Jimmy Carter & the Religious Oppression of Women

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter recently wrote an opinion piece characterizing his frustration with the religious establishment (Christian and otherwise) regarding the fair (or rather, unfair) treatment of women in society. I have quoted that article here, with no modifications, so you can read it before I begin.

Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.

I HAVE been a practising Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.

At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.


The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.

In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.

The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.

It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices – as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.

I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge. But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy – and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.

The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. We have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights and have recently published a statement that declares: “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.”

We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasise the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.

The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.

I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.


Jimmy Carter was president of the United States from 1977 to 1981.

Read more: https://www.theage.com.au/opinion/losing-my-religion-for-equality-20090714-dk0v.html#ixzz2Im6CF8eP

Let me start with what the former President got right.

  1. The cessation of abuse. Any continent, country, state, county, city, suburb, community, or household which perpetuates the abuse–physical, sexual, verbal, mental, social, or spiritual–of women should cease and desist immediately. This includes things which the former President mentioned in his article: genital mutilation, rape, restriction of basic health care to save lives, slavery, and human trafficking. It also includes things that the former President did not mention: sex-selective abortions (most often used to eliminate female children), for example. But I digress.
  2. Equal education. I think you would be hard-pressed to provide evidence of unequal education for women in these United States, a nation in which the disparity between higher-educated men and women greatly favors the female sex, even when it comes to disparity of success within an institution. But certainly unequal education for women happens in other countries, and in those countries, it should be stopped.
  3. Equal employment. I think women ought to be offered equal employment and equal consideration for employment in any secular job or career, provided that they have equal qualifications, experience, and ability in every respect. If this equality is not already happening in this country, then it should.
  4. Equal pay. I think women ought to be offered equal benefits, both financial and otherwise, for an equal position… again, provided that they have equal qualifications, experience, ability, and performance in that position.

Now, let us examine several of former President Carter’s other points, and see how he is… inaccurate.

  1. He has a frail grasp of ecclesiastical history. Notably, he claims that women served as priests and bishops. (Their service as Romans 16" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=romans%2016&version=NASB" target="_blank">deacons, apostles, Acts 18" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts%2018&version=NASB" target="_blank">teachers, and Acts 21" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+21&version=NASB" target="_blank">prophets is documented well enough, although I should note that the modern definition of “deacon” is altered slightly from “fellow worker” or “servant of the LORD,” as determined by 1 Timothy 3" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Timothy%203&version=NASB" target="_blank">the writings of Paul to Timothy.) In the early Church, women would never have had positions of high authority, such as priests, and especially not as bishops (the “overseers” mentioned in the above-linked letter to Timothy). Furthermore, if they did have such positions, (1) why were they not present in those offices by the 4th century, when President Carter suggests that an exclusive group of men twisted Scripture to serve themselves and subject women, and (2) why would Paul’s very obvious requirements for the office of bishop need to be “twisted” in this case? Regardless, President Carter neither understands the Church in the Book of Acts, nor the Church of the 4th century, nor the concerns and goals of either.
  2. He makes a fallacious equivocation. President Carter does not declare it outright, but he suggests that a lack of free contraceptives and abortion is roughly equivalent to subjugating women to strict modesty laws, genital mutilation, unprosecuted rape, and more. He writes, “At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.” I must give him credit: he does not say that they are outright equal violations, but he does say that they are along the same continuum, the same spectrum, and are caused by the same belief. The implication is, of course, that if we do not pay for birth control, we may as well rape, abuse, and enslave women, because the only difference is time.
  3. He does not understand the difference between “authoritatively subordinate” and “objectively inferior.” He does not hesitate to declare this; any suggestion that women are subordinate to the authority of their husbands, as well as to the male authority in the Church (pastor, priest, bishop, patriarch, pope), is to claim them as inferior, less than human, and roughly equivalent to property. This is simply untrue. Jesus, Mark 14" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+14&version=NASB" target="_blank">the Christ, John 3" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%203&version=NASB" target="_blank">the only begotten Son of God, John 1" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=john%201&version=NASB" target="_blank">humbled Himself to become flesh, Matthew 26" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+26&version=NASB" target="_blank">submitted Himself Mark 14" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+14&version=NASB" target="_blank">to the will Luke 22" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2022&version=NASB" target="_blank">of God, Matthew 27" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+27&version=NASB" target="_blank">even Mark 15" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+15&version=NASB" target="_blank">unto Luke 23" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+23&version=NASB" target="_blank">death John 19" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+19&version=NASB" target="_blank">on a cross. He certainly submitted to the authority of God the Father, making Him authoritatively subordinate. But John 5" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+5&version=NASB" target="_blank">we know that He is not unequal with the Father, but rather Philippians 2" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+2&version=NASB" target="_blank">He is equal. So he cannot be objectively inferior. And how is this relationship–subordinate but equal–classified? 1 Corinthians 11" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Corinthians+11&version=NASB" target="_blank">Exactly as the relationship between man and woman.
  4. President Carter thinks school-based education is better for society than home-based education. This is a minor point, but if an educated woman betters society by sending her children to school, why is it that this notion does not line up with education statistics? Unless, of course, the “betterment of society” is not caused by a stronger, more thorough education. Which makes very little sense, in context.

Feel free to disagree with me and my analysis, but unlike President Carter has suggested, I did not pick and choose my verses, but provided them in context for you to peruse at your leisure–not to mention that Bibles are widely available in almost every bookstore, and can be found for free in hotel dresser-drawers throughout the nation, as well as in apps for smart phones, and online. Finding the context is easy enough.

To be honest, that President Carter holds this position is no surprise to me, and in the long run, it is of little consequence. The Jimmy Carter presidency is widely regarded, by Republicans and Democrats alike, as one of the worst presidencies in recent memory. Its most memorable moment may have involved a swamp rabbit.

What is, perhaps, most surprising about this entire article… is that it was published in an Australian newspaper. How weird is that?

One Response to “Jimmy Carter & the Religious Oppression of Women”

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  1. D.C. says:

    Oh, is it time for Jimmy Carter to withdraw from the SBC again? He seems to do so every year or two.

    You’re right on every count, but Iwsant to offer a slight addition. I think it is important to distinguish between an “apostle” (ie one generally sent with the Gospel message; a church planter) from “Apostle” (ie the Apostolic office). It does not seem that every apostle is an Apostle, though most of the Apostles can be considered apostles. That is to say, the Apostles had a unique teaching authority which is not continuing into the present (at least in the Protestant conception of the office) while the apostle (little a) is still an integral part of the church.

    Jimmy is like a lot of Mainline Protestants who equate gender differences with injustice. They would probably hold your talk of Jesus as ontologically equal/submissive in role as heretical. They seem infected with the American love of equality more than by any particular biblical conviction; only a modern-day citizen of an egalitarian republic would find the idea of a male-only pastorate offensive. The Medieval Europeans and Romans seemed perfectly fine with it, as do most Africans . But they are SO very backwards and unjust, aren’t they?

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