On being a Christian feminist, Part 3: Popularity & Politics

So in light of what I was writing yesterday, I want to continue by asking which one is more “politically correct”: being Christian or being feminist. By the standard definition, feminism (and all that other anti-oppression stuff, but feminism is convenient in that it has a recognizable and frequently used concrete noun-form for individuals who believe in it) is the epitome of political correctness, and Christianity is full of all that stuff that offends people.

Disclaimer: the people at my church are most emphatically not the cliché of American right-wing Christianity, and probably wouldn’t be able to watch CNN, let alone FoxNews, if you paid them. And yet every so often I’ll hear something that sounds an awful lot like the sort of “victim complex” mentality that drives the “War on Christmas” fervour. These are genuine people, they’re loving people and they spend an awful lot of their time and energy ministering to the poor, both globally and locally.

One of them just casually mentioned a few weeks ago that it’s tough these days being Christian, in that people react to the declaration of one’s Christianity or some associated, potentially unpopular, political opinions with some level of disgust. I hate to call out this conversation like this, because this person in particular is someone completely genuine and whose love for the world drives his every action. Also someone with whom I can disagree politically without getting particularly upset. And I know he means it–he means that he wishes for a world in which he could declare his love for Christ and the church and everyone would share it, and everyone would by extension share in joy and peace and all those shiny happy abstract nouns that go around at this time of year, only with actual meaning attached instead of bows and sparkles.

But I call bullshit. And I call bullshit because I declare myself both a Christian and a feminist, and I’m well aware of which one causes the worse reactions in everyday interactions. I’ve been contemplating actually going about and documenting verbatim what people say when I use each of those terms to describe myself, or otherwise make it clear that I belong to each of those groups (eg. by mentioning that I go to church every Sunday). The basic principle, however, is that in the vast majority of cases in which I’ve simply stated that I’m Christian, people have not batted an eye. Sometimes I’ve done something like invite someone to church for whatever reason, and they’ve politely declined and said that Christianity isn’t really their thing; on a few occasions, people have started some sort of conversation about why they disagree with Christianity/the problems with religion and in very rare circumstances those conversations have been aggressive (usually someone very young defending why s/he is most certainly *not* going to hell and resent the implication that s/he is).

Saying I’m a feminist is a far more noteworthy act. The following comments have all been made to me, in response to that simple statement of fact, within the past month:

  • Really? Why?
  • Huh. And to think I used to respect you.
  • Oooh (eye roll). Now I understand why you always disagree with me. (implied: now I can stop listening to your opinions, however well-thought-out they appeared before you used that word).
  • (In response to my suggesting that a friend’s toddler should get a baby “This is what a feminist geek looks like” t-shirt) Hahaha–Ah, no. Not in my lifetime.
  • Guess you’re not as smart as I thought you were.

The second and final comments were said teasingly to me (ie. I do know that the people who said them still respect me and recognize my intelligence), but they weren’t joking about not respecting feminism as a concept or ideology. Now, a lot of people genuinely don’t respect Christianity as an ideology, but they’re a damn sight less inclined to say so to the face of someone who self-identifies as a Christian, especially if that person is being polite and non-confrontational.

I recognize that this point is ridiculously obvious to the few people who read this blog, but it’s far from obvious to most of the people I know in real life, many of whom are sympathetic to feminist or anti-oppression arguments, but would never really start talking about them or self-identify in that way. It’s partially because of exactly this dynamic that I think it’s really important to do so, and that I wanted to write one of my usual, far-too-wordy pieces of meanderment in order to spell it out, regardless of how simplistic a point it is.

I would, however, really like to hear what happens to other people when they use such terms to describe themselves, and in what context (also, whether it changes based on who that person is–ie, if they’re female or male, straight or gay, conventionally attractive or not, etc etc etc).

