I have just come across an article that President Jimmy Carter wrote in 2009 on the intersection of religion and the status of women in society. The article appeared in the National Times in Australia and is titled, Losing my religion for equality. I find the piece to be mostly good, with a few not-so-good parts mixed in.
President Carter at the LBJ Library in 2011.
In the article, Carter describes how he severed his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after sixty years of membership, due to their scripture-based stance that women should be subservient to men. Specifically, the SBC,
…claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.
Carter notes that this philosophy isn’t just limited to Southern Baptists.
This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. 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.
Carter goes on to list tragic consequences of this type of thinking, from the restrictions and injustices heaped selectively on women in many third-world countries, to the discrepancies in pay and status between women and men in Western society. Carter makes the case that this sort of thing really matters.
And that’s what I think is good about the article – Carter’s outright rejection of the idea that women are inferior to men, and his insistence that we stand up to people and organizations who say so. What I dislike is the way he excuses the Bible for its misogyny.
Carter blames the problem of misogyny in the Bible on “interpretation,” and a self-serving bias on the part of religious leaders:
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.
While I agree that many religious teachings are invented for self-serving reasons, it cannot be true that religious texts are completely malleable to any interpretation. For example, how can the following passage from the Bible possibly be interpreted to exalt women?
A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. (1 Corinthians 11:7-10)
How about this passage?
I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. (Genesis 3:16)
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22-24)
There is no way to interpret these verses in a positive light; the best one can do is pretend they don’t exist. The problem with the texts of the Bible then is not just one of interpretation, but one of content. The inferior nature of women is a theme that runs throughout. Carter is right to speak out against this, but wrong to try to exonerate the Bible (or other religious texts) in a way that isn’t rationally doable.
Why do I think this is important? Because if we ignore the parts of religious texts that we don’t like, we are never forced to face the obvious fact – that those texts are full of passages that are wrongheaded, immoral, or factually incorrect. In the United States alone, there are millions of christians who are anti-science, anti-women’s rights, and anti-gay. Their religion forms part of their defense against better, more humanistic ideas. What these christians need to do is not ignore questionable passages from their holy book, but pay attention to them, so that at some point they realize that maybe they shouldn’t put so much faith in something so full of error.
On this point, President Carter seems to be still in denial. He finds fault with the humans who interpret religious texts, but he gives a free pass to the idea of putting faith in texts that are morally and factually questionable. Carter encourages us to think for ourselves when it comes to women’s rights. We know that women are just as smart, talented, and capable as men. I would just take that idea one step further, and say that we should think for ourselves on every subject, and not give credence to silly ideas simply because they have been held up as holy.