Righting America

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Troubling Histories: Feminism, Science, and Evangelical Commitments | Righting America

by Patrick Thomas

Today’s post comes from our colleague Patrick Thomas. Last year, Patrick organized a series of posts on observational and historical science, authored by our colleagues in the University of Dayton natural sciences departments. Below, Patrick draws connections between those earlier discussions of creation science and more recent posts on feminism in evangelical culture.

For the last two months, the topic of feminism in evangelical culture has been a prevalent one on the Righting America blog, and I’ve been hoping to enter that conversation for some time.  In part, I’m interested in this conversation because of the work I did to organize the Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference at which Bill & Sue Trollinger presented. In part I’m interested because I found Dr. Emily McGowin’s post – in which she explains the eternal subordination of the Son as a most contemporary iteration of evangelicalism’s response to feminist thought – particularly enlightening for understanding the degree to which evangelical leaders are threatened by feminism. Through the notion of eternal subordination, McGowin explains, “not only is male headship rooted in God’s design for creation, but it’s also rooted in God’s triune nature.”

Both the Trollingers and McGowin point out that the rhetorical shifts of the evangelical anti-feminist stance are contemporary responses to 20th and 21st century feminisms, social movements that pose great concern to evangelicals.  To an outsider to evangelical culture like myself, what’s most striking about the way evangelicals embed a patriarchal structure into the triune nature of god is not just the way that such a rhetorical shift ignores the Biblical literalism upon which so much of contemporary evangelical rhetoric maintains its position. It is not just the way that this rhetorical shift ignores human history altogether. It is not just that, as Dr. McGowin rightly points out, “despite Christ’s own teachings and pattern of life, the Christian tradition has often failed to affirm the full humanity of women. It should come as no surprise…that evangelicals are looking for more sophisticated arguments for women’s subordination today.”

What is most surprising to me, especially after reading McGowin’s helpful explanation, is that I couldn’t help but think: haven’t I heard this somewhere before?

It is striking how much the evangelical response to feminism mirrors the evangelical response to scientific inquiry (especially inquiry leading to evidence opposing a young earth). For example: both responses

  • explain that it is because of original sin that humans fail to understand the divine design,
  • ignore the efforts of thousands of years of human inquiry,
  • and aim to confirm foregone conclusions.

More importantly, despite the evangelical claim – rooted in Biblical literalism – that True Doctrine is unchanging, both require revision over time.

For feminism, the notion of eternal subordination of the Son is the latest revision to evangelical beliefs about patriarchal social relations. As Dr. McGowin summarizes,

“First, patriarchy was a consequence of the Fall. Then, patriarchy was interpreted as central to God’s original creative design…in recent decades, patriarchy has been reinterpreted (by some) as rooted in God’s triune nature.” 

For scientific inquiry, the revision is observational science, or the idea that credible scientific data is limited to that which “involves . . .  observation, using one or more of our five senses (taste, sight, smell, hearing, touch) to gain knowledge about the world and to be able to repeat observations”  (Ken Ham, The Lie, 47) because “No living scientist was there to observe the big band that is supposed to have occurred 15 billion years ago” (Ken Ham, The Lie, 47). As we have pointed out numerous times (like here and here), observational science obscures scientific evidence that opposes a young earth by rendering it unreliable.  Yet, as the Trollingers point out in Righting America at the Creation Muesum (and elsewhere on this blog), much of the scientific data presented at the Creation Museum fails to meet the evangelical metric of “observational science” (Righting America at the Creation Museum, 88-94).

It is troubling that the kind observational science evangelicals advocate has yet to be operationalized in the ways that evangelicals claim that it functions. Equally troubling is that by rendering historical science invalid because it is “in the past,” evangelicals rely on a conception of science that is contradictory: observational science posits that the only valid scientific evidence stems from human observation, yet humans are inherently unreliable (i.e., sinful) observers.

The evangelical response to feminism similarly ignores history to such a point that it wavers on the edge of Christian orthodoxy. As the Trollingers point out:

“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 allegedly obsessed with maintaining the “fundamentals of 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.”

In other words, the shift in evangelicals’ anti-feminist stance signals the degree to which they are willing to compromise their seemingly unwavering beliefs – the True Doctrine – in an attempt to re-assert hegemonic authority. By ignoring Church history and their own epistemic commitment to Biblical inerrancy, the evangelical anti-feminist stance relies on yet another contradictory position: for all the claims of commitment to Biblical literalism, there is no literal way to read the triune nature of God, certainly not one that allows us to spell out in literal terms the eternal subordination of the Son.

Tracing the congruencies between the evangelical stances toward feminism and science reveals a troublesome rendering of evangelicals: that it is more important to assert righteousness in the present than maintain connection with the history of their own doctrine. Given the apparent contradictions and compromises to their own epistemic commitments, I’m hard pressed to see what beliefs, other than their own assuredness, evangelicals are fully committed to. A troubling result, indeed.

The similarities that evangelicals display in their approaches to feminism and science invite further exploration. I wonder what other similarities are available, and where else we might look to find these patterns in the logic of evangelicalism.