The Receding Frontiers of Life: The Christian Right and the ‘Minefield’ of the Hobby Lobby Ruling

Last week, upon exiting the subway at Queen’s Park station, I was accosted by a handful of self-righteous individuals waving posters displaying graphic images of bloody fetuses, and handing out pamphlets containing anti-abortion information. This week, my newsfeed was filled with pieces on the American Supreme Court’s decision regarding Hobby Lobby, an American business which has argued that including contraception (deemed by Hobby Lobby to be abortifacient) in women employees’ health care coverage is a violation of the corporation’s religious freedom. Needless to say, the issue of women’s access to reproductive health care is STILL a contentious one, on both sides of the border.

Dublin abortion protest

Protesters demand action after Savita Halappanavar died as a result of being denied an abortion in Ireland in 2012. Photo source: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/nov/19/london-expert-irish-abortion-inquiry

A trend running through many of the pieces commenting on this Supreme Court decision is that the case presented by Hobby Lobby shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the science behind contraception. Why anyone would be surprised by this, I’m not sure. Evangelical Americans in the Christian Right have already thoroughly demonstrated their refusal to accept basic scientific principals. In fact, they rejoice in this kind of obdurate refusal to recognize scientific consensus through their denial of climate change, building a “creationist” museum with the explicit goal of ‘debunking’ evolution, and now by insisting that some contraceptives actually cause abortion.  (Note that the prevention of implantation of a fertilized egg is not abortion, as has been claimed. The fact that Evangelicals are now drawing the boundary line of the beginning of “life” this far back, to a not even implanted fertilized egg is frighteningly extremist).

Besides this delight in flaunting an outright denial of scientific principals, the Hobby Lobby case may also reveal information about the Christian Right’s fundamental goals which are less easily spotted. For decades, anti-abortion activists of the Christian Right have defended their activism by stating that at the heart of their actions is a valuing of life, and the interests of women. But this justification begins to look patchy when applied to the full spectrum of activist causes endorsed by these groups. In my recent encounter described above, one of the activists involved responded to my insistence on respecting women’s rights by asking me about the rights of the (supposedly female) fetus’s rights, whose photo she brandished so disrespectfully.

This activist’s statement is interesting in that it reveals some underlying assumptions involved in the rhetoric being deployed here. Underpinning the question she leveled at me is the idea that a female fetus’s rights trump those of a fully adult woman’s rights to control of her body, reproduction, and health care choices. This focus on the female fetus rather than the adult woman serves to illustrate the Christian Right’s refusal to accept sexual, adult females as deserving of human rights, and thus as fully human. (The title of an excellent blog covering issues of gender and sexuality in Evangelicalism clearly points to this as well: Are Women Human?).

Amanda Marcotte also calls attention to this style of rhetoric, pointing out that

“…it’s becoming increasingly fashionable on the right to portray women as inherently asexual beings who are being tricked by all this contraception into thinking they have to have sex, which allows them to argue that depriving women of reproductive rights is doing women a favor, by giving them an excuse to get out of that icky sex.”

This view of women portrays them as asexual, in need of protection of their innocence, and ignorant of the consequences of their actions, not to mention in need of having others (the State, the Church, Evangelical “sidewalk counsellors”) inform them (and even force them into) the ‘correct’ course of action in regards to decisions about their health care. The direct result of this view of women is to infantilize them.

Whether this is an explicit strategy, merely a coincidental outcome, or a revealing slip which pulls back the veil on the misogyny at the root of this worldview remains to be seen. It must be noted, however, that to inscribe a view of women as infantilized conveniently sets the stage for the further erosion of women’s rights on the basis that such inherently infantile women are incapable of making decisions pertaining to their own bodies and health care.

Sex educator Laci Green's response to the Hobby Lobby ruling.  Photo source: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152362978804213&set=a.284745684212.144562.221909329212&type=1&theater

Sex educator Laci Green’s response to the Hobby Lobby ruling.
Photo source: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152362978804213&set=a.284745684212.144562.221909329212&type=1&theater

Such a bald attack on women’s rights may just be a step too far. Several weeks ago, after the news of Elliot Roger’s misogyny fuelled shooting spree broke, women took to the internet to fight back against the refrain of the media which dismissed any analyses of the incident as misogynist by invoking the phrase ‘not all men.’ Twitter exploded with feminist responses in the form of the hashtag #yesallwomen, recounting thousands of women’s experiences of being harassed by men who believed they had a right to do so on the basis of their gender. In the wake of such a strong wave of feminist activism, perhaps the lingering memory of the extreme misogyny of Elliot Rogers will serve to illuminate the more subtle, but equally deadly misogyny of the recent Supreme Court ruling.*

The evidence is certainly mounting against the Christian Right, as it becomes abundantly clear that the activists of this movement are willing to use legal challenges, street harassment, public shaming, and even murder (see the case of Dr. Tiller) to prevent women from enjoying the equal rights we so deserve. What we are witnessing is the active, willful, unabashed suppression of women’s rights and a total disregard for women’s health. Now, if ever there was one, is certainly the time for a resurgence of feminist activism. Luckily, we just might be seeing signs of such an awakening.

