Patriarchy, Politics, and Religion

This past Wednesday, the lead story on the front page of the Salt Lake Tribune was entitled [unsurprisingly] “Multiplying Mormons expand into new turf.”   The story was based on the latest once-a-decade U.S. Religion Census.  According to the Religion Census, the fastest growing religions in the United States are Islam, the LDS Church, and Evangelical Protestant churches.  The single largest Christian faith is still the Catholic Church.  I find this combination rather unsettling, because, despite their theological and sectarian differences, all of these faiths share one commonality.  Despite all protests to the contrary, all are highly patriarchal/paternalistic and sexually chauvinistic and effectively place men in a higher socio-theologic position.

In addition, the three nominally Christian faiths [I’m including the Mormons, because they consider themselves Christians, even as some Christian faiths do not] have a large and growing presence on the political front, particularly within the Republican party. No matter what people do or don’t claim, in the end what people and what the politicians who represent them believe tends to find expression in the political dialogue, in proposed legislation, and, eventually, in law.

Once upon a time, the vast majority of the United States was more highly religious than it is today, and there were considerable sectarian differences and beliefs.  Because of those fierce differences, in effect, the founding fathers created a system that attempted to keep religion out of government… and it worked for quite some time.  I’d submit that it worked because religion was a key issue for a great many people, possibly a massive majority, and no one wanted any other faith to gain an advantage through government.  But times have changed, and although 80% of Americans claim to be “Christian,” only about 50% of Americans actually actively belong to any type of Christian congregation, and another 16% are professed or practicing atheists.

This suggests that close to half the population doesn’t possess the same burning concern about religion as it once did… but the first political problem is that these more “moderate believers” and non-believers are in the position of attacking religion or “morality” when they oppose the attempts of the “true believers” to enact religious-based standards as part of government policies and law, even when those standards effectively discriminate against women. The second problem is that the entire movement of true equal rights for women is essentially a secular movement.  It has to be, because with the exception of a few faiths with very small followings [such as Christian Science or the Wiccans], the vast, vast majority of all organized religions have a paternalistic and chauvinistic tradition, and only a few of those faiths have made much effort to change those traditions.

While there are exceptions, in those countries dominated by paternalistic religions, in general, women have fewer, and in many cases no rights.  Yet here in the United States, those religious faiths showing the greatest gains in adherents are those that are fundamentalist and patriarchal. But whenever women raise the issue, such as in the recent Democratic Party effort to point out that Republican legislative initiatives are a “War on Women,” the general reaction is that women are over-reacting. And some Republican partisans have even suggested that the current administration’s efforts to strengthen women’s access to birth control and contraception were a war on freedom of religion.

But, of course, that does raise the question of whether freedom of religion extends to using legislation to reinforce the historical patriarchal male domination of women has any place in a nation that supposedly prides itself on equality.

13 thoughts on “Patriarchy, Politics, and Religion”

  1. j says:

    The population problem that you brush past at the beginning seems particularly troubling. Supposing that paternalistic cultures reproduce faster than secular, egalitarian ones, as appears to be the case, it is then inevitable that they will in time always take control of any democracy of which they are a part, through sheer force of numbers. If this is indeed true, it would appear that we are forced to choose between democracy and sexual egalitarianism/secularism, because the two cannot coexist in the long term. I wonder how you would respond to this problem.

    To play devil’s advocate, I will point out that the Chinese solution appears on the face of things to be the most effective if not the only answer. A troubling thought for the secular West.

  2. Joe says:

    @J: The Chinese solution is unfortunately targeted more strongly at non-Han minorities like Uyghurs and Tibetans, and is used as a means of repression.

    A different solution is to educate girls. Statistically this guarantees lower birthrates, which may be why the Taliban and Santorum both dislike education. Providing easy access to contraception (again disliked by many religious groups) would also help reduce population.

    More likely we will kick the can down the road, and let environmental collapse solve the problem. At that point, societies consisting of people who help each other, have access to resources and are somewhat educated will probably survive. Rather than considering survival to depend on individuals, I think groups of people will either survive or not. A group with many skills, in which every member including women can participate will outcompete a group with a few “leaders” since there will be less dead wood. But, secular groups will only survive if they form a group, and are not just a bunch of individuals: if they can create community. That seems to be a strength of the very religious, that I don’t see replicated among secular people. Johann Galtung states the attraction to Islam that explains its growth in Europe is mainly this community aspect: we versus I.

  3. Tim says:

    In the UK we have almost the reverse issue to the one raised at the start of this thread. Affiliation with Christianity is considered to be a Bad Thing and declining church attendance is viewed as evidence that religion is a dying thing. There is also an increasing political movement to stop churches from being considered charities and so not liable for tax relief. Humanism (itself a form of religion) is considered more acceptable – especially among the scientific communities.

    On population, the economic problem is that more people are required to pay the taxes to support the increasingly large number of retired people. France was reportedly worried at one point about its declining population for this very reason.

  4. Wine Guy says:

    It is clear from the recent political battles about birth control and the ongoing political battles (and even assassinations) about abortion that a woman’s right to control what happens to her body is very much part of the various religious-political movements’ agenda. Legislation can CERTAINLY take away someone’s right to choose to not have children.

    Humanism – in general – supports a woman’s right to choose when/where/how/if to have children, but the same ‘humanism’ is mostly just mental laziness insofar as to say “Oh, that seems like a good idea” and then never actually do the work to get something done, unless there are some serious brownie points to be gained for someone else’s agenda.

