforced as rigidly and religiously as the patriarchal-complementarian (PC) institutions enforce adherence to “male headship,” and by the same means: censuring and ostrasizing all who do not pass the litmus test. This, then, is why feminists in the current culture refuse to acknowledge Feminists for Life as truly feminist (an organization of which Palin is a member)—even though abortion is the only significant point at which FFL breaks ranks with current, orthodox feminism. (There are a number of feminist issues that they don’t directly address, since their main focus is on saving unborn babies from destruction.) Albert Mohler says he cannot understand why feminists (such as Sally Quinn of the “On Faith” blog) are critical of Sarah Palin. After all, isn’t Palin demonstrating distinctly feminist proclivities? Well, Dr. Mohler, this is why.

On the other hand, staunchly PC mainstream evangelicals love Sarah Palin. But not quite with one voice. They offer diverse and somewhat inventive rationales for why a woman may be fit to lead the free world but never a small church congregation. I have surveyed numerous PC responses to Sarah Palin’s candidacy for Vice President. Diverse though the rationales may be, there is one consistent thread: A woman can be as competent as a man in high-level political leadership. Whatever the God-given “difference” may be between male and female, it is not the ability to govern in secular leadership positions. Whew! That is certainly a huge reversal of the traditional view of the difference between men and women. What, I wonder, have become of the PCs who believe that women just don’t have the gift of leadership? That God has not equipped women to rule, and especially not to rule men?

So we now see clearly that the primary concern of both the PCs and the secular feminists is the issue of “abortion rights.” The secular feminists would really like to have a woman in the white house—but not unless she is there to promote the alleged “right” of a woman to kill her in utero child for the sake of her personal convenience. The PCs really want all women to be subordinate and domestic—unless a woman is ready and willing to serve as a pro-life advocate in the White House.

Among the various PC rationales for why women are fit for civil leadership but not spiritual leadership, a few posts noted that church leaders must meet a higher moral standard than leaders of the secular world. The CBMW statement posted on the Gender Blog by David Kotter on September 3 (followed by a similar statement on September 5) says that “A president is not held to the same moral standards as an elder of a church….Even though the Bible reserves final authority in the church for men, this does not apply in the kingdom of this world.” This comment comes the closest yet to an admission of what I have often averred is logically entailed by the PC gender agenda: women qua women are unqualified to serve as spiritual leaders. Women may be in authority over men only in the lower realm of civil leadership. Women cannot meet the higher moral standard of church leadership. Women are fit to exercise authority in the kingdom of this world (which is under the power of the “prince of this world”), but are not fit to rule in the kingdom of God.

From whence comes this across-the-board spiritual inferiority of women? Could it be that the new covenant in Christ Jesus didn’t quite take where women are concerned? Could it be that women are still just a tad “unclean”? No, that is contradicted by the Cross of Christ and the blood of his sacrifice. Could it be that God created woman spiritually inferior to man? No, that is contradicted by the first chapter of the Bible. Could it be that fallen human beings fail to see the inevitable implications of their own fallen ways of thinking regarding the vexed question of the meaning of humanity created male and female? Yes.

Kotter, I am sure, does not intend to imply women’s spiritual inferiority, given CBMW’s oft repeated insistence on their “high view of women” and the “unbelievably high calling of being a wife and mother,” as reiterated in both of Kotter’s statements. My point here is simply that this perspective seems necessarily to entail women’s spiritual inferiority.

Another perspective repeatedly voiced in my survey of PC views was that of “the clear teaching of Scripture” on male leadership in the church and in marriage. Woman’s subordination to male authority is, it seems, patently obvious; only heretics and morons could think otherwise. (At this point I cannot resist “just a little news flash” for those who are so certain. When all the relevant considerations of the biblical text are carefully and honestly considered—i.e., the possible word meanings, the literal and cultural contexts, the entire rest of the Bible, the logical entailments of the “clear teaching”—things turn out not to be so very clear.) However, teaching can be clear if one is willing and able to connect the dots and respect every word of Scripture in one’s interpretation of specific texts in Scripture.

