How Conservative Christian Women Came to Claim “True” Feminism

Concerned Women for America (CWA) was founded in 1979 by Beverly LaHaye, wife of conservative activist—and later Left Behind co-author—Tim LaHaye. Irritated by the ascendance of Betty Friedan’s National Organization for Women (NOW), LaHaye founded CWA to represent traditionalist women who balked at feminist “liberation.” Since its inception, the group has worked to bring “biblical values” to bear on the American political process, with special attention to issues of sex and gender. Over the past three decades, CWA has become a powerful political force, claiming over half a million members.

Leslie Dorrough Smith is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Avila University in Kansas City, Missouri. Her book, Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America, published this spring by Oxford University Press, provides the first full-length analysis of CWA rhetoric. Smith situates CWA within a long tradition of American political discourse concerning sex and gender, explaining how the group’s public arguments are calibrated to best persuade their audiences.

RD’s Eric C. Miller talked with Smith about her project.

What prompted your interest in the rhetoric of American conservative Protestants (ACP), and what drew you to Concerned Women for America (CWA) in particular?

As with many scholars, I suspect, my interest was at least partly autobiographical. I grew up in an environment steeped in conservative Protestant thought, although much of my exposure to these ideas wasn’t overtly tied to politics. When I began to study religion formally and saw those strong political ties at work, I wanted to better understand the dynamics causing large numbers of people to adopt the interests of CWA and other Christian Right groups even when those ideas don’t necessarily have clear factual backing.

I felt that a thoroughgoing treatment of how public persuasion and belief formation happens had been mostly ignored in scholarship, as most scholars simply see finite groups with finite beliefs, rather than asking critical questions about how people develop sympathies for certain concepts in the first place. That was where my interest in rhetoric really began.

I thought that the best way to dissect the persuasive power of the Christian Right was to choose a particularly influential group that was not only representative of the larger movement, but one that held formidable influence over the sex and gender issues that are so central to almost every other platform that the movement supports. CWA was a natural choice: it has a noteworthy presence on conservative and other media outlets; it maintains a strong grassroots base; and, having been in existence for several decades, it has longevity on its side.

In addition, its identity as a women’s group has been a very critical part of how it promotes its authority to speak on sex and gender issues. Historically, women have been both the most vocal proponents and opponents of the liberalization of sex, gender, and reproduction laws. If we take seriously that gender – as just one of many forms of social control – is an important litmus test to gauge the power relationships in a culture, then it makes sense to focus on a group that amplifies its gendered identity as a major aspect of its authority.

Much of the book is focused on what you call “chaos rhetoric,” using CWA as a case study. What is chaos rhetoric, and how does it work?

Chaos rhetoric is my term for a type of speech that invokes widespread public appeal through its deployment of specific symbols designed to create a heightened sense of social chaos and threat (rather than the order and security that scholars often tout when describing the Christian Right).

By carefully manufacturing these negative emotions, the group is in a prime position to offer its own political platforms as the resolution to the threats that they construct. One could simply call chaos rhetoric a fear tactic, but I thought this was too simplistic, since I was more interested in looking at how, when, and under what circumstances CWA chose to portray certain things as chaotic or fearful rather than presuming that those emotions were self-evident or natural. In other words, what is deemed frightening or threatening at one moment is often a non-event several years, or even months, later – it all depends on how the political and cultural winds are blowing.

Yet chaos rhetoric is a technique not only of persuasion, but also of masquerade. In the book I detail how chaos rhetoric serves four critical functions, two of which – creating urgency and inciting activism – are fairly predictable persuasive techniques. But CWA’s chaos rhetoric also performs the dual functions of defensive argumentation and rationale-deflection, which are processes by which attention is shifted away from CWA and its perhaps less popular rationales for advocacy and onto more emotion-evoking platforms.

These are both really effective ways for the group to change more imperceptibly simply by convincing the audience to concentrate elsewhere.

For example, CWA has frequently attempted to portray homosexuality as a public health threat, which it has done through studies that show things like an elevated risk for domestic violence among gay couples, or that pinpoint elevated suicide rates among gay teens. Rather than describe the more subjective discomfort that characterize its members’ homophobia, or talk about theologies of homophobia (neither of which is a particularly persuasive tactic if the point is to attract a diverse audience), CWA persuades best by portraying homosexuality as a threat to something that virtually everyone values—their health.

Deflecting the rationale from religious particulars or gut feelings onto a more “legitimate” concern helps to make the message sound relevant; in all honesty, if CWA were really concerned with public health issues, then they’d be discussing more than just the health risks associated with homosexuality. Moreover, focusing attention on its opponents (but less on itself) allows CWA to shift its own agendas more imperceptibly.

