Guest post by Erin Cassese and Mirya R Holman
The Episcopal Diocese of Washington recently passed a resolution to “utilize expansive language for God from the rich sources of feminine, masculine, and non-binary imagery for God found in Scripture and tradition and, when possible, to avoid the use of gendered pronouns for God.” In debate over the resolution, the drafters noted, “By expanding our language for God, we will expand our image of God and the nature of God.” The hope is that the church’s General Convention will take up this issue in July 2018.
Why does this matter? In our research, we show that belief in a masculine God relates to preferences for traditional gender roles and that these two sets of beliefs strongly relate to political conservatism, especially among women.
Why? We argue that if people see God as a man and man represents God on earth, then any woman’s defiance of a man can also be seen as a defiance of God. Conceptualization of God as masculine establishes preferences for male authority in one’s religious and day-to-day life, which reinforces traditional gender-based hierarchy. Or, as Rev. Meagan Manas, a Pastor at the Clinton Presbyterian Church, notes “If God is male, then Male becomes God.”
Our findings build on research that shows that seeing God “as a He” connects to beliefs in traditional gender roles, including agreement with statements like “Most men are better suited emotionally for politics than most women” or “A husband should earn a larger salary than his wife.”
We then show that these masculine views of God and belief in traditional gender roles relate to conservative political ideology and more conservative beliefs about moral policy issues, including abortion, divorce, and gay marriage. This relationship isn’t just a function of theological conservatism – it’s present even when we control for aspects of religious conservatism like how frequently someone attends church. Thus, changing from masculine to more gender inclusive discussions of God may eventually shape preferences for gender roles and policies.
Of course, at the broader denominational level, Episcopalism is more liberal than other religious traditions, and this change isn’t likely to be picked up by more conservative religious groups. Conservative Christian news outlets have already begun to push back, arguing that the move challenges the inerrancy of the Bible. In an interview with the resolution’s sponsor, Tucker Carlson, a conservative television host said “What I see is a church that embraces literally any fashionable left-wing cause.”
Proponents of the change argue that descriptions of God in feminine terms might have a profound effect on women’s religious life. Rev. Linda Calkins (St. Batholomew’s Church, Laytonsville, MD) notes: “Many, many women that I have spoken with over my past almost 20 years in ordained ministry have felt that they could not be part of any church because of the male image of God that is systematic and sustained throughout our liturgies.” This change may expand opportunities for women’s participation in the church and motivate greater political and church involvement among religious women.
Our research suggests broader implications as well that extend into political life. In another recent study, we find that women with theologically conservative religious beliefs have weaker ties to other women as a group and that this correlates to lower political participation. Thus, the change might catalyze expanded roles for women in multiple spheres, including political life.
In the Episcopal statement on the resolution, the church notes: “Our current gender roles shape and limit our understanding of God.” As a result, these views of God may also shape and limit roles for women. And changing those roles may thus change women’s political lives.
About the authors: