Mike Pence, Traditional Gender Norms, and the Evangelical Church // Jennifer Trimpey
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Lately, I’ve been bombarded by the news (as I’m sure many of us have been). One of the less talked about issues concerns Mike Pence’s relationship with his wife. The Vice President reportedly never eats alone with another women or attends events where alcohol may be served (Green, 2017). The author of the aforementioned article noted that this fact has highlighted a divide between Americans: socially liberal and progressive identifying persons might see this behavior as outdated, misogynistic, or crazy while conservative Christians may tend to consider it normal.
I was raised as an Evangelical Christian, the same sect of religion that Pence follows. In sixth or seventh grade, my parents signed me up for a weekend long purity conference (True Love Waits, if you want to look it up), where I was prompted to promise my virginity to my future husband. No middle school boys were in attendance; only little girls. We were told that we would be tainted if we gave our “flower” (aka virginity) to someone else other than our husbands because who would want a crushed flower when you can have a whole one (literally the exact analogy used). Not even fully aware what sex was at that point in my life, I promised (and signed an actual document) to stay a virgin until I was married (I don’t like making promises I can’t keep, but really what kid that age has the capacity to understand what they are agreeing to?). As we left the retreat, we were given a button that stated, “I’m worth waiting for” and prompted to wear it on Monday to school. Girls were innately “flowers” who required protection, upkeep, and constant reminders that their worth stemmed from their purity. The absence of boys at that conference taught me that the rules were different—and more exploratory—for them.
Women in the church have, since the middle ages, attempted to illustrate that they are equal to their male counterparts. Some of the first cases of anorexia in women developed in part because they believed that their denial of food (and the control that was required for that deprivation) might illustrate that their love for God was the same as their religious male counterparts (Bell, 1985). I had the books of the Bible memorized by the time I was 6 years old, yet no one (in the church at least) told me that I could use that memory to make myself more educated, intelligent, or successful. Much later in life, my religious boyfriend and I broke up after I completed my thesis on sexuality and marriage in the early Christian Church because I had decided I didn't think I wanted children based on the knowledge I had gleaned. That wasn’t traditional enough and didn’t jive with him. That was when I left the church.
In high school, my family moved down the street from Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, a conservative Christian group that often pushes its value system into mainstream public policy. This organization’s values parallel the values touted by Evangelicals: anti same-sex marriage, pro-life, abstinence only, and strict compliance to traditional gender roles, to name only a few. If a child differs from the church’s norm, these ideologies can directly impact the children that grow up in these institutions. Take, for example, a Rolling Stone article about children exiled by their religious parents into homelessness because they eventually came out as gay or lesbian (Morris, 2014). Women aren’t the only ones affected. LGBT Christians are, men are, and the list goes on.
What Mike Pence implicitly implies with his “pure” marriage is that women cannot participate in politics, or business, or whatever industry because we are innately temptresses. If the religious men who run the country cannot meet one-on-one with a woman like, say Senator Elizabeth Warren, then how are women supposed to become equals? I don’t particularly care what Mike Pence and his wife decide to do in their relationship. What I do care about is the subtle noxiousness that permeates to women (among others) growing up in the church who perceive this as a message that they don't belong in politics or business or whatever industry that calls to them. What I do care about is the fact that we now have a Vice President who willfully continues this rhetoric on a national level.
Everyone should be free to practice their own religion in whatever way they choose. I don’t want to tell anyone that the values they adhere to are wrong. However, in my experience, the values directly instilled in me by the church harmed me greatly. I was lucky enough to receive an education and to then have a choice whether or not I wanted to follow that lifestyle or pursue something different than becoming a wife or a mother (not that there is anything wrong with these choices when you actually have a choice). I hope that one day the Evangelical church and Mike Pence will graciously accept a female president or a gay or lesbian Evangelical pastor just as they do a stay-at-home mom. It would be what Jesus would want.
Written by Jen Trimpey, M.S.
Bell, R. (1985). Holy anorexia. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Green, E. (2017). How Mike Pence’s marriage became fodder for the culture wars. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/pence-wife-billy-graham-rule/521298/
Morris, A. (2014). The forsaken: A rising number of homeless gay teens are being cast out by religious families. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/ the-forsaken-a-rising-number-of-homeless-gay-teens-are-being-cast-out-by-religious-families-20140903