Doug Pagitt: Sarah Palin and the Role of Women in Religion and Politics

I attended my first-ever political convention last week–the RNC in St. Paul. I must say it was a good one to start with. The Sarah Palin effect was all the buzz of the arena and gave a unified theme to the night that I was on the convention floor. I interviewed dozens of delegates from at least 10 states and found an amazing amount of consistency among them:

They were only marginally familiar with Sarah Palin. All the people I talked to had only heard of her by name or not at all before John McCain made his announcement on August 29.

They are passionate about her. I heard “she is almost over-qualified;” “she is the best person for the job;” “she will bring balance to McCain who is too far to the middle”

John McCain made the perfect pick. There was a total commitment to her.

The most surprising response for me was to the role of a woman as vice-president and as it related to the worldview of religious conservatives. I asked questions about how people who hold that women should not be in spiritual leadership over men (a view called “complementarian”) would respond to having a woman vice-president and potentially president). If you are not familiar with the line of thinking, it goes something like this:

Men and women are created in a relational order. Men are under God and women are under men. This is not to say that women are lesser than men, but just as tools are designed for specific purposes so is gender a guide to relational order. The Bible is used to support this view specifically passages like Genesis 2:7, 21-24; 1 Timothy 2:12-15; 1 Corinthians 11:8-9; Genesis 2; 1 Corinthians 11:8-10; Romans 5:12-19.

This is not a totally fringe view. It is supported by the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, and many independent churches. It is perhaps the most common perspective among the evangelical religious right.

mccainpalin.jpgThere is an additional line of thinking that this vice-presidential nomination raises. It comes from reading Hebrews 13:17 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 in the same way as the above passages are read: “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.”

Many religious conservatives have used these verses to make the argument that God places our leaders over us, and to obey them is to obey God. For that leader to be a woman would mean that men would have a woman over them as a leader. This is a problem.

Many who hold to the complementarian view would say there is a difference between church leadership and governmental leadership. But this poses a problem for those who want to suggest that the president is God’s appointed leader.

I raised some form of this question with the delegates I interviewed. I asked, “Do you think it will be a problem for religious conservatives who hold that women should not have authority over men and who do not allow a woman to be a pastor of a church or teach a Sunday school class with men in it? Will they have a problem with a woman vice-president?”

To a person the response was Yes, I am sure they will. But they will just need to get over it.

I was fascinated to think that this nomination could actually weaken the complementary view or the view of the president being God’s chosen leader because of the commitment to support the pro-life ticket. It will be quite a dilemma for some religious conservatives who will have to choose between commitments. And there is no doubt that the support for Governor Palin rests squarely on her pro-life stance.

From the delegates I spoke to I am sure that the times, they are a changin’.

–Doug Pagitt is the author of A CHRISTIANITY WORTH BELIEVING and founder of Solomon’s Porch, a Christian community in Minneapolis.