The Common Good

Jimmy Carter's Stand on Women in Church Leadership

090722-jimmy-carterAn autographed photo of Jimmy Carter sits on our piano. A friend of ours wrote to Carter and told him that he was one of our sons' favorite presidents, and would he please send them a signed photograph. When Keith gave our sons the Carter picture last Christmas, my 8-year-old actually teared up. Hours later I found him sitting silently on the hearth, gazing at the photo and his own name at the bottom, awestruck that it had been written with the pen of a former president.

Jimmy Carter recently proved himself even more worthy of my sons' devotion. In moving op-ed pieces in the Australian newspaper The Age and the British Observer, Carter widely publicizes his 2000 decision to withdraw from the Southern Baptist Convention because of its stance that women are subservient to men and its refusal to allow women to serve as pastors or deacons. "The truth is that male religious leaders have had-and still have-an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women," Carter writes.

They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world.

Since the appearance of these op-eds, Carter's defection from the denomination he called home for 60y years is getting a lot of attention in the blogosphere. Carter actually left the Southern Baptist Convention nine years ago, four months after the denomination declared its opposition to women pastors. At that point he wrote a letter to 75,000 Baptists nationwide explaining his decision, but now he has chosen to go global with his dissent as a way to bring attention to the issue of women's equality as a human rights issue. As one of "the Elders" of an independent group of global leaders who were brought together by Nelson Mandela to support human rights issues and advocate peacebuilding, Carter is now using his defection from the Southern Baptists to make a louder, interreligious point: that the abuse and subjugation of women violates the teachings of all the major religions.

Carter could have stayed, of course, and remained a voice for change from within the ranks of membership. The religious feminists Leora Tanenbaum interviews in her book Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality choose to stay despite their religions' patriarchal stances, an equally valiant choice. Or he could have left quietly, or semi-quietly, as his letter to Baptists in 2000 would have allowed him to do. But I wonder if 84-year-old Carter is choosing the louder, pot-banging route now because he is emboldened by that urgency for change that sometimes accompanies aging.

Ever since reading Carter's piece in The Age, I've found myself glancing at his photograph every time I pass it. I won't call it an icon, and I'm not ready to call him a saint (a moniker he would certainly reject as well). But I am glad he's there on my piano for my son to look up at while he practices for his lesson. As heroes go, he could do a lot worse.

portrait-valerie-weaver-zercherValerie Weaver-Zercher is a writer and editor in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and a contributing editor to Sojourners.

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