Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Susan D. Rose

Christian Fundamentalism: Patriarchy, Sexuality, and Human Rights by Susan D. Rose from Religious Fundamentalism and the Human Rights of Women, Courtney Howland, editor. Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Universal Declaration) adopted by the United Nations (UN) proclaims that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” yet women’s freedom, dignity, and equality are persistently compromised by law, custom, and religious tradition in ways that men’s are not. This chapter [sic] will focus on Christian fundamentalism and patriarchy, and how they interactively help shape and rationalize both cultural views and social policy related to gender, sexuality, health, reproductive choice, and violence against women and girls.

The reinforcement of patriarchy is the trait that Christian fundamentalism most clearly shares with other forms of religious belief that have also been called “fundamentalist.” This characteristic is most evident across the Abrahamic tradition of the three major monotheistic religions – among fundamentalist Israeli Jews, within both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim communities in various countries, and within the current revival of evangelical Protestantism emanating from the United States – but is also evident in fundamentalist Hindu and Buddhist movements. All seek to control women and the expression of sexuality. Fundamentalists argue that men and women are by divine design “essentially” different, and they aim to preserve the separation between public and private, male and female, spheres of action and influence. As Charlotte Bunch notes:

“The distinction between private and public is a dichotomy largely used to justify female subordination and to exclude human rights abuses in the home from public scrutiny … When women are denied democracy and human rights in private, their human rights in the public sphere also suffer, since what occurs in ‘private’ shapes their ability to participate fully in the public arena.”

The most common rationale given for denial of human rights to women is the preservation of family and culture. While article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEAFDAW) requires state parties to take “all appropriate measures” to ensure the equality of women and men in marriage and in parental rights and responsibilities, fundamentalists across these traditions maintain that women are the keepers of the heart and hearth, whereas men are the keepers of the mind and marketplace.

The struggle for women’s and children’s rights as human rights poses a fundamental threat to “traditional” cultural orders and social structures, and especially to “secondary-level male elites.” When “secondary-level male elites” are struggling to maintain male dominance in the middling areas of society where jobs are increasingly contested by women, they find that they can reassert themselves in the family, school, and church, which are the social institutions most accessible to them. In contrast, the first-level male elite, who control the major financial institutions and/or manage the corporate structures are not so concerned with this kind of patriarchal restoration.


In the early twentieth century, the original, U.S. Christian fundamentalist movement explicitly stated that reining in women was essential to maintaining social cohesion. Fundamentalists were also aware that although religion remained important to women, its appeal was declining among men. In addition, the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society made it more difficult for men to live out “traditional” notions of masculinity. As a result, concerns about the feminization of men and of Christianity developed into a kind of militant, virile masculinity that became the hallmark of the Christian warrior, and the movement’s literature became “rife with strident anti-feminist pronouncements, some of them bordering on outright misogyny.”

This is no less true today. As Martin Riesebrodt argues, fundamentalism is primarily a “radical patriarchalism” that represents a protest movement against the increasing egalitarianism between the sexes. Within the vast majority of fundamentalist, Pentecostal, neo-Pentecostal, and charismatic Protestant churches (which I refer to under the umbrella terms “evangelical” or “fundamentalist”) spreading both within and beyond the United States, the downward lines of authority of the nuclear, patriarchal family are still being firmly reinforced: children are to be obedient to their parents, wives to their husbands, and husbands to their God.

One of the most prominent evangelical groups today to promote a modernized form of patriarchy is the “Promise Keepers.” Founded in 1990 by Bill McCartney, head coach of the University of Colorado football team, the Promise Keepers (and their female counterpart, the Promise Reapers) has embraced the goal of motivating men toward Christ-like masculinity. For example, Pastor Tony Evans, in Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, argues that the primary cause of (our) national crisis – the decline of family structure – is “[t]he Feminization of Men,” and he urges men to take back their male leadership role: “Unfortunately, however, there can be no compromise here … Treat the lady gently and lovingly. But lead!

The Promise Keepers are promoting good old fashioned patriarchy with a new twist. They are encouraging men to become more involved in family life, and more responsible to and for their children, but their approach would not meet the obligations of equality under article 16 of CEAFDAW – which they would be bound to oppose in any event. Rather than working toward greater equality for both men and women, leaders reassure men that they will gain rather than rather than lose power and authority within the family. Within the fundamentalist framework, family life continues to be gendered along patriarchal lines, and while men are called back to the private sphere, gender apartheid is still maintained. This has significant consequences for social policy that affect the lives and choices of all citizens, particularly in the arenas of reproductive choice and health.


The pro-family political platform of the contemporary Christian Right in the United States unabashedly supports patriarchy, and privileges men’s rights over women’s rights, and parents’ rights over children’s and states’ rights. This approach is particularly pernicious given that studies of domestic violence indicate that wife and child abuse is more common among families that adhere to traditional, patriarchal sex role norms.