A literalistic perspective of Scripture accompanies and encourages the simply clarity that they profess. PC pronouncements on what women may and may not do are not derived from a theologically and philosophically integrated worldview of creational gender realities. Rather, they seem to be drawn from specific and isolated facts located at various points in the Bible. Since the Bible does not specifically say women may not exercise civil leadership, it should not be prohibited. (The fact that Deborah’s leadership was both civil and spiritual—she was a prophet—seems to have escaped their categories.) Since 1 Tim 2:12 says that a woman must not teach or have authority over a man, they conclude that the Bible denies the exercise of all high-level spiritual/religious authority to all women for all time despite the other indications in Scripture that would strongly suggest otherwise. And, since the Bible says women are the spiritual equals of men, they affirm that this is true, yet claim—simple logic notwithstanding—that women are still unfit to render spiritual service to the church alongside men.

In the end, it seems that the “clear teaching” and literal meaning of Scripture on “complementary roles” for manhood and womanhood—which up to now has fairly consistently meant that God created men to be leaders and women to be subordinate to male leadership—is not such a consistent and comprehensive perspective after all. Rather, when push comes to shove, it simply means that in the church and home, for whatever reason, men must be the boss and women must be subordinate to male authority. Outside of these two realms, gender “complementarity” is either moot or nonexistent. What, exactly, God did at creation is immensely unclear. Evidently (on the PC view), God did not create man and woman with certain different propensities inherent to the nature of manhood and womanhood, such that men were created to rule and women to submit. For indeed, outside the church and home, in the secular culture, such “differences" seem largely to disappear. There is definite confusion in the camp of the complementarians.

But what now will become of the f-word (i.e., feminism), which has been so frequently and reflexively invoked by those of the PC persuasion to encompass all kinds of “feminism” from the mildest to the wildest? For many years, the f-invective was used to refer to any female behavior that transgressed the bounds of subordinate wife and mother tending to children at home. Within PC circles, the conceptual content of the term has been of far less interest than the rhetorical wielding of the term to invoke fear of heresy and thus to shut down rational thought on the subject. For at least a couple of decades the f-word has been the default category for biblical equality, and it has been a winning strategy. Call it “feminist,” and the rank and file of church-going evangelicals will not go near it.

In my short-lived, ill-fated book Women Caught in the Conflict, I carefully explained the significant differences between the various species of feminism—from the simple and sensible notion of a wife and mother having a vocation outside the home (if circumstances reasonably permit), to the radical feminist personal/political agenda, to goddess worship and the divine feminine. These crucial distinctions all were lost on those of the PC persuasion. The one-size-fits-all view of feminism prevailed and my clear and careful categories went summarily out of print. (The book was reprinted by Wipf & Stock, see the publications page on my website) Painting all feminism with the same brush was a quick and easy way to cut off all constructive dialog, lest there be opportunity to consider the possible merits of biblical equality for women.

But now we have SBC leader Richard Land speaking favorably of the same type of feminism that I cautiously and provisionally endorsed in Women Caught in the Conflict. A Christianity Today online interview reported that: Richard Land is "ecstatic" over Sen. John McCain's decision to pick Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as vice president, and the women in his office are just as excited. They were absolutely giddy, and saying ‘I’m going to volunteer’ after Sarah Palin was picked," said Land, who is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "There’s something going on in the conservative independent sisterhood that I can’t tap into….I can’t comprehend it, but it’s there. Clearly, her nominations tapped into something, which I can observe as a white male but can’t experience. My wife says, to her, Sarah Palin is what the feminists’ movement was all about. You can have a family and a husband and a career, that you can do it all. My wife has a Ph.D. in psychology, she’s in private practice as a psychotherapist. I find these questions about ‘how can she take care of her children and be vice president’ sexist. Nobody asked that question to any of the male candidates.”

The Sarah Palin phenomenon seems to have given some PC women permission to express their suppressed yearnings for freedom, opportunity and significance outside the home (yet without dismissing their domestic duties).

Indeed, one must endorse the basic, early concept of feminism—that a woman should have opportunity to serve in a vocation outside the home—if one is to endorse Sarah Palin as a good choice for Vice President of the U.S. This is logically entailed and evidently readily recognized as such by those of the PC perspective.

So, it seems we’re all feminists now. No longer may “feminism” universally serve as the f-word. Its meaning now must be qualified. Sarah Palin is a feminist and a Bible believing Christian and is radically (that is, she lives it out) pro-life. No longer can PCs insist on labeling biblical egalitarians “evangelical feminists”—by by which they have meant “feminists who ‘purport’ to believe the Bible.” Feminism can no longer be snidely and categorically dismissed as “liberalism.” It must finally be recognized that there are strongly pro-life Christians who also want to see women break out of their conservative evangelical subculture and take up their freedom in Christ to speak to and influence the world and the church with the wisdom and talents God has given them.

