Wrestling the Divine Male: Towards Woman’s Liberation in Sacred Spaces

Victoria Houser

Clemson University

We live and learn of the world as gendered beings, our subjectivity shaped by our bodies and the discourses surrounding our corporeal existence. What this means is that despite the Cartesian world that we all have embraced one way or another, it is really not possible to think about rhetoric without drawing in considerations of the body. The body is the subject in both senses: it is the subject of rhetoric as well as the actor/orator/rhetorician herself.

--Roxanne Mountford, The Gendered Pulpit

What effect does language have on women’s social reality? Sally Miller Gearhart’s indictment of rhetoric calls out the patriarchs of rhetoric, specifically naming “the men of the church” as guilty participants in the establishment of a field predicated on exclusion and violence: “In fact, our teaching, even if it were not the teaching of persuasion, is in itself an insidious form of violence” (195). Several decades later, the art of persuasion can still be articulated as a type of penetration into one’s rhetorical space; persuasion continues to reveal the unique violence inherent in any use of language. But have we thoroughly considered what those “men of the church” have contributed to our understanding and practice of rhetoric? Rhetorical scholars, such as Sharon Crowley, Roxanne Mountford, Patricia Bizzell, Jeffery Ringer and many others have certainly contributed significant work on religious rhetorical spaces. Yet evangelical practice, rooted in patriarchy, continues to reign over women’s bodies and still receives little attention in rhetorical scholarship. To extend my original question, I suggest that we also ask, “What effect does the Divine Male and all of its symbolic order have on women’s rights to their bodies?”

Enmeshed in these questions is a world of material violence that emerges around the bodies of women who occupy a space of subjection within most cultural grids. If we see rhetoric as still inherently violent towards women, and especially towards women of color, queer women, and disabled women, then we have to ask what this inherent rhetorical violence contributes to material spaces for female bodies. In The Gendered Pulpit, Mountford argues that the material is a dimension under-theorized by the field of rhetoric, and this poses a significant problem since the material “often has unforeseen influence over a communicative event and cannot always be explained by cultural or creative intent” (17). The material space of religious settings for women, being shaped and influenced by the rhetorical roots of patriarchy, is one imbued with sexual, physical, and emotional violence. To see the rhetorical underpinnings of this violence, one need only to look at the erasure of women’s sexuality, especially in the heteronormative assumptions made about women’s lives inside evangelical settings. Within evangelical subculture, the “straightness” of women’s sex is necessary for their compliance and submission to men. Because the structure relies on men “leading, protecting, and providing”1 for women, heterosexuality is written onto women’s bodies without question. Mary Daly writes, “To exist humanly is to name the self, the world, and God” (111). In situating all women as subjects/objects for men’s use, the naming of the self, sexuality, and God all fall under the purview of heterosexuality, stripping women of their sexuality and bodily autonomy.

To explore the violence of rhetoric, we must ask questions about the material and cultural grids that create and sustain cultures of sexual violence. Religion, specifically Evangelicalism, gives us one of the oldest institutions that endorses politics of rape, situating women within a patriarchal system that rhetorically normalizes sexual violence toward women by constituting their sexuality and bodies as commodities. In her study of purity culture within the United States, Sara Moslener writes, “Evangelicals have successfully deployed both cultural and nationalistic strategies to situate sexual purity as a religious and therapeutic practice not as oppositional, but as foundational to American national identity” (12). Evangelical theology and practice might appear as distinctly distant from non-religious civic life, but Evangelicalism endures within the American national identity, making its doctrines a central concern for our scholarship. Mountford asserts, “Avoidance of religious subjects, no matter how important to cultural history, has prevailed in the humanities for much of the twentieth century, and feminist scholars are no exception to this practice” (11-12). Some scholars of rhetoric certainly address a wide range of religious topics in connection to language, writing, civic discourse, and so on, but this is a relatively small sub-discipline of Rhetoric, and in distinguishing these topics as part of a separate field, Mountford’s concern regarding religious topics within humanities scholarship prevails. The avoidance of religious subjects within the larger sphere of Rhetoric as a discipline has led to a limited view of women’s subjugation, and while great strides have indeed been made to Womanize language within the field, we must continue to look to the fringes of the field in order to see those areas of exclusion that persist.

