Authority: Feminism & the Church

When Trump was made President-elect, I wrote a post about how it was basically the left’s fault. The post was a provocation, more than anything else. Because I’m a Christian, I believe I’m morally obliged to be rigorously critical of Christianity as a whole. Partly that stems from the history of violence surrounding the church, but it also stems from the fact that self-examination helps you be less of a shit. I’m also left-wing, and a feminist, and I try to apply the same level of criticism to those areas of my life. The post about Trump was part of that process of criticism. I don’t think what I wrote was entirely true, but I do think the left has significant blind spots. My provocation was intended to highlight some of those areas. Today, with Trump’s recent inauguration, I thought I might look at certain parallels between feminism and Christianity. 

Obviously the two aren’t identical, and there are probably more differences than similarities. Also, despite any criticisms I might make, I do consider myself a feminist, and I do think that feminism does good things. You’ll appreciate the irony here: normally this is the sort of justification I end up making to Christians about the authenticity of my faith. This is perhaps the first similarity between the two – neither group seems to like criticism, and both groups seem to jump to the conclusion that you’re an ideological traitor (a heretic, even?) if you voice any dissent.

The idea of orthodoxy and heresy is really the heart of my comparison here. I’ll give you an example. I’m part of the local feminist FB page, and a little while back it imploded with an argument about whether or not trans women were ‘real’ women. Some feminists said they were, and others said they weren’t. Eventually the admins got involved, and after laying down orthodoxy (yes, they’re women if they want to be), those members who refused to conform were expelled from the group for heresy. It wasn’t called heresy, but I was struck by the functional similarities. Imagine if feminism was around 600 years ago – would the losing party have been burnt at the stake?

In the wake of the implosion, there were elegies for the lost. She’s been a feminist since you were naught but a babe; she’s organised and protested and fought for women’s rights – for your rights, in fact – since well before FB was even dreamed of. But she wasn’t orthodox, so out she went. Of course, the arguments for expulsion are well-travelled paths: these groups should be a safe place, non-intersectional feminism is no feminism at all. Without dismissing those arguments as invalid, we might note in passing how authoritarian they are. Heresy results in excommunication; non-standard beliefs are to be punished.

One of the things that annoys me about Christians is the implacable sense of self-righteousness. I despise their smug self-satisfaction, and cling in protest to the opposite traits of bitterness and wild insecurity. Here’s the thing – Christians believe in God, and they believe in righteousness. They perceive themselves as obedient and faithful – they see themselves as doing something genuinely authentically divine and just in exercising their faith. If you push me, I’m ultimately forced to admit that at base, I believe that too. If I didn’t believe that Jesus was literally God, if I didn’t believe that Christianity possessed special and exclusive knowledge about the true nature of the divine, there wouldn’t be any point to my faith. That said, I think the expression of the faith is often obnoxious, harmful, and (possibly worst of all) counter-productive.

Some of this obnoxious-ity clearly stems from the sense of self-righteousness that Christians feel. Look – again, the basis of being a Christian is committing to the belief that you’re doing something right and good. The problem is that the exclusivity of that belief promotes an oppositional attitude. I’ve talked about this with regard to the psalms. It’s us and them, the believers and the non-believers, the faithful and the blind. There are two key beliefs I’d like to highlight here: first, the belief that only Christians are good people (with its attendent belief that anybody who’s not Christian who’s doing good things is inadvertently being obedient to God). Second, the belief that Christianity is fundamentally and comprehensively correct, and that opponents, dissidents, and heretics are wrong and will be cast into the pits of hell. These are two Christian beliefs that, to me, appear to exist in some incarnation in feminist circles.

I should emphasise ‘in some incarnation’, because obviously there’s not a direct parallel. I don’t think that any feminist would claim feminism as a divinely ordained moral authority (unless they were Christian too, hurr hurr). However, I do think that most feminists (including myself) would rightly agree that feminism is fundamentally a good thing. It’s arguably a short step from there to comparable forms of the beliefs noted above: firstly, that people who aren’t feminist are either actively or passively supporting malevolent patriarchal structures, with the attendent belief that if somebody inadvertently acts in a feminist way without calling themselves a feminist, they’re actually a secret feminist; secondly, that feminism is fundamentally a good thing, and that opponents, dissidents, and heretics are actively undermining and obstructing gender equality. It’s the rationale for excommunicating heretics: God’s work needs doing, and anybody who gets in the way gets chucked.

I’ll round off by briefly reiterating what I said at the start. I am a feminist, and I do believe that feminism does good things. However, there are certain blind spots that concern me. I do suspect feminism is, on its bad days, authoritarian, insular, and generally a bit condescending. I think the same is blindingly true of the church. I’m also aware that those are all traits that exist in myself. I’m not claiming omniscience or papal infallibility – I’m just thinking that these next few years are going to be trying for feminism, and I’d like to think about our weaknesses before they compromise our strengths.

One comment

  1. I guess it depends on what sort of emphasis you were raised to believe is true. Some Christians can be interdenominational; that is, the Methodists, Baptists, and Lutherans can sit down to a meal at the same table and see themselves as members of a greater cause (followers of Christs’ teachings) and be united in that way even if they have differences in how it’s to be done. Similarly, feminists of all kinds might be united in that greater cause even though they have differences to go about it if they’re of the mind to do so. Granted, there are always some too far to one extreme or the other – the “my way or the high way” types that cannot compromise; but there are just as many out there who are willing to compromise if it benefits them to do so.


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