Despite calls from fellow Southern Baptists, two Texas pastors have yet to apologize for comparing Vice President Kamala Harris to Jezebel, a Biblical queen whose name has become shorthand for a woman who is manipulative, seductive, and wicked.
There is a distinctively racist and sexist undertone to the label, since the Jezebel trope has been used to denigrate Black women for years, scholars say.
The most notable Southern Baptist to sling the name Jezebel at the nation’s first female, Black and Asian vice president was Steve Swofford, a pastor who sits on the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, a church body tasked with running the business of America’s largest Protestant denomination.
During a speech at his Rockwall church, Swofford wondered aloud what would happen if President Joe Biden stepped down and “Jezebel has to take over.”
“Jezebel Harris, isn’t that her name?” Swofford said on Jan. 3, according to Baptist News Global.
Swofford, who was a chairman on the team responsible for selecting the executive committee’s president, did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. SBC’s executive committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Another Texas pastor, Tom Buck, compared Harris to Jezebel two days after her inauguration, as people celebrated her historic new role.
“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,” Buck tweeted on Jan. 22.
Buck later doubled down, stating that his problem with Harris was her “godless character” as someone who supports increasing women’s access to abortion, as well as protecting LGBTQ people’s right to marry.
Valerie Cooper, an associate professor of Black church studies at Duke Divinity School, told HuffPost it’s impossible to ignore the racist connotations of the label, especially when it is lobbed at Harris.
“To pull out this old chestnut with regards to a woman of color is just horrendous,” Cooper said. “It has not only misogynistic layers of interpretation, but it’s also frankly racist in its application.”
J.D. Greear, the SBC’s current president, stepped in on Twitter to denounce the comparisons ― without naming the pastors responsible.
“I realize that some pastors are likely unaware of the history of certain racial stereotypes in calling or comparing our Vice President to Jezebel, but that doesn’t make such statements any less unwise,” Greear wrote on Twitter last Tuesday. “There are times we will critique policies, but that should not include personal attacks on a newly elected official God has told us to honor and pray for.”
Jezebel was a queen who appears in the Bible as the wife of an ancient ruler of Israel, King Ahab. The daughter of a Phoenician king, Jezebel was fiercely loyal to her own culture. She refused to set aside her own religious beliefs after marrying Ahab, instead encouraging her husband to worship her gods, Baal and Asherah. The Bible suggests Jezebel was also comfortable wielding political power, threatening the Prophet Elijah after he had Baal’s priests slain, and arranging the murder of a land owner so that Ahab could seize a vineyard. When she realized she was going to be killed, Jezebel did not cower ― instead, she put on makeup, fixed her hair, and waited for death at her palace window.
The name Jezebel literally means, “Where is the prince?” or in modern terms, “Where is your husband?” according to Tamura Lomax, author of “Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture.”
“The name Jezebel was actually meant to be a slur because she did not submit to patriarchy,” Lomax told HuffPost.
Over time, the label Jezebel came to signify a woman who is sexually promiscuous, untrustworthy and a threat to society. In the American context, the Jezebel stereotype was weaponized against enslaved Black women. They were called Jezebels because they worshipped deities besides the Christian God ― and because they were fighters, Lomax said.
“They understood the barbaric nature of plantation life was inherently morally corrupt and thus a constant source of imminent death. And yet, they still found ways to experience joy and queen up,” Lomax said.
Black enslaved women were also painted as inherently sexually promiscuous, Lomax said, which meant plantation owners, who were largely Christian, were absolved of responsibility for being perpetrators of sexual violence. Before the Civil War, enslaved Black women in the South couldn’t file rape charges against a white man.
The Jezebel stereotype still has resonance today, Lomax said ― in the way Black women and girls are considered sexually immoral and untrustworthy threats to society, and rarely seen as victims of rape.
“The jezebel trope is explicitly historically and culturally racialized, and it especially impacts Black single mothers, Black women in power, and powerfully sexually expressive Black women and girls,” she said.
Buck, the Texas pastor who compared Harris to Jezebel on Twitter, insisted that he wasn’t being racist. He refused to budge on his decision to compare Harris to Jezebel even after being informed that using Jezebel’s name against a Black woman was a racist trope.
The Southern Baptist Convention has had a notoriously hard time grappling with racism in its ranks. Breakaway Baptists created the denomination in 1845 due to disagreements with their counterparts in the North over slavery. It took 150 years for SBC leadership to formally apologize for the denomination’s defense of slavery. Today, the vast majority of Southern Baptists are white and Republican ― and the denomination still struggles to understand systemic racism.
Last year, the leaders of all six Southern Baptist seminaries pledged not to teach students about critical race theory, a key method that scholars have developed to examine how systemic racism persists in America. Greear, the SBC’s current president, has said that he supports the seminary leaders’ core argument. The leaders’ position prompted several Black pastors to leave or contemplate breaking from the denomination.
Harris stands out as a woman who has achieved significant political power at a time when Southern Baptist women are still prohibited from leading congregations. Only men can be pastors and Southern Baptist women who preach to mixed audiences of men and women can face intense backlash and scrutiny.
Cooper said it’s also important to remember that ― while Harris identifies as Baptist herself ― she is the child of a Hindu, Indian woman and the wife of a Jewish man. Pastors’ reference to Jezebel is a way of explaining how a white man is being manipulated by a “strange woman he’s allowed into the camp.”
“The suggestion is that she is somehow introducing foreign worship and leading astray, in this case, it would be Joe Biden,” Cooper told HuffPost.
When pastors call Harris a Jezebel, they are suggesting that she can be disregarded and even dispatched as “illegitimate” for her commitment to her own religious convictions and for being an “unruly, outspoken woman” ― just as the Biblical Queen Jezebel was, according to Darnise Martin, a clinical associate professor of African American studies at Loyola Marymount University.
Martin said she isn’t surprised that Southern Baptist pastors lack the skills to engage with Harris’ historic election, and that they continue to miss the mark about understanding their own racism as they attack the vice president.
“The concept of anti-racism is lost on the [Southern Baptist Convention], and yet they are a prime example of why it is so desperately needed especially for their largely white, conservative membership,” Martin said. “Yes, more needs to be done to stamp out racism among their flock, but first they would have to acknowledge the systematic presence of white supremacy within their religious practices. They show us that they are not ready for that.”