We know that women experience sexual violence at alarming rates in the United States and around the world. Rebecca Solnit writes, “We have an abundance of rape and violence against women in this country and on this Earth, though it’s almost never treated as a civil rights or human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern” (21). Where does the systemic and widespread violence against women originate? A system of violence as long-lasting and culturally sustained as the sexual assault and harassment of women has a vast and nebulous network. One significant structure of the symbolic and material violence towards women manifests within the U.S. evangelical subculture. In considering this system, one important question that rhetorical scholars should be asking is “what kind of socio-cultural structures position women as rape-able (or as “vessels” of sexual violence), and what steps do we take to eradicate those structures”? Evangelical subculture exists as a system that tends to either ignore women’s voices or blame women for the sexual violence they experience. The normalization of sexual violence finds roots within what Mountford refers to as the social imaginary, the construction of culture through the use of power and language systems. In this social imaginary, rhetoric and rape are not such distant categories that they cannot be considered and reconsidered together in our attempts to upset and interrupt the masculine, logos-driven discourse.

#MeToo and Religious Silencing

When the #MeToo movement took off in 2017, I watched my friends post those two little words in solidarity with one another. Everywhere I looked, I saw the women in my life bravely coming forward to share the unspeakable. Sexual violence, and the extent to which it touched all women, was no longer a hypothetical. Yet, there was something specific to my personal experience with sexual violence that made the words catch in my throat when I tried to speak. My Baptist background, which systematically silences and shames women for the abuse they sustain, nullified my ability to speak about the trauma of the sexual assault I experienced. Reflecting on this now, I see my silence pointing to two specific areas in which Gearhart’s indictment has been heard and perceived but not fully lived out: the site of sacred rhetorical space and the hegemonic, masculine system of meaning-making constituting religious rhetoric. So I turn to the work of Mountford and Daly to examine what the religious rhetorical space says about the violence inherent in our collective social imaginary. Religion and rhetoric are inextricably linked, and I am asking us to reflect on how these violent rhetorical structures permeate the cultural grid that determines both the material and social “place” of women within religious discourse.

Since Evangelical subculture stems from patriarchy and its methods of domination, it is important to look at patriarchy as a primary foundation to the violence within these sacred places. Patriarchy has taught us that in order to get what we want, in order to see change, we must use methods of domination and control, or at the very least we must find ways to survive and exist within a system dependent on a domination/submission dichotomy. Patriarchy thrives under the belief that men will be violent and that women must learn to be like men in order to stop men from committing acts of domination and violence. Of course, this structure ultimately fails both men and women. bell hooks explains this beautifully in The Will to Change, where she writes, “Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence” (18). To truly break from patriarchy and all its forms of terror and violence, we must invent methods of emancipation that move away from the norms of domination/submission. Questioning and reconsidering the forms of domination within sacred places provides both material and conceptual ground for liberation from patriarchy. To do so means that we must also consider what we are currently missing in our ways of knowing and being.

Feminist liberation methods offer ways to intervene in structures dominated by patriarchal logic, and these frames are important in considering emancipation from the Divine Male figure that dominates evangelical thought and practice. What would a method of emancipation from the phallic system of Evangelical Christianity require? The place in time that women occupy remains ensconced in the religious myths that sustain the masculine meaning-making of rhetoric everywhere. Men’s place is everywhere. Women, on the other hand, must fight to interrupt the hegemonic place of male authority stemming from old patriarchal patterns of Evangelicalism. Mary Daly suggests that the only method for interrupting is one of liberation: “The method that is required is a method not of correlation but of liberation. Even the term ‘method’ must be reinterpreted and in fact wrenched out of its usual semantic field, for the emerging theological creativity in women is by no means merely a cerebral process” (110). Daly calls women to move beyond rhetorical and linguistic considerations of the emancipation process, explaining that the very system of language, situated within divine ideologies, denies women a cerebral method for moving beyond the violence of masculine hegemony. A method of liberation would necessarily involve the bodies of women as well as a shift in the rhetorical markings of the spaces for these bodies.

Our bodies are just as demarcated and involved in the process of liberation as our minds. The very system of language works to mark women’s spaces with rules for controlling women’s bodies. This is why the theorizing of the body presents an essential element in the move towards methods of liberation. One of the socio-cultural spaces where the body has been under-theorized and over-disciplined is, of course, evangelical discourse itself. This happens not simply in the methods for teaching women their place via the will of the Father, but it appears most insidiously in the words that make up the order of the body, the symbol system created by males that remains unquestionable in the eyes and heart of evangelical theology. These bodily metaphors come from the way in which Evangelicalism has corporealized congregations, turning them from rhetorical sacred spaces into physical social realities. The physical realities manifest in the roles that women are required to occupy inside the church-structure, the role of submission and silence, the role of the vessel for man’s authority and knowledge.

