Feminism and Evangelicalism: An Interview with Virginia Ramey Mollenkott

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by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott

Note: What follows are Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s responses to questions prepared by Ann Braude, Women’s Studies Director at Harvard Divinity School and editor of Transforming the Faiths of Our Fathers: Women Who Changed American Religion (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), which is reviewed in this issue on page 6. Most of Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s responses below were part of a panel held at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan on May 16, 2005, entitled “Muslim, Christian and Jew: Women Who Changed American Religion.”

Q: How in your personal experience did feminism interact with evangelicalism?

I was born into a working-class Philadelphia family of extremely conservative evangelicals. At that time, we right-wing evangelicals would have accepted the name fundamentalist, meaning that we clung to what we thought were the fundamental truths of the Bible. Today, almost nobody would claim to be fundamentalist because of the word’s connections to terrorism. But since the evangelical right-wing still teaches the same doctrines I learned in my youth, the truth is that they are still fundamentalist.

I was taught at our storefront chapel that the deepest core of my being was evil, so that I could not trust any of my feelings or perceptions. From this shameful condition I could be saved only because Jesus had paid the price of God’s anger by being crucified on my behalf. Combine this with very early physical and sexual abuse and the early realization that I was lesbian, and you can understand why I was well into my thirties before I was able to liberate myself from the fundamentalist belief system.

I earned my undergraduate degree at Bob Jones University and began to question fundamentalist doctrine while there, but especially during my M.A. studies at Temple University when I worked with a world-class literary scholar. But it was while working on my doctoral dissertation on John Milton that I gained the courage to read the Bible as carefully as I had been trained to read any other text. Feminism was just beginning to stir in the early sixties, and my dawning courage to trust myself was the point at which feminism and faith began to empower one another.

People may wonder why it would take courage to read the Bible as carefully as I would read, say, Chaucer or Emily Dickinson. Well, here’s why: the evangelical right teaches that the Bible was virtually dictated by God and is without error or contradiction. But you can’t read even the first two chapters of Genesis without noticing that there are two different time-lines for creation, with different tones and different plots. Those differences become perfectly understandable once they are placed in historical context, but fundamentalists tend to use the Bible as if it were all written on the same day and the same place, with little attention to cultural background unless it happens to be convenient. So I was wearing fundamentalist blinders when I read the Bible, and was afraid to take them off.

John Milton was a 17th century Puritan who loved Scripture. From studying his interpretive method, being challenged by feminist thinkers, and interpreting my dreams, I gradually began to trust my own experience. And I began to read the Bible with attention to literary formats, historical context, what words meant at the time the text was written, the use of imagery, analogy, symbol, and so forth. The text was transformed by these standard interpretive methods, and I in turn was radicalized by the Bible. I am now a member of the evangelical left, working with other Christian feminists toward a world in which all people are respected and cherished as made in God’s image, and in which the natural environment is respected and cherished as being created and sustained by one Great Spirit. I guess you could call me an Evangelical Universalist.

Q: What is the spectrum of attitudes toward women in evangelicalism today?

Evangelicals come in a continuum that runs the political gamut from extreme left to extreme right. What Christian evangelicals have in common is the conviction that meaningful living requires a direct personal relationship with God, and that the Bible should be taken seriously. But what that means can differ widely, and our social attitudes differ tremendously.

I am a member of the evangelical left, a small but passionate minority. Our three most influential organizations are the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, the Evangelicals for Social Action, and the Sojourners ministry headed by Jim Wallis. Of these, the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus is the most radical. We believe the Bible teaches the human dignity and equality of women along with men and all the in-betweens as well: intersexuals, transsexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, nonconformist heterosexuals, and gender transgressors of every type. Although EEWC does not have an official position on reproductive rights, most EEWC members support women’s moral agency in reproduction just as we support women’s moral agency in every other sense, and we support human and civil rights for everyone, including the right to serve religion in an ordained capacity and to pursue happiness through marriage. We cannot support efforts toward passage of the Federal Marriage Amendment which says “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman.” That would exclude not only same-sex couples, but also transsexual and intersexual couples, as several court cases have already demonstrated.

Members of the Evangelicals for Social Action tend to waffle about specifically women’s issues because their focus is on combating poverty and racism, reforming healthcare, and working toward world peace. But of course these efforts will inevitably help women to some degree. Sojourners Community, which describes itself as “a Christian ministry whose mission is to proclaim and practice the biblical call to integrate spiritual renewal and social justice,” works for issues similar to those of Evangelicals for Social Action. Neither Evangelicals for Social Action nor Sojourners supports reproductive choice or gay marriage, all though many in the Sojourners network, including founder Jim Wallis himself, believe that compassion and justice demand respect for gay human and civil rights, including the right to form civil unions (but not marriage in a religiously sanctioned or sacramental sense).

The evangelical center is represented by such organizations as Christians for Biblical Equality, the journal Christianity Today, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Some of them are mildly supportive of women’s equality in marriage and church leadership. Christians for Biblical Equality is, in fact, strongly supportive of such equality. But each of these in the evangelical center are uniformly negative toward affirmation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people.

