The mayor of Wylie, Texas, made the news recently for saying that women shouldn’t lead prayer in public before city council meetings because the bible forbids it.Wylie is a suburb of Dallas, but Mayor Eric Hogue seems to believe it’s located in the Republic of Gilead, the dystopian bible-based dictatorship imagined by novelist Margaret Atwood in her iconic novel, Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel, The Testaments.
Wylie is not only a minister at Cottonwood Church of Christ, but a clown — literally; he’s “Clinky the Clown.” Fortunately for him — and the city of Wylie and its female constituency — after 12 years in office Hogue is not seeking re-election this year.
The controversy began when Hogue was asked by a city colleague about attendance of student members of the Christian missionary group Youth with a Mission at the next City Council meeting. Hogue emailed: “Sounds good. I would like that. All I ask is that those leading the public prayer be young men.” Subsequent emails from him quoted two New Testament verses that he says his congregation takes “literally”:
“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)
“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” (1 Timothy 2:11-12)
Hogue piously added: “Not everyone may agree with me, but I can’t go against my conscience.”
The mayor continued to put his foot in his mouth during comments in an interview with WFAA-TV (Channel 8):
“I believe a lady can be president of the United States. I believe a lady can be CEO of a company, the superintendent of a school district. But I believe, and this is me, when it comes to [picking] somebody to lead the invocation at a city council meeting, because of those two sets of verses, I’m going to choose a male. There will not be a female song leader. There will not be a female that leads the prayer. Now, there will be ladies that teach other ladies. There will be ladies that teach the children’s classes. But when we’re in a worship service, we’re in a religious service, based on what the scriptures teach, the guys do that.”
Not surprisingly, many women have objected to his comments. “This chamber is not Hogue’s church, and he needs to remember that, or he needs to go,” says Debbie O’Reilly, president of Women Organizing Women Democrats.
Where to begin? First, FFRF sent a prompt letter contesting the city-hosted prayers, asking Wylie to “immediately cease this antiquated and discriminatory prayer practice.” FFRF’s Robert G. Ingersoll Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson noted: “Treating women and nonbelievers who wish to give an invocation differently from a religious citizen constitutes discrimination.”
As FFRF’s letter concluded, the way to avoid this divisiveness is for the city of Wylie to “concentrate on civil matters and leave religion to the private conscience of each individual.”
But Hogue is right about one thing: The bible does indeed preach female subjection. There are many hateful texts about women in both testaments of the bible. You can view 200 major verses alone in FFRF’s nontract, “Why Women Need Freedom From Religion.” Read about God-ordained or excused rape, female sacrifice (Judges 11:30-40), the sordid tale of the concubine thrown into a crowd to save men, then abused all night long and left dead on a doorstep the next morning. (Judges 19:20-29) Women and our natural, life-giving functions are derided as “unclean,” so unclean we must make “sin atonements” for menstruating. (Leviticus 15:19-23) Even childbirth is “unclean” (note the sexism in the edict that increases the period of uncleanliness if a woman gives birth to a baby girl!). (Leviticus 12:1-4)
I detest many of these primitive and misogynistic texts. But the biblical verses I most detest are found in the New Testament, in the two verses cited by Wylie, and many similar passages. These were the verses our feminist foremothers (many of them ardent freethinkers) had to overcome in speaking publicly, including for the abolition of slavery, then the abolition of laws and practices denying women the full rights of citizenship. These rights did not just encompass women’s right to vote, whose centennial will be celebrated on Aug. 26. These rights also included the right to ownership of her own person, her own property, her own paycheck and to be a guardian of her own children, the right to attend colleges and universities and to enter into most professions barred to women.
One hundred years is only four generations. And yes, we’ve come a long way. But what is still retarding women’s progress in large part is the hold over the law of the bible and other so-called holy books. Our society’s whitewashing and exoneration of the bible — such as public officials’ continued insistence on trotting this nasty book out for every inauguration — was caricatured by President Trump’s infamous photo-op at St. John’s Church on June 1.
Yet the book Trump held upside down and Wylie is preaching from has just received rave endorsements from prominent liberals. Among them is former Vice President Joe Biden, who, in criticizing Trump’s actions, said: “The president held up the bible. I just wish he’d open it once in a while.” (He added, to his credit: “In addition to the bible, the president might also want to open the U.S. Constitution once in a while. If he did, he’d find a thing called the First Amendment.”)
Yes, Trump might well enjoy turning to Judges 5:30, “to every man a damsel or two.” He might like to read about those haughty metaphorical “daughters of Zion,” who “walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet,” who are then smited so “the Lord will discover their secret parts.” (Isaiah 3:16-17) Trump might lick his lips over lots of demeaning, sexual imagery and sexist injunctions allowing bible patriarchs, such as King Solomon, to be married to 300 wives and 700 concubines. (1 Kings 11:30)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, likewise when condemning Trump’s church photo-op, also praised the bible. Pelosi quoted Ecclesiastes, the least objectionable and most secular book of the bible — all five pages of it. If the rest of the bible were like Ecclesiastes, with its poetry (and some high-falutin’ aphorisms, plus one tyrannical threat in 5:6), women wouldn’t still be fighting for the right to preach in bible-based churches or in city councils overseen by petty theocrats, or for our right to bodily autonomy before the male-dominated Congress, state legislatures and U.S. Supreme Court.
Bishop Marian Budde, the woman who presides over the Episcopal diocese in D.C., including St. John’s (site of Trump’s infamous photo-op) rightly complained about Trump’s posturing, but insisted the bible “declares that God is love.” Well, actions speak louder than words. As Ruth Hurmence Green, author of The Born Again Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible, put it, there isn’t enough love in the bible to fill a salt shaker. Unfortunately, this cherry-picking of more palatable passages by liberal religionists legitimizes fundamentalists like Wylie by lending credence to the source of his bigotry: the bible.
The sexism, put-downs, trash-talking and outright injunctions of inequality and violence are endemic. They are not an exception to the tenor of the book, they are the rule. The irony is that if the bible and its literalist supporters had their way, a woman would not be speaker of the house, nor would Budde be the Episcopal bishop of D.C. The words of Paul in 1 Chronicles clearly mean what they say — and kept Western women oppressed for nearly two millennia until the Enlightenment and women’s rebellion.
We don’t live in the Republic of Gilead, but only because the First Amendment is still there to protect us from the insertion of biblical edicts into our civil laws.