As the message about gay rights as a health threat grows stale, loses public appeal, or is otherwise debunked, it is abandoned for a new one that accomplishes a similar effect. But once the similar effect is no longer possible to maintain, the group will be pushed to rework its stance on homosexuality, even if incrementally, so as to preserve its public relevancy. In this case, that might mean the shift from seeing homosexual identity as a sin to regarding the practice of homosexuality as a sin – that nuance, however slight, provides some wiggle room that gives the group material to work with in crafting new rhetoric.

What this shows, then, is that the real persuasive force of chaos rhetoric lies in knowing how to repeatedly rework an opponent’s identity so that they remain perpetually threatening, and crafting one’s own rationale so that it always seems relevant.

You mention that other scholars have associated conservative Protestant speech with “order and security.” But you see it as very flexible and adaptable.

Yes – and here I think that scholars have tended to confuse these groups’ self-perceptions and public portrayals with the sociological dynamics that are actually sustaining them.  While I think it’s true that Christian Right groups are attractive to the public because they provide the sense of a high degree of order and stability in times of change (which is something that many scholars argue), I think that there’s more going on under the surface that’s quite pliable and dynamic.

As the previous discussion on chaos rhetoric shows, I’m interested in how CWA uses a series of rhetorical techniques that permits them to continuously shift their platforms as is politically expedient, leaving little that is actually stable about them over time, even as they continue to promote the eternality of their claims. Many have also noted this trend, and usually they describe these changes as smaller or peripheral in light of a rigidly maintained core. Others have simply called it hypocrisy.

Neither one of these explanations was satisfying to me, however, as they did not seem to acknowledge the gravity of the shifts that are often taking place, nor the normalcy (and necessity) of this practice to maintain social relevancy and thereby incite public persuasion. For instance, in the 1960s and 70s, CWA’s founder, Beverly LaHaye, wrote extensively about the dangers of working motherhood, for she saw it as a feminist ploy to literally destroy families and create gender-free societies run by socialist governments.

But as working motherhood became much more common and accepted, the organization now discusses working motherhood as a positive thing so long as one finds a balance between personal and professional commitments. Rather than see this as a small tweak or minor issue, this is actually a change of great magnitude, for it involves CWA having to publicly re-work major facets of its own philosophy on gender in ways that directly interrogate some of its older, most basic, claims. The point is that all groups that seek to remain persuasive must also remain relevant, and this is an especial challenge for groups that have a lot of social capital built up in the appearance that they hold strong, eternal platforms.

CWA uses that flexibility to infiltrate and co-opt other important symbols, to suggest that they represent the true family, the true America – even the true feminism.

CWA’s ability to deploy strong, emotional symbols in such a way that they can transform themselves into whatever image is powerful at the moment is, in my mind, the group’s greatest distinction.

In particular, though, its claim to the term “feminism” was one of the more surprising elements of my research, and it really exhibits the pliability and dynamism that I mentioned above. As CWA tells the story, the organization first began as a campaign against liberal feminism, and for most of its history, it has portrayed feminism as destructive and immoral. Despite this, over the past few years CWA has begun to describe itself as the embodiment of “true,” or conservative, feminism. It does this by locating itself within a long lineage of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Christian female activist groups organized to clean up sin in American culture, calling these women the “original” feminists.

The likely reason for this switch is that it’s attempting to appeal to a younger crowd that takes many of the social advances of 1960s-70s feminism for granted. Not surprisingly, over the past several years the organization has started to target its rhetoric at younger women who don’t necessarily find that term objectionable. In other words, it’s a smart marketing move.

Of course, this is frustrating for those of us who identify as feminists, but as I’ve mentioned earlier, using your opponent’s symbols for your own gain is a really normal tactic that all groups perform, liberal advocacy groups included. So if we’re looking for a source of distinction that sets CWA or the Christian Right apart from other social movements, we won’t find it here.

You offer many examples of CWA speakers and writers being tricky or manipulative in their arguments, but ultimately you conclude that they aren’t really different from other advocacy groups in this respect.

I wouldn’t use the words “tricky” or “manipulative,” because those words imply that there’s a certain moral ineptness inherent in chaos rhetoric. What I’d claim, rather, is what I said earlier: most of us tolerate chaos rhetoric quite well when it’s being used by a group that we like. In other words, various methods of persuasion (in this case, chaos rhetoric) are called “tricky” or “manipulative” only when a group that we don’t favor shows up to the party.

