Women, Faith, and Presidential Politics
During the South Carolina Republican debate, Mike Huckabee garnered greatest applause when defending his views of wifely submission as part of his evangelical faith. The questioner quizzed Huckabee about being one of 131 signers of a 1998 USA Today ad by the Southern Baptist Convention that asserted, "a wife is to graciously submit herself to the servant leadership of her husband." Huckabee responded by saying "I am not the least bit ashamed of my faith." He joked that his own wife was not submissive and appeared to temper his original statement by affirming the idea of mutual submission in marriage (a view, by the way, specifically rejected by the Southern Baptist Convention).
Some evangelicals might find this acceptable, but many more do not-not to mention the American public as a whole. Over the last decade, the Pew Research Center has tracked a steady decrease of the impact of conservative religion on views of gender. In 1997, 28 percent of Americans strongly disagreed with the idea that women should return to "traditional roles." In 2007, 42 percent strongly disagreed with the same statement. One wonders how many Protestant Christians-evangelical and otherwise-are included in that 42 percent.
If the media thinks that Huckabee's views represent evangelical Christianity, they are wrong. Wifely submission is only one interpretation of scripture and not without significant criticism by biblical scholars and theologians. American evangelicalism has a long and conflicted record about its views of women, with egalitarianism as the alternative to submission. This week's other major news story-Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire primary victory-provides an instructive historical lesson about that evangelical alternative.
Hillary Clinton is not, of course, an "evangelical" using the current definition. She is a mainline United Methodist. However, she graduated Wellesley College. Although few would think of contemporary Wellesley as in any way evangelical, the school's 19th century heritage was that of evangelical feminism.
Henry and Pauline Durant founded Wellesley in 1871 (first classes held in 1875) as a distinctly evangelical institution. Henry, a wealthy lawyer, had become a lay-evangelist with a vision for a women's college that "will be Christian in its influence, discipline, and course of instruction." At the groundbreaking of Wellesley's first building, Mrs. Durant gave every workman a Bible as a gift before she placed another Bible in the cornerstone. The cornerstone prayer reads:
This building is humbly dedicated to our Heavenly Father with the hope and prayer that He may always be first in everything ... that His word may be faithfully taught here; and that He will use it as a means of leading precious souls to the Lord Jesus Christ.
All of Wellesley's early professors were required to teach the Bible along with their regular subjects; all trustees were obligated to be active members of evangelical churches. Revivalist Dwight L. Moody served as a trustee and ardently supported the school and his friends, the Durants, in their endeavor.
The Durants not only preached the gospel-they were equally committed to the "cause of God's poor." They believed that universal childhood education was the key to alleviating poverty and that medical care needed to be widely available to the indigent. The Wellesley evangelicals believed that women were as capable as men in every field, with one exception: religious matters. When it came to religion, they believed that women were superior to men. In 1880, Noah Porter, Yale College president, addressed Wellesley women praising that superiority while warning them that such giftedness exposed them to "unreasoning fanaticism and tenacious bigotry."
Wellesley women took this all quite seriously. Submitting to no one, these young evangelical women became scholars, professors, theologians, pastors, missionaries, teachers, doctors, and lawyers across the globe. Although the Wellesley of Hillary Rodham Clinton's day had become secularized, the feminist legacy of 19th century evangelicalism continued to influence its priorities-full equality for women, quality childhood education for all, universal access to health care, and a passion for the poor.
Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) holds a Ph.D. in American Religious History from Duke University. She is the author of six books, including Christianity for the Rest of Us (Harper One 2006).