Gender Theory and Christian Activism

#NotmanyChristians are invited to join #yesallwomen style movements.

Ross Douthat has urged conservatives to listen to feminist outrage with an ear toward identifying a common enemy–a flippantly aggressive male culture that is both disrespectful toward women and evades responsibility in places like college and Silicon Valley. I myself have been similarly keen to promote some common purpose between conservative Christianity and feminism regarding the common enemy of sexuality in media–a dismaying cultural trend that has spread to epidemic proportions in recent decades. I think, whatever one thinks of the garden variety feminist these days, that feminists would make for strong allies in that noble struggle.

But then Twittersplosions like the recent #yesallwomen and the countervailing #notallmen cause reasoned conversation to wander into barren places where invective is the order of the day and old obstacles to friendship are again disclosed, and so must be dealt with if we are to return to the greener pastures of cooperation.

I want to reveal one such obstacle, even if I have no idea how to get around it. It seems to me that the underlying assumptions of modern feminism are, for the most part, shaped by a dominant trend in social theory that has seeped into the humanities. This thesis says that maleness and femaleness are entirely culturally generated abstractions with no essential content that ought to be respected. Therefore all beliefs, practices, and positive statements that are meant to either describe or prescribe right relationship between men and women are illusory and oppressive, not first because they are defined by men, but because they are definitional at all. I’ve been chastised before for assuming that Christianity and feminism are always at odds, but inasmuch as feminists are informed by modern gender theory I think they must be, because Christianity no less than most other religions is in the business of determining ends–that is an individual’s created nature and purpose as a creature and the deepest meanings of all creation, not least maleness and femaleness.

It seems to me that this philosophical contention underlies the suspicion that churches and pastors have toward perfectly well-intentioned and needed conversations about “rape culture” and sexual violence. Believers detect, rightly, that most of the time “misogynist” is just another name for people who dare to hold some belief about what women (and men) are and ought to be. The feminist bar for Christian entry into the good side of the battle for female safety and personhood seems, in most places, to require a Rachel-Held Evans kind of departure from traditional Christian teaching on gender as well as any possibility that there could be any prescriptive Christian teaching on gender, and this is far too high a barrier of entry for the vast majority of churchgoers. It has become fashionable among Christians to lament the church’s unwillingness to join movements aimed at redressing social evils, but it should be noted that today, these movements tend to screen out many believers who desire to be part of the solution.

3 Responses to “Gender Theory and Christian Activism”

  1. Jamie Dougherty

    A few disorganized thoughts:

    I think “feminism” is a term that has been used too variously to still use it for anything beyond its original/most basic meaning of “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality of men.” It has in many places been influenced or infused with certain gender theories, but I think it’s dangerous to talk about feminism as if it has been completely consumed or entirely and forever changed by those theories. I think talking about it that way distances those who cannot accept certain gender theories from feminism. By the definition I provided there, I am a feminist because I am a Christian.

    I wonder about how many people today who consider themselves feminists believe “that maleness and femaleness are entirely culturally generated abstractions with no essential content that ought to be respected,” and if they do, I wonder how many of them accepted that because that was what they had found attached or within a certain “feminism,” and wanting to accept feminism, accepted what came with it.

    That “many movements aimed at redressing social evils…screen out many believers” does not seem to me the fault of those who do not understand the Christian point-of-view. It seems obvious to me that Christians ought to be the ones starting these movements. I’m not saying we haven’t in the past, but today I’m not sure we’re so active. Until Christians start organizing movements that don’t “screen out many believers” (I feel screened out by the organizations and movements of Christians more interested in “curing” homosexuals of their sin than in the human rights of these people), young social activists who call themselves Christians will likely join movements they don’t wholly agree with, believing the good that will come of it outweighs the bad.

    • Jamie Dougherty

      Also, I don’t mean to make it sound like I want to completely divorce gender theory from feminism. I think the idea that gender has been influenced (not created) by the brokenness of the world and society and investigating how that has happened, and how it has created staggering injustices, is very useful to the Christian and to the feminist.

  2. Alex Wilgus

    Not disorganized at all. Worthy of its own post, I think. I don’t want to defend any uncharitableness on my part, but I do have some response to your concerns.

    I don’t mean to assume that all or even most of those who call themselves feminists hold to this brand of gender theory as a primary and personally held commitment. But I do assume two things: first, that gender theory informs the branches of feminism that catch the most notice in the sort of “thinking” media (like Slate) that’s shared around, and secondly that it provides the intellectual underpinning for the polemics and think pieces that get shopped around and are read by a lot of people (google “Dress Coded” for instance.) In short, regardless of how much of feminism it describes, it is still the dominant intellectual position within it. (a large part of my evidence for this comes through my experience in both undergraduate and graduate studies–but if my introduction to gender theory was at Wheaton College of all places, then I feel reasonably justified in calling it dominant, and to some degree unquestioned.) Of course feminism exists outside of the cadre of people who read stuff on the internet a lot or go to college, but movements can’t exist without intellectual foundation that its members draw on, and that’s what I’m interested in examining. In short, I do assume that gender theory is the “default” accepted position which shapes the arguments and talking points that most feminists concerned with these issues make and fall back on even if, when pressed, they may not be able to articulate its tenets.

    The point about Christian movements getting started on their own is quite clear and I too want to see more of that. You’re also quite astute in pointing out that people often follow movements for their promise and not their philosophy. I just want to show that they’re not the only game in town and that movements from other sources are possible and even necessary if we really want to see those social evils redressed. You’re right that Christians were responsible for a lot of those in the past, but there are just as many now, probably more actually, though you don’t often hear about them. I think that this has to do with the fact that social action needs cultural capital to be able to thrive, and that comes with at least a certain amount of intellectual respectability–one that is not currently afforded to Christianity–and that’s the space I’m trying to carve out in writing pieces like this.

    I also don’t mean to throw exclusive blame on progressive secularism for all evils of a nation as polarized as ours. Blame obviously lies with both sides, and you are quite correct in pointing out that Christians do just as much “screening” as anyone else, but this piece is just an argument pointed in one direction and not the other. My intention here is to criticize the secular side, because I just haven’t see that done nearly as much as the reverse.


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