It has now been more than 100 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing women the right to vote. Legislation passed by Congress and by many states also protects women against discrimination in such areas of life as housing, credit, hiring, pay, public accommodations and education.
Considering these legal protections, one might think that women enjoy equal treatment with men in the United States. But nothing could be further from the truth. Violence by men against women is widespread. Men dominate women in the political arena, in business and the workplace and in higher education. Many women are subject to a constant barrage of sexual innuendo and harassment.
Much of this behavior seems embedded in our culture. Today most American institutions, at least nominally, reject sexism and discrimination and support the rights of women to fair and equal treatment. The principal exceptions to that statement are Christian religions.
Most of the main line Protestant denominations have now abandoned sexism, but it remains firmly entrenched in Roman Catholicism, most evangelical churches and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their clergy and leadership positions are reserved for men. This is surprising, as there is not a shred of theological justification for different treatment of men and women anywhere in the New Testament (or in Latter-day Saint scriptures either, for that matter).
These religions provide a great deal of the cultural support for the strong strain of bias against women that continues to run through American society. By their bad example, these churches legitimize sexual misconduct and act as cheerleaders for sexism.
Is it possible that the leaders of these religions don’t realize the damage they are doing? Don’t they see that it a small step from saying that the man “presides” in the home and at church to saying that he is well within his rights to bully and abuse his wife or female partner or his work colleagues?
These Christian churches always tell us they are placing women on a pedestal, but it is obvious that the real effect of their policies is to keep women out of leadership in their organizations and, at the same time, to send the message that women are not suitable for leadership anywhere else, either, or should be kept subordinate to men. This message is probably strongest in the LDS Church because leadership positions are so pervasively distributed among male members there.
The power of these religions is widely manifest today in state legislatures, constituted primarily of men, acting on religious grounds, which pass laws regulating when and whether women can have abortions. It’s an absurd spectacle. Can we imagine the outcry if the tables were turned, and legislatures composed mainly of women were adopting laws preventing men from obtaining vasectomies?
These sexist policies are self-defeating for the religious denominations themselves as well. They effectively exclude the talents of half of their membership from governance of the organizations, and largely eliminate women’s voices from any important decisions.
Hasn’t this gone on long enough? Isn’t it time for the present leadership of Catholics, evangelicals and Latter-day Saints to admit that there is no sound theological reason at all to treat women differently than men, and that their only justification is, “We’ve always done it this way.” Isn’t it time to recognize that their existing policies are unnecessary and immensely harmful? Isn’t it time for a change?
Dale A. Whitman, Salt Lake City, is a retired law professor who has taught at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, among many other law schools.