Christian Feminism and LGBT Advocacy: Let’s Move Away from Slippery Slope Thinking
By Letha Dawson Scanzoni
As the pianist played the introduction to “Standing on the Promises,” the gentleman sharing a hymnal with me leaned over and whispered, “When I saw you had published a book on the Bible and feminism a few years ago, I said to my wife, ‘You just watch. Her next book will be on homosexuality.’”
He was a highly regarded evangelical leader from a conservative theological seminary, and this was our first meeting. We were seated side by side on the speakers’ platform at a conference on Christians and homosexuality in the late 1970s.
We had been chosen to represent opposing viewpoints. He believed that homosexuality was a sin; I believed the Bible said nothing about a homosexual orientation, that it was a natural human variation like left-handedness, and that committed same-sex relationships could be regarded as no different in principle than heterosexual marriage.
The singing began, followed immediately by his talk, so I didn’t have a chance to ask his reason for predicting the topic of my next book. In fact, his comment surprised me. I knew that when Nancy Hardesty and I were writing All We’re Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation (the 1974 Christian feminist book he referred to), neither one of us would have considered writing a book on homosexuality.
He was correct in the long run, of course— as he was well aware that day as we sat side by side sharing the hymnbook— because one of my books published a few years after All We’re Meant to Be was Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, coauthored with Virginia Ramey Mollenkott in 1978. But any connection between feminism and homosexuality as I saw these topics was probably different from what he may have been thinking when he made his prediction.
The Widespread Acceptance of the Slippery Slope Argument
His comment to me that day on the speakers’ platform introduced me to the slippery slope argument that predicts what the next step will be if an evangelical Christian starts viewing women and men as fully equal in marriage, the church, and the world at large.
Slippery-slope ideology teaches that such an acceptance of gender equality—the essence of feminism—is “unbiblical” and therefore “bad,” and that once feminism is embraced, advocacy for LGBTQ rights (considered even worse than feminism) will follow next, accelerating a dangerous slide down a slippery slope away from God and Scripture. For evangelicals, this is a scary prospect.
Slippery-slope ideologues see feminism as the instigator of this downward slide into all kinds of heresy. Mary Kassian says those who consider themselves biblical feminists “may find themselves sliding uncontrollably down the hill, through the red light, and into the intersection, only to discover when they finally stop that their vehicles are headed the wrong way. . . . Feminism is a slippery slope that leads towards a total alteration or rejection of the Bible” (in The Feminist Gospel , 1992, p.227). She warns that along the way, as part of the slide, Christian feminists seize the right to define themselves, the world, and even God, including a willingness to see God as “Mother/Father” or even simply as “Mother” and to freely use the pronoun “She” in speaking of God, since God is beyond gender classifications.
Writing on The Blade Blog under the name “prasor,” Peter J. Razor II suggests that “affirmation of the homosexual lifestyle” is a fourth step needed to go with “Kassian’s three-step process.” He says that “although it is not logically necessary, it is historically accurate to say that when feminism is affirmed, it eventually leads to the acceptance of homosexuality. Every denomination which has eliminated gender roles has come to accept homosexuality as a valid lifestyle.”
Wayne Grudem, in his book Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism, outlines the steps of the “predictable sequence” that denominations may take in this regard. It begins with abandoning biblical inerrancy, then endorses women’s ordination in the church, followed by abandoning “the Bible’s teaching on male headship in marriage,” with the next step being the exclusion of clergy who oppose women’s ordination. The slide continues with “approving homosexual conduct as morally valid in some cases,” then “approving homosexual ordination,” with the final step being the ordination of homosexuals to high positions within the denomination.
A review essay about Grudem’s book on the website of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) titled, “Sliding the Slippery Slope,” asks whether the point of no return may not have already passed. “Perhaps the movement [Christian feminism] has so distorted the clear truths of Scripture that the biblical evangel to which Christians have witnessed for nearly two millennia has become distorted as well.” The unnamed reviewer fears that “the slope has already been slid.’”
Another CBMW article wonders what the amorphous link actually is between Christian feminism and homosexuality, concluding finally that such a connection is definitely there—but that it’s not really clear just what the connection is. However, claims the article, our organization, EEWC-Christian Feminism Today, proves the reality of the connection: “Perhaps the most striking example of a parachurch organization drifting from a focus upon women’s rights to the endorsement of homosexuality is . . . currently known as the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus (EEWC).”
EEWC-CFT, with its total inclusiveness in membership and leadership and its activism for LGBTQ rights, is held up as a warning about what may happen to other Christian groups that begin teaching that women and men are equal. The article concludes: “While many other links between these two ideologies [Christian egalitarianism and homosexual approval and advocacy] likely exist . . . the main reason why some advocates of egalitarianism have been led to endorse homosexuality is that feminist-type arguments so minimize gender identity that once biblical feminism is embraced, it is but a small logical step to accept homosexuality.”
