Can You Be Religious and Feminist?

I’ve avoided writing specifically about feminism and religion, partly because religion is such a complicated, and a touchy, subject. Not all religions are created equal. Some have millions of adherents, some only a few. Some have played central roles in historical events, some have remained obscure. And nearly all have had some impact on the way women are treated in society.

It is a common perception that feminism and religion just don’t mix, that it is impossible to be religious and a feminist. The fact that most religions follow a patriarchal pattern (probably because they spring out of patriarchal societies and are designed to perpetuate them) makes them natural adversaries for feminists.  But if you examine the major religions, you’ll see that the religions themselves are not the real culprits. It is the men who interpret the religions who twist their teachings on women into misogynistic nightmares.

This means that the religious woman must realize who her real enemies are: not the gods, but the males who attempt to shape them into their own image. I realize that this sounds like male-bashing, but in fact, it’s common sense. If women had the power to call the shots, would they have instituted some of the rules and traditions or perpetuated the attitudes that make them “second-class” citizens?

So what is a feminist to do? Does she have to give up her religious beliefs? The problem with that is, people have spiritual needs that no amount of political or philosophical posturing can erase. Although some belief systems may seem to be almost religious in their zeal, if they are not addressing the possibility of the existence of God, they are not religions. (By this definition, atheism is a religious belief and feminism isn’t.)

However, non-religious belief systems like communism or feminism can seem like religions. They become world-views through which their adherents come to understand human nature, and even, at times, God.  It is important to keep religious beliefs separate from political or sociological ones. For example, being a Christian doesn’t require that you be a capitalist any more than the reverse is true.

At the same time, if you are religious and hold non-religious views about human nature, you are going to have to reconcile them at some point. Or at least attempt to do so. It’s not intellectually or spiritually honest to say that you’re religious and a feminist without attempting to determine how the one affects the other. In most cases you will find that they’re not incompatible.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t sticky questions that need to be resolved. More often than not you’ll find the answers in a study of the religion itself. How and when were its scriptures written? What were the backgrounds of its eminent leaders? What was the historical context within which the religion was shaped? What was the psychological makeup of its key proponents?

I’m not trying to say that the scriptures themselves are erroneous or misleading. What I am trying to say is that the way the scriptures are interpreted and codified are inevitably filtered through the experiences of the men who control it. It’s important to separate the words of your God from the words of men. Dare, even, to come up with your own interpretations, not to make up your own version of your religion, but to help you to understand it better.

Men are not gods (contrary to some people’s beliefs). They should be listening to their God, not expounding their own views on how to treat half of His creation. Women have as much right to examine and interpret scripture and establish religious traditions as men do. But they also have as much responsibility to do it fairly. Arguing about God’s intentions is as fruitless as ants arguing about humans’ intentions. We need to find our place in relation to God, not His in relation to ours.

And that’s how you can be religious and feminist. By not putting your human beliefs above your belief in God, yes, but also by using what God has given you to understand them in the context of your religion.

This Guy Is A Christian?

Imagine this scenario: a ministerial student obtains letterhead from the University of Idaho English department and manufactures fake fliers, faxing them out to hundreds of venues, announcing a ” ‘Topless and Proud” lecture series featuring feminist lecturers speaking on topics like “Breasts as Embodied Intuitions” (whatever that means). The fact that it actually did occur on an April Fool’s Day a few years back, didn’t keep floods of callers from inquiring about the series. What is really disturbing was the response of the church’s minister, Douglas Wilson. In part, it reads: “All in all, it was a bad day for the tight-lipped fundamentalists of the left.”

Wilson is a would-be mainline evangelical  who has debated Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and written Letter From A Christian Citizen, God Is.How Christianity Explains Everything and The Deluded Atheist. The schools he started, Logos School in 1981 and New St. Andrews College in 1994, are based on his philosophy about the importance of a classical Chrisian education.  (He is also the author of Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning and the founder of The Association of Classical and Christian schools.)

Now that I’ve established his credentials, let me tell you what I don’t like about this guy. I don’t like that he sets himself up as The Defender of the Christian Faith, when some of his views are so extreme. He is quoted in an article on ChristianityToday.com, as saying that “you might exile some homosexuals, depending on the circumstances and the age of the victim. There are circumstances where I’d be in favor of execution for adultery. … I’m not proposing legislation. All I’m doing is refusing to apologize for certain parts of the Bible.”

