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Like every other human institution, religion has managed to do tremendous damage to the human dignity of both men and women. But I’m not willing to lay the blame for that on people whose theological commitments lead them to understand gender difference as a divine gift to be expressed in complementary roles in family, religious community and society.
In fact, it is complementarians – traditionalist Christians., orthodox Jews, observant Muslims, many Mormons – who have been at the forefront of modern “modesty” movements that seek to protect the integrity of girls and young women who are growing up in a culture that reduces them, at an earlier and earlier age, to sexual objects. In my own evangelical milieu, I often see at conferences and in journals the work of complementarian theologians who condemn domestic violence on the same biblical grounds erroneously used to excuse it.
There is another type of complementarianism that denigrates the dignity of men. From radical prohibitionists like Carrie Nation (”Men are nicotine-soaked, beer-besmirched, whiskey-greased, red-eyed devils”) to radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin (”A commitment to sexual equality with males is a commitment to becoming the rich instead of the poor, the rapist instead of the raped, the murderer instead of the murdered”), there have always been voices identifying men as the inferior sex. A subtler form of this thinking is found across the television dial, where you’d be hard-pressed to find a sitcom dad of the caliber of Ward Cleaver (or even Mike Brady).
As a Southern Baptist growing up in the first half of the 20th century, I’m sure President Carter encountered a host of prejudices lying beneath a thin veneer of religion. Such things ought to be condemned. But it may be that in some complementarian traditions there is much to be found that is worthy of respect, even appreciation, rather than prejudice.