From the Panel

Using Texts To Discriminate Abuses Religion

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Below is an excerpt from "On Faith," an Internet feature sponsored by The Washington Post and Newsweek. Each week, more than 50 figures from the world of faith engage in a conversation about an aspect of religion. This week's question: Former president Jimmy Carter and other world leaders issued this statement: "The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable." What's your reaction to these statements? Are "male interpretations of religious texts" to blame for the "deprivation of women's equal rights?"

To claim that "male interpretations of religious texts" are to blame for the "deprivation of women's equal rights" is to exaggerate the influence of religious texts on modern living. Undoubtedly, the patriarchal dominance in classic sacred texts influenced centuries of female subservience in periods of time where religion was the authoritative voice in society. I hardly think that we can make that same claim today in most of the Western world, although it is certainly true for those under more theocratic governments.

The issue is not if religious texts of old carry weight but whether or not we use religion as a thinly veiled cover for misogyny, just as it's used today to support violence. In that sense, we abuse religion, leveraging it to support our own biases and prejudices. . . .

-- Erica Brown, scholar-in-residence, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, adjunct professor at American University and George Washington University

Women's equality with men is long overdue. In particular, societies need to safeguard women's right to self-determination -- from personal moral choices about how to lead their lives, to familial decisions about marriage and children, to agency in educational, economic, political, social, medical, and religious spheres. . . .

. . . Patriarchal interpretations of religious texts -- whether by men or by women -- have been instrumental in supporting and creating cultural and traditional mores that circumscribe women's freedom and equality. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Muslim world, where religious patriarchy has intersected with social conservatism, political and theological totalitarianism, and reactionary resistance to political, economic and cultural colonialism to create devastating consequences for women's lives. . . .

-- Pamela K. Taylor, co-founder, Muslims for Progressive Values, director, Islamic Writers Alliance

I applaud the effective witness of our former president Jimmy Carter and South Africa's undaunted heroes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Nelson Mandela. The Christian Church has for far too long attempted to perfume sexist discrimination against women under the name of "Bible-based, Sacred Tradition."

The two largest Christian churches in the world -- the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox -- still do not count women as fit subjects for ordination. They use strange arguments like Jesus did not choose any women to be his disciples. It seems not to matter that Jesus also chose no Poles, Germans, Irish or Italians, but that has not stopped them from becoming priests. If, as so many church leaders in these two churches assert, a woman is not created in the image of God and is thus not fit to represent God before the altar, then I wonder what part of the male anatomy bears the divine image, since the bodies of males and females are 99.9 percent identical. I find that among the more absurd religious claims I have ever encountered.

-- John Shelby Spong, former bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Newark, Author, "Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism," "A New Christianity for a New World," "Why Christianity Must Change or Die" and "Here I Stand"

To read the complete essays and more "On Faith"commentary, hosted by Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn, go to

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