This project explores the construction of gender ideology at two evangelical seminaries. Asbury Theological Seminary from the Wesleyan tradition and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary represent two of the most influential religious groups in the United States. They also exemplify sharply divergent perspectives on gender. Drawing from oral interviews and ethnographic fieldwork, this project explores how cultural processes form students’ gender ideologies and practices. This dissertation finds that narrative, material culture, and physical embodiment powerfully shape seminary students. In fact, formation processes at these two seminaries are most effective when they appeal to students’ supra-rational natures. These students are compelled less by rigorous logical arguments and tightly woven systematic theologies than by storytelling and relational, embodied experiences. Moreover, student formation is most effective when processes of discourse and physical embodiment are tightly coupled.
This tight coupling is particularly effective at Southern Baptist Seminary. Here students construct beliefs about gender polarization and male headship around convergent stories narrating biblical history and the legacy of the seminary itself. They also follow gendered scripts which allow them to articulate these beliefs through vocational choices, consumption habits, and styles of dress. Students become enthusiastic practitioners of their institution’s gendered ideologies despite the disempowering effects these ideologies have on men and women for whom they are unnatural fits.
In contrast to Southern’s tight narrative of male headship, Asbury practices a loosely coupled ideology. The seminary affirms both gender equality and gender difference using New Testament hermeneutics, embodied models of female leaders on campus, and celebrations of the nuclear family. That Asbury’s narratives of equality and difference are largely separate, however, limits their efficacy. Asbury’s women describe their seminary experience as empowering, but also experience personal struggles that their male colleagues do not.
Understandings of evangelical gender ideologies cannot be limited to their function as symbolic boundaries. They also facilitate subcultural identity formation and profoundly shape the lives of both women and men.