Carter, Mandela, Elders say religion oppresses women

By Dennis Gruending

Kofi Annan and Jilly Carter A group of the world’s most respected Elders says that religions frequently oppress women and that it’s time for faith groups to change their ways. “Religion and tradition are a great force for peace and progress around the world,” the group said in a statement issued in July 2009. “However, as Elders, we believe that the justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a higher authority, is unacceptable . . . We especially call on religious and traditional leaders to set an example and change all discriminatory practices within their own religions and traditions.”

The Elders include Nelson Mandela, former Irish president Mary Robinson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, Kofi Annan, Graca Machel, Gro Brundtland, and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. Mandela brought the group together in 2007. He said that as former leaders no longer in office they could “speak freely and boldy” to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. They have visited and supported peace initiatives in Cyprus, the Middle East, Zimbabwe and Sudan, but now they have turned their attention to equality for women and girls – and upon the role that religions play in prolonging the injustice.

Carter quits Baptists over women’s ‘subservience’

Jimmy Carter is among the most outspoken of the Elders on this point. A lifelong Baptist who continued to teach Sunday school even while he was president, Carter made a painful decision to leave the Southern Baptist Convention in July 2009. He said that his action became unavoidable when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses, decided that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from holding most church positions. Carter wrote at the time that, “Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.”

Carter developed his theme further in December 2009 when he spoke, via teleconference, to a gathering called the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia. “The plight of abused women is made more acceptable by the mandated subservience of women by religious leaders,” Carter said. He reminded his audience that in the Christian scripture, St. Paul wrote (in his letter to the Corinthians) that “there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Carter took another swipe at the Baptist convention and also at the Catholic church, the two largest religious groups in the U.S. “The Roman Catholic Church and many others revere the Virgin Mary but consider women unqualified to serve as priests,” he said.

Dueling philosophies

There is a philosophy called complementarianism, which holds that God has ordained some forms of leadership (such as being a priest, pastor or elder) as exclusive to men. The counter concept is known as egalitarianism, or biblical equality, which holds that all human persons are equal in fundamental worth and moral status. The logical conclusion here is that both men and women are fit to hold any and all offices within their churches, not to mention their role in secular society. The debate often centres around the interpretation of certain Biblical passages. The complementarians like to quote portions of Genesis, where Adam was allegedly created first. Those who hold this philosophy justify the exclusion of females from leadership due to the deception of Eve by Satan, which resulted in the fall. There are also New Testament passages, including some by St. Paul, about women covering their heads, or wives being submissive to their husbands. These time-limited passages are read to restrict leadership to men.

Carter and his fellow Elders will have none of it. The Scriptures, Carter said in his Melbourne speech, were written when male dominance prevailed in every aspect of life and so it is not surprising that they reflect a dominantly male point of view. “I realize that devout Christians can find adequate scripture to justify either side in this debate,” he said, “but there is one incontrovertible fact concerning the relationship between Jesus Christ and women: he never condoned sexual discrimination or the implied subservience of women.”

Women and the church

The Catholic church is perhaps the most prominent example of complementarianism. Its leadership also clings to the position that because there were no women among the first apostles there can never be female priests. In a church whose decision-making is dominated by clerics, that means women are forever excluded from leadership. The last two popes have said the matter is closed and cannot be discussed. Pope John Paul II was not amused when, on his visit to the United States in 1979, Sister Teresa Kane, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, challenged him publicly on the church’s treatment of women. The Vatican continues to rail against feminism and in July 2009 it announced a sweeping review of congregations of religious sisters in the United States. Some sisters fear that the Vatican is trying to shunt them back into the old ways.

Catholics and Southern Baptists have plenty of company in their opposition to having women participate in leadership. Pope Benedict recently agreed to welcome as Catholics those traditionalist Anglican priests who are disgruntled with their church. I had assumed their greatest objection would be that some Anglican congregations support same sex marriage or are willing to consecrate gay bishops. I have been surprised to read how often the unhappiness of disaffected Anglican priests is based on their opposition to the ordination of women.

In Canada, the United Church had its debate about women’s ordination in 1936. Yet, as recently as 2006, the Canadian Mennonite Brethren spent much of its national conference debating whether member churches should be free to call women to serve as ministers and pastoral leaders. The resolution was finally carried with 77% voting in favour. The Christian and Missionary Alliance (Prime Minister Harper is a member) will not ordain women and has had an on-again-off-again debate for more than 20 years about whether women should be allowed to serve as Elders in the church.

