A program of the Center for Inquiry
“We Are Not Ovary-Acting”
“Grab ’em by the Midterms”
“WE ARE RE-SISTERS”
These are just a few of the clever signs seen at the 2018 Women’s March. This street protest, held around the country in January, was a smaller repeat of the Women’s March that had occurred the day after President Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2017. The 2017 march drew 4,157,894 people into the streets in the United States, according to the Washington Post’s best guess.
I was in downtown Washington, D.C., for the original march, and the sea of protesters was so large and dense that I feared people would be crushed by the crowds. Knitted pink pussy hats were de rigueur, and the abiding mood was what I would call “angry ebullience.” People who felt shock and disgust at Trump’s election were elated by the massive outpouring of outrage, solidarity, and resistance.
A year later, those who demonstrated again did so with a year’s experience of what Trump’s America looked like. For women, bleak is about as positive a term as one could use.
For religious conservatives, it’s Shangri-La, a little piece of heaven on Earth.
Trump had delivered “hugely” and would continue to do so, for people who felt it was their religious duty to tell women what they can do with their bodies. Trump’s amoral behavior barely registered a ripple in the enthusiasm of white evangelicals, 81 percent of whom had voted for him. Tony Perkins, president of the religious Right Family Research Council, aptly used the golf analogy “Mulligan” in granting Trump a do-over in life after news broke of Trump’s alleged affair with—and payoff to—a porn star. The righteous were prepared to shrug off Trump’s failings as a husband, so long as he furthered their agenda.
When the president told those arrayed in January for the annual anti-abortion March for Life that “We are with you all the way,” it was one of the few true things to have come out of his mouth.
There could be no bigger gift to the religious Right than Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s pick for the U.S. Supreme Court. Gorsuch will prove to be just as anti-abortion, anti-woman, anti–church-state separation, and pro-religious privilege as Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, the two fiercest religionists on the court. Gorsuch, a fifty-year-old albatross to humanist values in robes, will very likely be with us for a long, painful time to come. Trump’s lower court picks are no better, with some appearing to believe the Bible is more important than the U.S. Constitution in guiding legal decision-making.
Other religiously grounded administration actions that harm women’s rights include Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) establishing a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division to let health workers opt out of providing contraception and abortion on religious grounds and the agency’s adjusting its mission statement to say it supports Americans at “every stage of life, beginning at conception.”
Trump’s picks for HHS leadership posts had included Teresa Manning, a former Right to Life Committee lobbyist and legislative analyst for the Family Research Council, who told NPR in 2003 that “contraception doesn’t work.” She abruptly resigned from the agency earlier this year without explanation.
Being mad at Trump for all this is all well and good, but he is just a cipher for the views of his most enthusiastic supporters. Remember that Trump told NBC’s Tim Russert in 1999 that he was “very pro-choice.” He publicly changed course in 2011, but his past associations and political giving don’t suggest that he’s an anti-abortion zealot or true believer. Trump’s interests begin and end with what is good for him and who he perceives to be in his corner.
What escapes direct criticism when progressive groups fight back against these policies is religion itself. The Women’s Marches brought out millions of women (and men) opposed to Trump. Had the marches been branded as opposition to the influence of religion on public policy, religion’s misogyny, and its impact on women’s rights, you might not have had enough people to field a hockey team.
But religion’s “women problem” lies at the core of these policies and is in fact what animates them. All Abrahamic religions are patriarchal and have stood in the way of women’s equality through the millennia. Of course we know the way women are severely repressed in Islamic countries. But Christianity, being dominant in the United States, remains the focus here—and justly so, as it is the single biggest cultural impediment to women’s rights in this country.
The church has fought back against the entire feminist enterprise since its earliest days.
St. Augustine set things in motion during Roman times under the theory that women were created by God to be subjugated by men. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas wrote that women should be limited to secondary roles because they were biologically less fully formed, hence inherently inferior to men.
Heaps of scorn and troll-like ugliness greeted Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Women’s Bible in 1898. T. DeWitt Talmage, a top evangelical preacher at the time, warned in his sermon “The Choice of a Wife” that any woman who would listen to Stanton “needs to be washed, and for three weeks to be soaked in carbolic acid, and for a whole year fumigated, before she is fit for decent society.”
Pope Pius XI denounced feminism in his 1930 encyclical Casti connubii as disruptive of the obedience that women owe to men. He castigated feminists for diverting women from their intended role as wives and mothers arising from “the natural disposition and temperament of the female sex.”
In the 1970s, when the nascent movement for women’s equality was finding its footing, churches were warning their followers of its evils.
In a 1971 piece titled “The Women’s Movement,” Mormon leader Elder Thomas Monson expressed shock at the aspirations of “some women” for “free abortion, free child care, and equal employment.” Monson cited numerous biblical and Mormon scriptural passages to suggest that women’s duties are to “sustain your husband ... strengthen your home ... serve your God.”
The Southern Baptist Convention voted at its 1973 annual meeting that, in response to “a great attack by members of most women’s liberation movements upon scriptural precepts of woman’s place in society … be it resolved, that … man was not made for the woman, but the woman for the man.”
This enduring narrative is part of Christianity’s DNA, and, whether consciously or not, it informs today’s “family values” voter. That’s why Trump’s view of women, which is either dismissive or salacious depending on a woman’s age and measurements, doesn’t faze them. Trump may be crass about expressing it—which they might find irksome—but underneath, Trump represents their philosophy. Women are here for men. They should be submissive, take care of the domestic realm, and not venture into male domains—and if they do there will be consequences.
It’s all so, well, biblical.
Progressive women are not just battling Trump’s reckless misogyny. They are combatting religion’s first principles and its adherents who are privately cheering Trump on. By not confronting religion’s corrosive influence we are only engaging the mercenary force rather than his biggest patron.
Robyn E. Blumner is the CEO of the Center for Inquiry and the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. She was a nationally syndicated columnist and editorial writer for the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times for sixteen years).