In honor of Halloween, I’ve decided to make October’s #EpicChristianFails entry more horror than humor. That being said, the occasion that inspired this month’s blog post did elicit a dark chuckle and a smirk from me, while providing a heaping helping of disgust as well. It’s definitely not a knee-slapper, but it does involve knees.
You see, according to famously homophobic Second Lady and part-time Christian school “art” teacher Karen Pence–a woman America’s arguably most evil Vice President of all time calls “Mother”–there are no issues with our illegitimate president’s treatment of women. On October 9, at a “Women for Trump” event in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Second Lady made the outrageous claim that Trump “has empowered women like no other.” Citing Trump’s supposedly fine treatment of her daughter Charlotte, she enjoined America’s women, “Don’t be afraid to get on your knees.” For Trump. No, no, not like that–in prayer. I think.
There’s no one more stubborn than white American evangelicals, and stubbornly clinging to this cringeworthy “on your knees” rhetoric about prayer when for the rest of us the image conjures up immediate sexual–and very possibly sexist–connotations, is probably one of the least harmful examples of their stubbornness, at least when taken in isolation. But it is a very telling example. And white Christian women defending patriarchy, and all the abuse that comes with it, is a tale as old as whiteness.
One of the most horrifying aspects of watching authoritarianism surge before our eyes is observing the robot-like loyalists that “President” Trump sends out to tell bald-faced lies on his behalf. Of course, “lying for Jesus” is a longstanding habit of authoritarian Christians, and their version of the “greater good” is white supremacist patriarchy.
Thus much of the lying serves to defend that toxic social order, whether we’re looking at #ChristianAltFacts in the context of abstinence only fake sex ed or young earth creationism, or in defense of aggressive and deceptive “crisis pregnancy centers,” or in defense of pastors who admit to sexually assaulting underage girls and then a mere 18 months later get a new pulpit.
From Kellyanne Conway’s early explicit invocation of “alternative facts,” to “America’s Dolores Umbridge” Sarah Huckabee Sanders readily charging in where even the cringing Sean Spicer feared to tread, to Rudy “truth isn’t truth” Giuliani, to my fellow Hoosiers (so glad I escaped from Indiana) Mike and Karen Pence, over these last few years we have been forced to watch a seemingly endless parade of Trump minions willing to tell obvious lies to the U.S. public. Awareness that such deliberate and knowing assaults on truth are a feature of authoritarianism is critical to fighting back, but that awareness does nothing to make the spectacle less horrifying.
While the ranks of visible Trump defenders include more than a few swaggering “macho” men, it is striking how some of his most loyal lieutenants are either ostentatiously pious, or women, or both. And those of us who have been raising concerns about the desire for a Handmaid’s Tale sort of future on the Christian Right must remember that there could be no Gilead regime without the Aunts as enforcers.
In addition to Margaret Atwood’s work and its recent TV adaptation, another cultural reference we might do well to dwell on at this time is Ira Levin’s classic tale of horror The Stepford Wives. There have been two film adaptations (1975 and 2004), and the 2004 version, while quite messy as a film in some respects, adds an interesting twist to the plot.
Instead of a man ultimately being behind the terrifying Stepford dystopia in which the wives were (in this version) made into obedient cyborgs of sorts, Claire Wellington (played by Glenn Close) turns out to have created a robotic husband to play the role of patriarch so that she could maneuver to create her “perfect world” while pretending to bow to his authority.
I am not saying that Karen Pence directs and controls Mike (although it is sort of funny that the robot husband in the 2004 adpation of The Stepford Wives was called Mike). Nor am I saying that she is essentially a droid with no agency. I have no way of knowing the inner workings of their relational dynamic, but I can say that my impression is that the Second Lady seems to be to be sincere in her toxic evangelical ideology. She would make a good Aunt in Gilead, but maybe not as good an Aunt as Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
I should also note that making Claire the primary antagonist in The Stepford Wives is an arguably misogynistic move. Nevertheless, it reminds me not only of Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Karen Pence, but even more so of Phyllis Schlafly, a Catholic anti-feminist who was not only arguably the driving force behind the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, but was also at least every bit as important as Jerry Falwell, Sr. in building the Christian Right coalition that is essentially running the country under Trump today. Schlafly famously noted at the beginning of her public addresses that she had her husband’s permission to be out giving them.
White Christian women vigorously upholding patriarchy, by any means necessary, is one of the great horrors of modern history, and it is bearing a great deal of poisonous fruit in our own time. Perhaps we could better combat it if we took seriously the fact that Christianity is not inherently benign. It can be used for good, but it can also be used for evil. On this Halloween 2019, the American Christian Right scares me more than any ghost or demon or goblin.