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Cathleen Falsani

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Is Michele Bachmann a Christian Feminist?

Posted: 07/14/11 07:12 PM ET

When a friend sent me a link to an article titled, "Michele Bachmann, evangelical feminist?" I figured it would lead to a satirical piece from "The Onion."

But the link took me to a serious article on a reputable news site. Reading the headline again, I answered its question aloud: "Not even close."

Bachmann, the GOP congresswoman from Minnesota and Tea Party darling who wants to be our next president, does not remind me of any Christian feminist I have ever known. Neither, for that matter, does former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that both Bachmann and Palin represent a new breed of evangelical -- meaning "Christian" -- feminism.

Horse feathers.

Nearly 20 years ago, my first job out of college was as an assistant editor for "Daughters of Sarah," the groundbreaking (at the time) Christian feminist journal that published from 1975 to 1994.

For several years before grad school, I was steeped in Christian feminist community, tradition and history. As a seminary student, I studied with vanguard Christian feminists such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, Toinette M. Eugene and the late Rosemary Skinner Keller.

Believe me, I know a Christian feminist when I see her.

And if Bachmann and Palin represent a new breed of Christian feminism, then "The Hangover Part II" and "Bad Teacher" represent a new golden age of American cinema.

Feminism is often misunderstood as women's desire to be "the same" as men. Rather, feminism asserts that women should not be limited, marginalized, oppressed, discounted, or dismissed solely because of their gender.

Christian feminists believe women should have rights, opportunities and choices equal to men in all areas of life -- including the life of the church.

One of the central concerns of contemporary Christian feminism has been the ordination of women. While great strides have been made in Anglican and mainline Protestant traditions, women continue to be barred from ordained ministry and leadership in more conservative evangelical churches.

The term "Christian feminism" may be a modern convention, but its ideals most certainly are not. Some theologians trace its origins to Jesus himself, who espoused a radical egalitarianism where "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female," as St. Paul said in his letter to the Galatians. Jesus came to set us free from oppression, both spiritual and temporal.

Christian feminism seeks to empower women, but that doesn't mean it's a power grab, or that women themselves should become oppressors of another group or people.

It's in this last regard that I and many others find a profound dissonance in applying the "Christian feminist" label to Palin and Bachmann. While women should rightly seek leadership roles in society, including the presidency, running for president as a woman in and of itself does not a feminist make.

"Just calling yourself a Christian feminist doesn't make you one, and if other people are calling (Palin and Bachmann) that, they don't know what it means," feminist theologian Rita Nakashima Brock told me this week.

The noted evangelical author and speaker Phyllis Tickle, a self-described Christian feminist, also resents that label being used to describe Bachmann and Palin.

"I remember feeling more anguish and more distress 15 or 20 years ago (about) the usurpation of the "Christian" label for political purposes by some male politicians and female, too," Tickle said. "I remember thinking, "No, damn it. You have no right to take my ecclesial label, my theological label and apply it to the political realm.

"I feel a rancor, not in equal proportion and certainly from a different perspective, about the use of 'feminist."'

To my ear, invoking the term "Christian feminist" as some radical new idea sounds anachronistic. For many people of my generation (I'm 40), gender equality, in theory if not in practice, is simply a given. Even 20 years ago at Daughters of Sarah, contemporary Christian feminism was at least a 20-year-old phenomenon.

Tickle agreed.

"I think that label had a noble position a quarter century ago," she said. "I don't think it's a clarion call to anyone right now and I don't think it will be again. It came to do what it needed to do and it did."

Resurrecting the Christian feminist label and applying it to arch-conservative politicians who, perhaps, only recently learned the term themselves, is "hiding behind the skirt of something that has popular cache and very little relevance," Tickle said.

Several Christian feminist theologians and clergy believe it is Palin and Bachmann's ideology -- not their theology -- that disqualifies them from bearing the feminist badge.

"As far as Christianity is concerned, feminism is a theology of liberation," said Michelle Scott-Huffman, pastor of Table of Grace church in Jefferson City, Mo. "If, then, us getting ourselves into the places where our voices are heard doesn't lead to other ... oppressed and marginalized voices to also be heard, I don't think we can claim that title for ourselves."

Bachmann and Palin have not yet embraced the "Christian feminist" label as a cultural imprimatur. But if they do, without a sea change in their worldviews, it would be as ridiculous as pinning a PETA button on a fox stole.

This column appears via the Religion News Service.

 
 
 

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