But for this to truly and fully occur, women must see that they are equally endowed not only with ability to lead nations, but with the ability and the authorization from Christ—by virtue of the new covenant which he instituted by his blood—to serve and to lead in the church and the world with spiritual authority as well as civil authority.


Jamin Hubner said...

Excellent post.
What exactly do you mean by: "God did not create man and woman with certain different propensities inherent to the nature of manhood and womanhood, because..." ? A brief extrapolation on this would be great. Because I'm wondering how your views differ from the compl. in respect to the idea that objective masculinity and femininity does/does not exist (and has never existed, even in Eden).

Adam Omelianchuk said...

Thanks for posting on this, Rebecca. I believe the Palin nomination is perhaps the most important event in the comp/egal discussion this decade... and that is saying a lot!

And your book _Women Caught in the Conflict_ is my favorite of yours. :)

Andy said...

Thanks for your well-worded thoughts on the subject. As a complementarian, I too have sniffed some smelly inconsistencies among evangelicals when it comes to the general capacity for female leadership outside the church. It will be interesting to see how some of the old-guard leaders in the complementarian movement recast their position in coming months and years, should she be elected.

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis said...

To Jamin Hubner:

Perhaps I did not write that portion as clearly as I might have; so I have rewritten it. Let me know if that clarifies the matter. Regarding my views on the differences between masculinity and femininity, I have a few comments on that in an earlier post, "Definitions, Distinctions, and Differences." But I'm not quite sure what you mean by "objective masculinity and femininity."

inchristus said...

As always, astute and culturally keen, Rebecca. I've added a link to it here.

sunestauromai said...


Susan said...

I was looking forward to this post! Thank you for sharing this and I hope you have time for more editorals as this election continues to stir the PC pot!

Beth said...

Rebecca, your blog has arisen at an opportune time. 20 years after reading an article written by a woman in Discipleship Journal on why women should not teach men, I'm still wondering whether men were expected to read the article. Maybe the latest highlighted inconsistency in the PC view will encourage people to thoughtfully review all of the Biblical texts (we can hope and pray). Blessings, Beth

Don said...

I am egal.

In case you did not know, there ARE some non-egals who are saying Palin is wrong. They are basing this in the supposed creation principle of men on top. They point out that CBMW and the like are not being consistent. They USE the supposed Creation principle of masculine primacy to buttress their arguments in the home and church, but do not carry it forward to society.

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis said...

Yes, I do know that now; but when I did my initial research a couple of days after Palin's convention speech, none of that was showing up. But I guess I'm just not much of a journalist, since I notice that Adam Omelianchuk was able to find these comments very early on!

At any rate, I was just gathering my thoughts to put together a "part two" on the subject. So stay tuned!

Thank you for your comment.

Brenda T said...

Thank you very much for your analysis of the PC response to Palin's nomination. The inconsistencies were nagging at me, but I didn't quite have the ability to articulate them. I am a newly-realized egalitarian; that is, I didn't know I was until more intense study in the Word made me conscious of (what seem now) blatant misreadings of scripture. Thank you for your commentary on the current issue and for your kind, coherent, consistent explanation of scripture on this subject. God bless you.

cokhavim said...

Hi Rebecca,

In your review of PC responses to Palin's nomination, did you encounter any arguments to the effect of: "well, since McCain is a man, Palin will be working under a male covering, so it's all ok"? That was the first thing I thought of as the most likely PC response to Palin, and I'm surprised that the argument about "church vs. society" is the more common response.

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis said...


The individuals and organizations that I have looked into have not offered a PC defense of Palin's nomination along the lines of the "male covering." But there is a lot out there that I don't know about! However, a piece appeared today by David P. Gushee, a "moderate evangelical," in which he asks PC leaders several questions, one of which was: "Would Palin be acceptable as vice president because she would still be under the ultimate authority of McCain as president...?" I noticed that CBMW has offered a brief response to Gushee, but they did not comment on that question.

My guess is that PC groups who support Palin for VP recognize that, since the main job of the VP is to be there to replace the president if necessary, the "male covering" angle just doesn't cover all the bases.