High stakes

There is more at stake here than another odd quarrel among church members that has little to do with the secular world. Every society has its creation myths and often they are powerful in ordering social and personal behaviour. Catholicism is the world’s largest Christian religion and wields considerable power and influence. The Vatican even has permanent observer status at the United Nations. Catholics compromise the largest church in the U.S. with 70 million adherents. The Southern Baptist Convention, with 16 million members, is the second largest religious group, and is growing rapidly. The leadership of both churches has veered to the right in recent years. Both, for example, opposed President Obama’s 2009 health care reform on the basis that it might lead to the state paying for abortions.

Church leaders are saying that women are not welcome to participate at all levels in their churches, or that women must be subservient to their husbands. That sends a strong signal to all of society’s institutions, from home to school, to boardroom and legislature. The message that women must be subservient and cannot lead is potentially of enormous consequence in the secular world. It is there, Carter said, that progress is being made and he fears that gains could be reversed. “It is ironic,” he added, “that women are now welcomed into all major professions and other positions of authority, but are branded as inferior and deprived of the equal right to serve God in positions of religious leadership.”
In fact, Carter fears that religious discrimination against women helps to create a general environment “in which violations against women are justified.”

These violations include widespread physical assault and the sexual abuse of women and girls; the use of rape by soldiers as a tactic of warfare; the recruitment of an estimated four million women and girls each year into the sex trade; restriction (mainly in Muslim countries) placed on the movement, education and social interaction of girls and women. We are mistaken if we believe that violations exist in faraway countries but not in our own. Carter could have said that 520 Aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing in Canada, half of them since the year 2000, or that men with guns murder about 30 women each year in our country.

So the Elders have spoken. Carter, Mandela, Tutu, Robinson and the others present a formidable counterweight to blind tradition. They are immensely respected for their achievements and their integrity. They say that they are fully committed to the realization of equality and empowerment for all women and girls. They call upon all leaders, religious and secular, to promote and protect those inalienable rights. Theirs is a powerful message.

4 thoughts on “Carter, Mandela, Elders say religion oppresses women

  1. A very thoughtful essay Dennis. Thanks for the impeccable research – it will help my arguments on this subject.


  2. Nice to see this topic under discussion – hope it is given some mainstream coverage. Can I challenge some reporters to develop this further. Thanks Dennis


  3. Thanks so much for this posting, Dennis. I hadn’t heard of The Elders’ campaign and am so pleased, impressed and moved by their efforts, as well as your own, to challenge such a critical source of gender inequality.


  4. I suppose we should be grateful that these old men have, rather late in the game, acknowledged the obvious, and thanks to Dennis for a superb chronicle. However, the oppression of women is but one abhorrent feature of most organized religions. Most religions, and certainly “the big three” of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, explicitly or implicitly exist to oppress both within the fold, and beyond it The root cause of this and a host of related symptoms is absolutism. The core premise of religion is that there is something “out there” that is true, immutable, and externally created. It is up to humanity to apprehend it; it is not a human creation. Such truth is not contingent or fundamentally debatable within the confines of the religion; if it were, it would be philosophy, and while some religions are more theological than others, the foundation is always some sort of bedrock claim about the divine order of things.

    Such thinking invariably has two consequences: hierarchy within the sect, and a fundamental belief, unstated of course, that those who have not embraced one’s religion are (insert consequence here – unenlightened, damned, etc.). Sophisticated religious thinkers argue that it doesn’t have to be this way, but the vast majority of adherents are not looking for a debating club or contingent and existential truths; they are seeking comfort, certainty, and answers. They want things settled; when they say their faith comforts them, they’re not talking about their latest encounter with Bonhoefer. Organized religion will always be an incendiary and divisive force – which is not to deny its good works or the intellectual value of some theology – because of its absolutist core. It is hardly a mystery that texts written by MEN thousands of years ago don’t read like Simone de Beauvoir or Germaine Greer.

    Many will counter that the solution is to modernize these vessels for good by stripping them of their baseless superstitions and replacing them with egalitarianism within and genuine tolerance toward their competitors. That would require downgrading the status of (name your sacred text) and tossing adherents into a sea of existential angst. I’m all for these religions morphing into some form of gentle pantheism, but there is a cold logic behind the conservative resistance to change. The guardians of tradition know that opening up absolutes to debate and change erodes power and risks alienating the true believers.

    Dennis replies: Thanks Stephen for your erudite comments regarding world religions, and yet . . . I am reminded of comments made in a magazine article regarding the pundit and writer Christopher Hitchens, author of God is not Great. Hitchens had also been harshly critical of the late Mother Theresa. The magazine writer allowed that there might well be some validity to what Hitchens had to say, but added that if someone were poor, homless, ill or dying that person would be far more likely to receive a compassionate response from Mother Theresa than from Hitchens. Despite the obvious shortcomings of world religions, there is a lot of love and solidarity offered by people whose motivation springs from religious faith.


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