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13 thoughts on “On being a Christian feminist, Part 3: Popularity & Politics

  1. The second and final comments were said teasingly to me (ie. I do know that the people who said them still respect me and recognize my intelligence), but they weren’t joking about not respecting feminism as a concept or ideology. Now, a lot of people genuinely don’t respect Christianity as an ideology, but they’re a damn sight less inclined to say so to the face of someone who self-identifies as a Christian, especially if that person is being polite and non-confrontational.

    Interestingly enough, I’ve had the exact opposite experience. In college, I got to listen to professors and students alike joke about how irrational and stupid Christianity and Christians (and often, though not always other religions and their adherents) were. I’ve had quite a few people tell me to my face that they don’t respect my religion and think less of me for believing in it.

    Saying I’m a feminist, however, hasn’t actually gotten me anything but strange looks.

    Even just noting the way conversations go around me, I notice that Christians and Christianity (regardless of whether I out myself or not, or if I’m a part of the conversation or not) tend to be much spoken about much more harshly than feminists and feminism. This is partially because of visibility issues (feminism is much less prominent/visible than christianity, on the whole), partially because of public climate, and partially, I think, just random chance. But I do think there’s a difference between “I’m not a feminist but…” style argumentation (which is what I mostly hear) or “Feminists had the right idea, but…” (which is pretty much the rest of what I hear, whenever people bother mentioning it at all) and comments about “sky fairies” and shared delusions and whatever. People seem to feel much more compelled to at least append empty niceties to comments about feminism (no matter how anti-feminist their actual sentiments may be) than to comments critical of Christianity. At least in conversations I’ve been privy to.

    I’m relatively sure that my experience places me in the minority, however.

  2. Jay says:

    I’m curious…you mentioned early in your comment the words “in college”. Are you still in college? If not, do you find people’s reactions differed inside/outside the academic community/setting?

    I find college campuses in general (unless they’re fairly religious private schools) tend to be much more liberal in outlook than your average city/town, depending on where you live. And generally, the more liberal the political mindset, the more tolerant of feminism and less tolerant of religion.

    The above is all my own opinion, based on my own experiences…but I’d be interested in yours (and Purtek’s), so as to expand my data set.

  3. purtek says:

    See, that is interesting. In response to Jay (re: college campuses), I’ll have to confess that if I go back that far (to my undergrad days), I can certainly think of examples of religion (specifically Christianity) being less tolerated…and me being the one who did the not tolerating. Damn, I could be horrible. There were certainly times when I took the opportunity of someone else simply stating the fact of their faith as an invitation to debate the cosmos, which of course was completely unwelcome to someone who had made a conscious and thoughtful decision to follow Christianity. I wasn’t alone in this pattern, but I didn’t mention it in my post because I was kind of just trying to exclude the general pattern of 18-year-old ignorance.

    I actually see exactly those niceties about Christianity. People around me have no qualms about skipping them when it comes to feminism, dismissing any argument I might make out of hand. I encounter a lot of discussion online mocking belief in God, but rarely in real life.

    I actually wonder if it has something to do with the assumption that even if I *say* I go to church/believe in God, that doesn’t *necessarily* mean I take it as seriously as I do. Identifying myself as a feminist, in this culture, implies a level of having thought about it, while saying one is Christian is *somewhat* remarkable for a person my age, but if I don’t say anything else can definitely be thought of as not a big deal.

    Like I said, I wish I could do a rigourous experiment, but you know…can’t.

  4. BetaCandy says:

    Actually, the very worst thing I can tell someone is that I’m celibate and not for religious reasons. I’ve lost friends – seriously – of both het and queer orientation because it just pisses them off so much that I won’t pick a team and obsess on sex with them. (Which suggests to me they’re not happy with their own sex lives and living in a state of denial which my declaration threatens to expose, but whatever. Works like a charm when I use it as a litmus test to make sure all the deeply warped people are out of my life.)

