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For religious conservative women, the Kavanaugh-Ford hearing was particularly disorienting

Political kinship with the GOP is colliding with new ideas about gender and faith.

Christine Blasey Ford testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Sept. 27 on Capitol Hill. (Melina Mara/Pool/Reuters)

About a half-hour into Thursday’s testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, Jen Pollock Michel tweeted a simple message: “Watching the hearings. Lord, have mercy.”

Pollock Michel, a 44-year-old evangelical author from Chicago now living in Toronto, is religiously and politically conservative and badly wants someone who shares her values on the Supreme Court. In Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, she saw someone who would promote what matters to her most.

When the allegations of sexual assault began emerging against him, she was cautious. “Let due process happen,” she said. Then came Thursday’s hearings. She tried to imagine herself as Kavanaugh’s mother. She envisioned one of her three sons sitting in the judge’s chair.

But when she heard Ford speak, Pollock Michel thought of her two daughters. She thought of her many friends who are survivors of sexual assault. She couldn’t push out of her head one detail: the laughter. What Ford called “uproarious laughter” from her attackers.

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“I don’t know how you hear that as a woman without feeling the complete horror and panic of that moment,” Pollock Michel said. “As evangelical Christians, we say that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. I think it really is a moment for us to be asking ourselves as Christians about our own kind of hunger for righteousness.”

Thursday’s hearing was disorienting in a particular way for some religious conservative women, who are torn between a new, growing #MeToo moment in their communities of faith, desire to get a solid conservative on the court before midterm elections and a drive to trust a just God more than any political kinship.

Polls among perhaps the benchmark for the most conservative group of Americans, white evangelical Christians, show that about the same percentage of men and women in that group — just under half, according to a Marist poll — said before the hearings that Kavanaugh should be confirmed, even if Ford’s allegations are true. But behind that number, interviews on Thursday show, are complex and sometimes agonized sentiments about what it means to be a religious conservative woman.

One woman who is in a position of leadership in a conservative Christian organization and recently disclosed past sexual abuse — and spoke on the condition of anonymity as a result — texted during Ford’s testimony that she was weeping. “The Democrats are winning every survivor in this country right now.”

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Afterward, the woman said she had been very supportive of Kavanaugh and wants a justice who ideally shares her antiabortion views. But what had won her over to him was the jurist’s strong record of hiring and promoting women. She has often felt treated as second-class as a woman working in conservative Christian organizations.

“As a conservative, I know that’s not always the case,” she said of Kavanaugh’s nondiscriminatory hiring practices.

But when Ford told the committee her story about wanting to install a second door to her home — an escape exit — “I immediately thought: ‘She’s telling the truth.’ I thought: I want a second door.”

And when Kavanaugh spoke, his overt talk about the Clintons and partisan politics “gave me pause about his character. I can’t imagine Justice Roberts responding with such a vehement tone. Or Justice Ginsburg, on the other side.”

Ultimately, she said she would trust God to bring about the right outcome. “No hearing will thwart the will of God for the court,” she said. “The midterms are not going to thwart the will of God. What God intends is far more just — and God knows what happened or didn’t with Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh,” she said.

Marie Griffith, director of a center on religion and politics at Washington University in St. Louis and an author about gender and religion, said conservative Christian women, like conservative Christians in general, are powerfully drawn in 2019 to seeing themselves as a persecuted people fighting “tooth-and-nail against the forces of liberalism and feminism” and will probably continue to support Kavanaugh, no matter what comes out.

“The politics of choosing to believe the party one already wishes to win cannot be discounted; it colors everything in this debate, as it did in the reactions to both [Justice Clarence Thomas accuser] Anita Hill and [Bill Clinton accuser] Paula Jones.” Those politics, she said, are just as true on the other side.

For others, Ford’s testimony only cemented their support for Kavanaugh.

