A New Theopolitical Order: But What About The Women?

As progressive religious leaders sit down to dine with the leaders of the Democratic Party, it looks a little like DaVinci’s portrayal of The Last Supper: No women in sight.

Obama’s presidency, still barely a month old, has ushered in a new era of religion and politics. A fresh roster of theo-politicians, from the more progressive side of the spectrum, are jostling for a place at the table. Critics worry, as they did under Bush, that the church-state divide will be compromised as these new religious voices begin to assert their influence on public policy. Many wonder if public policy elaborated by those who speak for a left-wing God is any more appropriate than the right-wing one.

The question no one has yet asked, as everyone worries about the new center-left and its effect on politics, is what kind of change this new order will bring to religion itself—especially to church reform and the feminist religious project.

Primer on
Feminist Religion

Goals and Values:

1. A commitment to changing the structures and practices of institutional religion so that women are in practice as well as word fully equal to men. It seeks to open all offices and positions to women and an affirmative action plan that will result in the expeditious inclusion of women at the table of power and service. It understands that men will need to give up some of their privilege and voice for this to happen.

2. A reinterpretation of texts in an inclusive and non-sexist manner, including discarding texts that are irredeemably sexist.

3. The adoption of a gender perspective and analysis of both church/temple policies and practices and of public policies.

4. Acknowledgement of the moral agency of women, especially in relation to sexuality and reproduction, including sexual orientation, the use of contraception, and the decision to abort a pregnancy.

5. Elimination of all forms of violence against women within religious institutions and society.

6. An effort to empower women rather than to simply alleviate their poverty and marginalization. The first is feminism; the second is at best humanism and at worst patronizing.

If you are a left-leaning religious—or nonreligious—person and you do not know what the feminist religious project is, you are not alone. Theo-politics has always been dominantly Christian and male, as is most of American public life—the new theo-politicians are mostly Catholic and evangelical and hold traditional religious views. They have biblical zeal for the poor, and for peace, and they often hold timeworn Christian suspicions of pleasure, sex, and women. Indeed, the new theo-politicians are by and large anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage evangelicals or Catholics who seem to want to get the Democrats off the personal freedom agenda they cannot support, and onto an agenda that would catapult them into the court cleric role.

Many feminists engaged in these issues have, therefore, avoided working within electoral-political organizations like Jim Wallis’ Sojourners, Faith in Public Life, or Catholics United. Of those who have worked with these groups, a few have maintained a critical stance; others seem to have drunk the Kool Aid—as well as served it to the men. There are, after all, many feminisms, and feminists do not always agree on strategy: Womanist and Mujerista theologians and activists have tangled with white feminists; Catholic laywomen have duked it out with the “nuns.” For every Joan Brown Campbell there has been a Beverly Harrison, Emilie Townes, Judith Plaskow, or Mary Daly. We are a raucous crowd, but few will deny the vitality and creativity and prophetic nature of religious feminist scholarship or of the feminist project in religion (see sidebar).

This agenda—that empowers women, opposes violence against them, and acknowledges their moral agency—is similar to that of the broader feminist movement, and like that agenda, it is not fully accepted by male leaders (and some women) in the political and religious worlds. This is not just a Roman Catholic problem; it is an Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Jewish problem. Some progress has been made; there is much lip service to women’s inclusion and equality, but much less correction of injustice. Privilege is hard to renounce, and male religious leaders—who are the overwhelming majority in the mainstream faith groups—still act like patriarchs. And with all due respect and affection to my brothers and friends in the progressive religious community, the men in that movement are not far ahead of the curve in the exercise of clerical and male privilege.

But progressive movements have never been free of sexism. Who can forget the classic Stokely Carmichael New Left quote: “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.” Religious women who have pursued the feminist project have heard it all and more. We’ve been told to wait our turn; the poor come first; we are selfish and individualistic in thinking eradicating sexism is as important as eradicating poverty; we pursue an agenda of personal power, not service.

But mostly we are invisible to men.

In response religious women have created our own spaces. Within the academy, the Women’s Caucus was developed. Its programs rapidly became the most electric and accessible on the AAR program. We actually had to prove—and we did—that we were better than men, in order to be treated decently.

