Opinion: Why Harrison Butker’s commencement fiasco was no surprise

Editor’s Note: Tiffany Torres Williams writes about the dangerous intersection of Christian nationalism and politics in her newsletter Project 2025 Takedown. She lives in Western Montana with her husband and children. The views in this commentary are hers. View more opinion at CNN.

This week, the internet lit up with news about a Kansas City Chiefs player — and for once it wasn’t a Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift update.

Tiffany Torres Williams - Tiffany Williams/Gin Williams
Tiffany Torres Williams - Tiffany Williams/Gin Williams

video emerged of Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker giving the commencement speech at Benedictine College, a Catholic school in Atchison, Kansas. Butker used the 20-minute speech to rail against Biden, reproductive rights, Covid policies and LGBTQ+ pride.

In the middle of the speech, Butker briefly veered toward the mainstream as he congratulated the graduates and encouraged them to pursue their vocations. But then he went on to say that he wanted to address the “ladies,” who he believed had “the most diabolical lies told to you.”

“Some of you may go on to lead successful careers in the world, but I would venture to guess that the majority of you are most excited about your marriage, and the children you will bring into the world,” he said. Butker, who went on to add that “homemaker” was “one of the most important titles of all,” got emotional when he talked about his own wife, Isabelle, and her willingness to give up her ambitions to fulfill her ultimate role as wife and mother.

The outrage on social media was immediate and palpable. Did Butker ignite the next iteration of the bear vs. man debate? On X, the website formerly known as Twitter, one user wrote, “Harrison Butker telling women at their COLLEGE GRADUATION they they’ve been lied to & they’ll be more fulfilled as homemakers is… something.”

His speech also prompted a debate among Catholics, with some saying his comments were not representative of the faith. Meanwhile, the NFL distanced itself on Wednesday, issuing a statement saying Butker’s views “are not those of the NFL as an organization” and that the league remained “steadfast in our commitment to inclusion.”

My take on Butker’s comments is personal. I graduated from Abilene Christian University in 2005, and I was anything but surprised by the content of his speech. Annoyed? Yes. Frustrated? Of course. But surprised? No.

Many women who grew up in evangelical culture do not have the luxury of surprise when confronted with anti-feminist behavior. Even college-educated women. We are often taught from a young age that our main purpose is to be “fruitful and multiply,” a phrase taken from Genesis when God created Adam and Eve.

I remember sitting in a semi-circle on the story carpet at Sunday school, as my teacher moved felt characters around a flannel board to illustrate the origin of humanity. I couldn’t have been older than 4 or 5 years old. There was Adam and Eve, and an evil serpent. A cloud represented God. Eve accepted the fruit the serpent gave her from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, took a bite and then offered it to Adam.

This, we were told, made God very angry. The teacher moved a lightning bolt onto the cloud. She explained that because Eve tempted Adam, women would bear great pain in childbirth for the rest of time and be subservient to men.

Female submission isn’t often discussed in secular culture, but it’s rife in some evangelical and Catholic communities, including higher education. And while there are some differences between the way I was educated as a young evangelical and the audience Butker was speaking to, there are some important common threads.

Many evangelical and Catholic churches teach complementarianism, which is the theological belief that men and women were created with different complementary purposes. Men are supposed to be the financial providers and protectors, while women are the nurturers and supporters. Men are supposed to be active while women are more passive. Men are the leaders while women are the servers.

This hierarchy was implicitly reinforced at my conservative Christian college — the College of Biblical Studies steered women toward children’s ministry careers while encouraging men to become head pastors. That’s because few leadership roles exist for women in churches that are not outright progressive or “egalitarian,” which is the opposite of complementarian.

But young women at my school were also explicitly encouraged to shelve our diplomas in pursuit of marriage and motherhood. We made jokes about getting a “ring by spring.” We wanted our “MRS degrees.” I am ashamed to say that many of us treated the men we met in college like party favors — the gift you get just for attending.

I got my gift before the party had even ended. My husband and I married the summer between our junior and senior year. But we quickly learned that having a wedding did nothing to prepare us for marriage. By 22 and 20, respectively, my husband and I had no idea who we were as people, much less spouses. We made the kind of errors you would expect of immature and ill-equipped humans who were pressured to marry young.

Fortunately, we grew together and remained united, which is more than I can say for many of our peers. Many of our friends from college divorced shortly after they married. Others remain in sexless marriages.

My husband and I will celebrate our 20-year anniversary this summer. And while we’re grateful for the environment that brought us together, we’re raising our son and daughter under a different paradigm.

Though we started our family under traditional gender roles, I discovered I could be a better spouse and parent when I could contribute to my community outside the home. I started a business, opened a separate checking account and learned I had value beyond my role as homemaker.

This transition really crystallized for us when the Covid-19 lockdown forced my husband to work from home. Suddenly, he was able to engage in every aspect of parenting — the chaotic morning routine, the Zoom classroom, the afternoon attempt to burn off kid energy with long bike rides. My husband learned that he loved being present for the moments he had missed at the office. When lockdown ended, he sought a different job that allowed him to work from home full time.

Now we see ourselves as the co-creators of our lives — not captive to a harmful hierarchy. We hope our example leads our kids to college, where they might one day sit in the stands and take in a commencement speech that honors the breadth of their hard work and talents — not one that mythologizes outdated and harmful gender stereotypes.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com