NEW YORK — In his new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, former President and longtime Baptist church deacon Jimmy Carter says prejudice and discrimination against women and girls is perpetuated in America and around the world by religious authorities who twist holy texts to assert male dominance.
Carter famously broke with the mainstream Southern Baptist Convention in 2000, denouncing it for drifting into doctrines he called sexist and racist. He now worships at a New Baptist Covenant church in his hometown of Plains, Ga.
The 89-year-old Carter recalls how in his Deep South childhood the Bible was cited to justify white supremacy and asserts that patriarchs now twist the Bible, Koran and other Scriptures to denigrate and control women.
As a Bible teacher for more than 70 years, he tackles some of the passages cited by male supremacist Christians, notably St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which preaches: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church …”
Carter contrasts this and other Old Testament writings that consigned women to male-property status with the four Gospels that “never report any instance of Jesus’ condoning sexual discrimination or the implied subservience or inferiority of women.”
While Carter’s case that Jesus’ example in the New Testament demonstrated fairness and equality is persuasive, Christians who cling to chauvinist Bible passages are unlikely to listen to his interpretation of Scripture.
After assigning the cause of much of today’s discrimination to religious intolerance meant to preserve male dominance, Carter documents the vast array of effects.
In one of his shortest, but perhaps most chilling chapters, The Genocide of Girls, Carter notes that prenatal screening has enabled parents in patriarchal societies to “select” the sex of their children by preventing the birth of girls. Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize laureate from India, estimated in 1990 that more than 105 million female infants worldwide had been aborted or killed in a practice called “femicide” or “gendercide.” Carter says laws against the practice in China, India and South Korea have been ineffective.
Other chapter titles offer a bleak summary of the price that women and girls pay for patriarchy: Sexual Assault and Rape, Violence and War, Slavery and Prostitution, Spouse Abuse, “Honor” Killings, Genital Cutting, Child Marriage and Dowry Deaths, and Politics, Pay and Maternal Health, in which Carter focuses on problems of economic and health care inequality in the U.S.
Carter admits that outsider groups like his Carter Center cannot parachute values in “without the support of the entire community, especially including traditional chiefs and other male leaders.”
But he cites hopeful efforts by a group the Carter Center has worked with called Tostan (“breakthrough” in the West African language of Wolof), which has made inroads against genital cutting and child marriage in African communities.
And he writes that by bringing men into the discussion with women and enlisting fair-minded religious leaders, progress has been made against obstacles that had seemed insurmountable.