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A Return to the Dark Ages
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Christian Fundamentalist Group Preaches Patriarchy and Women's Fertility as Weapons for Spiritual Warfare
By Mark Karlin
Author Kathryn Joyce explains the bizarre Quiverfull movement dedicated to exploding the birthrate of ultra-conservative Christians.
When Americans think of patriarchal societies, female submission, or extreme gender inequality based on religious teachings, visions of Muslim women in burkas or Hindus in poorly arranged marriages may come to mind. The reality, though, is that a growing number of American Christian fundamentalists also have rejected feminism and egalitarianism, embracing instead male dominance and what they call the "Quiverfull" belief system. Picture the Massachusetts Bay Colonies before Hester Prynne's day. The women in such communities live within a stringently enforced doctrine of wifely submission and male "headship," including a selfless acceptance of possibly constant pregnancies and as many children under foot as God might bring. They reject not only "reproductive rights" of any kind, but also higher education and workforce participation for women.
In her book Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, journalist Kathryn Joyce approaches Quiverfull followers with deep curiosity and the restraint of a good journalist. In a recent interview, she discussed the beliefs and lifestyle of inequaity that has taken a foothold in corners of American society.
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Mark Karlin: You wrote the book called Quiverfull, Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. In the beginning of the book, you give an overview of what the Quiverfull movement is. Can you describe it to us?
Kathryn Joyce: Quiverfull itself is a movement and a conviction among deeply conservative, theologically conservative Christians and pro-life purists who believe that you should accept as many children as God will give you based on Psalm 127, which reads: "Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies at the gate." So it's kind of a dual emphasis on accepting as many children as God will give you, both as a demonstration of radical trust and obedience in God and also a really concerted effort to win the culture wars demographically.
From Psalm 127, a lot of emphasis is placed on militaristic imagery, particularly arrows. So the children become the arrows of the parents, part of their tools of war, in order to go out against the enemy. They put a lot of stress on the fact that Christians need to remember that their way of being in the world is a way of being at war with the world, so having more children than their enemy can help them to effect their changes.
Karlin: I assume it also is tied into a group that is primarily white. It often seems to me that many of the fundamentalist movements coincide with racial identity, and that white culture is under attack. There's more minorities in the world, so the idea to go forth and multiply is to get the white birth rate up, in essence.
Joyce: I agree. I think that that's not the only motivation or not necessarily the motivation of everybody who follows these convictions, but I think there's often a really strong racial undertone when people talk about the "demographic winter" occurring in Europe. There's the idea that Europeans, which we can read easily as white Europeans, are not having enough children, so this is necessitating vast immigration. They talk about the demographic winter in Europe, which is not to say a concern for a lack of enough total babies being born, but a lack of the right babies.
Karlin: Or the white babies.
Karlin: When I first saw this title, I looked up Quiverfull and saw that it was associated with the larger Christian fundamentalist movement. But the subtitle said, "the Christian patriarchy movement." My perception of the fundamentalist movement overall is that it is a patriarchal movement. What makes this distinct?
Joyce: I think you're right that it is kind of characteristic of the whole fundamentalist movement, but there's also a subset of people within it who actually call themselves patriarchs or members of the patriarchy movement. They advocate a very extreme version of wifely submission to male headship -- the idea that wives are submissive in everything to their husbands, and before that, to their fathers. The women are never out from under the covering of the men, and this is very important, because getting women back to the submissive state is the first step towards a Christian revival.
That's the most extreme type. You have people who don't allow women to speak in church, who believe that women need to submit an hour-by-hour schedule of what they're going to do with their day to their husbands.
I think also there's a milder version of this that often raises a few eyebrows but doesn't seem as too dangerous within the broader Christian community. They sometimes call themselves complementarians, and they speak about submission and headship, but, really, it is more in their speech than in actual practice. I think there's really a continuum. It's not that they're not taking those ideas seriously, but they use gentler language among people who are promoting it, in a more mainstream sense -- more mainstream being like the Southern Baptist Convention, which is very mainstream in numbers, but they speak explicitly about the need for wives to submit to husbands.
And this is getting some very prominent play. Mike Huckabee signed on to their 1998 doctrinal statement that women need to submit to their husbands, so this is something that's very much a part of mainstream faith. But it's tied much more closely than people acknowledge with these much more extreme elements.
