If Religion Is Power, Women Deserve Their Share

11/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question: The theme of The Women's Conference 2008 this week is: We Empower. Does religion empower women?

To get at the question of whether religion empowers women, I'd have to ask another question first. Should women aspire to power if such power is compromised to begin with? Sarah Palin was adhering to the norm when she asked God to back her run for office in Alaska. Using God as a political strong arm is religion's dirty little secret, or maybe the secret has lost its covert quality by now. Without a second blush, millions of believers want God to make them more affluent, successful, and influential. Yet one of the founding purposes of religion was to cancel out worldliness, with very mixed results. In Christianity, for example, the ideal believer is humble, selfless, and forgiving. Add those traits up, and they equal powerlessness. Or rather, Jesus asked for a shift of power away from the worldly, which he considered trifling, to the spiritual, which he considered all-important. A second strain in religion is service, known in Protestantism as the social gospel, which holds that helping the needy wins favor with God. That, too, is hardly a route to secular power.

If they can get past these compromises, women shouldn't be denied. The higher ups in every faith have a tendency to control the lower downs. For every monk who takes a vow of celibacy, there's a bishop or cardinal pulling strings in local government (this isn't a paranoid accusation -- much of their participation is public and above board). The gender issue comes down to how many women are given access to the upper echelons of a denomination. The more liberal Protestant sects allow fairly free access while Catholicism gives none at all. It's not for us outsiders to make judgments one way or the other, since church politics belong to the members.

Of course, empowerment has another meaning -- personal empowerment -- that religion influences. The results here are decidedly mixed. The tradition of blaming women for original sin through the disobedience of Eve links to another tradition that sees women as vessels of physical temptation. Obviously few modern woman want to be associated with either, but leaving theology aside, a woman may feel empowered through faith, inspiration, or service. The exaltation of mother goddesses around the world has made the role of motherhood sacred (any number of people call their mothers a saint, but not many use that term for their fathers).

Given so many tangled influences, I don't think you wind up with a box score. It's dubious whether you could even conclude that religion is more positive than negative, or vice versa. In one area, however -- the new spirituality that is growing outside organized religion -- there's no doubt that women not only take the lead but seek empowerment on all levels. They want to feel stronger in themselves and be stronger in the world. Given how subordinate women have been for centuries, and how unabashedly organized churches stood on the side of social repression, I think any road to empowerment for women is a positive development.