Righting America

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Free to be Feminist? | Righting America

by Susan Trollinger and William Trollinger

“I grew up evangelical, I became a feminist, and ever since I have felt consigned to the evangelical margins, in my family and in the church. Your paper fits my personal experience, but I find this so depressing. Is there any sign that mainstream evangelicalism is starting to embrace feminism, or are evangelical women just doomed to be subordinate?”

This was one of the questions we were asked last Thursday after giving our paper, “Feminist Rhetoric and the Hegemonic Struggle of Patriarchal Fundamentalism,” at the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference here at the University of Dayton. And it is a question that continues to haunt us.

In our paper we argued that from its very beginnings in 1919 Protestant fundamentalism has been resolutely committed to the idea that, in home and in church, women are to be subordinate to men. For the first few decades the theological argument was that female subordination was rooted in the divine Curse pronounced on woman as punishment for Eve’s successful temptation of Adam to violate God’s prohibition against eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. But as second-wave feminism made inroads in evangelicalism in the 1960s and 1970s, fundamentalist leaders shifted their argument; drawing upon Calvinist theology, they argued that patriarchy was part of God’s plan from the very beginning. Women were not cursed to be subordinate; instead, women were cursed to be unhappy with their subordination. That is to say, the Curse is Feminism.

All this plays out at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter. At the Creation Museum there are very few representations of women and very few female voices in the videos and voiceovers; Eve is the one exception, but, in keeping with conservative evangelical theology, all moral responsibility for the Fall rests on Adam’s shoulders. Eve plays, at best, a supporting role. Adam is the moral agent.

There are considerably more representations of women at Ark Encounter, most notably in the ark’s “living quarters,” where the wives of Noah and his sons are given names, ethnicities, and hobbies (as none of this is in the Bible, the degree of “artistic license” taken by folks committed to biblical inerrancy is breathtaking).

The most interesting of these is Japheth’s wife, Rayneh, who is the only (as far as we can tell) animatronic female figure in the Ark.  Rayneh stands on a raised platform and laments that her best friend did not get on the Ark while also wondering why her friend had to perish in the Flood. Rayneh appears here to be raising important moral questions about the kind of God depicted at Ark Encounter—a God that (according to a digital display elsewhere in the Ark) created a flood that killed as many as 20 billion human beings. Are we to understand Reynah to be a female figure who is also a full-blown human agent wrestling with tough moral and theological questions?

No. Instead of screaming in torment at a genocidal God who found it necessary to drown 19 billion-plus people, she wants someone (God, perhaps?) to “help her understand” why her friend had to die.

It turns out that it is all rather simple. According to the placards arranged around her head,

“First, God created all living things, which gives Him authority over all things. Since He is the one who gave life, He has the right to take life. Second, God is perfectly just and must judge sin. Third, all have sinned and deserve death and judgment.”

In other words, all those 19 billion-plus people drowning in the Flood waters are getting exactly what they deserve. No lament needed or, perhaps, even appropriate. The question for Rayneh, then, is not whether she ought to worship a God like that but, rather, whether she is willing to submit to the authority of that all-powerful male God. Notably, no “men” in the Ark struggle with this question. Instead, they are busy praying to that God, operating the Ark, and so forth.

Rayneh’s distress about her friend’s death at the hands of an angry God is not to be taken as a sign of moral complexity. It is a sign of moral immaturity. Just read the placards, Rayneh. Patriarchy, indeed.

When the powerful rhetorics of second-wave feminism made their way into conservative Protestantism – inspiring evangelical women to challenge patriarchal fundamentalism – fundamentalist rhetoric became more radical, rooting female submission in the very structures of God’s Creation. The Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter instantiate this rhetorical shift.

And yet, feminist rhetorics remain a profound challenge to patriarchal fundamentalism. So in an effort to “lock down” patriarchy once and for all, in the last two decades fundamentalist theologians (echoed by the folks at Answers in Genesis) have developed the argument that the Trinity (God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit) is hierarchical, and that the eternal submission of Jesus to the Father and of the Spirit to Jesus and the Father is the model for men and women in the family and in the church. If patriarchy in home and church can be tied to patriarchy in the Trinity, so the argument would suggest, then any claims for equality between men and women would be forever rendered illegitimate.

The Councils of Nicaea (325 CE) and Chalcedon (451 CE) established that the equality of the Father, Son, and Spirit is orthodox Christian theology. So it is remarkable that the folks making the argument that patriarchy in home and church is analogous to patriarchy in the Trinity are the same folks who are allegedly obsessed with maintaining the “fundamentals of the faith.” That they are so willing to flirt with what has traditionally been defined as heresy so as to keep women in their place seems dramatic evidence of the threat that feminism poses to fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

Perhaps, just perhaps, such theological desperation is an indication that evangelical women who want gender equality in home and church may someday get their wish.