Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
Although the idea of Biblical womanhood may seem foreign to some, it’s a crucial concept for the solid majority (66%) of white evangelical Christians who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God. Last October, a self-identified evangelical Christian blogger and author named Rachel Held Evans set out to test this scriptural literalism by taking it to its logical extreme. In her year-long “Womanhood Project,” she resolved to embrace every single Biblical instruction for women. The project set out to show the difficulty of embodying godly womanhood – not only did she forgo haircuts (1 Corinthians 11:5) and make her own clothes (Proverbs 31:22), Evans endeavored to “submit” to her husband (Colossians 3:18) and even camped out in her front yard while she was on her period (Leviticus 15:19-33).
Evans, who describes herself as a “thoroughly liberated beneficiary of the feminist movement, complete with a blossoming career, an egalitarian marriage, and a messy house,” paints the project as a critique of the evangelical Christian community’s mixed messages about women’s place at home, in church and in society, as well as a sincere effort to resolve these contradictions as a woman of faith. But the project has, perhaps understandably, failed to garner praise from the evangelical community. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood chastised her for “trivializing” scripture, while others expressed suspicion of her “enthusiastic embrace of the secular feminist movement” and accused her of ridiculing a fundamental tenet of evangelical faith. Evans argues against these characterizations:
My purpose in embarking on this project is not to belittle or make fun of the Bible, nor is it to glorify its patriarchal elements. It is simply to start a conversation about how we interpret and apply the Bible to our lives. In the end, I hope my misadventures inspire women to cut themselves and one another some slack….because the truth is, we all do a little ‘picking and choosing’ when it comes to biblical womanhood!
These are controversial sentiments, and Evans knows it. Her large and engaged following of evangelical Christians draws thousands of page hits and hundreds of comments to her blog every day. But she also courts controversy outside the “Womanhood Project,” openly challenging evangelical leaders on issues like gender roles and sexuality.
It’s important to note that Evans is speaking to a divided community. PRRI research from earlier this summer shows that 4-in-10 (36%) white evangelical Protestants believe that gender-based discrimination is no longer an issue. Women are admittedly more likely to find this form of discrimination problematic (67% of women compared to 56% of men). But it’s doubtless challenging for Evans to appeal to her target audience as she pushes back on conceptions of womanhood that, according to her, “remain pervasive” within conservative evangelical communities, however clever she is in the process.
Within this context, it’s hard to see Evans’ year of “biblical womanhood” as simply a stunt to sell books. While the project is certainly a pointed critique, her tone isn’t malicious overall. But it’s also hard to tell whether Evans’ project will succeed in its stated aim: sparking a serious conversation within the evangelical community about widely held assumptions about what it means to be a “Biblical woman.”
After all, almost half of evangelicals (48%) believe that family life suffers when the woman has a full-time job, an outlook that diverges significantly from the general public (notably, within the evangelical community, men and women do not differ on this question). What, for Evans, seems like cognitive dissonance is likely written into the fabric of many people’s relationship’s, homes, and faith, and even though she professes to share many of their values, she may still seem like an outsider, simply because she chose to do this project. Under these circumstances, it could take a lot more than a year of “living Biblically” to start changing people’s minds.