    If I wanted to make a War on Religion, I’d start with demanding that DA’s (at the local, state, and federal) level start investigating the Catholic Church for conspiracy regarding child abuse, investigate the Mormons for violations of tax code and abuse of religious tax exemptions for political use, polygamy laws, systematic child and spousal abuse covered up by the church through intimidation, and violations of separations of church and state in dozens of little towns all throughout Utah, Northern California, and Northern Nevada, and take a good hard look at any organized religion that has political stances on topics. Most of them routinely violate their non-profit status – whether it is unintentional or not is beside the point.

    1. Steve says:

      I know it is probably careless syntax, but you seem to support not the investigation of a religious organization but rather the investigation of individuals based upon their affiliation. The difference between the LDS Church “Mormonism” and the members “Mormons” is an important one. You promote a “war” on one and you are a militant secularist, but you “war” on another and you are an oppressor.

      1. There is NO practical difference between what the LDS Church does and its members do — not in Utah. Oh… one can make a legal differentiation on specific acts, but because there’s a huge overlap of the same people with the same beliefs in both government and church leadership, the legal separation of church and state mandated in the Utah state constitution is effectively meaningless.

        1. And, by the way, the same also tends to be true in areas dominated by Southern Baptists.

          1. Derek says:

            You might be interested in the behavior of chaplains of the Southern Baptist persuasion in the military…

            I have some harsh feelings towards that tradition in our military…

  5. Alan says:

    Since we seem to have devolved to be mainly focused on religion and government here, I would put forth the follow: Separation of church and state within the United States has not existed since it’s inception in any practical manner.

    This is not to say that there was a very real legal separation in the beginning. And that there is not some sort of separation now. But the practical application is that there is no separation existing. All too many laws, from local townships up to the federal level is based solely on religious backing. From legality of polygamy to birth control. Tax codes to education. There is such a very heavy religious bias to it all.

    I think that this is straying from the original topic, which was more involved with the interactions of politics and religion resulting in women having less opportunity and control then men. There have been a number of studies, papers and discussions about how leadership ends with men so often, or why cultures denigrate women.

    Many people subscribe to the belief that women’s place in society are a direct throw back to the idea of the men protecting the tribe. And as far as the idea goes, it’s workable. Men are, in the normal course of events, physically capable of greater strength. They tend toward larger stronger frames. The loss of a man to a group is not nearly the blow the loss of a breeding age woman is. This lead to men assuming the dominant violent role within tribes, keeping the women safe and protected. But also relegating them to subservient roles.

    As societies progressed, men took advantage of this and worked either actively to promote women to the lesser position, or passively did nothing but accept that it was where women belonged. Religious groups, especially, tend to be relatively stable. But this same stability keeps alive traditions which serve no further purpose in societal evolution, but also promote the societal conditions we see every day. The patriarchal society.

    Today women have access to much more, but so do all the men too. The established societal patterns in the west, and in the east, give the men a broader chance to rise to the surface. It’s a sad statistical fact that in professional fields, technical fields and even the political arena, a woman is generally required to perform above the majority of her male peers to receive the same standards of promotion and recognition as the men who perform at a lower standard then she does.

    This is even worse in fields heavily dominated by men. Police, fire departments, high level executives in corporations, etc.

  6. Diana says:

    The biggest problem with modern politics is that people are looking at the First Amendment backwards; the separation of church and state has been seen, until recently, as a prohibition against the state interfering with the church, as well as a prohibition against the state establishing a specific official religion (or attitude toward religion, which is pretty much the same thing).

    Now it’s flipped; those who are the loudest insist that ‘separation of church and state’ means that the church cannot influence the state in any way, or to be seen as attempting to do so, while it is perfectly acceptable for the state to interfere with, guide, and direct religion into politically acceptable social norms.

    It is not politically correct to point out that the First Amendment was not written to protect those with whose opinions we agree, but rather to protect those with whom we DISAGREE. Not to protect the politically correct, in other words, but to protect the rights of the weird. After all, we are all weird to someone–and if it’s our turn ‘on top’ now, it won’t always be. Do we really want to set a precedent we don’t want used against us?

    So…paternalistic or not, disagree or not, it is important that these religions you don’t like be protected and allowed to be who they are.

    Finally–I notice that you live in Utah and you have categorized the Mormons as being ‘paternalistic’ and authoritarian–but really, sir?

    Mormon women have been voting since 1835. Utah women had to GIVE UP the vote in order to become a state, on the promise that their men would give it right back at the state constitutional convention–and they did. Mormon women were among the first to be doctors, lawyers…”paternalistic?”

    No. there is a difference between ‘paternalism’ and ‘understanding, respecting and allowing differences.”

    But then something tells me that you didn’t know this about Mormon women and the vote.

    1. Somehow… I don’t think you understand what I wrote. I don’t want to restrict the LDS faith or any other faith in the practice of their religion. What I oppose is the use of government to further or to enshrine those beliefs and practices in law. I’m very well aware of the history of the rights of LDS women… but that was more than a century ago, and since the Mormons didn’t even reach Utah until mid-1847 and didn’t have a territorial government until 1850, you’re a bit off on the voting dates. And yes, the LDS faith is paternalistic.

  7. Tony Leukering says:

    I just have two words to say in response to Mr. Modesitt’s blog: “hear, hear.”

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