The body of Christ makes up a social reality for evangelical congregations in which men are the head, the leaders, and women the vessels, submitting to male authority. In a recent talk, John MacArthur, a prominent Southern Baptist speaker, told his audience that evangelical leaders were being disobedient to God by allowing women to preach. After figuratively telling the female author and pastor Beth Moore to “go home,” (Moore was not present) MacArthur said, “When the leaders of Evangelicalism roll over for women preachers, the feminists have really won the battle.” MacArthur said this to a panel of male speakers who all laughed at his jokes while a room full of people applauded him for his sexist exclusion of women from leadership roles. MacArthur explained that Moore placed “herself” within the text of the Bible too much, claiming that this muddied the true meaning of scripture and could lead people astray. He continued to critique feminism, suggesting that it operates not as a system interested in equality but as a way to subvert God’s order. MacArthur’s critique suggested to his audience that feminism’s main goal manifests in taking power from men and enabling women to inhabit positions of authority that are, by divine order, not meant for women. Evangelicals’ acceptance and affirmation of MacArthur’s comments within that space demonstrates the practices that continue to exclude women’s ways of knowing as well as women’s bodies from the “divine gift” of speaking and leading.

Embedded in evangelical practices of exclusion, women’s bodies sustain subjugation to male authority. While men continue to occupy divine leadership roles, the bodies of women exist entirely outside the male discourse as receptacles for male knowledge about God’s truth. Materially speaking, we see the physical phallus almost everywhere (the cross, the penetration of the nails into the body, the pulpit, and so on), but the corporeal form of women remains on the fringes of the rhetorical space itself. Perhaps more troubling than the attacks like MacArthur’s on women in leadership is the total erasure of non-normative bodies from evangelical structure as a whole. While women are being told to “go home” or to be silent, in their subjugation women are at least acknowledged as “subjects.” Meanwhile, there is an implicit assumption that LGBTQ+ persons do not make up any part of the church body since heterosexuality is a requirement for belonging in evangelical theology. While I am focusing on the bodies of women in this piece, the erasure and silencing of LGBTQ+ people offers another significant reason for Rhetoric to engage with sacred spaces.

When considering the body’s role within evangelical discourse, several bodily metaphors emerge as foundational to the entire system. Indeed, many church congregations tend to be referred to as a singular “body” of believers. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for evangelical churches to call themselves the body of Christ as seen in the use of several New Testament Bible passages within current preaching methods. Because bodies are sexed (culturally, biologically, rhetorically) we should consider how the figurative body of Christ is sexed. If we were to consider that the church is also referred to as the Bride of Christ, then this body would seem to be female. And this female body always already has what Christianity calls the “head,” the leader, he who guides and teaches the congregation. In the very rhetorical structure of evangelical churches we see the female body positioned as subordinate to male leadership, male theology, and male meaning. Breaking from this structure in a way that does not replicate the structure elsewhere, requires a breaking of the body (not unlike Christ’s death on the cross), a movement to the outside. When the rhetorical meaning-making systems fail to provide a way out, new words and new meaning must be made. Daly writes, “To get beyond [patriarchy] requires a resurrection experience—beginning to hear and speak new words. This means real cerebral work, but the work ahead is hardly merely a cerebral exercise” (108). Once outside evangelical structure, the possibilities for God, for the self, and for the world significantly expand as one moves away from the hierarchy and domination of patriarchy.

The material space of evangelical structure provides a glimpse into the symbolic structures that violently bind a woman’s identity to the patriarchal hierarchy at the foundation of our social imaginary. Andrea Dworkin rails against this hierarchy in her work Intercourse: “Male authority, religious authority, and civic authority all converged, indistinguishably, at the entry point of Woman’s body” (90). Dworkin cuts into the heart of it shortly after this, saying, “[Woman] is used by men impersonally with no reference to her as a human and no comprehension of her as an individual. As social pornography, she is a living corpse, existing for sexual use” (97). Christianity, driven by male authority, the center of patriarchy, determines not only what a woman’s body is, but how it will be used and who owns her. In the economy of Evangelicalism, men trade women’s bodies as commodities of social exchange, passing them from fathers to sons, maintaining her position as a living corpse, used for their righteous sexual use; that is, the pro/creation, re/creation of the Evangelical Church.

