Jimmy Carter: The words of God do not justify cruelty to women

Jimmy Carter

Former US president Jimmy Carter published an op-ed piece in the Observer (UK) earlier this week about the relationship between women and religion. In it, Carter calls on religious leaders to promote the "dignity and equality" of women. Cartner does not, however, come out against the major religions or their holy books as misogynistic. Instead, he just claims that some leaders are just taking "carefully selected" verses to promote an agenda.

I did not know this, but Carter left the Southern Baptists about 10 years ago because they refused to recognize the equality of women. So it seems like this is a very important issue to him. I found a piece in Salon.com entitled "Jimmy Carter: How religion subjugates women", but I think this headline is a little misleading. It’s not an anti-religion piece, but it does bring up some important points that religious leaders will hopefully consider.

Here are some quotes from the article, and my thoughts. Carter says in the Observer

My decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be "subservient" to their husbands […] This was in conflict with my belief – confirmed in the holy scriptures – that we are all equal in the eyes of God.

I admire the fact that Carter doesn’t believe women should be subjugated to men, and it’s true that some parts of the Bible say women should be equal, including the Galatians 3:28 quote he includes at the beginning of his op-ed (along with a quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights , attempting to show it and the Bible go hand-in-hand I assume). However, as The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible points out many other parts of the Bible where women are denigrated, including verses where women are subjugated to men, such as Genesis 3:16 ("he shall rule over thee", King James Version).

Additionally, the first creation account, in Genesis 1, does tend to indicate equality, but the second starting in Genesis 2 does not. Carter is right that Christian leaders sometimes use "carefully selected verses" to further repressing women, but you also have to carefully select your verses to find ones that promote equality. That’s why I feel his statement is somewhat misleading (although not inaccurate), making it sound like the anti-feminist verses in the Bible are hard to find, when they’re not. I’m sure he feels he’s justified in doing this sleight of hand though saying which verses he believes personally (meaning he must not believe the Bible is inerrant) to try to stop religious people from oppressing women.

I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive area to challenge.

Very true, but as leaders they are supposed to "lead", right? Sometimes you have to pick your battles, but I think ensuring equality for women is not a battle you pick if you’re in power, it’s a battle you have to fight for the majority of your constituents. Women are half or more than half of the population in nearly every country.

The Elders have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights. We have recently published a statement that declares: "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."

I think this is an excellent statement. It’s something that both theists and non-theists can get behind.

I understand that the carefully selected verses found in the holy scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. […] During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted holy scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.

Again, his heart may be in the right place, but he’s not being completely truthful here. While I’ve read that there are indications that the Bible was tampered with (including the end of Luke I posted about earlier), there’s nothing I’ve read that indicates 4th century leaders rewrote Genesis to make it sound like Eve caused original sin, that she should be subjugated, and a host of other verses that indicate that God (or the leaders writing about him at the time) clearly discriminated against women.

The pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world […] is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God.

I’m not going to refute all of these, but as you may suspect, all of these figures also have times where they do not treat "all the children of God" equally. Moses kills entire races of people under God’s command, Paul tells women to be silent in church, etc. Some anti-feminist verses may be later manipulations, but they can’t all be, can they?

If there are widespread additions, deletions, or changes throughout the Bible on what would seem to be a fundamental issue like whether or not women should be equal to mean, then how can you tell what God wants in the Bible at all? The Bible would seem to be so untrustworthy as to be useless. A better explanation is that the Bible, and other holy books, are not divinely inspired, they were written by men (regardless of the century) who generally wanted to oppress women, with a few dissenters who squeaked in there.

So while Jimmy Carter should be applauded for actively supporting women’s rights and trying to engage the religious community in this pursuit, I disagree with him making it seem like he is fully supported in this by the Bible, The Quran, etc. It is he who is carefully picking and choosing from the same overwhelmingly misogynistic religions that largely served to oppress women in the first place.