Stories abound of the gender imbalance at the various Sojourner/Call to Renewal and Tikkun conferences. Boys play with boys to audiences that are overwhelming female. They just don’t get it. They put a few token women on the program at the last moment but keeping the planning close to the leader’s vest. Endlessly long male keynote sermons promoting each other, and excessive pruning and posturing by the alpha males is the new liturgy. It is a wonder women don’t get up, rip off our clothes, and streak down the aisle.

A Match Made in Heaven

And then we get to 2004. Democrats need religion. Progressive religionists need a party. A match made in heaven. But where were the women? Not nonexistent, but few and far between—and not in leadership. Press conferences with four or five men. Sometimes one woman snuck in, usually a nun (less threatening). Yes, a few women broke through—very good women, like Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and Joan Chittister. They are carefully selected for their geniality, their good humor—because women, unlike men, can’t be too ambitious; they can’t have an agenda.

And there is little evidence that the agenda of the religious center left has been influenced these past five years by religious feminism. If anything, it has moved further and further from feminism as it has gotten greater recognition within the Democratic Party, as it has become, in effect, the state religion. The issue list for center-left religion is anti-Modern: nothing about violence against women, personal freedom, civil liberties—and certainly nothing about reproduction. It treats contraception as the same controversial issue as does the right and its starting point on abortion is that it is sinful and wrong. In fact, it is based on outmoded religious thinking about good and evil. Moreover, one mustn’t offend the Catholic Church or the evangelicals—but nobody gives a hoot about offending women.

None of this disturbs the Democratic Party, whose leaders have no real commitment to advancing democracy in religion. Religion is another interest group, and centrist interest groups are best for the party. The kind of religion that feminists are trying to build does not help get votes. The Democratic Party and every candidate that wants a religious leader standing next to them wants a religious leader that comes out of central casting: male, preferable with a collar (even if it cuts off oxygen to the brain). No feminist theologians or gay rabbis need apply. No one who is giving the power structure a hard time. Instead we have mutual sanctification of the status quo. Women are shoved out of the bully pulpit just as we began our climb up the steps to the altar.

This was driven home again in the composition of President Obama’s Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and the press statements and comments from the progressive groups. Most illuminating the problem was the Faith in Public Life organization—which happens to be led by a feminist. The press release was fawning and totally bereft of a gender analysis. In spite of the fact that the first set of ten “faith-based” members of the Council includes only one woman and one identifiable advocate for women’s sexual and reproductive rights (the rabbi, of course), FIPL believes that the Council “captures a new moment in American faith and politics.” That new moment seems to be one of unprecedented self-promotion of religion in service of politics and “voice” at any price. The “voice” however must be “moderate” and “acceptable.” And the feminist project will not be included.

Much is made by the theo-politicians of their work across ideological differences. But this has been achieved by excluding from their ranks those religious leaders who are progressive and outspoken on gender, sexuality, and religion. It is then easy to stand side by side with Rick Warren and Joel Hunter, for they actually agree with these conservatives on sexuality and reproduction and have only minor differences on LGBT issues. Center-left theo-politicians are silent on the meaning of sexual expression outside of heterosexual marriage; they have no interest in the theological construction of a new moral and ethical standard of relationship, justice, and friendship that governs sexuality. They are silent on the morality of LGBT sexuality, limiting their support to “civil rights.” They talk about women only as victims, never as moral agents. They take on the easy religious issues—poverty and peace. They do so either out of political expedience or because they actually agree with the religious right.

Either way, they hinder rather than help the justice-seeking project of progressive religious feminists. And that it not good for religion or justice.

Perhaps there is something to be learned from the transition of the Obama campaign to the Obama presidency. The campaign talked about fundamental change, change many read as social transformation. The presidency now demonstrates the difficulty of making change from the center, from the position of power. Obama will do good; many aspects of justice-seeking will be better. But social transformation, real change in power and privilege, never happens at the center; it occurs at the margins. It is the prophet crying in the wilderness, the troublemakers, the noisy annoying widows who bring about social transformation—not the Cardinal Richelieus.