 

 

*Those of us in Canada would also do well to take note, as the activists I encountered in Toronto demonstrate. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is an Evangelical belonging to the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, which maintains an anti-choice/anti-abortion stance (See http://www.cmalliance.org/about/beliefs/perspectives/abortion). Stephen Woodworth, Member of Parliament for Kitchener Centre riding, is openly anti-choice (see Motion 312: http://www.stephenwoodworth.ca/motion-312 ). These are merely two examples of many.

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In the Crosshairs of Conversion: Encounters with an Evangelical Driscollite

R: If you and your husband were asleep and a robber broke into your house who would go downstairs with the baseball bat?

Me: ….

These are the types of ludicrous questions you must answer on a regular basis if you should have the misfortune of being accosted by one of those die-hard Evangelicals. As I’ve written about before, I’ve had quite a bit of exposure to Evangelicals and Evangelical doctrine in my life, but the most frustrating experience by far involved a friend of mine who was an avid fan of Evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll. In fact, after several years of theological debate, the sexism, misogyny, and homophobia of R.’s doctrinal assertions became overwhelming and I decided to end our friendship.

The most frustrating aspect of trying to be friends with an Evangelical is the feeling of being constantly in the crosshairs of conversion; I was a lost soul in need of ‘saving.’ We had numerous lengthy, pushy conversations in which he insisted, eerily sure of himself, that his narrow interpretation of Christianity was the only valid one, all the while completely oblivious to his blind theological arrogance and the condescension inherent in his assumed position of superiority. Eventually I came to realize that his main interest in speaking with me was not to cultivate a friendship based on shared interests or goals. Rather, he saw me primarily as a potential ‘convert.’ I began to realize that he spoke constantly to me as a salesperson would while making their sales pitch. In the end I was left feeling like a cheap piece of soul-meat, whose only value was in adding a notch to R.’s ‘conversion belt.’

If I’m speaking in sexual metaphors, it is because Mark Driscoll and his followers are completely obsessed with sex and sexuality. It is at the core of his teachings, and the views on gender which have grown out of this obsession are precisely what make his ideas are so damaging and abhorrent. It is also why his ideas appeal so strongly to young, white men feeling insecure as a consequence of the rapidly shifting meanings attached to masculinity in our society. When I asked R. about his views on women, he was full of opinions. I cited a Bible verse famous within feminist circles as one of my main concerns with Evangelical views of women’s roles in society:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing (1 Timothy 2:11-15, NIV).

Contrary to my expectations, R. did not deny that women’s proper role was a submissive one. Rather, he embraced this idea with a certain unrepentant zeal. When prompted, he elaborated a whole philosophy revolving around this concept, revealing a central tenet of his Driscoll-infused faith. Since R. had recommended Mark Driscoll’s sermons and articles to me many times, I eventually caved to my curiosity and visited the website of Mars Hill Church where Driscoll preaches as head pastor. What I found there was mind boggling in its arrogant and blatant embrace of misogynistic theology.

Beyond the sleek design of the webpages, and the feel-good mumbo jumbo about “resurgence” and “leadership,” the most painfully apparent aspect of Driscoll’s teaching on gender is that women, as independent beings, cannot exist. Within the Mars Hill doctrine, women only “count” as they relate to men who hold some measure of authority over them (fathers, husbands, pastors, Jesus, God).

A particularly good example of this way of thinking discusses “options for godly single women.” Throughout Driscoll’s writing, being a single woman is assumed to be a horrible fate. He even goes so far as to say that if you are a single woman you will have feelings of “shame, isolation, and despair.” He compares singleness to “a club for Satan to beat you with over, and over, and over, and over…” In outlining his views on the “options” facing single women, Driscoll first assumes that you can only be a godly woman if you want a husband. He warns of the dire consequences of casually dating, “sleeping around” (translation: participating in any sexual activity that is not within the bounds of a heterosexual, legally and religiously sanctioned marriage) and moving in with a partner (all things that the vast majority of the population do and/or have no problem with). Driscoll screeches that in following this path of normalcy “you will eventually come to feel horrible for what you have done and miserable in the world you live.” (As you can see, encouraging healthy self-esteem in his congregation isn’t really Mark Driscoll’s ‘thing’ to put it nicely).