Among the many short books and pamphlets that he has published through his church’s press was one titled Southern Slavery: As It Was, in which he defends God’s sanction of slavery and argues that you can’t “modernize” the Bible to fit today’s outlook. He calls that “a slippery slope toward relativism.” Is this guy serious?

Even though the prank cited at the beginning of this post was not organized by Wilson, it was very much in keeping with the defensive (and offensive) position that he takes toward those he calls “intoleristas.” “We were beleaguered, under siege, and in our responses we’ve tried to maintain a sense of humor,” says Wilson. That was humorous? And it’s no secret that he is a foe of feminism: the college’s student handbook warns against “doctrinal errors…such as Arianism, Socinianism, Pelagianism, Skepticism, Feminism.”

I’m a Christian and a feminist, and although I sometimes have trouble reconciling the teachings of the Church when it comes to women, I find much that is compatible. Wilson demonizes anything he doesn’t agree with, and I think it’s clear that feminism is one of those things. The fact that he ranks it with other forms of doctrinal “heresies,” just shows how beleagured he feels about the feminist “agenda.” He purports to stand for cultural leadership, but the leadership he calls for is about war, not cultural reconciliation. I’m not saying that the Christian message should be watered down so as to not offend anyone. But surely there is a lot more common ground than Wilson seems prepared to traverse.

No Sex in the City

Dawn Eden has written The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On, about the virtues of chastity for the single person. Eden comes from a Reformed Jewish background but is now a devout Catholic, which means, for her, that she went from being “reluctantly” pro-choice to decidedly pro-life, among other things. She is also the founder of the blog, “The Dawn Patrol.” (Look at December 8, 2008 for videos about the views she espouses in her book.) Here is an article about her book (It also includes a video of a panel discussion on MSNBC’s Today Show). And here is an interview with her from Salon.com. Read an excerpt from Chapter One here. (You can find other videos on YouTube–search for “Dawn Eden.”)

I was intrigued by what Eden had to say about the value of chastity. This is so not in line with the feminist party line (especially from the Free Love period of the ’60s and ’70s) that I felt it was worth examining. I don’t know if Eden would call herself a feminist, but the fact that she has “converted” to chastity should not disqualify her from being one. There is nothing about the feminist ideology that says that you have to be “free” sexually, but it is often assumed that there is, which is one reason why conservative women abhor feminism.

I myself welcome the concept of not putting yourself “out there” sexually, especially if you do it because “everyone else does it.” But I don’t think it’s realistic that young women would flock to chastity without having religious convictions that take them there. And feminism is about choices, which means that it doesn’t condemn people for having sex outside of marriage. But it should also not condemn people for not having sex outside of marriage. I think that it’s safe to say that the feminist line is that women should be free to choose either route.

However, I also think it’s safe to say that most feminists would be uncomfortable pushing chastity as an ideal for single women (and men). It seems too restrictive and smacks of judgmentalism. Eden’s choice is right for her (and to be fair to her, her book is described as a memoir, not a manifesto). But is it an ideal worth considering? I think that depends on why a woman has sex outside of marriage. If she does because she is afraid she will lose the man if she doesn’t, then that is simply demeaning. In that circumstance, I would recommend chastity. As Eden puts it in her book: “If you have to ask someone if he’ll still love you tomorrow, then he doesn’t love you tonight.”

But what if you don’t care if he loves you tomorrow? What if you just want to have sex? Eden herself has had plenty of it in her life; you could argue that chastity might not be as hard for her to take on since she has already “sowed her wild oats.” I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, but let’s just say for the sake of argument that it is. Do you need to try free love first in order to find out if it’s right for you or not? Or just take Eden’s word for it?

The feminist in me says that every woman should be free to experiment. Conservatives argue that choosing chastity first ensures that you will not experience the heartbreak and dehumanization that casual sex brings. (Not to mention disease and unwanted pregnancy.) But insisting on abstinence ignores the needs human beings have for intimacy and the fact that it is not always realistic to expect that they will marry before having sex. You could even argue, as some do, that not having sex before marriage could lead to a higher divorce rate. Our grandmothers may have said, “Why buy the cow if you can have the milk for free?” But today’s couples are more likely to say, “Why buy the cow if you don’t know beforehand that it will produce milk?”

I tend to think that is a healthier approach. After all, the former question implies that a man is buying a woman. The latter that the couple is buying a marriage. There’s a distinct difference.

Feminism: Good or Evil?

