American evangelicalism has an authoritarianism problem.
Conservative evangelicals have, of course, more recently grappled with an abuse problem, with institutions and leaders from Jerry Falwell, Jr., at Liberty University to Cedarville University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary facing exposure. But running beneath all these examples is a pervasive environment of authoritarianism—leaders who cannot be challenged—and an emphasis on obedience to careful rules, often including rules that lock women out of positions of leadership or visibility. Such authoritarianism is a veritable greenhouse for abuse and oppression.
So what are the warning signs? How do we address this?
It’s no secret that the characteristics Haydar names flourish in conservative Christian communities, even in those that don’t seem, on their face, to have problems with abuse.One possible answer to these questions lies, surprisingly, in the work of Mona Haydar, a Muslim feminist rapper who uses her work to speak up for women around the world, especially those belonging to her own religious and cultural traditions. While many of her songs, such as “Hijabi,” celebrate her heritage and look outward, criticizing bigotry directed at the Muslim community, “Dog” looks inward, criticizing predatory, authoritarian religious leaders who oppress women. For this reason, “Dog” resonates for Christians seeking to confront their own authority problem.
I want to be clear. Haydar is a Muslim artist; in “Dog,” she both addresses her own faith community and draws on her faith, wearing a hijab and citing common behavioral expectations for Muslims. We Christians listen from a distance. It’s not our place to make judgments about her traditions, something we cannot accurately do from the outside, or assume she is speaking for us. But with a master’s degree in Christian Ethics from Union Theological Seminary, Haydar is well-versed in our traditions, even as we may not be versed in hers. In fact, her studies at Union emphasized how faith urges liberatory ends, among them anti-racism; and so even as she centers her Muslim identity, there is room for us Christians alongside, to similarly reflect on how our own belief traditions both foster and demand that we push back on authoritarian, predatory behavior. We are called to do better than authoritarianism in our religious communities; “Dog” may help us see how.
Haydar opens “Dog” by targeting religious leaders who use their status to prey on women:
Sheiks on the DL
Sheiks on the DM
Begging me to shake it
On my cam in the PM
Creepy men in the DMs, asking for women to “shake it” for them, are a well-known problem. But this is not stock predatory behavior. Haydar names the men “sheiks,” the religious leaders in the community. Ostensibly in charge of others’ spiritual well-being, the sheiks play up their authority, claiming to be “teachers” and “gurus” worthy of obedience. Then, they exploit their authority. Haydar sings:
Say, you can save my spirit
But, you’re a dog at night
In this, the chorus of the song, Haydar lays out both what makes this behavior work and how it exposes their hypocrisy. Because these men can “save [your] spirit,” their response comes with divine force. Vulnerable, devout women cannot say no to God’s representative.
Yet “Dog” paints a picture of authoritarianism run amok in ways that foster but go beyond sexual abuse. Subsequent verses map out characteristics of what might be called spiritual abuse, the use of rules and (masculine) authority to silence and control. As Haydar describes them, the sheiks flaunt (fictitious) wealth, riding in an “Audi like a Saudi Arabian” and parading about wearing “kufis, turbans, and the prayer beads they rockin’ too.” With kufis, turbans, and prayer beads, they are putting on a real performance of faithful commitment, setting themselves up as people to be carefully obeyed.
It is this performance they exploit, imposing rules on women that maintain their own authority. As Haydar sings, they
Say my voice is haram
Cuz you getting turned on
Claiming a need to protect their own purity, the sheiks silence women like Haydar, denying their agency within the faith community and, importantly, preventing them from speaking up about their abuse. In fact, Haydar complains about male leaders’ tendency to override women’s voices altogether:
Panel on women
A refusal to empanel women at conferences may seem benign compared to the other behaviors Haydar describes in “Dog” but in fact, it speaks to the dismissal of their agency and value which pervades authoritarian, rules-based faith practices. By situating themselves as experts, male religious leaders claim authority over women, or more vulnerable people in the community, in ways that endanger their well-being. Ignore women, silence women, and you jeopardize women’s safety.
It’s no secret that the characteristics Haydar names flourish in conservative Christian communities, even in those that don’t seem, on their face, to have problems with abuse. Clothes matter. Status matters. There’s an entire Instagram account devoted to preachers wearing really expensive shoes, showcasing their “coolness” and buying popularity with churchgoers. As Katelyn Beaty has documented, religious leaders’ obsession over looking cool or attractive often goes hand-in-hand with narcissism, a desire to grab and maintain authority. Rules matter, too. Even when male leaders are expected to look desirable, Beaty notes, women are expected to cover up, to prevent male desire. Women may be asked to measure the number of inches that their skirt falls above the knee or that their neckline dips below the collarbone; alternatively, they may be prevented from praying in public, required to stand off-stage when speaking in public, or refused roles in which they may, even indirectly, have control over men. Rules about what women can wear and when they can speak run deep in the evangelical church.
Yet as Haydar’s work makes clear, hemming people in with rules about what is modest and appropriate contributes to a dangerously authoritarian environment. Linking such rules to outright abuse, “Dog” underscores the harms of trying to achieve purity through regulating behavior, especially other people’s behavior. Doing so fosters a deeply harmful environment that includes not only sexual but spiritual abuse, the claiming of illegitimate, excessive power over other members of a faith community, as David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderan explain. What Haydar’s work reveals is that authoritarianism is the water in which larger abuse problems swim. If we want to adequately care for our fellow believers, if we truly want to reckon with pervasive abuse in the church, it is urgent that we address the ways our emphasis on performance and power do harm, especially to women.