The solution according to Driscoll? Contradictorily, “worship a God who was single.” If you weren’t already terrified of Satan beating you with your singlehood, Driscoll completes his one-two punch by vaguely citing ‘some polls’ that suggest that “the odds are not in favour of godly single women.” Driscoll’s technique is to berate and beat the self-esteem out of his congregants himself, first by insisting that to be single is necessarily a state of despair and misery, then by swooping in with a dose of “only I can save you through my specific doctrine” propaganda.

Going further down the rabbit hole, I stumbled upon an article Driscoll had written on the topic of appropriate ways for the husband to “handle disagreements with his wife.” This gem of marital counselling discussed how a husband should “pray and discuss with your wife. Be patient. Wait for her to come around. Appeal to a higher authority (pastor/counselor). If the matter is pressing and/or a decision cannot be reached, the husband must decide. His wife should submit to the decision” (emphasis added). Notice here, the total absence of the word “compromise.” In Driscoll’s ideal marriage, there are no equal partners with valid concerns and needs, conducting themselves with mutual respect. The woman’s opinion simply doesn’t matter. Essentially, Driscoll’s technique boils down to waiting for the woman to “come around.” Besides the obviously insulting nature of this quote, it also demonstrates that in Mars Hill Church women are automatically wrong in every case, not to mention lacking the intelligence to contribute meaningfully to decision making processes, and having no important or valid needs themselves. If she does not “come around” Driscoll insists that the woman should be forced to comply with her husband’s will. If she resists, the husband has every right to bully her into submitting through capitalizing on his alliance with other powerful men. The woman is always wrong and the man is always right.

Far from being the “best kind of marriage,” Driscoll’s ideal of “Christian Complementarianism” in which wives submit to their husbands sounds more like glorified indentured servitude than anything resembling romantic love. In a hilariously entitled clip, “MARS HILL LOVES WOMEN” (excessive capitalization in original), Driscoll falls back on the old trope of insisting that women can only achieve through men (their husbands, male children or Jesus). She cannot achieve greatness, unless it is through her submission to God. This dynamic is taken as a template for marriage, implying that women can only be considered worthwhile humans in the act of submitting to God’s will through the proxy of her husband, and through her role as a mother. Driscoll’s angrily regressive views on gender roles shines through in a talk he gave with his wife in which they claim that being a stay at home father is “worse than being an unbeliever.” In case you had any doubts left as to the misogyny comprising the bedrock of Driscoll’s theology, there’s also some good old fat shaming thrown in.

After confronting R. with the material I found on the Mars Hill website he had enthusiastically recommended to me, I began to understand just how deep this worldview permeates. R. was evangelizing to me; he was fulfilling the central duty of an Evangelical’s life. For him and other Evangelicals, people are not potential friends, they are potential converts. As a result, non-Evangelical perspectives and opinions are not taken seriously, and are trampled in a rush of over-inflated confidence and intolerance.

Others have pointed out how powerful and dangerous a force Mark Driscoll is. His influence is spreading throughout Evangelical churches in North America. Many people have written publicly about their negative experiences within and while trying to leave Mars Hill Church. A substantial online community of people who have either chosen to leave Mars Hill or have been forced out are now sharing their stories of spiritual bullying, harassment, and campaigns of intimidation waged against them by church leadership. Many of them refer to Mars Hill as a cult.

In the end, I knew how to respond to R.’s alternating pandering and pushiness. And if any Evangelical attempts to draw me into their conversion snare again, I have an answer ready. I will insist that I am not chattel, to be passed from the ownership of one man (father) to another (husband) through the most archaic form of the institution of marriage. That I will not believe in a god that tells me to submit to a man because he is my superior by definition. I refuse to worship a being that silences me and tells me that I am an inferior creature by nature of my womanhood; I refuse to allow one person to usurp control of every aspect of my life, just because I am a woman.

And no woman should.

The Past Never Dies: An Anthropologist’s Reflections on Modern Evangelical Missionary Literature

I grew up attending a church where a large world map was displayed in the lobby. Brightly coloured push pins with strings marked the locations where missionary families from the church were currently stationed. We sang songs in Sunday school with lyrics like “I’m in the Lord’s army” and “Onwards Christian soldiers.” We spoke about “conquering souls.” Embedded within this ideology are unabashed echoes of colonialism, which I believe need to be called into question.