The physical space of sacred institutional sites has long privileged male bodies within the hierarchy of the divine. Men reside within Christianity as God’s chosen leaders, sent to interpret and guide the Others who make up the subordinate body of the Evangelical Church: in a word, women, or the feminized “bride” of Christ. This hierarchy positions women as receptacles of masculine forms of knowledge and meaning-making, marking their “place” as one of distinct silence. Mountford writes, “To have one’s ‘place’ be silence makes no sense unless we imagine silence attached to a rhetorical situation that necessarily involves material space: a woman sitting silently in a church pew while a man preaches. The trope of ‘place’ makes social position and physical location interchangeable” (26). The social position of women within the Evangelical Church is that of the receptacle, the receiving body for male meaning, male language, and male desire. Women find themselves as a voiceless mass of materiality for men to insert their will, write their desire, and impregnate with their meaning.

The Religious Rhetoric of Sexual Violence

One of the most significant issues within the Christian hierarchy is that a woman’s body is quite literally positioned as a receptacle. The oft-quoted verse from the First epistle of Peter in the New Testament reveals the linguistic positioning of women as vessels: “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (3:15, ESV). The membrane between the woman’s body and her “place” of silence is sustained by the rhetorical violence of language. Another prime example of the rhetorical configuration of women’s “place” appears in the first book of Timothy: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (2:12-13, NIV). As Mountford explains, “Women’s bodies are associated with natural inferiority and reproductive functions, and their confinement to the private spheres of community has been predicated in part on their sexual difference” (9). The material space of women’s bodies is built upon this symbolic structure of the masculine hierarchy, and this hierarchy continues to re/establish itself through the verbal methods of meaning making.

Woman’s sex and her sexuality become tenuous subjects of exchange within a social imaginary that associates women’s bodies with natural inferiority and a specific inherent subordination. This kind of violence is deeply embedded within the language of Evangelical Christianity and within the very processes by which women come to know themselves. While Slavoj Žižek’s name carries its own controversy into this scene, he provides an important frame for thinking of the inextricable link between violence and language: “We’re talking here of the violence inherent in a system: not only direct psychical violence, but also the substantial forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence” (9). Žižek extrapolates this even further by saying, “[L]anguage itself, the very medium of non-violence, of mutual recognition, involves unconditional violence” (65). The specific rhetorical situation of sacred spaces relies on a system latent with violence towards women, one in which female bodies function as commodities within a masculine system. What this means for women is that any abuse they might experience, sexual or otherwise, appears as part and parcel of the system they occupy; in other words, violence manifests as a normal function of sacred life.

This takes me back into my own failure to speak during the #MeToo movement. I was sexually assaulted during my senior year of college at my small, Christian school. I was at a party, I had consumed a few drinks (something completely prohibited by my school), and when the night started to wrap up, one of the men in the room forced himself on me. I didn’t stop him right away, and I barely remember what happened. I do remember crying silently on the couch once I had pushed him off. I never spoke of it, because I knew somewhere in my psyche that it was my fault. I was the guilty party for having put myself in this vulnerable position. I wasn’t wearing a bra. I had been drinking. I didn’t yell. I knew I had to hide everything, because if I revealed what had happened that night, even to a counselor, I ran the risk of losing my scholarships, my job, even my admittance into the school. So, I went back to campus the following morning with plans to completely banish the experience, and I did a fine job at this until the time came to speak, the time when women around the world stood together in saying “me too,” and I could not find the words within myself. The one message I received about my body within my Evangelical upbringing, from childhood into adulthood, was that my flesh is a dangerous tempting ground for male desire. My relationship with my own body, my home, was one of sincere and deep distrust. When these fears were realized and written out on my body, the rhetorical construction I had believed became manifest, reified within the experience of sexual assault.

