A Come to Jesus Moment for Evangelical Women?

Stubborn people, us feminists. We never give up on anybody or any group—particularly the women of any group. Latest evidence, the Irish referendum on a woman’s right to choose her reproductive life: I rest my case.

True, we may have fantasies of gently abducting some male-supremacy-defending women, whisking them to some idyllic place, feeding them homemade soup, and engaging in nonstop consciousness-raising together until the great Aha! You too! descends on us all in a blaze of insight. But in reality, we older feminists have seen a whole lot of women (starting with ourselves) come round over the decades, and have celebrated each one freeing herself from patriarchal blinders at her own pace. Lately, happily, that pace is really accelerating.

Can it be that now, Christian evangelical women—some of whom as individuals have already made their feminism admirably clear—are coming around in larger numbers?

Such profound changes don’t happen easily or all at once. Things get densely entangled, of course, when mixed with culture and with avidly conservative politics. If changes happen at all, they happen one seemingly nonpolitical issue at a time, one moment of insult so intense that a few women friends crack the silence, first with one another, then a few others . . . and then more start to speak through the crack, which widens with each additional voice.

That’s what seems to be taking place in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which claims 15 million members.

In the 1970s, a conservative takeover of the previously middle-of-the-religious-road Southern Baptist Convention led to the adoption of certain pernicious resolutions. They included the belief that the bible’s inerrancy required a ban on female pastors and the teaching that women must be submissive to their husbands. That conservative takeover was engineered by Dr. Paige Patterson, then president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and of late president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. In between, he was president of the entire Southern Baptist Convention, and he remains a major figure in the Southern Baptist community.

You might recall that a few years ago, Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter publicly left the Southern Baptist Convention because, despite their lifelong attendance and social participation in the church, Rosalynn was denied a deaconship by the all-male church leaders, since she was a woman.

But now, MeToo has manifested its energy, like a revelation.

It began with newly resurfaced videotapes of Patterson, which sent ripples throughout the entire Southern Baptist Convention.

The videos exposed how, in 2000, Patterson had told the story of a woman who’d been abused by her husband and had come to him for advice; he had told her to pray quietly beside the bed at night, though he also warned her to “Get ready because your husband may get a little more violent, you know, when he discovers this.” When the woman returned to him with a badly bruised face she said, according to Patterson himself, “I hope you’re happy.” To which he answered, “Yes, ma’am, I am. I’m sorry about that, but I’m very happy because the husband had shown up in church that morning and asked for forgiveness.”

Patterson had also delivered sermons counseling battered wives to stay in abusive relationships and “be submissive in every way.” In one videotaped sermon, he told a story about boys leering at girls and mothers then scolding their sons—wrongly, he said, because “such a boy is just being biblical,” a quip that reliably invoked laughter from his audience. In 1997, Patterson made a disturbing comment for which he then refused to apologize for two weeks, until forced to do so. It was a comment in general about women: “I think everybody should own at least one.” Furthermore, a former student claims that back when Patterson was president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and University, he discouraged her from reporting having been raped to police, and told her that she should forgive the rapist instead. She was put on probation for two years; the alleged rapist suffered not even a slap on the wrist.

Not that Patterson is the only such abuser of religious authority among evangelicals. On the contrary, there have been so many that the pattern gave birth to a fictional character, Elmer Gantry, a character that in itself became a stereotype.

For instance, Bill Hybels, founder and senior pastor of one of the most influential churches in the U.S., Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, had to resign recently after charges of improper conduct and abuse of power. Pastor Andy Savage resigned from his Memphis mega church after it came to light that he had sexually assaulted a high-school student years earlier. Les Hughey, founder and pastor of another mega church in Scottsdale, Arizona, resigned after several women accused him of sexual misconduct when he’d been a youth pastor in California decades earlier. And then there is the seemingly unshakable Christian evangelical support for Donald Trump, with his long, odious history of sexual misconduct and misogynistic attitudes—although recent polls have shown a slight but discernible slippage of approval for him among evangelical women.

All this has built up over time, and the surfacing of the Patterson remarks might have been the last straw. Keep in mind that evangelical women are highly capable people, many of whom have jobs outside the home as well as in it, run small businesses, and juggle all that with raising families, and creating church organizations, church suppers, community work, and so forth. As with the black church, it’s women who keep the wheels turning—but it’s men who get to ride.

So the revolt began with a few women, but soon more than 3,330 (and still growing) women affiliated with Southern Baptist churches and beyond signed an open letter calling for “decisive action” against Patterson. It read in part, “We are shocked by the video that has surfaced showing Dr. Patterson objectifying a teenage girl and then suggesting this is behavior that is biblical. We are further grieved by the dangerous and unwise counsel given by Dr. Patterson to women in abusive situations.” It goes on, rather blisteringly.

Well, Paige Patterson was ousted from his position, after those thousands of evangelical women began calling for his ouster. You go, girls!

Of course, he was actually demoted to “president emeritus,” with pay and free housing, as before. He’s slated to speak at the annual meeting of the Convention, although the pressure is on for him to decline. He was not fired, as the women had wanted, and I’ll wager that his cushy retention will be a radicalizing experience for some of these women. Judging from their quotes to the press, that’s already begun.

Of course, it can be said that 3,330 signatories out of 7.5 million Southern Baptist women is a fairly humble showing, but so were the “Minutemen” at the Battles of Lexington and Concord: less than 80 at Lexington, and not that many more at Concord—but Lord Percy, who led the British in retreat after his Concord defeat, wrote back to London, “Whoever looks upon them [the Rebels] as an irregular mob will be much mistaken.” Indeed, around 15,000 militiamen surrounded Boston in defense against the British the day after these two battles occurred.

So these evangelical women protesters deserve our respect and support, as well as recognition that they’re not totally alone in their seemingly closed world. Young evangelicals have been trying, and in some places, succeeding, in changing their churches to become more open politically, especially on race and on gender.

It’s a cheap shot to dismiss all evangelicals in one lump—and dismissing all of any group in one lump is dangerous in itself. Decades ago I wrote, “Hate generalizes, love specifies.” Those four words still summarize a great deal of politics for me.

So if you are an evangelical woman reading this who has felt in the past that my writing has stereotyped you, I offer more than my apologies: my promise to try to break my own conditioning and never do so again. I will continue to vigorously defend my own feminist (and secular) positions, and I will remain intensely opposed to the extremely harmful and unConstitutional political positions taken by the Convention in particular and Christian evangelicals in general. But I can do that at the same as I listen for and respond to the voices of evangelical women—many of whom are bent, apparently, on reforming their church so it conforms more faithfully to a message of equality and inclusiveness. If you are at all like me, then perhaps the next time you encounter a woman who calls herself an evangelical Christian, you might look beyond the label (as you would hope she might do about you) and try to start a discussion, if you haven’t done so already.

The great strength of this country is its pluralism, as well as its separation of church and state (for the good of both). When women, the majority of the population, emphasize what we have in common with each other rather than how we are different, there’s no stopping us. MeToo is a starting place, and a brilliantly effective one for discovering and emphasizing those similarities.

It leads to a feminist epiphany. Or, as evangelical Christians might say, it’s a Come to Jesus Moment.

The key, I think, is to focus less on where a woman is coming from than where she’s going. And I for one trust women, once they dare to graze even the surface of their own anger, to recognize and respect each other’s righteous rage, to link arms, and to take it from there. Amen!