The Myth of Male Religious Power?

Stephanie Coontz is spot-on in her analysis of “The Myth of Male Decline” in the September 29 New York Times:

Several of the authors of [recent] books posit that we are on the verge of a “new majority of female breadwinners,” where middle-class wives lord over their husbands while demoralized single men take refuge in perpetual adolescence.

How is it, then, that men still control the most important industries, especially technology, occupy most of the positions on the lists of the richest Americans, and continue to make more money than women who have similar skills and education? And why do women make up only 17 percent of Congress?

These books and the cultural anxiety they represent reflect, but exaggerate, a transformation in the distribution of power over the past half-century. Fifty years ago, every male American was entitled to what the sociologist R. W. Connell called a “patriarchal dividend” — a lifelong affirmative-action program for men.

The size of that dividend varied according to race and class, but all men could count on women’s being excluded from the most desirable jobs and promotions in their line of work, so the average male high school graduate earned more than the average female college graduate working the same hours. At home, the patriarchal dividend gave husbands the right to decide where the family would live and to make unilateral financial decisions. Male privilege even trumped female consent to sex, so marital rape was not a crime.

The curtailment of such male entitlements and the expansion of women’s legal and economic rights have transformed American life, but they have hardly produced a matriarchy. Indeed, in many arenas the progress of women has actually stalled over the past 15 years.

Coontz goes on to look at many facets of American life, from wages to job segregation, workplace prejudice and educational achievement, pop culture and restrictive gender identity constructs.

What she doesn’t talk about is religion.

And this is year in which we need to talk about religion.

We need to talk about how patriarchal religion has blessed patriarchal culture, and the fact that this year’s re-emergence of public opposition to access to contraception, safe abortion, and reproductive justice for all grows out of exactly the same “cultural anxiety” that Coontz identifies as underlying this myth of male decline.

We need to remember that this year we saw the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops trying to exert more control over the Leadership Council of Women Religious, Rush Limbaugh slut-shaming Sandra Fluke and by extension any single woman using contraception, Governor Bob McDonnell signing into law mandated transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortion in Virginia, and Todd Akin using a phrase like “legitimate rape.”

These are some anxious men. 

The bishops assertiveness over contraception – contraception! – as a public good in women’s health care showed most clearly this year dying gasps of male religious power.  Male religious leaders know that they can no longer take their advantage for granted.  Their “patriarchal dividend” is dwindling and they can no longer count on the same power advantage of generations past.  The Catholic bishops haven’t convinced their own members to follow the church’s absolute prohibition on birth control, and so in a last desperate attempt at relevance-seeking, they are trying to impose their view on the rest of us by challenging U.S. law now protecting a woman’s access to the full range of health care services.

It won’t work.

Consider the latest Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life report.  A big headline is the continued rise in the number of Americans who do not affiliate with any religion.  This includes those who might consider themselves spiritual, believe in a deity, and even pray every day while not being a member of any church or religious institution, as well as agnostics and atheists. 

In part, this is a generational shift:

A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives

But, check out a key finding of the report:

With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.

So perhaps the irony is that the male-dominated institutions with all-male leadership are alienating a generation of young people, the very ones who they might wish to join their flock, by inserting themselves into areas long settled in the moral consciousness and legal code of the United States.

Get out of politics.  Get back into your communities, your pulpits, and your theologies, and find your relevance and power there.

But, maybe it’s too late. 

At this rate, male religious power might just become a mythic thing of the past.

 

About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • Greg

    Why do the Catholic Bishops denounce contraception? So many Catholics already do not listen. It would help their popularity if they decided contraception is ok. What do the Bishops gain by having contraception be illegal?

    • Caryn Riswold

      Very good questions.


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