    That said, I’ve gotten better responses from “I’m an atheist” than from “I’m a feminist.” I never got much hassle over declaring I was a Christian, back when I thought I was. Declaring atheism has always been more provocative. Declaring feminism is more provocative yet.

    I rarely do it offline. I just issue feminist opinions (which non-feminists don’t recognize as such if they have an image of strident angry man-haters for “feminists”).

  5. I’m curious…you mentioned early in your comment the words “in college”. Are you still in college? If not, do you find people’s reactions differed inside/outside the academic community/setting?

    I graduated in May of ’06, so I’ve been out for a little while. I’ve found that now, outside of my family/church life (which, granted, I haven’t been to church in months)… well, I’m not so sure I *have* a social life to compare things to.

    Certainly, Christianity gets better lip service at my agency (something I consistently complain about at my blog, because we really shouldn’t be doing it the way we’re doing it, especially since we’re funded by state and federal taxes) than actual feminist thought, but I wouldn’t say that either gets brought up in a serious way. Come to think about it, serious opinions on policy (or belief systems) that doesn’t directly affect our target communities or our funding streams generally get looked at sort of askance. Anything more complicated than “hey, that’s a religious holiday” or “you know, men and women should be treated equally” (or “we should really have a way for our disabled staff to get in the building”) is treated like you just popped out with a crazy manifesto of some sort.

  6. Mmm, in the quarters of the blogosphere I run in, however, I’m not unused to seeing comments like this:

    as a lifelong atheist, i’m all for prayer. religious people should spend far more time praying. keeps ‘em from doing anything substantial that might actually impact the peaceful lives of the rest of us.

    (Granted, the speaker is also an avowed, um… not exactly anti-feminist, but non-feminist. Ze thinks feminism is utterly incomprehensible and mocks it and its proponents when it comes up, but doesn’t advocate m/any of the standard antifeminist tropes.)

    Going in another direction: any thread at P’gon, if I find myself dragged there, tends to get quite a bit worse. I’d say that’s rather an exception, though – after all, the feminist-bashing in feminist-spaces is a lot different than the feminist-bashing in other spaces. And it is a pretty anti-religious place in general.

  7. purtek says:

    I just issue feminist opinions (which non-feminists don’t recognize as such if they have an image of strident angry man-haters for “feminists”).

    This is almost the only reason I still do it. Between the backlash and the increasing frustration I’ve been feeling at the “in-crowd” style of feminism that I see both on and offline, I’ve been contemplating the relevance of the label rather a lot.

    Magniloquence: I did think of P’gon myself on the religion front, but I never delve into the comment threads there because I just find it too depressing. Maybe I’m just a lot more comfortable understanding why some feel the need to mock my spiritual beliefs than I am accepting the *hostility* people express toward feminism. Actually, I’m surprised this only just occurred to me, but I think that the reality of my own comfort (and the real driving force behind this post) comes from the fact that I recognize the power relationships involved–I’m more okay with people mocking my faith because I don’t feel any legitimate threat (socially speaking) to my spiritual actions. People putting down feminism/feminists plays into a much larger system of threats and political silencing, so the hostility means a hell of a lot more.

    So in the circles that criticize each, this element is still equally present, but I’m able to dismiss the one more than the other because I know where the power really lies in the end.

  8. BetaCandy says:

    Yeah, there are places where Christianity gets bashed good and proper, and you know what? They’re all specialized spaces. You can easily avoid them.

    I’m thinking like this: go to a mall. Any mall. Tell strangers “I’m a feminist” and tell strangers “I’m a Christian.” I’ve never done this, but I have watched Christians stand in public spaces – even at UCLA, which is rather liberal – and invite people to church or try to hand them pamphlets, and people were always very polite as long as they backed off. In fact, they’d stand there 10 minutes politely answering every emotionally blackmailing argument the evangelist made.

    Conversely, by merely suggesting there should be more leading women in films, I got the patient eye roll treatment from the film department.