I hope that we all know how far ultra-conservatives can go in their denouncements of feminists and how ridiculous their claims are. Feminists are not necessarily lesbian, they don’t advocate a man-less society, they don’t encourage women to leave their husbands or neglect their children and they do not, as a rule, practice witchcraft.

But has feminism done anything negative to the fabric of society or to women themselves? Here are some of the criticisms I’ve heard over the years and my personal response to them:

1. Feminism is exclusionary. It excludes all women who do not toe the party line (and men altogether.)

It may feel this way from the perspective of those who do not consider themselves feminists. But feminism is for all women, whether or not they agree with the feminist ideology. As for men, feminists believe that what is good for women is also good for men.

2. Feminism has marginalized women of color. It is basically a white, mid- to upper-class movement. Minorities need not apply for positions of influence and leadership.

This objection has had some validity in the past. The reality was that white women had the means and influence to get the movement going. That does not excuse them for not seeking to join forces with women of color, but it is a fact of life that people tend to come together with people like themselves to work toward achieving their unique goals. Feminist ideology, however, demands unity and any feminist worth her (or his) salt is completely open to working with all women.

3. Feminism rejects tradition. It asserts that anything traditional is tainted by the patriarchal system in which we live.

It is true that feminists are critical of patriarchy and feel that it is a system that needs a severe overhaul. That does not mean a rejection of traditional values, but a reworking of ways to express them.

4. Feminism goes against biology. It ignores the natural differences between the sexes and seeks conformity to a model that is gender neutral.

This was more true during the ’60s and ’70s than it is today. Today’s feminist acknowledges the role of biology but contends that much of what seems to be biological differences are actually the result of socialization. The feminist goal is to free both men and women to be who they want to be, regardless of social expectations.

4. Feminism is anti-male. It promotes a world run by women to benefit women. Anything masculine is ridiculed and reviled.

Feminism may seem this way, especially to men, because it challenges the status quo and makes them feel threatened. No one likes change, let alone being forced to change, so there are often bad feelings between men and feminists. Man-hating, however, is not a feminist tenet.

5. Feminism is divisive. Not only does it drive wedges between men and women it also creates hostility between women who are married and unmarried, working and non-working, lesbian and straight, and mothers and childless.

Again, people tend to side with their own and to see everything through that group’s lenses. This is as true of feminists as it is of anyone. But the truth is, one of feminism’s main goals is to build bridges among all women, regardless of marital, parental or working status.

6. Feminism is anti-female. Traditionally female, that is. Women are not supposed to beautify themselves or act “like women” in any way for fear that they may be buying into the idea that they are sex objects and servants, i.e, male-oriented.

Not wanting to be seen as a sex object or manservant does not mean that feminists are anti-female. On the contrary, feminists believe that women don’t need to remake themselves to someone else’s specifications to be valued for who they are. Younger feminists are more likely to claim their right to be as “girly” as they want to be, as long as they are doing it for themselves and not because men won’t accept them otherwise.

7. Feminism is anti-life. It is pro-abortion. Enough said.

While this seems to be a clear-cut issue, it really isn’t. Feminists believe that all women should have decision-making power over their own bodies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are for abortion. Most feminists would be happy to decrease the number of abortions, as long as women aren’t forced to go through with unwanted pregnancies.

8. Feminism is anarchistic. It seeks to tear apart the very fabric of society. It is against all forms of authority, which it insists are male-dominated.

Feminism seeks wholeness for all people, but knows that change is often necessary to bring that into being. Change can seem like anarchy at times. And while feminists do not throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to authority, it does urge women to question the restrictions that are put upon them by others.

9. Feminism is anti-religious. Not only is it against religious values, it is also not sanctioned by any of the major religions.

Whether a woman can be religious and a feminist has been argued for ages. There are definitely clashes between religious and feminist values. But they are not insurmountable. Feminist ideology does not rule out being religious; it only seeks to sort out the parts of religion that are damaging to a woman’s well-being as well as to her relationship with God. And while religions may not come out and sanction feminism per se, most do uphold a person’s right to seek equality and human dignity.

10. Feminism is unnecessary.

This is an old, old argument. People have always insisted that women have it good, that they like things the way they are, that there is no need for emancipation. Tell that to the women who were “kept” by their husbands, who couldn’t own property or enter into contracts, who weren’t even allowed to vote until 144 years after the establishment of this country. Okay, you’re thinking, that was almost a hundred years ago; what do women have to bitch about now? Well, answering that question is the point of this blog–so keep coming back!