Four years before Hillary Clinton became the first woman to mathematically capture a major U.S. political party’s presidential nomination, a staff member on Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign posed a question in an email that shocked many people: “Is it God’s highest desire, that is, his biblically expressed will, … to have a woman rule the institutions of the family, the church, and the state?”
God’s will or not, in 2016, it’s all that much closer to coming to fruition.
Clinton is poised to be nominated for president by the Democratic Party next week. And so religious hard-liners of all faiths — the most conservative Christians, Muslims and Jews — are debating: Do their Scriptures prohibit a female president?
They point out passages in the Bible: Eve’s origin as subordinate to Adam; the Old Testament leader Deborah’s implication that it was shameful that she had to step up to lead the Israelites when male leaders faltered; the New Testament verses that say “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.”
“The Old Testament is very clear that Yahweh desires men to lead,” said Owen Strachan before he stepped down last week as president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The purpose of the organization — to insist on separate roles for men and women in modern life — is itself an unpopular view, Strachan acknowledged upfront. “I do stand for a culturally despised position.”
But he believes the Bible has laid out spheres for men and for women that should last for all time. “A good number of evangelicals would probably prefer to see men lead in the political arena, and I would be one of them,” Strachan said. “Many evangelicals would say that men need to be the ones who step up and take responsibility, not simply for the home and the church, but also for the community.”
That being said, he doesn’t know a verse in the Bible that says a woman is barred from becoming president, even if she isn’t called upon by Scripture to assume the role like a man might be. He thinks it’s all right, as long as she is not abandoning her biblically mandated role in the home. “If her children are raised, she has freedom to enter any number of vocations,” he said.
Muslims also have a historical and present-day tradition of believing in distinct, separate roles for men and women. But Imam Suhaib Webb, an authority whom many young Muslims consult for advice on applying the Koran to modern dilemmas, said most U.S. Muslims won’t think twice about Clinton’s gender.
“There’s a considerable minority who will have, perhaps, concerns,” Webb said. But for the majority, their worry over a long list of other issues — immigration policy, U.S. affairs in the Middle East, Black Lives Matter, the no-fly list and much more — puts them firmly in Clinton’s camp. Webb said Muslims are more inclined to care about gender norms in their own religious communities than in the secular sphere.
Orthodox Jews also approve far more readily of female leadership in politics than in religion. “For some people, it may be easier to vote for a woman president than it would be to get a woman president of a synagogue,” said Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, the president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
She pointed out that Israel, where ultraorthodox newspapers have refused to even print female newsmakers’ photographs for the sake of modesty, elected one of the world’s first female heads of state, Golda Meir. “People would vote for a woman president even if they are hesitant to publish her image,” Weiss-Greenberg said.
But for certain evangelical Christians, those examples from the rest of the world don’t match up with God’s typical plan. As Strachan put it, “Many of us would say, understanding creational order, men are called to lead.”
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he recalls this discussion happening in 2008, when Sarah Palin was running for vice president. Ultimately, he said, a candidate’s policies matter more than gender for almost all evangelical voters. Opposed to Barack Obama’s stances on abortion and other issues, and in agreement with John McCain’s and Palin’s viewpoints, evangelicals mostly decided to vote for Palin. But a certain very conservative segment did discuss her gender first.
This time, evangelicals are starting out disinclined to vote for Clinton because of policy, not persona. Mohler said he hasn’t heard much talk about gender yet — and he expects he soon will. “I think in general terms, there is a good reason why men tend to lead in these positions. I think embedded in creation is a natural tendency,” he said.
Mohler did note that he admires Queen Elizabeth I, Margaret Thatcher and a few others — rare women who he thinks came along at a few right moments in past centuries.
This post has been updated.