    So my guess is that if you did this experiment in a mall where all sorts of people come, you’d get neutral to positive reactions to “Hi, I’m a big huge Christian and Jesus loves you” and neutral to fun-making reactions to “Hi, I’m a big huge feminist who thinks we have a way to go before things are truly equal.”

  9. Yeah, there are places where Christianity gets bashed good and proper, and you know what? They’re all specialized spaces. You can easily avoid them.

    I don’t know about that. My boyfriend and I had the following conversation this morning.

    (Listening to this segment on KPFK this morning)

    Me: “Wow, you know, if these people had been around in the past, it would’ve been all ‘heresy this’ and ‘schism that.’ ”

    Him: “Yeah, you guys should go back to doing that. It keeps your population down.”

    Me: “Honey!”

    Him: (continuing) “… your only problem is you can’t keep it in your pants. You guys are always involving the rest of us in it.”

    … as he was driving the car, and we’re living together, there isn’t much space to get away from it.

    I guess that’s what I’m trying to say. I know that I’m not the majority, and that my experiences aren’t typical. But in the areas I happen to be, and for the interests I have, it happens a whole lot. My friends in college ranged from ‘gently mocking’ to ‘outright hostile’ on the religion front. In High School it was a joke. Elementary school was pretty hostile too. The femisphere (or at least the parts I frequent) is also pretty hostile.

    I’m not saying that oh, poor me, I’m oppressed because I’m a Christian. I’m saying it’s damn hard to be a Christian with progressive interests sometimes, because people will often insult and ridicule you to your face. I’ve had people tell me that they thought everyone like me should die. Or be forcibly converted (to atheism). Or that no one could possibly be smart and also be religious. I’ve had professors joke about it casually in lectures and bosses dismiss me out of hand.

    And yes, I’ve been told that no matter what my personal beliefs, no matter how many times I’d spoken out to criticize the rampant abuses done in the name of my religion, no matter what relationship I have (or rather, don’t have) to the denominations and people doing the most damage, that it was still personally my fault for being affiliated with the religion. (No, it wasn’t a “but you’re still privileged and you need to own that” argument, which I would have accepted and found perfectly accurate; instead, it was definitely a “you’re all alike and I don’t have to respect you or your differences” argument.)

    I, me, personally, have had a lot of unfortunate experiences and personally, on the basis of those experiences, find that this kind of conversation as it usually occurs to be rather painful in and of itself because (often, though not always, and not specifically in this case) reactions to saying this are often, yes, quite hostile. I’ve been told that I should suck it up, that it’s my fault for believing the way I do, that because on the whole Christians are privileged that my lived experience is a ‘necessary sacrifice’ at best or couldn’t possibly have happened the way I said it did at worst. I have no illusions that this is the overall dynamic, but I do find it frustrating that I have to consistently prove that I can, indeed, be a thinking, caring and progressive feminist human being and also be a person who believes in God.

  10. purtek says:

    Mag, I can definitely relate to what you’re saying, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that I either just *avoid* those environments or, as I said in my previous comment, I just don’t notice them because I find myself more able to dismiss them as irrelevant (which is essentially confirmation bias).

    If I waded into the conversations you talk about more frequently, I’m pretty sure I’d feel the way you do, because these would be people telling me that no matter how rational and calm and intelligent I sounded, how solid my arguments were etc, that *they* understood better than I what I was all about and how my spiritual beliefs ought to be interpreted. I frequently encounter places where people sounding an awful lot like me are treated as you describe, so I apologize if the tone of this post (or my comment later) has made it seem like that doesn’t matter, or like I’m interpreting you as saying “poor me, oppressed Christian etc”. I think that dynamic is total bullshit, and it frustrates me to see it among the most “progressive” “non-judgmental” voices.

    Back when I was on the other side of this debate, my best friend (Christian) identified a certain type of 18-year-old (ie. me, at the time) who was liberal and outspoken and politically active and advocated live-and-let-live tolerance…but just couldn’t extend that to Christianity. And I agree, some people damn well never grow out of that.

