Two days after Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn in as the nation’s first female vice president, Tom Buck let it out.
“I can’t imagine any truly God-fearing Israelite who would’ve wanted their daughters to view Jezebel as an inspirational role model because she was a woman in power,” tweeted Buck, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Lindale, Texas. In the days leading up the inauguration, Buck had quoted scripture about “evildoers” alongside criticism of President Joe Biden’s stance on abortion rights.
But it was his comments about Harris that drew the most attention.
Despite criticism, including from fellow pastors, Buck doubled down in a follow-up tweet the next day.
“For those torn up over my tweet, I stand by it 100%,” Buck wrote. “My problem is her godless character. She not only is the most radical pro-abortion VP ever, but also most radical LGBT advocate.”
Buck wasn’t the only Southern Baptist preacher to refer to Harris as a Jezebel, a biblical character who has become shorthand for an amoral, wantonly sexual woman. Weeks earlier, before the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Steve Swofford, head of the First Baptist Church of Rockwall near Dallas, made a similar statement. Delivering a videotaped sermon, Swofford called Biden “cognitively dysfunctional.”
“What if something happens to [Biden] and Jezebel has to take over?” Swofford asked in the sermon. “Jezebel Harris, isn’t that her name?”
While it may be easy to dismiss these Texas pastors as isolated examples, experts warn that these messages are far more prevalent in congregations across America — particularly in white evangelical churches — than many may realize. The “Jezebel” reference is also highly specific, a trope that speaks to deeply entrenched views about power and what is “normal” or “traditional” in American culture, especially when it comes to racial and gender hierarchies.
Both Swofford and Buck are members of the Southern Baptist Convention, a network comprising 50,000 cooperating churches and religious institutions, according to its website. According to the Pew Research Center, it is the biggest Protestant denomination in the United States, counting 14.8 million members in 2018. Swofford serves on the SBC’s executive committee.
Calling Harris a Jezebel accomplishes multiple things: It delegitimizes her power and dehumanizes her. Jessica Johnson, an assistant professor of religious studies at the College of William & Mary, said the term has historically been used as a justification for racial violence against Black women. But the pastors’ rhetoric had an additional level of danger.
Johnson has been researching Christian nationalism, an ideology rooted in the belief that the United States is a Christian nation and that Christians must both maintain and advance their privileged status. The Christian nationalist movement shares many of the same beliefs as the white nationalists, including an attachment to an “authoritarian father figure” running the country, Johnson explained. Calling Harris a Jezebel foments their worst fears: that they will be replaced; that their fate is in the hands of a godless, amoral Black woman.
“It’s not just un-PC. It’s far beyond that,” Johnson said. “It’s an incitement to violence.”
In the Bible, Jezebel is the name given to the Phoenician wife of Israel’s King Ahab in the Old Testament. She is devoted to her husband, but she maintains her beliefs in her own culture’s gods, said Tamura Lomax, an associate professor at Michigan State University and author of the book “Jezebel Unhinged,” which looks at the cultural, religious and political applications of the term. This is perceived as a threat to Ahab’s God. When the prophet Elijah kills 800 of Jezebel’s holy men, the queen threatens retaliation and establishes herself as his equal: “If you are Elijah, so I am Jezebel,” she said.
“She never did anything sexual. They hated her for her power,” Lomax said. It was Jezebel’s breach of the social order that led followers of Christianity to accuse her of being immoral. The sexual connotations were tacked on afterward, Lomax explained, to both undermine her and further highlight her deviance.
In the United States, the Jezebel trope was specifically used to justify sexual violence against enslaved African women on plantations, Lomax said. If Black women were naturally sexually deviant and promiscuous, then raping or harassing them was excusable.
“White women have been called Jezebel, but that sexual narrative that they are inherently hypersexual has not been connected to them in the derogatory and pathological ways that it has been to Black women and girls,” Lomax said. She noted how Michelle Obama and her daughters, Sasha and Malia, were sternly policed by conservatives over how much skin they showed — treatment that Melania Trump, as first lady, was spared.
The Jezebel stereotype has not only endured in American culture; it has shaped public policy. Concerns about unwed Black mothers were a prominent component of the 1965 Moynihan report, which claimed that Black female breadwinners caused the breakdown of the Black family (this was posited as a reason to increase economic opportunities for Black men, but not for Black women). The Jezebel archetype has also been resurrected in other stereotypes: the mythical “welfare queen,” for example, which Reagan-era politicians wielded to help undermine political support for social services.
In each of these examples, the concern is ostensibly about promiscuity and irresponsibility, but is in fact a repudiation of women’s power and autonomy, Lomax explained. But with a resurgence of white nationalism, implying that Harris is “godless” or serves foreign interests is particularly incendiary. Rather than having a different set of political beliefs, Harris is painted as undermining God’s natural order, simply through her proximity to the presidency.
This issue of incitement is particularly salient now, as former President Donald Trump faces a second impeachment trial for provoking mob violence at the Capitol last month. Johnson ties this to birther claims against former President Barack Obama, who was repeatedly and baselessly accused by conservatives of not being American or Christian.
“The fact that these SBC pastors are doing this is trafficking in a conspiratorial thinking,” Johnson said. As part of her research, she has been monitoring far-right groups on the encrypted messaging app, Telegram, including the Proud Boys.
“You see this kind of feverish pitch about how if we don’t protect our nation and fight for our nation, that our families and our way of life are going to fall by the wayside,” she said. These fears are fueled by major demographic changes to the United States, as well as dwindling congregations in churches around the country.
Southern Baptist churches, like other religious institutions in the United States, are at an important crossroads, noted Candice Benbow, a theologian and writer.
“The SBC has never been affirming of the voice and agency of women,” Benbow said. The organizing body has been wrestling with the direction it will take. Last year, its all-white male group of presidents rejected teaching critical race theory in its seminaries, drawing vocal protests from some SBC members.
Like others, Benbow warned that the two Texas pastors are not outliers. Many other pastors have privately shared similar “concerns” about women in leadership generally, and Harris specifically. But although this rhetoric can be found in non-white churches, Benbow said, it is more dangerous coming from white pastors because of the way white evangelists have conflated Christian theology with white supremacist beliefs.
Ultimately, experts agreed that Buck and Swofford were aware of the cultural connotations of referring to Harris as a Jezebel, as well its ability to stoke rage and fear among their followers. They also say it’s likely that pastors will tap into the same racist, sexist language to talk about Harris in the coming years, a prediction that highlights the way religious institutions have always been political ones. Benbow cited examples of Klansmen who served as deacons, using scripture to justify Jim Crow, as well as the way the Black church was “the seat of the Civil Rights movement.”
“We are still, to this day, having churches, mosques and synagogues bombed,” Benbow said. “While at the same time, white folks were going into these churches to have white supremacy and racism reinforced in scripture.”