Rick Phillips, in his article on the “feminist slippery slope” posted on Reformation 21, speaks of drawing a “straight, descending line between the ordination of women and the ordination of homosexuals.” He says he is not viewing the slippery slope metaphor in the way it’s often used—although the sense of impending doom comes through in his arguments nevertheless. Rather, he claims to be talking specifically about where feminist methods of biblical interpretation logically lead. He says that “once the arguments made by the feminists are conceded, fairness and consistency will demand that those same arguments be applied to other similar issues, among them the ordination of homosexuals, but most lamentably that such arguments will have the effect of dismantling the entire doctrinal structure of the Christian faith.”
Even a website that’s devoted to satire, poking fun at ultraconservatives’ constant outrage over social change, has addressed such slippery-slope thinking. Using over-the-top language in a screed titled “The Rise in Feminism is Causing a Homosexuality Boom in America,” a Christwire piece claims Satan has “infiltrated the minds of the naturally weak minded female species since the beginning of the human race.”
Amazingly, some Christians are taking such articles on the Christwire website seriously, even with lines like these: “In place of the real hot-blooded American male, feminists have put the butch lesbian” who is described as not wearing make-up and daring to “talk out of turn in the presence of men” and causing confusion by “crossing all gender lines.” Such behavior, according to the satire, negatively affects “vulnerable Christian men who have not been spending enough time reading the Bible, an activity which naturally raises testosterone levels and protects against the disease of homosexuality.” According to the New York Times, the Christwire website (which uses the tag line, “Conservative Values for an Unsaved World”) was set up by two young men who met online and decided to start a website that would not specifically target Christians but rather all those “who do not question what they hear on the news” and who then regurgitate it to others. “It is all one big joke,” the article emphasizes. Yet, many people get fooled and believe the website’s features are for real.
The Actual Connection between Feminism and LGBT Rights
But it’s true that there is a real connection between feminism and LGBT rights. Here’s why. It’s because both movements are founded on the principle of equality and justice for all people!
It’s as simple as that.
It’s as profound as that.
The questioning that gives rise to progressive social change is always about human beings, not abstractions—human beings who are made in the image of God and loved by God but who have been denied that recognition by the dominant “powers that be.” The call for change is about acknowledging and honoring the dignity of whole categories of people who have been regarded as “less than” or “lower than” or “unequal to” the privileged groups that determine who benefits from a society’s social arrangements and rewards. In other words, justice movements form in order to challenge the hierarchies that have been set up to keep whole groups of people “in their place.”
An emphasis on our shared humanity is what links together all such movements— whether the goal has been ending slavery, recognizing the dignity and civil rights of black people, working toward equal rights for women, striving for equality for LGBTQ people, seeking justice for families living in poverty, or any other effort to secure justice and equity for everyone.
Maybe It’s Not about Sliding Down a Slope, but Moving to a Different Paradigm
Many heterosexual Christians from conservative backgrounds, who were first troubled by the emergence of feminism and its emphasis on gender equality, are now distressed over other changes taking place, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and more recently the legalization of same-sex marriage, not to mention the many other signs of growing societal acceptance of the dignity and rights of those who identify as LGBTQ.
I don’t think it’s fair (or loving) to label all such distressed Christians as bigots or haters. Many of them are honestly wrestling with the fact that they’ve been taught by their churches that God calls homosexuality sinful, and they’ve been warned that interpretations of the Bible that suggest otherwise are wrong. Yet, at the same time, they may be experiencing cognitive dissonance because more and more of them are learning that they know someone who identifies as lesbian or gay —often someone who also identifies as a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. That “someone” may have been in a longtime loving relationship (though perhaps closeted) and may now be legally married to that same-sex partner.
Some thoughtful conservative “straight” Christians, perplexed by the changing attitudes throughout society, may begin questioning the reasoning that’s behind the slippery slope argument. Is this really the only way to look at this issue, the only way to be biblical?
It may be helpful at this point to think of two contrasting paradigms—two different sets of assumptions, each forming a distinct system of understanding the Christian faith. Maybe it’s time for a paradigm shift.
Revisiting the Slippery Slope Paradigm
The Slippery Slope Paradigm that we’ve already examined relies on a simplistic image of the Christian faith as comprising an essential set of beliefs and rules, along with required stances on certain social issues. In this way of thinking, to question any one of these “essentials” can set off a downward slide, knocking over one essential after another, until the whole hill comes tumbling down, along with the questioner. That’s why those who take this approach insist on building a fence at the top of the hill, establishing who belongs to the “true faith,” and who doesn’t (“not a real Christian,”), as well as anyone who might have once belonged but who is now judged to have strayed away and is not to be taken seriously.
Fred Clark on his Slacktivist blog speaks about evangelical “tribal markers,” which may vary at particular points in history but always have the purpose of indicating who is “in” and who is “out.” Slippery slope ideology helps set the boundaries and spell out the limits, and a person who pushes against the fence and questions the essentials has already begun the slide and is likely to be considered on his or her way out.
