Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Palin for VP

This article caught my attention. It's an issue I've long pondered as a woman and as a leader in the church.

The Palin predicament

The pick of Sarah Palin as Republican vice presidential nominee is both a political event and a cultural one. Politically, it energized the Republican convention, solidified the Christian right's support for John McCain and introduced a forceful new personality into American politics. Culturally, it triggered discussions of issues ranging from special-needs children to mothers' roles to teen pregnancy.

I want to focus on the cultural rather than the political here, and turn attention to the potential impact of the Palin pick on the internal life of the conservative Christian community that seems to support her so ardently. I write as a moderate evangelical Christian.

It is an uncomfortable fact that many of the theologically conservative Christians who have endorsed Palin's nomination would not be willing to endorse her or any other woman for service as pastor of their church. Women cannot serve as pastors in groups such as the Churches of Christ, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, most non-denominational Bible churches, and an influential advocacy group called the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW).

Actually, at the local church level many congregations would not accept Palin or any other woman even as associate pastor, or deacon, or youth minister or Sunday school teacher in a gender-mixed classroom. The most conservative would not consider it appropriate for her to stand behind a pulpit and preach a sermon, or teach from the Bible, or lead a praise chorus, or offer a prayer, unless her audience consisted entirely of women or children.

These same conservative Christians who agree with Palin's political views and are thrilled by the idea of her serving just one heartbeat away from the presidency would argue that it would be inappropriate for her to exercise leadership in her marital relationship at home. Instead, as the CBMW says, she should "grow in willing, joyful submission to (her husband's) leadership." Many of the conservative Christian leaders who have so warmly endorsed the nomination of Palin, mother of five with a grandchild on the way, have spent most of their careers arguing that the primary responsibility of women is to tend to their homes and families.

The CBMW, which includes many of the Christian right's notable figures among its supporters, has for 20 years expressed concern about "widespread ambivalence regarding the values of motherhood (and) vocational homemaking" and about the "increasing promotion given to feminist egalitarianism."

The groundbreaking nomination presents exceptionally significant opportunities for a rethinking of the role of women in the large conservative evangelical community of which she is a member. The woman who in her acceptance speech said, "This is America, and every woman can walk through every door of opportunity," implicitly challenges the closed doors to church leadership that women encounter in thousands of American churches.

For nearly 40 years, conservative Protestants have displayed considerable hostility to the women's movement. Their leaders have sought to preserve a pre-1960s vision of the relationship between men and women and their respective roles. Citing a range of biblical texts, such as 1 Timothy 2:11-12, which appears to forbid women from teaching or having authority over men in church, and Ephesians 5:22-33, which calls on women to be subject to their husbands, conservative evangelical pastors and scholars have argued for a God-given hierarchy in the roles of men and women.

One standard articulation of this view says God's plan is for men to serve as godly leaders in home and church, and for women to accept a complementary role in voluntary submission to male authority. The man is the head of the household and family, though the woman plays the key role in providing primary care to their children.

As a corollary, only men are supposed to serve as pastors of churches or in other offices of religious authority, though the specifics of prohibitions on women's roles have varied by church and denomination. Some denominations, theologians and pastors have argued that women can serve in certain leadership positions in the church as long as they are under the ultimate authority of a male pastor-leader, while others are more restrictive. Learned theologians debate the details of these limits in books by well-known evangelical leaders such as John Piper and Wayne Grudem. More moderate and progressive evangelicals tend to reject such limits on the role of women, as I do, but this discussion of what women can and cannot be permitted to do in church is an ongoing feature of the internal life of conservative evangelicalism.

Never have conservative evangelicals positioned themselves as staunch advocates for women's leadership in political life — until Sarah Palin.

It seems only fair to ask these evangelical leaders to think a bit about the implications of their support for Palin. And so I ask them these questions:

•Is it now your view that God can call a woman to serve as president of the United States? Are you prepared to renounce publicly any further claim that God's plan is for men rather than women to exercise leadership in society, the workplace and public life? Do you acknowledge having become full-fledged egalitarians in this sphere at least?

•Would Palin be acceptable as vice president because she would still be under the ultimate authority of McCain as president, like the structure of authority that occurs in some of your churches? Have you fully come to grips with the fact that if after his election McCain were to die, Palin would be in authority over every male in the USA as president?

•If you agree that God can call a woman to serve as president, does this have any implications for your views on women's leadership in church life? Would you be willing to vote for a qualified woman to serve as pastor of your church? If not, why not?

•Do you believe that Palin is under the authority of her husband as head of the family? If so, would this authority spill over into her role as vice president?

•Do you believe that women carry primary responsibility for the care of children in the home? If so, does this affect your support for Palin? If not, are you willing to change your position and instead argue for flexibility in the distribution of child care responsibilities according to the needs of the family?

The nomination of Palin offers conservative Christian leaders the chance to rethink an archaic theological vision that wounds millions of devout Christian women and restricts the full exercise of their gifts. This is an unexpected gift from presidential candidate John McCain to evangelical Christianity. May Sarah Palin flourish in her new role, and may she open many new doors for evangelical women in America.

David P. Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta.

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