Former president Jimmy Carter and other world leaders issued this statement: “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.” What’s your reaction to these statements? Are ‘male interpretations of religious texts’ to blame for the ‘deprivation of women’s equal rights?’
Jimmy Carter should be praised for his condemnation of patriarchy and for calling attention to the hegemony that males have exercised over the interpretation of scripture in many religious traditions. But Carter has a fundamentalism of his own that manifests itself in some unexpected ways.
In the full text of his letter, Carter makes a distinction between the “eternal truths” of religion that affirm the equality of men and women and “carefully selected verses” of scripture that justify the superiority of men. Carter emphasizes his point with the observation that doctrines that privilege men “owe more to time and place.”
But all serious students of scripture understand that “time and place” are essential parts of the message. Indeed, the scandal of Christianity is the historical specificity inherent in its claim that a Jewish carpenter was uniquely the Son of God. Of course, Carter himself uses a historically specific lens through which to view scripture. While notions of equality and human rights might seem second nature to many of us, they are not just abstractions from ancient religious texts, but the intellectual products of modernity.
Another view would argue that since all religious texts are situated so firmly in their own historical context, a discernment of their meaning evolves over time. For this reason, many religious traditions have authoritative interpreters or interpretative bodies that weigh varying interpretations of texts and the doctrines derived from them. What matters then is the interpretative frame for understanding scripture and its often divergent claims. In fact, this is what Carter is doing when he refers to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a touchstone for evaluating the treatment of women.
Carter begins his letter with a series of Bible verses that we should take literally, yet he dismisses other passages that seemingly conflict with the principles he believes to be so fundamental. But the question remains how to deal with scripture in its totality. As I read his letter, it strikes me that Carter still wishes to affirm the inviolability of scripture. Conflicting messages or divergent claims are not an integral part of the text as it stands. If this is indeed Carter’s implicit point, then he is intellectually closer to his fundamentalist opponents than he might be willing to admit.
Carter’s own fundamentalism is most clearly expressed in his fixation on a particular understanding of the word “discriminate.” If discrimination is taken to mean the act of making distinctions then this is precisely what scripture is supposed to do. Of course, Carter’s argument is that inequality is an inevitable result of discrimination. With regard to the treatment of women, everything I have learned tells me to agree with Carter’s assessment of the position of women in Christianity and other religious traditions. Not only is it clear that various male elites have reserved scriptural interpretations to themselves, but it is also undeniable that various understandings of gender “difference” have, more often than not, meant “inferiority” in practice.
My training in Comparative Religions has also taught me that gender itself is a rather nebulous or problematic category when seen cross-culturally–a recognition that can sometimes stand in tension with the assumptions of my own Catholic tradition. Having said this, it is also clear that conflating difference and inequality under the category of discrimination owes more to our own time and place. The question remains whether nuanced understandings of male and female differences can be integrated into a religious vision that also affirms mutual equality. Many religious traditions claim to be doing exactly this and Jimmy Carter would presumably challenge such claims. The difficulty is whether he would substitute an equally restrictive religious vision that has no room for difference and diversity in its advocacy of the fundamental value of equality.