Dr. Katie Gaddini is a sociologist at the Social Research Institute, University College London specializing in religion, politics, and gender. She is also an associate researcher at the University of Johannesburg, Department of Sociology. Her book The Struggle to Stay: Why Evangelical Women are Leaving the Church is forthcoming with Columbia University Press.
Near the end of each interview I conduct with evangelical Trump supporters, I always ask the same question: What do you think is the biggest issue facing the United States right now? Several respondents point out the obvious: the ongoing pandemic, a struggling economy, debates over freedom of speech. But many others give an unexpected answer. Often accompanied by a deep sigh and a heavy voice, they relay their concerns about the division within the country and within Christianity. As a political figure symbolizing conservative, anti-establishment ideology, American evangelical Christians have reacted very differently to Donald Trump. The controversial op-ed in Christianity Today, and resulting furor, as well as confessional-like publications for or against Trump made by prominent pastors, indicate that a fault line runs straight through white evangelical Christianity; you are either for Trump or against him.
The controversial op-ed in Christianity Today, and resulting furor, as well as confessional-like publications for or against Trump made by prominent pastors, indicate that a fault line runs straight through white evangelical Christianity.
The evangelicals I interview describe how views on Trump have splintered their friendship groups, Christian communities, and family relationships. Similarly, debates around COVID-19 (to mask or not mask, to vaccinate or not, to lock down or not, etc.) have driven a wedge between evangelicals who normally share religious life together. One participant, a middle-class man in his mid-forties, described changing churches because his home church in northern California refused to defy the governor’s lockdown measures. His family began attending a church half an hour away which continued to meet in person, despite a shelter-in-place order. Another participant, a young mom of three, said that Trump came up once over dinner with friends from church. The conversation grew so heated that she went outside in the backyard while her husband stayed and argued with the others. Afterwards, all parties agreed never to discuss politics again.
The writer, evangelist, and Christian leader Beth Moore’s departure from the Southern Baptist denomination last month is yet another crack in the unity that evangelicals aspire to. Much has been made of how her disaffiliation reflects a deeper rift within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), but Moore’s influence extends far beyond denominational boundaries. I remember reading her Bible-study book A Woman’s Heart: God’s Dwelling Place with a group of friends over a decade ago. We belonged to various Christian denominations—Baptist, Congregational, Presbyterian—yet all of us resonated with Moore’s interpretation of scripture and passion for discipling Christian women. At the time, Moore endorsed a complementarian view of gender roles: that men and women are called to fill different roles in the church, with men at the head. And it was precisely Moore’s ability to rise up as an outspoken Christian leader while still yielding to Christian male headship principles that increased her popularity and drew our theologically diverse group of women to her teachings.
Much has been made of how her disaffiliation reflects a deeper rift within the Southern Baptist Convention, but Moore’s influence extends far beyond denominational boundaries.
Although she hasn’t fully renounced complementarianism, Moore has spoken out against the priority that many church leaders place on the issue, following the criticism she received for preaching in recent years. Her frustration with Southern Baptist leaders’ preoccupation with male headship and other instances of gender inequality in the church are all too familiar for many evangelical women. While conducting four years of in-depth research with single evangelical women in the United States and the United Kingdom, I discovered that although many young women support a complementarian view of gender relations, many others fiercely oppose it. Usually, the women who embraced an egalitarian perspective—which supports women in leadership—attended churches with a similar stance. Surprisingly, this posed an even greater problem. I found that the battle for gender equality is far greater for women who attend churches that theologically endorse women in leadership and fail to deliver on their promise, than those with attend churches that outright forbid it.
When I started my research in 2014, a well-seasoned senior colleague predicted that these churches would not change, despite their pledges to increase the number of women in leadership roles. Back then, I doubted her and pointed to a feminist uprising spearheaded by a small collective of women at one of the churches where I conducted research. Their aim was simple: to get more women in church leadership roles. Three years later, however, the collective started to disband after a series of discouraging blows. I noticed that the women who were the most outspoken, the least likely to back down from their belief in gender equality, faced the greatest challenge. “Women of a certain ilk,” one of my research participants told me drily. Around the same time, I attended an event organized by the church to support women in church leadership. While waiting in line for lunch, I met a female pastor from a nearby church. “This is a watershed moment, today,” she told me assuredly, as she reached across the table for a sandwich.
Some evangelical women continue to stay in these churches, encouraged by the belief that things will change, that change is imminent. Others are leaving.
But was it? As I look back on the past seven years, not much has changed. The churches I studied still feature a majority-male leadership team, even though their congregations are majority-female. And they still make impassioned pleas for more female leaders, even though many evangelical women recall stories of being discouraged or outright prevented from pursuing ordination. It’s important to remember that these aren’t the Southern Baptists who defend male headship, and who told Beth Moore to “go home.” These are Christian leaders who theologically support women pastors; who ask their wives to preach from time to time; who, in some cases, even call themselves feminist. And yet, women who do not inhabit that perfect blend of subservience and spiritual prowess, as Moore once did, never reach the leadership roles to which they feel called to assume. Instead, many are told they should keep parts of their personality under wraps; they are told they are “too much.” Had Moore also become too much?
Some evangelical women continue to stay in these churches, encouraged by the belief that things will change, that change is imminent. Others are leaving. In the United Kingdom, single women are the most likely group to disaffiliate from evangelical Christianity. In the United States, survey data suggest a similar phenomenon. This ought to be deeply worrying for Christian leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. After all, if women have historically made up the lifeblood of Christianity—not just by filling the pews and rearing the children, but by leading women’s bible study groups and children ministries, by serving as secretaries to the (male) pastors, and preparing the tea and coffee for after-service fellowship—what will happen if many women leave the church? I agree with my Trump-supporting research participants that Christianity is deeply divided right now, but it’s not just because of Trump. Other fault lines, such as contentions around gender roles in the church, precede Trump’s presidency and will continue long after it.