The enormous evangelical right wing owns many radio stations and airs many television shows by which it has become the chief interpreter of the Bible for the American public. Their largest organization is the Southern Baptist Convention, which does not ordain women and has legislated that husbands must make the final decisions for their wives and children, and that wives must “contentedly yield” to these decisions. Another hugely influential organization is James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, which teaches the importance of corporal punishment of children and broadcasts many lies about lesbian and gay people: that we all suffer from a mental disorder that can be cured by “reparative therapy”; that we want to destroy marriage and seek to hurt children; and that we are ungodly people who want special rights, not civil rights. Tim LaHaye, coauthor of the apocalyptic “Left Behind” novels, and his wife Beverly, founder of Concerned Women for America, are also highly influential leaders of the evangelical right wing. Their 1976 evangelical sex manual, The Act of Marriage, is still quoted, especially their assertion that, “God designed man to be theaggressor, provider, and leader of his family,” claiming that such attributes are “somehow tied to his sex drive.” (emphasis mine). They add, “The woman who resents her husband’s sex drive while enjoying his aggressive leadership had better face the fact that she cannot have one without the other” (p.22). Although this statement directly contradicts the Bible’s statement that husbands and wives are to “defer to one another,” it reflects a typical attitude of the evangelical right. Another group, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, attempts to soften their male dominance/female subordination model by calling it the complementarity of the sexes rather than inequality. They teach that female and male are each designed by God for distinctive roles in marriage and in life, based on gender alone.

Obviously, the word evangelical involves a wide spectrum of attitudes toward women and other groups. As a result, evangelicals on the left may feel more comfortable with progressive Mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, or secular humanists than we do with right-wing evangelicals. And the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus sees as one of its primary missions the empowerment of women and men from the Religious Right who have become fed up with androcentrism and are ready for liberation.

Q: To what extent is the evangelical feminist movement political, and to what extent religious?

One of the things I have appreciated about my evangelical upbringing was that preachers told us everybody was expected to act with absolute conviction, throwing themselves fully into whatever they believed in. Although the evangelists really meant men when they talked like that, some of us women didn’t get the message that it wasn’t intended for women, too, or eventually refused to accept such exclusion.

Now the thing about going all out to embody what you believe is that it becomes difficult if not impossible to compartmentalize religion as something distinct from politics. And that can lead to positive or negative results. If a person’s religious convictions do not include respect for the full human and civil rights of those who hold different convictions, going all out for one’s beliefs can lead to oppression of others, brutality, and the undermining of democratic practice. Many right-wing evangelical congregations would deny that they are political at all, because in seeking to “reclaim America for Christ” and to restrict the civil and human rights of those they regard as dangerous, they feel they are simply fulfilling their religious duty. Extremists of every religion feel that God is on their side and nobody else’s – which is why our world is so close to self-immolation.

On the other hand, because feminism is about respecting the otherness of the other while trying to correct injustices toward women, children, and other marginalized people, its political impact is in line with the best insights of the world’s major religions. All of them call for treating others in ways we ourselves would appreciate it we were on the receiving end.

Within Christian feminism, Roman Catholic scholars have been especially brilliant in describing the seamless religious and political impact of the Jesus Movement. I’m thinking of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, who showed us why women, slaves, and social outcasts were so drawn to Jesus (see In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins). And also the work of Elizabeth A. Johnson, a nun who manages to correct the patriarchal errors of the Christian tradition with so much tact, compassion, and biblical accuracy that I doubt the Vatican realizes how radically feminist she is. (Start with her book She Who Is, but read anything she writes. Her appreciation of other religions as necessary to a fuller understanding of God certainly reflects my own experience of what occurs in inter-religious worship services.)

For evangelical feminists, feminism means working toward a peaceful, egalitarian, humane world. Being a follower of Jesus means the same thing. So for us, feminism is both a religious and a political expression of our convictions.

Q: How do you respond to evangelical reactions against feminism?

Before I answer this question, I need to provide a context in order to show just how powerful the anti-feminist anti-humanist Religious Right has become. Bestseller lists for several years have been featuring novels about the Rapture of “born again” believers and about those who will be “left behind.” I remember learning that same scenario as a girl, with the help of huge charts that covered the front of the chapel. The political implication was clear: no point in supporting the United Nations, working for world peace, or preserving the environment, because we were in the “last days.” We’d soon be “out of here,” while atheists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Roman Catholics, and even many liberal Protestants would be “left behind.”

Why is this important? Because as Bill Moyers pointed out at Harvard recently, our President, 45 Senators, 186 members of Congress, and millions of American voters believe in the fundamentalist scenario of the “left behind” novels. This explains why President Bush’s policies have been so cavalier about the United Nations, the environment, and seeking peaceful resolutions to conflict.