Yet if “Dog” pushes us to confront the perils of authoritarianism, it also models an effective challenge to authoritarianism, advocating for spiritual practices that center women’s voices and women’s experiences. Key to this approach is Haydar’s mockery of the rule-based systems she is criticizing. Faced with “spiritually violent” religious leaders, Haydar retorts,
You can’t sell enlightenment
Laugh at your entitlement
Much like Martin Luther’s oft-cited command to turn the devil away by laughing at him, Haydar undermines the very men who seek to oppress and silence her through critical laughter. Told her voice is “haram” and forbidden to speak publicly, Haydar insists that the men “might need Qu’ran” and motions for them to “turn down,” the camera angle tilted upwards to emphasize her authority. Mockingly, she then invites the sheiks to follow the rules their own faith sets for them: to “watch out for our enemy,” “lower your gaze,” and “fear our Lord,” using Arabic to channel the language of spiritual authority. Haydar’s mockery calls attention to leaders’ pharisaical actions, that they lay heavy burdens upon women and vulnerable people that they themselves are not willing to bear.
In fact, authoritarian religious leaders are often characterized by their refusal to do the things they ask followers to do. Authoritarian leaders from Jerry Falwell, Jr., to Jack Hyles are characterized, at least in part, by leaders’ refusal to do the very things they ask followers to do. The only appropriate response, Haydar suggests, is to refuse to take seriously the facade of holiness they erect.
This does not mean abandoning faith. Indeed, Haydar argues in “Dog” for a faith which makes room for women and the vulnerable. Responding to men who tell her that speaking in public is indecent, she asserts her own voice and spiritual authority:
Got my full hood on
Got my full hood on
Sawt al-mar’a thawra
Got my full hood on!
Haydar has rapped about her own decision to wear the hijab. For her, it is a sign of power and sisterhood with other Muslim women around the globe. “Got my full hood on”—especially with Haydar standing in the center of the screen, lifting her fingers triumphantly heavenwards—insists on the power and value of her voice as a Muslim women.
This theme is echoed in Haydar’s use of the revolutionary phrase, “Sawt al-mar’a thawra”: “A woman’s voice is revolution.” This saying, as Nahed Eltantawy and Judy Isaksen explain, arose during the Arab Spring and turns on its head a conservative Islamic saying, that women’s voices are verboten in public. Haydar, by advocating for the worth of women’s voices while wearing a very public sign of her faith, exemplifies a way of being Muslim that does not mean silencing women, but rather listening to them and following their lead. After all, it is Haydar, and the women with her, who see through the abusive religious leaders, recognizing that they are “dogs” despite their public appearance; their discernment and advocacy for other vulnerable women throughout the song testifies to the genuine good which women of faith may do when they claim the right to speak publicly. Importantly, for Haydar, asserting the worth of women’s voices means asserting the worth of women of color, like herself, as in her song “Barbarian,” which looks forward to a “feminist planet” where women of color are freed from hostile Western stereotypes. Naming her “momma as evidence” of their heritage and holding her own newborn child throughout the song, she models ways of faith that simultaneously embrace women’s power and agency without expecting them to be knock-off white men.
As a Christian woman, I find Haydar’s work in “Dog” and elsewhere an invitation to believers from other traditions to reimagine what it means to be devout. Faced with versions of our faith that hinge on authoritarianism and rules, we do not need to abandon our faith to be free, but rather, like Haydar, live out our faith in ways that champion women and vulnerable people. Christianity already has a long tradition of empowering women, especially those on the margins of society. Women such as Mary and Elizabeth prophesied of God’s coming grace; later, women were the first to the empty tomb and the first to share the Good News with others; later still, in the Medieval Period, women such as Julian of Norwich wrote movingly of God’s love for humankind. While the specifics of reimagining our faith may vary from congregation to congregation, the wider call to exchange authoritarian, rules-based approaches to faith for ones that recognize the agency and worth of women and vulnerable people holds true.
Congregations from more conservative denominations need not suddenly become progressive, but they are called, not (only) by “Dog” but by their own faith tradition, to reimagine the Christian life in ways that stop exalting human leaders and make space for women’s worth and importance in God’s narrative. This includes holding authoritarian leaders to the same ethical standards, sexual or otherwise, that other members are held to, though it may also include revisiting our standards to ensure that we do not perpetuate oppression under a guise of holiness. Perhaps most critically, this also includes reckoning with the place of women of color in Christian circles, given how, as Tamara Johnson documents, persistent racism in the evangelical church prevents them from being taken seriously or given adequate consideration.
As Mona Haydar makes clear in “Dog,” faith which worships human authority and depends on rules for other people is a form of godliness only, not the real thing. Genuine faith does not police women’s clothing or silence their voice; it does not subordinate women’s needs to those of (male) leaders, or ignore the abuse and wrongdoing of leaders for the sake of their ministry. Rather, transformative faith hinges on celebrating the value of women as God has made them: agentive beings, worthy of being heard and respected in the communities where they belong. Only as we Christians adequately recognize and enact this will our authoritarian problems be addressed.