Over the past several years, conservative groups such as the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, the Eagle Forum, and Of the People have campaigned for “parental-rights” legislation at the federal level and in more than 25 states. These various attempts have included the “Pupil Protection Act,” also known as the Hatch Amendment of 1978, which requires parental consent when a federally funded program in school calls for a student to submit to a survey or evaluation that may reveal information concerning, among other things: political affiliations; mental and psychological problems potentially embarrassing to the student or his family; sex behavior and attitudes; and illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating, and demeaning behavior. The Christian Religious Right used the Hatch Amendment to attack the curricula dealing with: health issues of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and sex education; globalism and world issues such as information on the Holocaust and news reporting from worldwide magazines (Time and Newsweek); diversity issues, including exposing children to books by African-American and homosexual authors; and general programs concerning political participation, including mock elections. The breadth and depth of the attach on the integrity of a free public education was so great that even Senator Orrin Hatch, the sponsor of the bill, called for “the rule of commonsense [to] prevail.”

The patriarchal approach of the Christian Right is also apparent in the recently proposed “Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act of 1995,” which prohibits any government from interfering with or usurping the right of the parent in the upbringing of the child in such areas as education, health, discipline (including corporal punishment), and religious teachings. Such a bill would, among other things, have an obvious “chilling” effect on intervention in child-abuse cases.

The Christian Right’s support for parents’ rights over children’s rights and its attacks on public education demonstrate the clear conflict of interest between, on the one hand, the rights of children to an informed education (including their health) and the duty of all states to provide informed education and, on the other hand, the extent of the parental right to socialize and educate their children within the parameters of their religious faith. It is also important to note that the strongest impact will be on girls because the Christian Right educational agenda includes the promotion of patriarchy and thus unequal roles for men and women. It is hard to imagine how girls can take away from such education the Universal Declaration’s proclamation that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”



Central to the sex education debate is the Religious Right’s attempt to preserve men’s rights over women’s rights, and parental rights over children’s rights. The Family Research Council in 1995 critiqued the Fourth World Conference on Women, stating that the conference reflected “a radical feminist agenda” that “denigrate[d] motherhood and the traditional family” by noting that there were “unequal power relations” in the family. Radical? Yes, writes evangelical psychologist James Dobson, who heads up the largest Christian Right Organization in the United States, Focus on the Family. He warns that the UN Conference on Women represents “the most radical, atheistic, anti-family crusade in the history of the world” and the “[t]he Agency for International Development will channel hundreds of millions of dollars to support women’s reproductive and sexual rights and family planning services. The only hope for derailing this train is the Christian church.”

As we enter the new millennium, family planning, reproductive and sexual health, and economic well-being are vital concerns for individuals, communities, and nations. Rates of pregnancy, and AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, remain alarmingly high among America’s youth, yet opponents of sexuality education are trying to censor vital, life-saving information that has proven effective in dealing with these problems. Instead, the Religious Right continues to blame the “fallen girl/woman” and the feminization of men for the ills of our society rather than economic and structural forces that perpetuate inequality between men and women, and between the very wealthy and the middle and impoverished classes. In the battle over sexuality and choice and education, it’s girls’ and women’s bodies, lives, and livelihoods that are all too often sacrificed.

With respect to girls’ rights in education, it is important to remember that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – to which the United States is a party – prohibits discrimination against women or girls. The Human Rights Committee, the monitoring body of the ICCPR, has interpreted ICCPR provisions as allowing parents to ensure that their children receive a religious and moral education but that public schools are limited to teaching the general history of religion in a nondiscriminatory manner and only if it is given “in a neutral and objective manner” because the “instruction in a particular religion or belief is inconsistent” with the ICCPR. Does the Christian Right educational agenda meet this standard?

While evangelicals represent only 25 percent of the U.S. population, their influence on social policy regarding sexuality education, sexual orientation, teen pregnancy, reproduction, family planning, and economic equity has been significant, though less in establishing their agenda than in putting the brakes on research, education, and funding that could reduce the rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, and violence against women and children; increase the equality between women and men; and better protect and prepare children for healthy, active, responsible lives in the twenty-first century. Their impact is also felt beyond the borders of the United States. Today North American evangelicals are the largest group of missionaries moving across the globe on mission quests. They are effective in establishing churches, schools, and health clinics in various places around the world. What kind of messages will they be disseminating? What kinds of influence may evangelical “sex experts” have as they fund programs and advise people and political leaders, not only in the United States, but around the world about gender, family planning, sex, contraception, violence – about life and death?

Biography courtesy of Dickinson College

Susan D. Rose, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology and Director, Community Studies Center. PhD., Cornell University (1984). Professor Rose specializes in the sociology of religion, immigration, family, violence, and race, class, gender studies. She uses a comparative (cross-cultural and historical) approach to the study of family, religion, education, and violence. She has conducted fieldwork in the United States, Guatemala, the Philippines, and South Korea on evangelical movements, education, and gender that has resulted in a number of articles and books. These include: Exporting the American Gospel: Global Christian Fundamentalism (Routledge, 1998) and Keeping Them Out of the Hands of Satan: Christian Schooling in America (Routledge, 1986). Her recent work explores sexuality and sexuality education in Denmark and the United States, the impact of the Religious Right on social policy in the United States, and immigration studies.

Recipient of the Michael Harrington Distinguished Teaching Award (2003) from the National Poverty Forum, Dickinson College's Distinguished Teaching Award (2001), and the National Oral History Distinguished Teaching Award (1996-1998), Rose enjoys teaching a variety of classes. She challenges her students to ask significant questions and to pursue them, using various theoretical and methodological approaches.

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