And that, really, is much of the point of the book, wherein I grapple with whether chaos rhetoric is a unique practice. I demonstrate that it’s not, as I show how many other, seemingly different, groups (including the very scholars who study the Christian Right) do the very same thing: they use chaos rhetoric to portray their own ideological opponents as a force that violates everything that is good, noble, productive, etc. so that they can represent their own perspectives as more logical or mainstream.

It may seem on the surface that scholars would be very unlikely to use chaos rhetoric, since they are supposed to maintain a degree of scholarly objectivity that others don’t employ. What I try to show is that this is not the case at all, for scholars have their own agendas that they use to formulate the very categories that make their analyses possible. Sometimes this happens in more overt ways, as when one finds a statement at the end of a book on the Christian Right wherein the scholar reassures the reader that, while his/her analysis has been objective, the Christian Right should nevertheless be feared and opposed, for it represents a force antithetical to true democracy, liberty, and diversity. Whether or not one concludes that this is accurate is beside the point, for this is still chaos rhetoric at work.

To be very clear, this is not my statement in support of CWA, the Christian Right, and/or conservative politics. It is also not a statement on the ethics of chaos rhetoric. My point is simply that chaos rhetoric is not only very effective, but it is also ubiquitous. Almost everyone who wants to persuade will end up using it at some point or another, and this reality pushes an important question: if chaos rhetoric is a central tool in garnering political power, and if it is absolutely everywhere, then what really sets apart Christian Right groups from others? While I believe that there are some elements of distinction held by the Christian Right, on the whole, I think that they’re rather ordinary. What is extraordinary about them is their ability to easily manipulate so many symbols at one time in a way that most other groups can’t.

Do you think Christian advocates should be held to higher standards of honesty than other political organizations, if only because they claim Christian values?

This question presupposes that chaos rhetoric represents something inherently dishonest. Obviously, though, it’s possible for a strong message to be deemed accurate just as much as it is for it to be deemed inaccurate. I’m also wondering why we presume that Christians have a greater moral obligation than any other group. This, to me, is one way that American society grants authority to religious groups in such a way that they don’t even have to work for it: we equate religiosity with morality.

While I realize that Christian (and other religious) groups often openly tout their moral prowess, I tend to see this as a form of social advertising – a tactic to reinforce their authority – rather than a statement of actual difference.

It would be nice to know that what we hear from public groups are always accurate renderings of factual events, but since reality is often muddy, subjective, and nuanced, this implodes the idea that there’s a clear “moral” platform on which we all can agree. There’s also the basic sociological fact that Christians exist in culture, and so as cultural players, engage in cultural acts. Producing chaos rhetoric is a very normal cultural act because it’s an effective way to gain authority and support, which is necessary for any social group to survive. Expecting groups to exist outside of the very culture on which they rely to survive is asking them to perform cultural suicide.

So do I wish it were different? Certainly. But I’m not sure that my wish is practical, given the ways that society works.


  •' DKeane123 says:

    It is amazing how well the “manufacture a problem that only we can solve.” method of marketing works. Started with original sin and hasn’t looked back since.

    Great interview.

  •' bpuharic says:

    I happened to be reading the website of the American nazi party a few weeks ago. They specifically mentioned CWA as a group whose members they welcome.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    While interesting, CWA doesn’t control who endorses them. The absolute most you could say is that the Nazi party finds something attractive about CWA policies.

    I like that this thread hit Goodwin’s Law in all of two posts 🙂

  •' David Lloyd-Jones says:

    Smith’s notion “chaos rhetoric” is excellent, just spot on.

    Of course it’s not the whole thing: a great deal of the psychology of the current America rightwing is that of people who are afraid. There is in fact a good deal to be afraid of out there in the world. Atom bombs haven’t gone away by magic. There are real life floods and droughts. There are murderers, rapists, and politicians who start stupid wars quite possibly out of genuine misinformation and bad judgement.

    This is why Smith’s identification of one of the tools of people who feed fear in order to benefit from fear, e.g. to sell tens of millions of stupid novels, is so good and worthwhile. We need to knock down the fear-mongers, not the people who are afraid.


  •' wwway says:

    What a great interview and project for study! Chaos Rhetoric isn’t new but is a great title for the practice. The church has used it for ages.

  •' Martha Murphy says:

    A most interesting article! The concept of chaos rhetoric is new to me. It is a real shift in the way I’ve learned in the past to look and understand political communication.

  •' Maya Bohnhoff says:

    Q: “Do you think Christian advocates should be held to higher standards of honesty than other political organizations, if only because they claim Christian values?”

    A: “This question presupposes that chaos rhetoric represents something inherently dishonest.”