To the evangelical right, moral issues tend to be privatized; sin is personal, not collective or institutional. Matters of social justice and civil liberty, such as exploiting women and undocumented immigrants as cheap labor, are downplayed or ignored, while controlling women’s sexuality through anti-abortion statutes, or opposing same-sex marriage, are regarded as “life-and-death” moral issues. Killing thousands of civilians in Iraq is not perceived as a moral issue. Starvation of poor people through capitalistic schemes is not regarded as a moral issue. It should be obvious why the evangelical right is the perfect theological ally for Bush’s administration.

Concerning women specifically: in the 1980’s a book called The Total Woman praised female subordination and was studied in hundreds of evangelical churches. I was asked to write a response to it. What I discovered while writing Women, Men, and the Bible was that it is very easy to defend the patriarchal status quo. You don’t have to be particularly rational or thorough because most folks already assume that you’re correct. But to challenge the dominant paradigm, you have to weave an airtight argument. Furthermore, in confrontation with right-wing evangelicals I found that what is evidence to me is not evidence to them. People tend to see what they want to see, and if they do not govern themselves by standard rules for interpreting texts, what they see can become quite astonishing. So eventually I learned to refuse debates.

Recently I was drawn into discussing same-sex marriage on Minnesota Public Radio, only to discover that the moderator permitted my opponent to set the parameters of the discussion. We were given approximately equal time, but all he had to do with his time was appeal to common assumptions, while I had to construct a cogent counter-argument and do it concerning the factors he had chosen. Nothing level about that playing field!

So this is my current policy in dealing with androcentric or misogynistic evangelicals: I try to show them human love in the hope that sooner or later life will teach them more open and humane attitudes. I write books and articles and give lectures embodying liberation theology, in the hope that those who are open to a different paradigm will find my interpretations helpful. I vote; I try to persuade anyone who shows an interest. And I keep hope alive in myself by trusting thatwhen God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven,” women will be equal and honored partners in every aspect of that benign society. And yes, I do believe that some day God’s will will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Why? Because Jesus told us to pray for that – and I do not believe that he would have assigned to us an exercise in futility.

Q: Do you have a summary statement you’d like to share with an audience of Jews, Christians, and Muslims?

Yes, I do. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all “religions of the book” – the Jewish Bible, the Christian Scriptures, and Islam’s Qur’an. So it is essential that we teach people how to read texts accurately and how to apply them in the most humane possible fashion. It seems to me that Judaism has succeeded better than Christianity in this regard, probably because for centuries rabbis have persistently surrounded the text with narratives that call for the gentlest admissible interpretations. Unfortunately, progressive Christians have allowed the evangelical right to take over the public interpretation of the Bible for most Americans (who on average read at the 8th grade level).

For example: right-wing evangelicals point to the text that says “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church” (Ephesians 5:23) as proof that the husband should decide what his family should do. But this interpretation ignores several verifiable facts. First, when that text was written (first century of the Common Era), nobody thought decisions were made by the head; it was the heart that decided the issues of life. Second, Christ as head of the church never makes decisions for the church. The word head means source, as in fountainhead. So the analogy “husband is to wife as Christ is to church” is an exclusively non-coercive analogy. Third, the author of Ephesians recognized that husbands held all the power in that time and place. So if the marriage relationship were to become egalitarian because of mutual deference (Ephesians 5:21), the husband would have to be the head or source of that deference by voluntarily abandoning his patriarchally privileged position.

When read with attention to verifiable facts, the analogy of “husband is to wife as Christ is to church” subverts or undermines male supremacy, in precise opposition to the way the text is being used by the Religious Right.

My point: “religions of the book” can either oppress women or liberate and empower us, depending on how the text is interpreted and applied. Even more importantly, “religions of the book” can support bitter warfare or peaceful coexistence, depending on how the text is interpreted. Whether we’re reading the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Scriptures, or the Islamic Qur’an, we will always tend to see what we want to see. But surely we ought to considerverifiable facts when we make our interpretations, and human kindness when we apply the texts to contemporary life.

© 2005 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus.  From EEWC Update,  volume 29, number 1, Spring (April-June) 2005.

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Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott is the author or co-author of 13 books, including several on women and religion. She is a winner of the Lambda Literary Award (in 2002) and has published numerous essays on literary topics in various scholarly journals. In 1975, she spoke at the first national gathering of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus in Washington, D.C., and delivered plenary speeches at almost every gathering of the organization over the next 40 years. She has lectured widely on lesbian, gay, and bisexual rights and has also been active in the transgender cause. Mollenkott is married to Judith Suzannah Tilton and has one son and three granddaughters. She earned her B.A. from Bob Jones University, her M.A. from Temple University, and her Ph.D. from New York University. She received a Lifetime Achievement award from SAGE, Senior Action in a Gay Environment, a direct-service and advocacy group for seniors in New York City in 1999. At age 85, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott continues to use her doctorate in English to share insights with folks who visit the EEWC and Mollenkott websites, and with elderly people in the Cedar Creek educational programs. She has recently taught an Elderhostel course on the poems of the Rev. Dr. John Donne, and is now preparing a Fall course on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. She deeply regrets that her severe arthritis forbids her presence at recent and wonderful street protests.

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