Friday, October 28, 2011

Evangelicalism's Unintended Consequences?

Church Emboldening Women?
Graeme Robertson
Getty Images

The writer Helen Epstein´╗┐ offers an interesting finding in her opinion piece for the New York Times, "Talking Their Way Out of a Population Crisis" (October 22, 2011). In this article, she tells of a Columbia University demographer, James F. Phillips, and his colleagues in Ghana who were tying to empower women of the Kassena-Nankana people to use contraception for better family planning:
At first, they organized special "durbars" -- all-male political gatherings presided over by the village chief -- to help explain to men that family planning would make their women and children healthier and stronger. These efforts weren't very successful.

Then the team noticed two things: Their data clearly showed that large numbers of women were having fewer children, whether or not they lived near the experimental family planning programs. And large numbers of evangelical preachers were establishing churches in the Ghanaian hinterlands to which, every Sunday, Kassena-Nankana women dressed in Western-style finery headed in droves.

Dr. Phillips assigned a student to see what effect the churches were having on contraceptive behavior. To their amazement, they found that female Christian converts were three times as likely to use family planning as women who retained their traditional African faith, and had significantly smaller families.

The churches certainly didn't promote family planning. But, despite their defense of patriarchal family values, many churches were giving women a voice denied them by their own culture.

Ms. Epstein doesn't say why the researchers report that these evangelical churches "certainly didn't promote family planning," and I wonder if that's entirely true. But let's assume that it is. How then did evangelical Christianity give women a voice enabling them to start family planning?
Traditionally, Kassena-Nankana women are not involved in everyday decision making, even about household matters. But the born-again women were forming committees, making speeches and organizing outings, fund-raisers and other activities. Tradition in Kassena-Nankana also forbids women to communicate with ancestors and other spiritual beings; only men can do that. But the Christian women were speaking directly to Jesus about their problems. He was, many of them may have felt, the first man ever to listen. This may have given them a language for speaking to mortal men as well, even about such sensitive matters as contraception.

I wonder if the researchers asked the women about family planning to find out how the process of empowerment actually worked. With wording like "may have felt" and "may have given," the researchers appear less than certain. Or perhaps Ms. Epstein is guessing? She does say, though with equal uncertainty, that:
[R]elaxed, trusting and frank conversations between men and women may be the most effective contraceptive of all.

If so, then evangelical Christianity would perhaps be promoting that, but I'm also just guessing. Somebody should ask those women themselves . . .

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At 2:41 PM, Blogger dhr said...

I wonder if the researchers asked the women about family planning

Obviously, men belonging to the Columbiauniversity tribe are not allowed to ask questions to Kassena-Nankana women. But, if those male researchers converted to Jainism, maybe...

Anyway, the research is interesting. It lets us see the effects of Christianity on a people belonging to a completely different culture, as it happened in the first centuries A.D. Though, it must be added, in the ancient Western society, the Church propagating generally reduced the women's rights (as for property, decision-making, etc.), instead of improving their condition.

At 2:51 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, evangelicalism is very different in its effect on individuals than the traditional, hierarchical church.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:25 AM, OpenID kuiwon said...

I've had this suspicion for awhile that Christianity, particularity Protestantism, by itself is a poor moral grounding. I first noticed this in my family: my non-Protestant (Buddhist/Confucian) relatives tended to be a lot more strict than my Protestant/Catholic relatives. I noticed this with my Korean friends too: my amoral agnostic and even practicing Protestant friends were unashamed fornicators; while my conservative non-Protestant friends tended to be very strict.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting observation. I've never noticed this. I'm not sure what to say. Maybe "shame" is the specific factor. Christianity is primarily about guilt, not shame. As a means of social control, shame works quite well. Guilt feelings are more subjective.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:48 AM, OpenID kuiwon said...

Is there a difference in effect between guilt and shame?

Christianity has its own guilt and shame factor too, but today it's mostly been mostly negated with the concept of forgiveness (without any form of penance) and "once-saved-always-saved" philosophy.

I think it's from the fact that Koreans who have adopted and converted to Christianity do so because of its modern feel. I sometimes get pointed out for my stubbornness and liking of old (Pre-Christian) thoughts.

At 12:01 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, there a difference. Shame is felt mostly when known by others. Guilt is felt even if known only by the guilty one. In a shame culture, denial and face-saving are used to avoid shame. In a guilt culture, freedom comes through confession.

Jeffery Hodges

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