Onwards Christian Soldier Map

I came across a perfect example of the material manifestation of this ideology just a few days ago. I was reading a newsletter from a family member of mine who lives and works as an evangelical missionary in Sub-Saharan Africa (because I have not asked permission, and I highly doubt they would grant it, given the tone of this piece, I have neglected to link to the newsletter or mention the specific country this relative operates in). For those who don’t have missionary relatives or friends, it is common practice for missionary families to write regular newsletters detailing their exploits, with reports on their successes/struggles, requests for prayers on specific issues, and updates on how each member of the family is doing, often including photographs. More recently, missionaries have taken to creating these newsletters electronically and distributing them online through emails or social media networks. The newsletter I read was perfectly representative of this trend and was scattered with photographs of the African people with whom my relatives work.

However, it was the captions on these photos which raised some questions for me. Strangely vague captions such as “Vadoma lady & baby in clinic” and “Bemba people” (group names have been changed to preserve anonymity) immediately brought to mind photos from old Evans-Pritchard ethnographies (a colonial anthropologist who worked in British controlled Sudan). When my missionary relatives appeared in these photos, they were identified by name. This style of description is a direct descendant of earlier anthropological and colonial literature. I wonder if the people photographed were asked for permission to use their images? Surely the authors are aware of the people’s names – why not include them in an effort to portray the subjects in a more humanizing light? The effect of this type of captioning is to dehumanize the subjects of the photography, and to portray them as part of an anonymous mass of poor, racialized people, neatly opening up the line of logic which leads to a racist, colonial, and imperialistic ‘White Man’s Burden’ style philosophy.

whitemansburden

If my criticisms sound strongly worded, I should mention that I speak from the perspective of someone who has intimate, personal experiences with evangelical missionaries. I have many relatives who conduct missionary work in foreign countries, an “MK” (slang for missionary kid) parent who was raised in the “mission field,” and grandparents and great-grandparents that devoted their life’s work to evangelical missionary activities. Several of my great-grandparents’ children died of tropical diseases while in the mission field. But not only are the effects on the people with whom these missionaries work dubious, I have personally seen the negative effects the decision to participate in these activities can have on the missionaries’ lives themselves. I’m not the only one.

With that said, the colonial mentality behind these photographs and the accompanying newsletter is clear. The idea that one belief system, nay – one interpretation of one belief system, is superior to all others and must be propagated “for other peoples’ own good” is inherently arrogant. The concomitant goal of the obliteration of all other forms of spirituality only serves to emphasize the damaging implications of this ideology. In not allowing for the validity of other spiritual paths, and in actively seeking to destroy other ways of being spiritual (including indigenous modes of spirituality) evangelical missionary work reveals its underlying bigotry, not to mention a twisted form of intellectual and spiritual tyranny.

As a Canadian, I cannot help but think of the devastating consequences of missionary activity among indigenous peoples in my home country. The horrors of residential schools including the rape, physical, sexual, cultural and psychological abuse of indigenous children by priests and other religious figures cannot be dissociated from these practices. Anthropologists have long been critical of our own historical complicity in the colonial endeavour. As someone who occupies both positions (as an anthropologist and member of an evangelical missionary family) I would like to suggest that we do some soul searching pertaining to these ideological roots in evangelical missions as well. Aren’t these historical records an indication that we should examine current missionary work with a critical eye? That perhaps the past should give us pause?

The truly unfortunate (and heart-breaking) aspect of all this is that often people who participate in evangelical missionary work are genuine and well-meaning. (And please don’t misinterpret me – I am in full support of religious freedom; that is the very reason why I oppose these types of colonizing mentalities in which privileged foreigners set up shop in someone else’s country with the explicit goal of convincing people there that their cultural practices are ‘wrong’). I write about these issues from personal experience which has led me to believe that these missionaries and their supporters truly, whole-heartedly believe the merit of these endeavours, and endure great personal sacrifices to enact them.

Unfortunately, voices like mine are often drowned out in the evangelical missionary collective conversation, through in-built devices within the ideology that view any form of criticism as a sure sign that they are on the right path. If you bring these issues up, you are often met with a response along the lines of “Christ warned that his followers would be persecuted.” Rather than taking an honest look at the history and effects of their work, they cover up these arguments in a shroud of upside down logic, often citing 2 Timothy 3:12: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Jesus Christ will be persecuted” (ESV).

To be fair, there is a huge difference in the actions of a person who is motivated by their personal faith to help others and those with the explicit goal of converting others to that faith while using apparent “helping” activities as a prop/cover. I want to make clear that in voicing these criticisms I am attacking an ideology, not the people who subscribe to it. I implore evangelical missionaries to take a good, hard look at some of the underlying tenets of this ideology as it pertains to missionary activity. Instead of brushing aside criticism through ideological sleight of hand, let’s identify shared values. Let’s critically and honestly look at our histories. Let’s look at the root causes of underdevelopment in formerly colonized countries and seek to acknowledge those injustices. Let’s advocate reparations and redistribution, not condescending “help” laced with religious intolerance, bigotry, and arrogance.