Christians carry implicit gender bias from Bible into public life

So far, I haven’t been very committed to reigniting my church search -- my main excuse is inability to adjust my schedule to 11 a.m. services when I had gone to 8 a.m. services in Kentucky for so long -- so I look for spiritual revelations for this column and for my life from other sources. When I checked The "Diane Rehm Show" website for a list of recent shows, I thought for sure I would find my inspiration for the week in her interview with former U.S. Sen. John Danforth about his new book, The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics. Well, I’m inspired, but not in the way I expected.

I wrestle with the concept of worship outside of the sanctuary for Christians. How do you live your faith, in every aspect of your life? Should Christians’ personal interpretations of their faith influence their decisions when they are in positions of authority over others, and especially government authority? Even though I believe, for example, that Christ’s compassion for the poor should be a guide for Christians making decisions on the federal budget, I was with Danforth in the first 24 minutes of the interview. I agree that people of faith (and for the purpose of this column, Christians specifically) should not use government as a means to impose on other people what they think is God’s will. “I think that to say that there's a religious answer to a political problem is wrong,” Danforth said.

But the impossibility of ignoring something that for many people has been ingrained since childhood showed in Danforth’s response to a listener’s question about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Danforth, who mentioned in the interview that he is Episcopalian, talked about his friendship with Thomas and described him as “a kind and decent human being.” Danforth said he was “proud that I had some role in his past.”

The past included Anita Hill. Danforth believes, to this day, that she lied about allegations of sexual harassment against Thomas. All of Danforth’s sympathy was for his friend Clarence. His friend’s reputation was the one on the line. His friend was the one put on trial without the normal due process to protect him. His friend, the man, was the one “in agony,” who thought that “everything that he had worked for his entire life was just being trashed, was being destroyed.” He heard Hill’s testimony, but not in person. He only went to the confirmation when his friend Clarence testified.

I turned the interview off, and not just because, based on everything I know of him to have said inside and outside the court, I think Clarence Thomas is a sad poster-child for internalized white supremacy. I had to stop listening because Danforth’s position on Anita Hill reminded me too much of Christianity’s well-accepted and under-noticed misogyny.

A couple of weeks before Danforth’s interview, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks discussed with Diane Rhem her recently released book, The Secret Chord, a novel based on the biblical story of King David’s life and rule. I was struck by her desire to approach the story of David and Bathsheba from the woman’s point of view. Every reader of this column is probably familiar with the story: King David sees Bathsheba -- a woman married to a soldier off fighting a war that David has stayed home from -- taking a bath on her rooftop. He likes what he sees, has her brought to the palace, and sometime after she returns home, she sends word to the king that she is pregnant. I’ve heard the interaction between David and Bathsheba called an affair, a booty call, and adultery. I’ve heard ministers ask, “If you’re going to take a bath, why do you do it on the roof in plain view of the king’s palace?” and say that David knew Bathsheba was married, but she knew she was, too. All suggest consent. All suggest two people at fault. But only one makes it to the so-called “Faith Hall of Fame” in Hebrews 11. Only one is remembered as someone “after God’s own heart.” Only one is believed. Only one person has his story told.

As a listener on that same show stated, women in the Bible “are often painted as temptresses and the purveyors of sin, instead of people.” And when they are not, they are often silent, supporting actors, or collateral damage. What might Job’s wife say about losing all her children in a cosmic battle she had nothing to do with? Why did Queen Vashti refuse to appear before King Xerxes? What if all the young widows who Paul accused of running from house to house spreading gossip were just lonely and went from house to house but didn’t say anything at all?

What if, when Danforth was a U.S. Senator, he evaluated proposed bills not as a Christian who wanted to impose God’s will on others, but as a decent human being and God-fearing man who had heard esteemed biblical men’s stories most of his life? Who never considered Bathsheba’s or Vashti’s perspective? Who never thought to ask, “Why doesn’t Job’s wife have a name?”

These are the teachings most Christians carry with them into every situation. Like the implicit biases normally associated with how humans involuntarily interact with one another based on race, these teachings also, as the Kirwan Institute explains, “affect our understanding, actions, and decisions” about gender in an unconscious manner. Even if we don’t consciously think that it’s God’s will for women’s rights to be more regulated because God sees them as sinful seductresses or silent extras, we always find a way to demonstrate how we feel, and we show how we feel in the way we live out our faith.

[Mariam Williams is a Kentucky writer living in Philadelphia and pursuing MFA in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden. She is a contributor to the anthology Faithfully Feminist and blogs at Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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