by Lorie Winder
I recently stumbled across a powerful statement on gender equity, particularly as it pertains to the use of religion to perpetuate discrimination. Written by former U. S. President Jimmy Carter and published in The Guardian in 2009, the statement is made more poignant by the knowledge that Carter, a life-long Christian, deacon and Bible teacher, felt compelled to sever his 65-year association with the Southern Baptist Convention, in part, because of its use of “carefully selected Bible verses” to prohibit women “from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service” and its insistence that women submit themselves to their husbands. “This was in conflict,” Carter writes, “with my belief – confirmed in the holy scriptures – that we are all equal in the eyes of God.” In a nod to President’s Day, the words of this former president and practicing Christian invite reflection.
Carter begins by boldly asserting that women “are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths,” and that the influence of this discrimination, “unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.” Further, Carter writes, “the male interpretation of religious texts and the way they interact with, and reinforce, traditional practices justify some of the most pervasive, persistent, flagrant and damaging examples of human rights abuses. Such thinking “costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities. The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives.”
“The same discriminatory thinking,” Carter posits, “lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in Britain and the United States. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for everyone in society.”
“It is simply self-defeating,” Carter reasons, “for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices.”
Encouraged by Nelson Mandela, Carter joined an international group of elders from various religions and cultures in an effort “to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights.” Their statement declares: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.” Such discrimination, Carter believes, has more to do with “time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths.”
While acknowledging that he has no formal training in religious studies, Carter claims familiarity with “scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church,” he further asserts, “women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted holy scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.”
“The truth is,” Carter concludes, “that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ. . . . It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.”
It’s clear that Carter isn’t just decrying the most abusive forms of gender discrimination but any policy that denies women a “full and equal role” in their faith communities, including pastoral authority. Amen, Brother Carter.
(Lorie Winder has an MA in Humanities from BYU and is the former editor of theMormon Women’s Forum Quarterly, an LDS feminist publication.)