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Rev. Jennifer Butler Addresses the Women’s Assembly

Rev. Jennifer Butler addressed the Women’s Assembly at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

Hello everyone. What a pleasure to be in this space with this great energy and support. I have spent a lifetime countering the Christian rights by mobilizing faith coalitions centered in human dignity. I stepped enthusiastically into my first job in ministry as the Presbyterian Church representative to the United Nations, charged with a glorious mission of advancing women’s rights, only to see the Christian right gut my denomination’s programs at my very first General Assembly. 

As surely as night follows day, the following year in 2000, I encountered them at a United Nations gathering. It was a gathering to review the Beijing Platform for Action from the Fourth World Conference on Women. They used the same strategies they had used in my denominational gathering, talking points full of disinformation, Trojan horse tactics, flooding the assembly with delegates. 

I wrote a book to expose this Christian right effort to export the culture wars around the world. And I organized people of faith to resist by amplifying religious arguments for women’s rights, first at the UN and then domestically by founding and leading faith in public life. Yet today, sadly, the Christian right in the U.S. has become a full-blown global Christian nationalist movement lining up behind autocratic leaders to advance a white supremacist, patriarchal, and homophobic agenda. And the global Christian right has polarized the world along the lines of a culture war, seeking to establish patriarchal, xenophobic autocracies all throughout the world, just as my book, unfortunately, predicted. predicted. 

Today, they are rapidly passing legislation that undermines women’s LGBTQ and children’s rights in Africa, Latin America, Western and Eastern Europe. They’re demonizing the very idea of democracy and human rights. Saying it is somehow anti-religious, while they build connections to autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orban, who host and fund their movements. 

Other forms of religious nationalism are on the rise as well. Autocrats are weaponizing religion to amass power and maintain control from Russian Orthodox nationalism to Catholic nationalism in Hungary and Poland to Hindutva and India to Jewish nationalism manifesting in Israel’s new ruling coalition to evangelical and Pentecostal forms of religious nationalism in the U.S. and Brazil. 

Religion is being manipulated to give moral sanction to hideous acts of violence that run contrary to moral teachings. And women’s and LGBTQ and religious and migrant rights are the first to go, but they will come for us all. And if no one speaks against them, our voices, specifically our faith voices, if they are not heard above the toxic den of autocratic disinformation, these lies will take hold. 

People ask how I have hope to do the work that I do. Let me tell you why I have hope. My hope was born in partnership with Muslim women who worked with me at the UN to sponsor an event on religious extremism at a time when I had begun to doubt my own faith and my own sense of call to ministry. Midway through that event, the Saudi Arabian security guards burst into the room with the ambassador. The speaker faltered and I held my breath. The guards were clearly attempting to physically intimidate the speakers, but the global community of women rose to their feet to applaud the women and the shaken speaker was able to continue her presentation and the women stayed to their feet and physically cloaked and blocked the security guards. It was the courage of the Muslim women that inspired me not only to claim my faith on my own terms but to get ordained with the goal of bringing a feminist theological liberationist theology to a world of injustice.

For the sake of the Christian extremists hijacking my faith I learned to make an explicit argument from my faith for the human rights of all while respecting the guardrails of secular democracy and doing this work in solidarity with people of all faiths and those of a secular moral belief system. And while many at the time were worried that this would lead to a compromise in the separation of church and state it became clear that it was a faith voice that would save democracy and human rights.

In leading Faith in Public Life I got to be inspired every day to see faith leaders step forward to reclaim their voices. I will never forget joining a protest outside the US Supreme Court to protest the Dobs decision which ended federal protections to abortion access. I stood alongside and also opposed criminalization of abortion in favor of supporting women with options. Through the diversity in our perspectives, pro-life and pro-choice, we knew the Dobb’s decision was not about abortion. It was about patriarchy. It was nothing to do with religious freedom and everything to do with controlling women. As I began to speak, the activists on the other side began to shout me down. They began to get in our faces, breaking the COVID and protest regulations. A man with a megaphone was yelling straight into our speaking space. As I spoke, I could not even hear my own voice. And for a moment, I faltered. Was it worth it to continue? I saw that my staff were feeling terrified. In front of me, though, in the crowd, I saw an older woman, a complete stranger. She locked eyes with me, calm, fierce, solid, protective. And I spoke to her. I was able to continue, and so were the other women. 

We are up against a lot, but we women have power in our solidarity and diversity even when facing a juggernaut. In 2018, I joined a group called Moms Rising on Capitol Hill in Washington. We were there to witness Homeland Security Secretary Kirsten Nielsen testify before Congress on the Trump administration’s child separation policy. Moms Rising had made little baby onesies with the names of children that had died, in fact, were killed by neglect and detention centers. As I waited to go into the hearing, the Capitol Police Chief singled me out by name. I didn’t know him, but he sure knew who I was, quite possibly from a mugshot, because I had been arrested leading civil disobedience during the uprising to protect the Affordable Care Act. He had a cell phone to his ear, and he looked worried. He removed the phone from his ear, and he said to me, “I’m being told that if you hold up that onesie in this hearing you will be arrested.” Imagine the power of a onesie to drive fear into the hearts of members of Congress. 

Sometimes my friends, we don’t even know the power that we have. Our creativity and moral authority as women is critical to countering tyranny even when we’re up against Goliath, our ability to be bold to tell things as they are as life-givers and as moral leaders will bring autocrats down. And that is what we’re doing here this week building solidarity, forging broad coalitions, reclaiming our faith for justice, grounding in our leadership as women, keeping the true vision of our faith’s human dignity alive now and for future generations.

Tyrants will try to convince us that our dream of dignity for all is impossible, unrealistic or even undesirable. But hope is born in our ability to imagine God’s vision of human dignity for all becoming a reality. And that is why we’re here in Chicago. As long as we continue to amplify that vision then hope will power us and future generations to make it so. Thank you.

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