Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bachmann Candidacy reveals nature of "Complementarianism"


Apparently US Presidential Candidate Michele Bachmann is a card-carrying "submissive wife", an irony which is examined in this thought-provoking report, well worth a quick read for the issues it raises.

The backlash against feminism is one of the defining features of contemporary evangelical Christianity. For those on the conservative end, it has become almost a point of honour to say that you are not a feminist.  Some readers may be tempted to see this as a purely American phenomenon, but it remains a hot potato for the church in this country too. Even the Church of England is affected, as conservative evangelicals join the resistance to women bishops.  The difference between here and the States is that the public clout of US evangelicals brings the debate into the main political arena.

The resistance has been organised around the label of  "Complementarianism", a new label which describes a old belief. Complementarians, led by Wayne Grudem and the redoubtable John Piper, are so called since they reject the charge that they see women as inferior. Rather, women and men have complementary, but different, roles in marriage, and in the church. Anyone wanting a comprehensive account of their arguments can click here.  Piper's notion of "biblical womanhood" has become a rallying call for conservatives in the US, and is embraced by tens of thousands of women who proudly claim their primary calling to be a wife and a mother.

But what this means in practice is hard to understand when a woman like Michele Bachmann puts herself forward for election to the world's most powerful office.  The interviewer in our source was quite justified to ask her what it would actually mean for the President of The United States to submit to her husband. In order to get elected, will she have to convince her supporters that she won't take any decisions without her husband's approval? And if so, why doesn't she just cut out the middle-man and get him to run instead?

It's thoughts like this that show Complementarianism in a clear light.  There are a huge number of inconsistencies and unanswered questions around the Complementarian position.  Women can't teach in the church, but this doesn't they can't actually teach,just that they musn't have "teaching authority", something which is defined in a multiplicity of different ways by different churches.  Husbands have authority in the home, but this doesn't seem to preclude women making most of the decisions anyway. In any case, a wife only has to do what her husband says if he sticks to what is right and godly, which is a sensible provision but surely the mother of all get-out clauses.  And Complementarians, although social conservatives who instinctively feel that women's role is home-based, fight shy of coming out and saying that women shouldn't have authority in the workplace, or be politically active.  There are "degrees of clarity", "seasons of life", and other such factors which muddy the apparently clear waters.  See this blog post by John Piper where he admits that he would vote for Sarah Palin, even though she's a woman, if there was no acceptable man to vote for.

The fact is, that despite the reams written by Piper and Grudem on the subject, Complementarianism is less a theological viewpoint, more a banner around which the like-minded can rally. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. Nowhere is this more true than in the conservative evangelical world. Churches can have women leading worship, taking seminars, and running ministries, but as long as they broadcast the public line that teaching authority belongs to men, then they are accepted by their fellow conservatives who recognise them as their own. In the same way, it's OK for a woman to run for President, even though all the logic of Complementarianism says that she shouldn't, because she can command the rhetoric of "womanhood" and reassure her supporters that she belongs to their tribe. For supporters of Bachmann, as for Sarah Palin before her, it is their conviction that she is "one of us" that matters most, a conviction that curiously trumps any doubts raised by the plain fact that she is a woman.

The "Complementarian" view survives because its supporters believe that feminism threatens to destroy something they hold dear. The irony is that without feminism, there would be no prospect of a woman standing for high office, and no Michele Bachmann to champion their cause.


3 comments:

Ray Barnes said...

So presumably, if a married woman who is a willing party to this 'abomination' is either, deserted by her husband, or widowed, she should then actively seek another male under whose guidance (thumb), she could honourably continue to live her life.
Failing this, how could the poor defenceless creature survive and live up to the tenets of complementarianism?
Is America once again trying to lead us back into the middle ages?

Charlie said...

Hi Ray. It may well be that there are women who suffer like that as a result of this teaching. Although to be fair to Piper and his ilk, they do not advocate this (and of course a woman without a husband is free to make up her own mind!).

However my point is that powerful women like Bachmann do not allow their beliefs about gender to influence their behaviour too much, certainly not to the extent of affecting their careers.

Suem said...

Oh dear! When I read Piper it occurs to me that, if it wasn't for the fact that he and his ilk live in a largely secular democracy with all its checks and balances, they would implement a regime as exacting and barbaric as those we see under the Taliban in places such as Afghanistan. I honestly do think that, were they in a theocracy of their making, women would not be educated or allowed to work outside the home. They would very soon see this as entirely justifiable in the right circumstances!

As for Bachman, I blogged on her approach, saying that I think she is play acting at "submission" for political expediency to get the votes of her right wing Christian target.I guess both her and her husband are highly ambitious for her and suspect she is as hard as nails and runs her own ship, period!