  11. BetaCandy says:

    I’m saying it’s damn hard to be a Christian with progressive interests sometimes, because people will often insult and ridicule you to your face.

    I believe you, and I think that sucks. It’s just I don’t see this as any worse than what other groups are put through. I shudder to think what would’ve happened to me if I’d called myself a feminist when I was a kid in the South – the shit they put me through just for being female was bad enough.

    I think also there are a couple of other factors here that get missed a lot. First, there are TONS of freakish fundamental “Christians” going around harassing the hell out of everyone who won’t be assimilated by them. Progressive types who’ve been treated badly by these people may not have been exposed to genuine Christians, and have no idea there are other people using the label “Christian” who are not out to put women, people of color and every other “undesirable” in “their place”.

    Now, whose responsibility is it to educate these progressives about the two types of Christians: the one who tries to live right, versus the type that thinks the church is a social club for people full of hate and fear? I’m afraid I think the “real” Christians have some responsibility here. The progressives have to listen and correct their behavior once they understand, but as I see it right now, “real” Christians in America are just fine and dandy with sharing a political bed of growing power with the evangelicals. They need to distance themselves from that group. Because ideology isn’t like race: you choose it for a reason, and if the first 100 Christians we meet are mean bigots, it actually DOES follow that those of us on the outside might assume the ideology is ABOUT being a mean bigot.

    I think the only reason I know the difference is that I was raised American Baptist: we did not take the Bible so literally that we lost sleep worrying about evolution theory, we didn’t think it was our place to judge gays, we didn’t pore over Revelations speculations to the exclusion of the lessons that actually taught us how to live properly. And we did not condone fundies who engaged in that bunkus.

  12. Jay says:

    Quick response to Beta, on this:

    “So my guess is that if you did this experiment in a mall where all sorts of people come, you’d get neutral to positive reactions to “Hi, I’m a big huge Christian and Jesus loves you” and neutral to fun-making reactions to “Hi, I’m a big huge feminist who thinks we have a way to go before things are truly equal.””

    Consider the 2 sentiments expressed there…one is a statement of love and affirmation, whereas the second is a statement of disapproval. It doesn’t matter if both are equally true (and in fact, the second is more demonstrably true)…you’re going to get a worse reaction to the second simply because of how it’s likely to make the listener FEEL.

    If someone says something you disagree with, but which either leaves you neutral or gives you a warm fuzzy feeling, you’re probably going to feel good or neutral about it. If someone says something–maybe even something that deep down, you agree with–that makes you feel guilty or bad about yourself or the world you live in, you’re probably going to feel neutral/negative about it.

    That’s just human nature, my friend.

    And that’s not to say the message isn’t worth getting out there; but if you want it to be well-received, it behooves us to find a way to get it out there in a “we need to all be on the same team here” way. Maybe?

  13. purtek says:

    That’s a valid point, but that assumes that we’re individually not doing that. I mean, hey, you’re talking to us (specifically Betacandy and I) for a reason, because somehow we managed to convey to you that despite being big huge feminists, we were working on the same team.

    So people are presumably projecting their assumptions about what the conversation is going to look like onto us. I’ve actually become extremely non-confrontational, and keep in mind that the original context of the post does not involve me saying anything “disapproving” before getting these condescending and dismissive reactions. It happens in other contexts with Christianity, as Mag points out, because in certain environments, people project onto me (or Mag, or yourself, or others) based on some negative past experiences.

    It’s the assumption-based conversation structure that’s so frustrating. Is it human nature? I don’t really know. I think it’s prejudice, personally, and since I’ve worked to overcome it myself in certain ways (like, say, welcoming or even believing in the possibility of an intelligent conversation with a self-identified conservative) I have to say that even if it is “human nature”, it’s worth getting over.

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