    This seems to me to dodge the question because the question is not directed at chaos rhetoric, but at Christians as a faith group with political agendas. I think any group’s behavior should be held to the standards inherent in their professed beliefs. This is certainly what Christ prescribes when He says that a true or false prophet can be known by their fruits. It seems to me that someone claiming to follow Christ and His teachings should be held to the standards embodied by those teachings. The question, above, makes the connection between claimed values (that go with calling Christ “Lord”) and behavior. Jesus, Himself, notes that many will call Him “Lord”, to which He will respond, “I never knew you.”

    The answer to the question the interviewer poses, I think, is “yes”. Christians should be held to the standard raised by Christ. Buddhists should be held to the standard taught by Buddha, Muslims to the standard inculcated by Muhammad, Bahá’ís to the standard explicit and implicit in the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, In this realm we all fail to adhere in complete faithfulness to our standards, but some failures are systemic, institutional, or more flagrant than others.

    In those cases, one can only go back to the words and deeds of the Standard Bearer and ask: “What would Jesus (or Buddha, or Bahá’u’lláh) do?” In any of these cases, we have a wealth of examples.

  •' lmerryangel says:

    Liberal Feminsits of the 60-70’s coined the MOST manipulative phrase in the last century–it is “I am PRO-CHOICE” meaning I believe a woman has the right to choose to KILL her unborn baby!
    For those of you who call yourself “CHRISTIAN” and think abortion is a moral choice, have the courage to go to and view the IMMORAL tearing apart of an innocent unborn human.
    There are millions of women who bought this liberal lie, and regret that “CHOICE” they suffer with depression and substance abuse!

  •' Anthony Nuccio says:

    And I suppose the women who are harmed by pro-birth activists should just embrace a “liberal lie”?

  •' DKeane123 says:

    My wife and I did IVF, which means a whole bunch of embryo’s were created. The ones we didn’t need ended up being destroyed – is that murder? I guess my question is – when is it actually a human life?

  •' cranefly says:

    For what it’s worth, that is why the Catholic Church opposes IVF.

    From my perspective, the question isn’t “When is it a life?” but “Does any life have a right to use another life’s organs, without the consent of the donor?”

    I think the first question is too religious and debatable for the government to answer.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Of course there is no penalty for not meeting those standards. All you legally have to do is not break the laws.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Human life is pretty much like non-human life. It is a cycle of many stages. You don’t need to be concerned with the definition of the beginning unless you are fitting in a religious concept like God implanting immortal souls. I guess that is the real question. Do humans have an immortal soul given by God, and when is that given? We already know it can easily take many thousands of years to deal with that question.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    I agree Bodily Rights should be a big component. I heard a speaker once talk about the point of consciousness being an excellent marker too.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Life kind of always has used another life’s organs without consent when it eats that other life.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    Exactly – does a grouping of 12 cells have a soul? Or if you have twins that split from a single fertilized egg, did they split before or after God put the soul in? If it split after, does each kid have half a soul? I have access to scientific journals – but I can’t seem to find any research on the subject.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    I guess we have to leave the really hard questions for religions to decide.

  •' cranefly says:

    That is a crazy good question. I’ve never heard a pro-lifer address identical twins at the cellular level.

  •' cranefly says:

    I am firmly against people eating other people alive. Or, frankly, killing each other for food.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    I stole it from Matt Dillahunty. He is crazy smart.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Is there a divine dividing line between the human species and others? There was a time when they had the same ancestors. This seems to say there is no divine line. That could mean in the past when people were ignorant of this fact, they made some errors in their understanding of and administration of these issues. I guess that means you can’t go by the Bible. So what does it mean to be human? Just another species, pretty much the same as many other species?

  •' Jim Reed says:

    By point I guess you mean a stretched out period of growth. I don’t think you can have an exact point of consciousness turning on like a light switch unless it is drug or alcohol related.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    Got me – I’m a geologist. I think your comment is more than plausible.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    I was just going by an experience.

  •' cranefly says:

    Catholicism (anti-abortion central, and my personal religious tradition) teaches that there is a divine line between humans and other animals. It’s largely based on Aristotle, and once claimed (or still claims, who knows) that all species had a hierarchical rank in the Chain of Being with Man right below Angel, and Woman right below Man.

    I don’t subscribe to that theory, but for some reason, I think it’s okay for humans to eat non-human living things. I’m also no fan of abortion, but I think it’s immoral to force people to give birth. I guess I’m pretty irrational. What do you think?

  •' Jim Reed says:

    I think abortion may have been a mistake. Wanting to eliminate contraception is a problem because it leads to overpopulation, and that will have to lead to war. The church will ultimately have to back down on questions like the definition of the beginning of life at conception because they have no way to know what they are talking about, and that leads them to erroneously imagine they are divinely inspired in the things they say, and then they start criticizing other people who correctly tell them they are full of shit. Just another day in the world of religion.