The Love Thy Neighbor Paradigm
However, there’s another entirely different paradigm that can legitimately claim the term “biblical” in its basic assumptions. In fact, I believe it is more true to the message of the Bible than the more restrictive view embedded in the other paradigm. It is the Love Thy Neighbor paradigm, which is based on our shared humanity rather than on a set of propositions. It is built upon empathy toward the human beings involved.
It’s about relationships rather than rules—relationship with God and others. It’s a model of inclusion rather than exclusion. It’s the message of God’s compassion that Jonah didn’t like to recognize. It’s the point of the story Jesus told when asked, “Who is my neighbor?” The questioner already knew the two great commandments that encapsulated the law (love God and love your neighbor as yourself), but nevertheless, he appeared to want limits on what neighbor love entails.
Whereas the Slippery Slope Paradigm focuses on a judgmental God and defines sin as the breaking of certain rules and requirements, the Love Thy Neighbor Paradigm focuses on people—human beings made in the divine image—and views sin as a failure to love others as God has loved us (1 John 4:7-21).
Loving my neighbors means getting to know them, to seek to understand them, to empathize with them. Heterosexual Christians who see their LGBTQ neighbors through the eyes of love and equality will happily accept an invitation to a same-sex wedding, rejoicing in the love the couple shares on this special day (rather than praying that God will break up the relationship, as I have known some Christians to do!).
Loving my neighbor may mean seeking to understand the latest scientific studies on what a homosexual orientation actually is. Or it may mean looking for information on what it means to be transgender. Loving my neighbor means fulfilling the admonition of Romans 12:15 by “rejoicing with those who rejoice” when a lesbian couple welcomes a new child into the family, or when two gay men legally adopt the special needs child for whom they had served as foster parents. Loving my neighbor also means “weeping with those who weep” when a lesbian loses her beloved partner of many years in an auto accident; or a gay male couple mourns a mother’s death after the two men had opened their home and cared for her as her health deteriorated, the son-in-law having been just as devoted as her son. These are some of the ways the Love Thy Neighbor Paradigm focuses on our shared humanity rather than exercising the judgmentalism of the Slippery Slope Paradigm with its emphasis on disapproval over supposedly broken rules.
We see these contrasting paradigms in the reactions of some people in Jesus’s day as they refused to see his compassion. When Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, the religious leaders closed their eyes, minds, and hearts to the individuals concerned. All that mattered was that a rule had been broken. What rule might Jesus break next on this slippery slide?
Self-righteous religionists could not see the people, nor rejoice with them in their new happiness. A man who had been an invalid for 38 years picks up his pallet and walks. As he jumps around for joy, the religious leaders refuse to relate to him as a fellow human being; they see only a broken Sabbath rule. A bent-over woman stands upright and sees the world from a new perspective. The self-righteous religious people refuse to share her sense of wonder and praise to God. They don’t see the woman; they can see only a Sabbath violation. A blind man is given sight. Again the religious leaders are outraged and obsessed with what they see as a broken commandment. Dr. Reta Finger has a wonderful discussion of this incident in one of her Bible studies from John’s Gospel.
In Acts 10, we see Peter arguing with God who had sent Peter a special vision, a vision that prepared him to break what he thought were ironclad rules by welcoming into his life a category of people he thought he should not associate with if he were to be pleasing to God. Instead, he found he was wrong— that the marginalized group that he had previously condemned were actually welcomed into God’s family and given the Holy Spirit.
But immediately after recognizing this, Peter ran into criticism by others who saw only boundaries that had been transgressed. “You stayed in the homes of Gentiles, and you even ate with them!” (Acts 11:3) —equivalent to a shocked statement that might be made today. (“You attended the wedding of two women! Why didn’t you take a stand for God and refuse to participate in their sin?”)
What did Peter do? He didn’t apologize nor worry about violating the norms of his religious compatriots who expected him to separate himself from a category of people they deemed unholy. Instead, Peter simply told his story. He talked about what had happened in his own life, including his struggles and questionings, and how he had changed his mind because of what God had shown him. “After I started speaking to [the category of people that his fellow religionists stayed away from], the Holy Spirit was given to them, just as the Spirit was given to us at the beginning. . . . God gave the Gentiles the same gift that he gave us when we put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. So how could I have gone against God?” (See Acts 11:1-18, CEV).
The Love Thy Neighbor Paradigm has prodded many of us to ask the same questions Peter dealt with—and then to find the same answers and come to the same conclusions, assuring us that the Slippery Slope Paradigm is not the only way Christians can approach feminism and LGBT advocacy, regardless of the continuing stream of fear-based warnings and words of condemnation issuing from pulpits.
It’s something to think about.
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is an independent scholar, writer, and editor. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992).
© 2015 by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Christian Feminism Today