Sarah Corda, 21, was watching the hearings broadcast on TVs at her internship in a corporate office of a clothing company in Boston. All around Corda, her co-workers were glued to their TVs, praising Ford for her brave testimony. Corda sat in silence, texting her small group of fellow conservative friends,

Corda, a senior at Northeastern University, identifies as Catholic, Republican and staunchly antiabortion. In Kavanaugh, she sees an unapologetic leader aligned with a president she supports, “a family man” who could help advance abortion restrictions on the high court. And watching the hearings Thursday, she still felt that Ford’s allegations “are a little bit far-fetched.” She found some of her statements at the hearing — such as her casual request for caffeine — odd and out of place in such a serious setting. Corda said she was thrown off by the number of times Ford had to correct herself and how she claimed to have a fear of flying despite taking several airplanes on vacations and to Washington.

“I really just don’t believe her story. I’m having trouble feeling her emotions when I truly don’t believe it was an event that occurred,” Corda said. “I’m having trouble seeing it as a real situation.”

“A lot of what she said was that she was doing this to help others,” Corda said, “But if she really wanted to help others, I feel like she would have come out with this at an earlier time.”

Paula Rinehart, a 67-year-old marriage and family therapist in Raleigh, N.C., said her desire to see Roe v. Wade overturned is not what drew her to Kavanaugh before Thursday or during the hearings. Rinehart said he is clearly a person “governed by the rule of law and the Constitution.”

And from her work, she found it incredible that someone accused of what Kavanaugh has been accused of could go on to “live a Boy Scout life.” She believes Ford “believes the story she’s telling.” She said she feels pained over the country’s polarized climate, which stretches even into the Presbyterian Church, where she’s an elder.

But she doesn’t see the fault of conservatives in that dynamic, and she didn’t see it at the hearing Thursday.

“We play the victim role, but look, one woman’s voice has the power to derail an incredible candidate. We just cannot play the victim role anymore. It’s just such a paradox,” she said. Asked whether she used to see women as victims but doesn’t now, Rinehart said no. “I’ve never seen women that way. I think men are far more beaten down in our culture.”

Kyra Thompson is a 22-year-old senior at Liberty University, a massive evangelical school that sent several buses to Washington on Thursday to hold signs on Capitol Hill in support of Kavanaugh.

But on campus, she said, students watching hearings between classes were experiencing “a huge divide.”

As someone who describes themselves as a devout, antiabortion Christian, Thompson was hopeful that Kavanaugh would be the conservative Supreme Court justice needed to overturn Roe v. Wade. And even when the allegations came out, Thompson was skeptical. She questioned why nobody had come forward with these accounts before.

“I know it's really difficult for sexual assault survivors to say stuff and to come forward and talk,” she said, “but I'm also very conflicted, because why now?”

But hearing Ford’s emotional testimony, hearing the pain in her voice and her searing descriptions, left Thompson even more torn.

“You’re, like, wow, I don’t really want to see another human being suffer through that,” she said. “I don’t want somebody who is going to mistreat another human being to be in charge of making a lot of these decisions, even if they do have the same political stance on something as me.”

She wishes there were a way to get clearer facts and evidence.

That emphasis on a neutral truth untainted by political considerations resonates for Megan Lively, who had accused Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson of mishandling her rape allegation years ago at the seminary he led and where she studied. The accusation this spring eventually led to Patterson’s firing as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas.

The #MeToo movement, her case — which was hugely followed by Southern Baptist women — and the election of Donald Trump, Lively said, has changed women. They are no longer automatically trusting conservative leadership and are more independent. That made Lively feel torn between studying the face of Ford, with incredible empathy, and worrying that her own experience as a survivor would bias her against Kavanaugh.

“There are so many Christians who are struggling with this. They realize there is a problem with the church and politics and every aspect of the world. I mean, Bill Cosby is in jail!” she said. “If you’re pro-life and say you value women inside and outside the womb, and you’re making a quick judgment against a woman — that’s not pro-life either.”