Friday, September 5, 2008

Religious Patriarchy and Sarah Palin

In the wake of the announcement that Sarah Palin would be the republican VP nominee, some voices in the media asked questions about the propriety of her accepting the nomination. The concern focused on her family situation: a baby with special needs, a pregnant teen daughter, etc. Rather quickly, other voices in the media and elsewhere shot back with the charge of sexism. The suggestion that it might be inappropriate for Palin to run for Vice President because doing so might conflict with her familial duties is, clearly, sexist. No male candidate would be subjected to a similar litmus test. Both political parties, as well as representatives of both presidential campaigns, agree on this point: focusing on Palin’s family life and treating it as somehow relevant to her candidacy is sexist.

And they are right. And, in my judgment, sexism is a great evil. And so it follows that placing demands on Palin that are not similarly expected of male candidates is a great evil.

But not everyone seems to think that sexism is wrong. To be specific, Palin herself comes from a stream of Christianity that tends to affirm stark gender role divisions, and she appeals to conservative Christians who see traditional gender roles as part of the “family values” and religious values they espouse. According to these conservative “family values,” men are the head of the household, and women have a unique responsibility to nurture the children within the family and to in other ways care for the health of the family unit. And let us not forget the strident affirmation of gender role divisions expressed by the Southern Baptist Convention in its 2000 decision explicitly excluding women from church leadership. This is part of a broader affirmation of a patriarchal value system that is deeply held by many conservative evangelicals.

The most interesting question is not whether such conservative evangelicals are being hypocritical in their embrace of Palin, but whether their embrace of Palin expresses a willingness to more broadly reconsider their endorsement of patriarchy. Are they being moved to reflect in a broader way on the legitimacy and propriety of cleaving to these old patriarchal norms? And if not, why not?

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, addressed this very line of questions in a recent Christianity Today interview. His response? “The only restrictions we find in Scripture are, that for whatever reason women are not to be in charge of a marriage and women are not to be in charge of a church. That has nothing to do with governor, or senator or the House of Representatives, or president, or vice president.”

I’m inclined to treat this response as a kind of reductio ad absurdum argument against the Southern Baptist view, but I know that to do so would be too quick. Land’s thinking here is a variant of the bumper sticker which declares, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” I’ve often thought someone should cross out the last line and replace it with, “Therefore I have an inconsistent belief set.” But I suppose that to do so would only be to replace thoughtful reflection with more slogans.

The fact is that even those who take the Bible as an inerrant authority need to wrestle with the complexities of the text. One of those complexities is noted with great care by Bart Ehrman in Misquoting Jesus: the fact is that it is the original Scriptures that are authoritative, and those Scriptures are not available to us. The Bible has been altered so many times in so many ways that, among the various copies of the Bible we have access to today, there are more variations in the text of the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament.

Changes have clearly been made to the originals. While most of these changes are trivial, some are not. For example, biblical scholars today generally agree, on the basis of strong textual evidence, that 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35, in which women are instructed to keep silent in church, was a later addition to Paul’s letter, most likely intended to neutralize some of Paul’s more radical ideas about men and women being equal in Christ. Similar references in 1 Timothy were original to that letter—but most scholars agree that Paul did not actually write 1 Timothy.

And it would be odd indeed if he had, given what that letter says about women. After all, it seems quite strange to imagine Paul instructing women to be silent in church when he praised women “apostles” in his epistles—women who were engaged in teaching and leadership roles within Christian communities.

As one might expect of a reactionary patriarchal community, later Christians sought to obscure the most blatant Pauline reference to a female apostle, in Romans 16:7. In the oldest Greek and Latin translations of the text Paul instructs the Romans to “greet Andronicus and Junia,” whom he then explicitly names as apostles of special worth. “Junia” is of course a woman’s name, and the overwhelming evidence supports the view that until the middle ages, Junia was known to the Christian community as a female apostle. Finding this intolerable, medieval translators masculinized the name by slapping an “s” on the end of it.

Of course, none of this is to say that Paul had entirely freed himself from the patriarchal norms of his time and culture (which is clear enough from 1 Corinthians 11:2-16). My point is that whatever prejudices he had, Paul had shaken them off enough to recognize the worth of women as leaders and teachers within the church. It’s time, I think, for Southern Baptists to do the same—and maybe their enthusiasm for Sarah Palin can serve as the occasion for it.

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