My story finds a home among the many other silenced voices of sexual abuse. More recently, a #NunsToo movement emerged in the presence of the #MeToo movement. The Nuns’ stories eerily resemble each other in the expression of guilt and self-blame attached to their victimage. In an NPR story, Sister Catherine shares that “the abuse is the result of male domination within church leadership,” a direct result of the social imaginary created to support a culture of subjugation to masculine primacy. Lucetta Scaraffia writes about the origins of this guilt in a reflection on the stories in Women Church World: “Within the ecclesiastical institution in particular centuries of culture focused on the idea of a woman as a dangerous temptress [led] people to classify these acts of violence, even if they have been reported, as sexual transgressions freely committed by both parties” (par. 11). Where else does this ideological construction find its roots than in the very process of meaning making, the language of the women’s bodies made up not by women, but by the male divine, the male body? The violence of rhetorical sacred spaces positions women to experience sexual violence through denying them the rights to their own sexuality. Luce Irigaray situates the problem of women’s denied sexuality as such:

A sexuality denied? The question has no simple answer. The rejection, the exclusion of a female imaginary certainly puts woman in the position of experiencing herself only fragmentarily, in the little-structured margins of a dominant ideology, as waste, or excess, what is left of a mirror invested by the (masculine) ‘subject’ to reflect himself, to copy himself. (30)

The mirror of the masculine subject, woman, finds herself without the rights to her own body, her home, her sex, her desire. Therefore, what happens to her body within the rhetorical space of her subjection does not belong to her either. Her story is not her own, and in order to speak at all she must first find a way to the outside of the Divine Male.

In moving outside the Divine Male, women’s existence becomes disconnected from the entire structure of patriarchal religion. Faced with nothingness, the power of naming is restored. Without the authority of the Divine Male, or males who wield “divine authority,” women are free to name God for themselves. Daly describes this removal of the Divine Male as connected to the very process of women’s liberation from patriarchy, writing, “The unfolding of God, then, is an event in which women participate as we participate in our own revolution. The process involved the creation of a new space, in which women are free to become who we are, in which there are real and significant alternatives to prefabricated identities provided within the enclosed spaces of patriarchal institutions” (113). To borrow from Hélène Cixous, once on the outside, God becomes all that has not yet been named.

A Rhetorical Liturgy of Liberation

The #MeToo Movement was not a singular moment in time. It is a moment out of time entirely. It is a moment in Woman’s time. The movement represents a deep scar within women’s bodies: the cutting away the of her clitoris, the excision of her vagina, the denial of her womb. As I’ve begun to examine that collective scar within the scope of rhetoric, I have found the voice to share my own scars. More important, I have begun to see the missing wounds of the woman’s body in rhetorical spaces. The sacred space of Evangelical Christianity has worked to silence and deny women rights to their bodies for centuries. It has exploited her body as social corpse for masculine trading purposes. What is our responsibility, as scholars of language and meaning making, in this moment of Woman’s time? How do we respond to the scar?

Woman’s place has too long been that of silent subjugation. Too long have sacred spaces penetrated Woman’s body, using it as a social commodity within sacred discourse. As Mountford reminds us, the work of rhetorical scholars now is to re/consider the emancipation movement within sacred spaces. We cannot deem religious sites as unworthy of serious consideration in our scholarship. U.S. Evangelicalism, as we are increasingly made aware of, posits one of the main breeding grounds (literally and figuratively) for the rape of women’s bodies. The rape that happens both when the body is violated and when it is denied. The rape of Woman’s body also occurs through the silencing and exclusion of female sex and sexuality. Show me a church body with labia. Show me glass stained with the menstruation blood of woman’s womb. Show me a pulpit that is open and gaping, making room for the woman’s body. When the sacred discontinues the penetration and shaming of women’s bodies, when the meaning system removes its hands from the uterus, then we might rest a little. Then we might see a rhetorical practice that does not chastise and cut away the female body. Then we might have a “Womanization” of language that knows how to include, listen, and share power.


1. This practice is seen most clearly in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) denomination. One growing SBC organization utilizes the phrase “Lead, Protect, Provide” as a mantra for the men in their congregations, encouraging them to wisely guide and instruct all the women in their life. The underlying ideology of this rhetorical device is that women belong to men and must be treated as valuable property. Women are instructed to see the protection from a Godly man as the highest privilege she can achieve.

About the Author

Victoria Houser is a PhD student in the Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design doctoral program at Clemson University. Her research interests are in feminist theory, rhetorics of religion, and theories of violence and trauma. In her current work, she explores the rhetorical strategies of evangelical purity movements in the United States as a fundamental condition to the politics of rape culture.

Works Cited

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