What Are Progressive Christians Doing in Order to Help Women Thrive in our Society?
Carol Howard Merritt recently had a blog post over at The Christian Century entitled Empowered women in the religious right: What are progressive Christians doing in order to help women thrive in our society?
To summarize Merritt’s post:
While there is undeniably a metaphorical ‘war on women’ being waged by certain elements of the religious and political right in America, there are individual women who are empowered – and even given celebrity status – by the right in order to help in waging that same war. Meanwhile, there is a lack of progressive women who are nurtured and influenced by their religious communities on the left. And so, “we really cannot deny women are empowered in the religious wing of conservative thought—which seems to be more than religious progressives are doing.”
There are several points that could be made in response to this post. For example, one could point to the existence of large media industries within evangelical and conservative Christianity that create avenues to celebrity that simply do not exist – or exist at much smaller sizes – in mainline and progressive traditions. Put another way, one could point to the lack of up-and-coming anyone - let alone the kind of celebrity status enjoyed by the people Merritt names – in mainline and progressive Christianity and the fact that those few who do enjoy a similar status tend to come from an evangelical background.
One could also point to the general and well-known divide between progressive Christianity and progressive politics. While Merritt is right that there are no Sarah Palins or Michelle Bachmanns on the left – by which she means no women who have been explicitly nurtured and influenced by their religious communities – this is perhaps less because no women are so nurtured and influenced than because such nurturing and influence is not worn as a tribal label on the left. One need only look to such figures as Michael Eric Dyson, Melissa Harris Perry and Al Sharpton to find figures on the left with Christian credentials (insofar as there are Christian credentials). The left simply doesn’t make the same hay of such credentials.
The most important thing to be said in response, however, is that Merritt misses the forest for the trees.
While it is certainly true that progressive Christian institutions could be doing more to empower specific women – and men – in the public sphere, it is also true that the right’s empowering of certain individual women does not mean that the religious right empowers women in general. While it is good for the individual women Merritt names to be given some theological grounding to their politics and, in certain cases, granted celebrity status, one can hardly argue that the policies that have stemmed from that grounding and given the pulpit of that celebrity have been good for women. Merritt even recognizes this: she acknowledges that the women who are groomed for leadership positions on the right are groomed precisely “to join the movement against gender equality.”
At the same time, it is undeniable – at least for those of us on the left – that progressive policies are generally better for most women and that politically progressive Christians, regardless of their theological leanings, tend to support those policies. That is to say neither that all mainline or progressive Christians support those policies nor that politically progressive non-Christians are supportive of politically progressive Christians or their organizations and campaigns. It is simply to say that when one is speaking of supporting women in general, progressive – and mainline – Christians tend to do significantly better than the Christian right.
Moreover, focusing on the lack of up-and-coming women among politically progressive Christians misses the ways that women are empowered by progressive and mainline Christians. Within such communities and denominations, women are ordained and hold both ordained and lay leadership positions at local, regional and national levels. Women are professors and high-level administrators at seminaries – in fact, the last two presidents of my own seminary have been women – as well as high level administrators at other religious non-profits. Women, in short, have considerable actual power to shape debate among the Christian left, an important distinction between those women and women on the Christian right who are empowered to advocate for positions dreamt of by men for the purposes of joining, and even leading, a movement against gender equality.
Put another way, what progressive Christians are doing for women is actually empowering them; or, perhaps better, not interfering with their claiming of their own power. While this is not what happens on the Christian right, that does not mean that progressive Christians are not doing anything. Rather, it simply means that we are doing it differently.