Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Faith, Power, and the Role of Women

The candidacy of Hillary Clinton creates by its very nature very predictable arguments about sexism. Over the course of the next several months, voters will be asked to discern what sexism is and where it is found. Certain instances are glaringly obvious, others much less so. Personal experience fuels the debate, but until now, no compelling and unfair Anti-Clinton argument or tactic has been brought forth to the American people.

Though it is true that the United States has never had a woman President, women have taken active roles within large structures of their creation. Clara Barton was motivated enough by her traumatic experience as battlefield nurse during the Civil War to found the American Red Cross. Any number of other examples of women’s leadership can be cited. Desperate times beg for desperate measures, but despite what candidates in 2016 might tell you, we are not in the midst of upheaval anywhere near that profound. Chaos, not necessity is the mother of substantial and effective invention.

Women have dominated religious settings for generations. Conservative faiths which insist that women be subservient to their husbands have nevertheless been enriched by major contributions. Women might be asked to cover their heads, but they are allowed to open their mouths and put pen to paper. As a person of faith, I know some of what a society run by women would look like. Women have made up the majority of religious gatherings for a very long time. As long as I can recall, women much more than men regularly attend and eagerly take leadership roles.

Unsurprisingly, there is significant historical precedent for these mostly selfless gestures. Three faith traditions actively value and have been significantly enriched by the contributions of women. There are probably more than that. Christian Science was founded by Mary Baker Eddy. The teachings of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church were nurtured by the writings and example of Ellen G. White. My own faith, the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, was skillfully directed and guided at its very beginning by Margaret Fell. All three of these could be characterized as Radical Protestant, since each took a sharp departure in practice and in theology from more established faiths.

Two of these are distinctly American creations which have their beginnings in the 19th Century Great Awakening. Another dates back to revolutionary England of the 1640’s. Quakers, in particular, sought to draw no distinction between the voices of women and the voices of men. Complete equality between the sexes, however, was still a few years away. Men and women were seated together during Worship, but separated by gender when it came time for Business Meeting.

American society would be quite different if the roles were reversed, but I am cautious of going out too far on a limb. What I will say is that politics might be far less directly confrontational if women’s voices spoke loudest. It could potentially be less violent in practice and in policy. This is, of course, no hard and fast rule. Women like former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher have been eager hawks during their tenure. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard recently that Hillary Clinton is too cravenly warlike to be trusted. Peace churches like my own always seem to find themselves as outliers during times of military action, and I expect to be on the outside looking one more time should she be elected.

It may be too much of a stretch to compare faith groups with politics. Even so, struggles for power and influence within both are prominent and constant. Shut out of active governance, ambition and an altruistic desire to improve conditions for everyone, male or female, led many women to found their own organizations. Several of these exist to the current day, peopled by cause women who have, over time, pushed hard over the years for Prohibition, women’s suffrage, the Equal Rights Amendment, and now, an increased profile of women in positions of power.

It was no accident that these self-identified groups did not divorce their cause from religion. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, as the name would suggest, used the language of Christianity to further its aims. One could argue that these groups came of age in more religious times, and while that is indeed true, few of their contemporaries ever complained that these highly motivated women were violating the separation between church and state. The two were forever intertwined, in their minds. Moral crusades must reflect morality, and organized religion preaches it from every pulpit.

Colossians 3:23 reads,

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.

When we go astray from this maxim, we lose.

Moving to the current day, Gloria Steinem’s recent remarks show the desperation of aging boomer women. They want to see a woman in the White House in their lifetime, but, as we know today, that outcome is nowhere near a given. We should always give careful consideration when sexism is invoked, but we should also consider the instances, like this one, where it is transparently self-serving. I agree that it’s past time for a woman to occupy the Oval Office, but the fight now ongoing for the soul of the Democratic party is legitimate and does not come at the expense of sexist cheap shots.

Quakers, by in large, have passionate opinions about politics. I have learned to remove myself from these arguments, especially in an online environment, because they quickly go off the rails and never end up anywhere productive. My hope is that those who share common purpose like me would devote half as much effort towards their personal spirituality that they do in over-analyzing soundbytes. I am a man of God first and a liberal Democrat second. I never forget the proper order.

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