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The bench and the pulpit look backwards
As Southern Baptists push out women clergy, the Supreme Court has its own dubious old standards
Some say the pulpit is no place for a woman. There’s an echo of that in our politics. (Photo by Robert Linder on Unsplash)
When our home phone rang late in the evening, it usually meant that my father would have to go out because somebody needed him. Pop was a pastor, and I’m sure that his steady presence was a comfort to families in crisis — when a loved one was dying, perhaps, or a child was in trouble.
So I know something about pastoral care. I’ve watched its impact up close. In fact, the ministry is sort of the family business. Both of my grandfathers were clergy, and so were three uncles and at least four cousins.
Which is why you cannot tell me, as the Southern Baptist Convention is trying to claim, that women are unable to lead and provide pastoral care to faith communities. America’s largest Protestant denomination just kicked out two churches that are led by women pastors — because, the Baptist leaders say, the Bible demands it.
If you think this doesn’t matter to you because you’re not a Southern Baptist, let me offer another view: The reasoning that lies behind the Southern Baptists’ vote is exactly what powers right-wing politics in the United States, and it’s what underlies many decisions of our conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court. If you understand why the Southern Baptists ejected women-led churches, you’ll better grasp the culture wars that are rippling through the country, and the troubled state of American conservatism.
Understanding this requires a deeper dive into religion than most readers find comfortable, and with good reason. In a pluralistic society, we tend to keep talk of religion to ourselves, or discuss it only in the company of like-minded believers. But this religious matter has powerful secular implications, so bear with me. We need to talk about churches and scripture.
The Southern Baptist Convention has always been on the right end of American Christendom, but it has been pushed even further to the extreme in the past few years, since its leadership was seized by ultraconservatives. They insist on the inerrancy of scripture — that is, the view that there are no fables or metaphors in the Bible, and that every word of both the Old and New Testament is literally true and must be followed by all believers.
The Bible itself does not claim to be so authoritative. There’s a passage that almost makes the case in one of the epistles attributed to the apostle Paul, which asserts that “all scripture is inspired and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”But what “all scripture” meant at that writing isn’t what it means now: The list of the 66 books that became the Bible wasn’t fixed until the end of the 4th century, after a lot of dispute among early Christians — some of it brutal, like today’s pitched political battles. Scholars have for years imagined how different Christianity might be — and, thus, how different world history might have turned out — if some of the books, leaflets and letters that made the list had been omitted in favor of including others.
Even with scripture set in place for centuries, it wasn’t until the 19th and 20th centuries that the idea of inerrancy really took root.A couple of generations back, as modern church leaders tried to square scripture with science, they argued that the Bible shouldn’t be interpreted literally, a stance that brought fierce pushback from the right. By the 1960s, the conservative church seemed to be fighting a losing battle against the emerging liberalism of the time.
A huge gathering of evangelical leaders in 1978 issued a document known as The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. It declared that the Bible speaks with “infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches.” The idea was quickly embraced by the right-wing Christian forces that gained political strength during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, when the alliance of evangelical Christianity and the Republican party first took hold. While evangelical Christians are a minority in America, their influence it outsized, in part as a result of their concentration in areas of the country that, through the electoral college and the Senate, are granted extra clout by the Constitution.
Seen from the perspective of a biblical literalist, the action of the Southern Baptists is almost rational. In another letter attributed to Paul, early Christians are counseled that “as in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches.”And, in another place, similar views that today would be labeled misogynistic: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” (Here, my wife’s voice is ringing in my head: “Don’t try that stuff around here, buddy.” In fact, she might be even more emphatic.)
With that background, you can understand why the Southern Baptist statement of beliefs includes this: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” If you buy the proposition of inerrancy, you have to accept its consequences. God, the Southern Baptists seem to be saying, considers women unequal to the tasks of ministry.
At about the same time as scriptural inerrancy was emerging as a potent argument of the religious right, the legal community was witnessing the rise of a philosophy known as originalism. It was first articulated in a ground-breaking 1971 law journal article by Robert Bork, whose nomination 16 years later to the U.S. Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan was rejected by the Senate.