  •' lmerryangel says:

    Science proves that a unique human DNA begins when the sperm unites with the egg, and the cells begin to multiply, so should you create new life to destroy it if is not useful to you–I think not! Ask yourself if your life was one of the embryos in question, would you be OK with someone discarding your one chance at life?

  •' lmerryangel says:

    Science proves that a unique human DNA begins when the sperm unites with the egg, and the cells begin to multiply, so should you create new life to destroy it if is not useful to you–I think not! Ask yourself if your life was one of the embryos in question, would you be OK with someone discarding your one chance at life? If you have made the “CHOICE” to kill your unborn baby, perhaps you can do some good by helping us convince other abortion-minded women to make a choice for life! Save Unborn Life offers hope and financial help to those women thinking of killing her unborn child, because of financial reasons, we have helped over 55 women to make the choice for life, and helped them with a small sum of $3000-join us at because EVERY HUMAN LIFE IS PRICELESS!

  •' DKeane123 says:

    So is your answer yes, IVF is a form of murder? How come hardly anyone in the comments section ever gives a definitive answer?

    Just so I answer you directly. I am fine with the loss of fertilized eggs, regardless of who they may have potentially been. Especially since it happens naturally via lack of implantation and miscarriages.

    Focusing on me specifically. If you could go back in time, and convince my mother to have an abortion – I would be okay with it. Why? Because I never would have existed to know the difference.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Have you convinced any women to stop using birth control methods?

  •' Libster says:

    “Ask yourself if your life was one of the embryos in question, would you be OK with someone discarding your one chance at life?”

    Yes, I wouldn’t be capable of thought at that point, but I would theoretically be OK with “someone” discarding my one chance at life. Next question?

  •' fiona64 says:

    No, actually, the majority of post-abortive women feel nothing but relief.

    You and yours seem to spend a lot of time whining about the death of embryos; where, I wonder, is your concern for the born, sapient, sentient children who go hungry every day, or who are abused … or who are sitting in detention centers for seeking political asylum?

  •' fiona64 says:

    Tumors have unique human DNA, too, you know.

    BTW, the kind of existential angst you display in your last sentence is outgrown by most people at puberty.

  •' fiona64 says:

    The anti-choice seem to suffer from significant amounts of existential angst …

  •' jonandjasonsmom says:

    Dear Fiona,
    Most people at puberty can even figure out that tumors do not have a human heartbeat separate from the mothers, that you would compare a growing human to a tumor gives me some real insight about your opinion of life! Did you go to and view the immoral reality of the killing of an unborn human? Save Unborn Life offer hopes and financial help to abortion-minded women, and yes, we help them with groceries, rent, etc., what do you do for your fellow man?

  •' fiona64 says:

    You have a very confused idea of what constitutes reality. The majority of abortions take place so early in pregnancy that the result is indistinguishable from menses, and the so-called “abortion photos” on that site have been exposed as fakery repeatedly.

    Just one of many sources:

    CPCs have been documented repeatedly for telling lies to women.

    what do you do for your fellow man?

    One helluva lot more than you do, I can guarantee you that. Your idea of “help” is to lie to women in crisis and try to get the right* kind of woman to surrender the right** kind of infant to the right*** kind of family by terrifying her.

    * White
    ** Preferably male and perfectly healthy
    *** Fundamentalist Christian or Catholic

    No love, a woman whose wanted pregnancy almost killed her.

    PS: I used to be an anti-choice dimwit just like you. I know every page of your playbook, because I’ve *used it.* Then, i got out of high school and into RealityLand, where life is not as black-and-white as you like to think it is. If my tubal ligation fails, there will be an abortion so fast that your anti-choice head will spin right off. I will NOT risk my life to gestate again, and I lack the hubris to tell other women what medical decisions they should make.

    PPS: I’m sorry that your life is so small that all you have to feel good about is a functional uterus … as indicated by your sole identity being that of someone’s mother.

  •' fiona64 says:

    Sing along, everyone:

    “Every sperm is sacred, every sperm is great. If a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate …”

    /Monty Python reference

  •' Frank2918 says:

    Proof that wisdom does not come with age automatically. Well done!

  •' fiona64 says:

    Yes, you are indeed proof that wisdom does not automatically come with age. Thanks for admitting it, FrankieWanker.

  •' Liya says:

    Excellent resources, thanks Fiona, you are very helpful, as always.

  •' Floid and DeWitt says:

    Cardiac cells can beat in a petri dish.

    Some braindead bodies have a beating heart.

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