Losing my religion (or Jimmy Carter follows me)

22 July 2009, 0510 EDT

In an article in The Age, Jimmy Carter recently renounced his membership in the Southern Baptist Church, arguing that “women and girls have been discriminated against for too long using a twisted interpretation of the word of God.” Particularly, Carter objected to statements by the Southern Baptist Convention “claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.” Carter links this sort of belief to justificatory logic for slavery, violence, forced prostitution, and the failure to make and enforce rape laws.

In a 1995 op-ed in the Pensacola News Journal too old and obscure to be located online, I renounced my membership in the Southern Baptist Church, arguing that the misogyny and heterosexism of Southern Baptist doctrine was something no God could want.

Carter’s article fluctuates between brilliant feminism and over-rhetorical politicking, but includes some important food for thought. The “lowlights” include his declaration of his membership in a group called the Elders and an unsophisticated understanding of gender hierarchy which seems to blame it almost entirely on men’s manipulation. While criticizing the Southern Baptist Church, Carter generalizes about the world’s religions – and, while his recognition of the link between patriarchy and religion is important, it would be nice if Carter recognized that all religions were not “created equal,” and have different (and different level) gender hierarchy problems. The highlights of Carter’s announcement/article, however, are surprisingly insightful.

For example, Carter argues that these religious beliefs “help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.” Inherent in this and other statements in Carter’s argument is clear understanding that gender hierarchy is structural, and that structural gender hierarchy negatively impacts women’s lives on a daily basis all around the world. The second important recognition that Carter makes is nearer to the end of the article, where he points out that “it is not just women and girls who suffer [from gender hierarchy]. It damages all of us.” This is a realization that gets way too little play in the policy world – that gender hierarchy hurts the people “on top” as well as the people “on bottom” of that hierarchy. I applaud Carter for being able to see this, and concluding that “it is time we had the courage to challenge these views.”

Still, the egocentric part of me was tempted to reread Carter’s statement next to mine, and recall what I was thinking when I renounced my membership in the Southern Baptist Church. My column talked about many of the issues that Carter’s does, but also talked about the “Disney boycott” (where the Southern Baptist Convention objected to Disney’s decision to recognize and insure employees’ domestic partners) and other heterosexist policies. It also, while renouncing my membership in the Southern Baptist Church, urged the Convention to rethink its position and volunteered to enter into a dialogue to think about these problems more seriously. Reading both my column from years ago and Carter’s now, though, my major complaint is this: really? you think you can just quit patriarchal institutions? I think that Carter’s heart is in the right place, but I also think that we can’t disassociate ourselves with patriarchal society – we have to work with, and within, it. And maybe, for someone who otherwise agrees with the Southern Baptist Church like Carter claims to, that means dealing with it within that patriarchal society.