For a female theologian of my age, writing a post on divine fatherhood is a strange throwback experience. I grew up intellectually in the world of Beyond God the Father, After Patriarchy, Womanspirit Rising, and Sexism and God-Talk. In graduate school, my theology colleagues and I read Mary Daly, Judith Plaskow, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Carol Christ, Delores Williams, Carter Heyward, Beverly Wildung Harrison, Sallie McFague, Rita Nakashima Brock—theologians who pointed the way toward a rich feminist spirituality free of the kinds of divine patriarchs who demanded child sacrifice and authorized the destruction of whole nations when they were in bad moods.
We were all historically savvy enough to know that simply ordaining women and addressing worship to “our Mother/Father God” would not instantly rid the world of sexism, but we accepted the basic formula: In Jewish and Christian communities—and the civil societies shaped by these communities—sexism and masculine violence flowed from the violent patriarchalism of the Jewish and Christian scripture. They were obvious, necessary consequences of viewing God as male, controlling, and all-powerful. Critical reinterpretation of religious texts and feminist revision of theology and liturgical practice would gradually remake Christianity and Judaism at their fonts, transforming not only these influential traditions but secular culture as well.
There is certainly plenty of evidence to correlate divine fatherhood with oppression of women and—most relevant for me in my current work on children’s rights—children as well. For instance, early twentieth-century Catholic opponents of the Child Labor Amendment argued it would weaken paternal control over children’s labor and upbringing. In his 1912 pastoral letter on laborer’s rights, William Cardinal O’Connell painted children as resources at their fathers’ disposal, deployable to fulfill fathers’ obligations to provide (ideally benevolently) for their families. His justification was Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 social justice encyclical Rerum Novarum, which reasoned by analogy from “all men are children of the same common Father” to “a family . . . is . . . governed by an authority peculiar to itself, that is to say, by the authority of the father.” Like the Divine Father, the human father (by “a most sacred law of nature”) “should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten.” This obligation does not arise because children are people in their own rights, deserving of care, but because “the child belongs to the father” and is “the continuation of the father’s personality.” (Mothers, the “begotten on,” are completely absent from this argument.) Unsurprisingly, despite Catholic progressives’ support for the amendment, O’Connell’s paternal rights argument was persuasive: the amendment failed. Lest anyone think the progressives were anti-patriarchal, it is important to note that their arguments for living family wages too rested on the logic of paternal obligation.
The same patterns of thinking justified the United States’ refusal to be party to the 1989 United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Evangelical Protestant groups raised some of the most decisive objections, arguing that by articulating the rights of children as separate persons, the Convention weakens parental authority over children’s religious upbringing, education, and discipline. In essence, they argued, the Convention jeopardizes parents’ ownership rights over their own children. This position correlates closely with a theology of atonement that also implies parental or fatherly ownership of offspring, entailed in the belief that the Father’s sacrifice of His son is the sole cause of forgiveness of sin. (Many Christians focus more strongly on Jesus’s incarnation, resurrection, or future coming.) The consequence of these parental rights objections is startling: The United States remains the only member of the United Nations that is not party to the UNCRC.
Similar logic is at work in Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recently suspended practice of separating child asylum seekers from their parents. In justification for the practice, Sessions argued,
Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.
Implicit in this interpretation of Romans 13, to which several New Testament scholars have strenuously objected, are the convictions that a powerful Father God creates authoritative governments to control an unruly humanity and that people are therefore obligated to adhere to whatever laws the government establishes, just or unjust. (See Lincoln Mullen’s recent list of the oppressive uses of Romans 13 in US history.) Further, Sessions rhetorically reduced children from persons to contraband possessions: “[W]e will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.” Further, admitting that “a big name of the game is deterrence,” Chief of Staff John F. Kelly further reduced children from victims of violence in need of protection to pawns that can be used to control parents’ actions.
Finally, the assumption that children are their parents’ “possessions” lies behind declarations that parents who do not have paid work do not deserve to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The assumption that a “fatherly” government should penalize parents for irresponsibility ignores the welfare of the vulnerable, dependent young people whom the precursor program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), was explicitly designed to help.
The upshot is that swathes of American society not only still view “lesser” persons as possessions at the disposal of their more powerful fathers/rulers, but that Americans still explicitly and implicitly cite patriarchal interpretations of Christian scripture to justify human subordination and submission.
But is citation cause? Are misogyny, patriarchy, and gender- and aged-based oppression the consequences of religious beliefs in divine fatherhood? Two pieces of evidence suggest the contrary. The first is Communist: the century-long history of national veneration of Chinese and Russian patriarchs. Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao—heads of state of atheist nations—have been revered as all-powerful and all-knowing patriarchs, without reference to any justifying Father God.
More recently, members of the English–speaking atheist community and scholars of atheism have noted the misogyny and patriarchalism of both New Atheism and its leaders. Hannah Scheidt, PhD, has shown that despite a long tradition of female leadership in atheist movements, the authoritative public faces of New Atheism are predominantly white men (in particular, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens, known as the “Four Horsemen” of atheism). As a group, they have reputations for denigrating women, particularly feminist women. Scheidt notes the irony: without the Divine Father, atheists have still managed to reproduce patriarchal culture.
These examples of secular patriarchalism do not prove that theological traffic between divine and human fatherhood is harmless to women, children, or other vulnerable persons. Far from it. But they do suggest that divine fatherhood is just as likely to be applied to—or if you like, projected onto—images of the divine as it is to be derived from them. Instead of simply worrying about how religious people exploit others by using the authority of divine fatherhood to justify earthly power structures, we might want to ask, why is divine fatherhood so ubiquitous in culture that both the religious and the anti-religious apply it to their leaders?
To be sure, even today divine fatherhood frequently maps to misogyny and hierarchy. But we should not assume that it must or always will. More now than ever, fathers make daycare pickups or stay home with young children, women fully or mostly support their households financially, and men do family emotional and caretaking work. In the minds of religious believers of my adult children’s generation, “God the Father” is likely to conjure quite different images than it did in the minds of believers of my parents’ era. If gendered labor in culture continues to shift, oppressive readings of “Divine Fatherhood” may simply wither from anachronism and disuse. Uprooting their almost-unmarked impress on legislation and judicial rulings may be the harder task.