Religion, Politics and Gender Equality

Place of publication
United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) and Heinrich- Böll-Stiftung
Date of Publication
September 2009
Number of Pages
All rights reserved.
Since at least 1980, the United States has been dominated by a political coalition in which conservative evangelical Protestants have played a major role.1 This coalition has typically operated within the framework of the Republican political party and has supported Republican dominance in electoral politics, leading to a vociferous conservativism in U.S. policy on issues of both gender and sexuality: using U.S. aid so as to promote worldwide restrictions on women’s reproductive freedoms, promoting the maleheaded nuclear family as the optimal model for personal life, and dismantling government offices and programs that had been dedicated to ending gender discrimination in economic sectors. In conjunction with neoliberal imperatives to privatize government programs and devolve responsibility onto individual households, this conservatism has had significant negative effects on gender equality, particularly for poor women and women of color, in the United States and around the world. As a result, it is easy to think that the removal of religion from the American political process would also directly further gender equality. As we explore in detail below, however, American secular politics includes gender and sexual conservatism that, while better than the intense conservatism promoted by actors on the religious right within the Republican coalition, has oftentimes combined a Christian secularism with neoliberal imperatives in support of policies that are punitive toward women and that undercut possibilities for gender equality.

The most recent Presidential election in 2008 fractured the Republican religious coalition and opened the door to a new alliance between the Democratic Party and “new evangelical” Christians who identify as politically moderate or progressive. While this alliance between Democrats and Christians might also be assumed to usher in a model of religious political engagement in a far more progressive guise, on questions of gender and sexuality the result is by no means obvious. While both progressive evangelicals and the Democratic Party nominee and eventual victor, Barack Obama moved to shift the focus of public debate from questions of gender and sexuality to economic issues, this move runs the risk of leaving existing political visions of gender and sexuality largely in tact. The individual states that voted for more progressive political leadership in Obama and continued conservatism on the issue of same-sex marriage (California and Florida) demonstrated the danger in Obama’s strategy of shifting away from cultural issues to economics. An analysis of exit polling in conjunction with contributions to the campaign for the successful Proposition 8 anti-gay-marriage amendment in California shows a coalition of religious funders led by the Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) operating somewhat independently of the Republican Party, a coalition that connected with voters from the more conservative Christian elements of the Obama coalition (Public Policy Institute of California 2008, Carlton 2008).

Overall, the 2008 elections made visible a shifting landscape both within and among politically organized Christian groups and in alliances between Christian and secular activists within political parties. For the past few years, new alliances driven specifically by political allegiances around gender and sexuality have formed among religious groups that were previously divided, including conservative Catholics and Mormons in the campaign for California’s Proposition 8 against gay marriage, as well as in international policy circles among conservative Protestants,  atholics and Muslims. As these specifically religious connections have grown the connections between Protestant evangelicals and the Republican Party have frayed. The massive unpopularity of President Bush, who personally embodied the conservative evangelical Protestant-Republican Party alliance, undercut the political power of the coalition by 2008 and also emboldened new groups who identified themselves as progressive evangelicals to organize politically and to ally with the Obama campaign, if not the Democratic Party as a whole. These shifts were met by changes within the Democratic Party as it took up more openly Christian rhetoric. None of these shifts challenged the dominance of Christianity in American politics, however. His supporters roundly denied the rumor that Obama was a Muslim; they did not question why it should be a problem for a Muslim to run for President of the United States. Thus, with all the change wrought by the 2008 election, the Christian presumption of American politics remained intact and with it the visions of gender and sexuality implied by American Christianity and Christian secularism.

Written by Janet R. Jakobsen and Elizabeth Bernstein, Department of Women's Studies, Barnard College, Columbia University, New York.

In cooperation with the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung