Guest Post: A President Indicts the Use of Religion to Perpetuate Gender Discrimination

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 We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices.”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.)

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19 Responses

  1. Emily U says:

    Wow, thank you for sharing this. So often, I think, our political will and the attention of our leaders is all spent on solving the “big” problems, like war, trade policy, natural resources, and other kinds of security issues. Gender equality is always put on the back burner as something to be dealt with when the larger problems are solved.

    But as Carter says, discrimination against women hurts everyone, and in fact research shows that educating women goes a long way to solving other, seemingly unrelated, problems. I love that Hillary Clinton called gender equality the “unfinished business of the 21st century” in her final speech as Secretary of State. It’s really worth our full attention now.

    • Lorie says:

      I,too, was thrilled to hear Hillary Clinton affirm gender equality as one of the most important initiatives of the 21st century. Perhaps we need to make sure John Kerry continues this work.

  2. Kate says:

    The link at the top is not working…

    But, I love how Pres Carter ties the impact of oppressive ideology to the larger picture. Bad thinking can cause real, physical harm to millions of women, and human rights abuses are perpetrated by people who act on dangerous ideas.

    Here is a story that illustrates the principle that religious ideology can put actual people in real physical danger.

    And, even if our physical well-being is not in danger, our self respect certainly is. As Carter puts it “The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives.”

    • Lorie says:

      As I read this, Kate, I thought of Martin Luther King’s assertion, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We more readily recognize and decry discrimination when it’s blatantly abusive. But even discrimination that is subtle, that doesn’t leave marks on our flesh, scars our souls. I think that’s why Carter included a reference to his separation from the Southern Baptist Convention. At its worst, to deny women equal opportunities for service and decision-making authority in any community–religious or otherwise–opens up a space for more extreme forms of discrimination and abuse to take hold. Where do we draw the line? For Carter, it’s clear.

  3. Kelly Ann says:

    Lori, Thank you for sharing this. I too am moved to hear Carter’s statement and seeing him distance himself from his religion, while maintaining his faith over it. I am also moved to see other leaders come together. I really hope they can perpetuate change. And that it is more than me just noticing certain people speak about Women’s rights.

  4. Kate says:

    Also, just saw this in an article about the 50th Anniversary of “The Feminine Mystique”

    “I found letters from Mormon women, Baptists — the kind of women who wouldn’t agree with Friedan on lots of political issues, but knew they had been relegated to second-class citizenship,” Ms. Coontz said in an interview.

    Mormon women have spoken out about being “second-class citizens” for 50 years.

  5. Caroline says:

    Jimmy Carter just keeps getting better and better. Not only are his statements about religion and gender equity terrific, but I also just love his Habitat for Humanity project. What a decent, thoughtful man. He has set a high standard for other former presidents.

  6. Caroline says:

    Oh, just fixed the link. Thanks, Kate!

  7. Jessawhy says:

    Wow, Lorie, this is awesome! I love the way Carter thinks of putting off the centuries of religious oppression of women. When I read this,
    “male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women”
    I realized that the LDS church believes it is exalting women. That is probably the most difficult part for me to deal with. It’s hard when we are being put on the pedestal at church because we are so holy, so righteous, such good mothers, that we can’t get our hands dirty with the business of receiving revelation for the church, blessing people with ordinances, and other profoundly meaningful opportunities.

    • Lorie says:

      Yes, Jess, we’re not the only ones to point out the limitations of being placed on a pedestal. It offers so little space to move, to aspire. As an advocate for women’s ordination, I’m also not the only one who’s noted that priesthood has become so associated with maleness that for many LDS women, asking them if they want the priesthood is like asking them if they want to be men. We can’t allow ourselves to move beyond the space we’ve been assigned and imagine what it would be like if we were to unhook priesthood from gender and see it as a shared power exercised by both men and women for the benefit of all. This inability to imagine a more equitable community, in Carter’s words, “is simply self-defeating.”

  8. Rachel says:

    I add my “amen.”

  9. gr8scot says:

    This is one of my favorite quotes of all time. Thanks for sharing it here.

  10. EmilyCC says:

    I remember when Mandela’s council came out with their statement about women leading in religion (I think it was in the NYT–I can’t find it anywhere right now).

    When I read Carter’s piece, this gave me chills, “The truth is 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.”

    Thank you for sharing this, Lori.

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