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.