Originalism holds that the U.S. Constitution must be interpreted by judges based on an understanding of the original intent of the framers. Rather than a “living Constitution,” which embraces current thinking and social reality in court decisions, originalists argue that the nation must remain governed solely by the mindset of those who drafted the document in the late 18th century.
It was a fringe notion for years, but it gained strength with a series of Supreme Court appointments by Republican presidents — including Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia and, more recently, the three appointees of Donald Trump. In many major cases of recent years — such as overturning the right to an abortion, blocking state-enacted gun controls and throwing out campaign finance laws — the thread of originalism has permeated court decisions.
Even those of us who hold the framers of the Constitution in high regard, however, might argue that trying to figure out what they were thinking as they drafted the document is a fool’s errand. While they came together to support the creation of a strong federal state, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (to name just three of the 39 delegates who signed it) had differing goals as they moved the Constitution forward. What were they thinking? That’s not always clear.
What is apparent, though, is that advocates see two benefits to originalism: It offers the comfort of an authoritative standard in a time of uncertainty, and it enables conservative judges to push back against contemporary assertions of rights on such issues as voting and race.
Originalism is to law, then, what biblical inerrancy is to Christian faith: It is a way to fight back against a world that is changing too fast for conservatives.
It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that there are similar forces at work in a conservative religious denomination and a conservative court. Just as the Southern Baptists grasp for an authoritative standard that enables them to resist the march of modernity, the nation’s high court is basing its decisions on an anti-liberal philosophy that its advocates present as the authoritative view of the nation’s charter.
But in applying those standards, both the religious zealots and the right-wing justices are intentionally turning away from reality. There is no rational argument for the notion that woman can’t lead a community of faith; indeed, a lot of research has suggested that women are more empathetic than men, which would help women in the pastoral role of caring for their flock. Nor can a view of U.S. Supreme Court history support the notion that the nation has fared better when the court has rejected contemporary reality in favor of a centuries-old view — such as when it ruled in Dred Scott, just before the Civil War, that a black person could not be a citizen, or in this century’s Citizens United decision that limits on political donations violate the First Amendment, which has had the effect of giving even greater power to moneyed interests over our elections.
It is the eager grasp for security that underlies both. Decades of psychological research into how conservatives and liberals react differently to circumstances — including brain imaging studies as well as behavioral surveys — confirms that uncertainty is upsetting to conservatives. As a Scientific American report on the research noted, “On the whole, the research shows, conservatives desire security, predictability and authority more than liberals do, and liberals are more comfortable with novelty, nuance and complexity.”
Yet history teaches us that security does not come by turning away from reality or from change. Southern Baptists are affirming the view that women are second-class citizens even as women are increasingly moving into positions of leadership in so many areas, including business, academia and government. The Supreme Court is focusing on 19th century standards even as such developments as the rise of artificial intelligence and the threat of climate change make it clear that the 21st century will present challenges unimaginable by the Constitution’s framers.
You can make a rational argument for the originalist view, as some very smart conservatives do, but there’s no excuse for the Southern Baptists’ decision to denigrate half the human race based upon a reading of some 2,000-year-old letters. It’s the kind of dumb fundamentalism that prompted my father to retire early from the ministry in the 1980s: He had grown so frustrated with the increasing rigidity of the church that he felt unable to honestly act as its advocate.
Toward the end of his days, Pop didn’t really have a church home. But he had a pastor — unsurprisingly, a family member, the oldest daughter of his brother. My cousin Ann, who attended seminary and was ordained in middle age, was serving a church nearby, so she was on hand to assure him repeatedly of his good place in God’s world. She brought him comfort as he lay dying.
Forgive me, then, if I seem to have little but contempt for those who would claim that she had no business doing that because she is a woman, and because some avowedly religious people are unable to transcend their narrow-minded piety.
2 Timothy 3:16
1 Corinthians 14:34-35
1 Timothy 2: 11-15
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