The Debate Continues: Evangelical Versus Secular Feminism

Speakers:

Gloria (Secular Feminist)

Sarah (Evangelical Egalitarian)

Abraham (Neo-Patriarch)

Moderator (Neutral)

Moderator: We now have before us three views of the relationship between men and women in society, church and family. It’s time to listen to what each of our speakers thinks of the others’ presentations. This evening evangelical egalitarian Sarah will respond to Gloria’s presentation of secular feminism.

Note: Gloria’s original statement was posted on Ron Highfield’s blog on December 3, 2016. You may wish to refer to the original as you read the critiques.

Three Points of Agreement Between Sarah and Gloria

Sarah: Thank you, Moderator, for the opportunity to reply to Gloria from an evangelical egalitarian perspective. I will begin with the places where I agree with Gloria’s presentation.

(1) In her opening paragraph, Gloria asserts the following principle:

 It is wrong everywhere, always, and for everyone to forbid a woman to do something she wants to do simply because she is a woman.

I agree wholeheartedly with Gloria. What motivation other than irrational prejudice could anyone have for disagreeing with this principle?

(2) I also agree that women’s experience serves as an important source of truth for constructing the ethics of gender relations. Because of their experience of oppression and abuse, women can see oppressive structures and abusive relationships to which men are blind. Even if men come to agree with the principle of equality, they need women to help them see specific areas where they are privileged.

(3) If male privilege is morally wrong, it stands to reason that any theory that justifies it is also wrong. Hence, for the most part evangelical egalitarians agree with Gloria’s call for reform:

Secular feminists demand that every tradition, ideology, theology, or philosophy that justifies male privilege be rejected as false, anti-human, and evil.

In sum, as an evangelical equalitarian, I agree with secular feminists when they stand against male privilege, assert the equality of women, and call for reform that institutionalizes equality.

Moderator: Thank you for this precise statement of agreement. It will help us achieve our goal of getting as clear as possible on the most basic agreements and disagreements between these two philosophies and facilitate our making an informed decision between them.

Sarah Critiques Secular Feminism

Sarah: Clarity is also my goal. So, let me state this clearly: I am not secular feminist. And I am grateful for the opportunity to explain why. I am an evangelical Christian. I believe that God is the creator and ruler of all things and that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. I don’t know whether or not Gloria is an atheist, but it’s clear that she leaves God completely out of her theory. She grounds all her principles and values in human existence and experience. My specific disagreements with her arise from this fundamental difference. In the following I will address five places where this fundamental disagreement comes to the surface in what Gloria says.

(1) As I admitted above I agree with Gloria on the injustice of rules that keep women from doing what they want to do just because they are women. But Gloria goes on to make a much more radical and deeply troubling statement. She says,

Anything that is possible [to a woman] should be permissible. Secular feminists recognize as legitimate no law of nature, no social custom, no political legislation, and no divine law that forbids a woman to do what is possible for her.

I understand why Gloria would make this argument. Patriarchal society forbade women to do many things they were perfectly capable of doing: vote, run marathons, become doctors, serve as police officers, soldiers and fire personal, preach in churches, and many others. But she goes too far when she equates the permissible with the possible. Many things are possible that are immoral, unjust and illegal; they should not be permitted for women or men. In order to free women from rules that derive from the false idea of male superiority, Gloria denies the legitimacy of any rule that does not derive from her own will. In effect, she denies the objective distinction between right and wrong. This move makes as much sense as slitting your throat to cure a headache. It’s effective, but the side effects make it impossible to enjoy the cure. For if there is no objective distinction between right and wrong, then male domination of women is not objectively wrong either! In contrast to secular feminists, evangelical egalitarians believe in a God-given moral law that roots justice, love and the equality of men and women in the eternal divine being and will.

(2) My second objection is closely related to the first. It concerns the source and nature of the dignity of women. In an astounding claim, Gloria declares,

The dignity of the [woman’s] self does not derive from any value system outside the self, from nature or God or society. Its dignity is self-grounded. That is to say, I am related to myself and I am worth something to myself. I value myself more than I value the whole world. Given the power of the self to create its own identity and establish its own dignity, it makes sense for the self to assert its right to determine itself and liberate itself from all external frameworks and forces.

This statement contains so many extraordinary claims I hardly know where to begin with my critique. Gloria rejects being created or loved by God as relevant to the dignity of woman. Instead of finding her dignity in her relationship to God, she grounds it in her subjective feelings of self-worth. And then she demands that other people make way for her to act as she pleases and become what she wishes. The problem with this view is that our subjective feelings of importance and desires to live and act as we please cannot legitimize making objective moral claims on others. For other people have their own feelings and desires that they may assert against our claims. And in Gloria’s system there is no objective law or arbiter to adjudicate competing claims. Unless human dignity has an objective and universal foundation, it can found no rights or claims against the state, social institutions or individual human beings. Because there is no universal authority to which all parties can appeal and are willing to submit, efforts at persuasion are doomed to fail and coercive power becomes the final arbiter between competing wills.

(3) I said above that I agreed substantially with Gloria about the role and importance of women’s experience in this discussion. However she seems to view men wholly negatively. As a Christian I do not view men as irredeemably evil. Men too are made in the image of God. They can repent and learn how to treat women as equals.

(4) My fourth critical observation concerns Gloria’s statements about the practical program of secular feminism. She says,

Secular feminists demand that every tradition, ideology, theology, or philosophy that justifies male privilege be rejected as false, anti-human, and evil. We also demand that every framework, order, institution, and structure that blocks or inhibits the realization of women’s potential be reformed or abolished…And since these institutions are heirs of a long history of oppression, they cannot be left to reform themselves. There must be an aggressive public policy of affirmative action to move rapidly toward equality.

While I agree that institutions need to be reformed in an egalitarian direction, I think Gloria’s rhetoric labeling patriarchal ideas “false, anti-human and evil” crosses a line. Such rhetoric arises from deep anger and fuels the fires of hatred. And her obvious willingness to use government coercion and possibly violence to compel the recalcitrant shows that her philosophy of self-assertion, outlined in objection (2) above, is at bottom a will to power that sets itself above the distinctions between good and evil and right and wrong. In its secret heart it harbors the kind of metaphysical and moral nihilism that would be willing to destroy itself and the whole world to taste one second of revenge on its enemies.

(5) Gloria’s assessment of the Bible is distinctly uncharitable:

Bible, that ancient patriarchal and misogynous text that ought to have been relegated to the dustbin of failed mythologies long ago but is still revered by uneducated men and the women deceived by them.

Gloria’s disparagement of the Bible and those who love it betrays a striking lack of empathy for past cultures and an appalling ignorance of the central message of the Bible. Evangelical egalitarians do not believe the patriarchal aspects of the Bible are essential to the its ethics. There is even an internal dialogue within the Bible in which patriarchy is overcome and replaced by equality. We can see this most clearly in Jesus’ teaching and in Galatians 2:26-28, which I quoted in my original talk:

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

This text shows that evangelical egalitarians have a great advantage over secular feminists in criticizing male superiority and advocating the equal dignity of women. We can ground our program of equality in divine authority. We can challenge Christian men (There are hundreds of millions of them!) to live up to the ethical demands of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Secular feminists’ assertions of dignity and demands for respect, once you see through their deceptive rhetorical form, boil down to expressions of subjective feelings and wishes with no authority at all.

Moderator: Thank you Sarah for this analysis and critique of secular feminism. Next time we will hear from Abraham who will speak from a neo-patriarchal perspective.

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