Janet R. Jakobsen, Elizabeth Bernstein
Publication Date: 
January, 2009

Despite the official separation of church and state in the United States, religion and politics are closely intertwined. This intertwining can be attributed both to the profound influence of religious organizations on the political process and to the secular institutions of public life which operate by presuming Protestant norms and values. The authors of this paper argue that the problem for gender equality in the United States is not the influence of religion alone, but Protestant hegemony in terms of both religious influence and secular presumption. They demonstrate this through two contrasting cases studies: policies around human trafficking during the Bush and Obama Administrations and “welfare reform” during the Clinton years. In the case of trafficking, they show how the Bush Administration’s coalition of secular feminist and conservative religious groups has given way under President Obama to a different coalition of faith-based and secular actors characterized by certain continuities of policy aims and method. The most important continuities are the persistence of carceral feminism and militarized humanitarianism. In the case of “welfare reform,” which was supported by a bipartisan coalition of conservative evangelicals and secular advocates, all of the parties used a conservative rhetoric of gender, race, and sexuality to support the policy. This coalition of conservative evangelicals and secular neoliberals easily overwhelmed the direct religious influence of both Catholic and mainline Protestant groups who stood in opposition to “welfare reform.” In both of these cases, it is argued that the major policy alternatives are those that raise not just the issue of religious influence on policies affecting gender equality, but also question neoliberalism and its impact on gender relations and women’s lives. In forming political alliances, the authors emphasize, feminists should situate gender within a broad array of political and economic concerns while challenging Protestant dominance in both its religious and secular guises.

Authors: Janet R. Jakobsen, Elizabeth Bernstein
Programme Area: Gender and Development
Project Title: Religion, Politics and Gender Equality
No. of Pages: 59

This is the Final Research Report on the US in the Religion, Politics and Gender Equality Project.

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