Karlin: Before I get back to Quiverfull as a movement, let's just continue on this patriarchal concept in the fundamentalist movement. I personally do not recall ever seeing in the fundamentalist movement any of these leaders, bing women. I just read that James Dobson has resigned from his organization, but if you look at Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye -- they're all men. There simply are not women here. They're all men. And Mike Huckabee signed on to the concept that man is the leader, and that that's something Biblically engrained.
But again, with Quiverfull, we might see people working in our offices and not know that they're members of this movement, leading their own communities.
Joyce: It's not a particular church or denomination, although some denominations have made statements that openness to as many children as possible is a good idea. A lot of churches are starting to move against contraception, which is kind of the core of Quiverfull's real practical thrust -- that contraception is wrong. Some churches are increasingly talking about that. But really, it's more of a community of believers that transcends doctrinal differences, transcends just denominations and different churches. It's something that goes instead across conservative churches that are Baptist, Reformed, Calvinists, or the congregations that are charismatic.
Karlin: Does a married woman who's part of this movement self-identify? If I go up to a woman and ask what sort of Christian are you, will she perhaps say I'm a member of the Quiverfull movement?
Joyce: I think they would list that among their convictions. I think a lot of Christians in the last twenty years have started to see more significance in where people lie along the political spectrum or what issues they find most important, rather than denominational issues, which is why you're seeing all these breakups of these different churches between conservative and liberal factions. Someone might say, I am a Christian, and because of that, I believe in letting God determine my family planning and letting God determine how many children I have. I follow the Bible, so I believe that I must be submissive to my husband.
Karlin: You said the many arrows in the quiver represent children as being important to Christian warfare. I remember reading that Sarah Palin was part of something called the spiritual warfare movement. The idea was to belong to society, and to take over positions of power. Do the people in the Quiverfull movement see themselves as missionaries?
Joyce: I recall reading about that, in regard to Sarah Palin, and that was a specific group. Spiritual warfare in the most basic sense is how a Christian engages with the culture by bringing this Christian influence, and knowing that they are there to convert the world and not become more of the world. Spiritual warfare can mean a lot of things, but in terms of using children, and viewing your fertility as a weapon of spiritual warfare -- that is particular to Quiverfull, I think, or people who follow Quiverfull convictions without using their name, which a lot of people do.
Spiritual warfare is about using all of your gifts in a Christian mission against the world. It's not necessarily to be aligned with a literal militaristic way of talking about things. But when people start to talk about spiritual warfare and the Quiverfull movement, it's very clear that they have a lot of earthly goals. They talk about reclaiming the city of San Francisco for the faithful, or saying we can reclaim Massachusetts for the faithful. We can take over both houses of Congress, and we can take over the government and start doing things the way Christians should be doing them. We can ban offensive movies, and we can wage huge massive boycotts against companies that violate God's standards.
Eventually, the people who really write about this are hoping that they can set the country legally back into a Christ-law government -- something like the Colonies, the Massachusetts Bay Colonies, the Christian colonies, is the ultimate example they see.
Karlin: What drew you to look so closely at this movement?
Joyce: I first starting researching and writing about this movement when I was looking into the phenomenon of pharmacists who were claiming conscientious objection to filling birth control prescriptions. I was really surprised that these people who are anti-abortion would also be anti-contraception. And, of course, that's the rub. More and more people are understanding in the past five years is it's not one or the other with Quiverfull and anti-contraception advocates. They are advocating an extremely conservative and extremist anti-sex philosophy.
Looking back on the people supporting this, there was a really organized movement of people behind the anti-contraception movement, and they were really talking most about how feminism had led to birth control, which had led to abortion. They had to attack the root of this problem, which was attacking women's rights, and women's right to control their fertility.
Karlin: Historically, female subservience to the male has been the rule rather than the exception. What motivates a woman in this contemporary modern culture to accept this? How do we as secular people get inside such a woman's head and understand her being subservient and obsequious to the male head of the family?
Joyce: I think, first off, there's a bit of a trade off offered to women who sometimes don't see a lot of options for themselves in the workplace. They re-embrace these traditional roles with astounding vigor because basically, if it's a question of being a blue-collar laborer, and you're not offered a fulfilling role, or being some kind of angel in the house, then she'll choose the angel in the house.
But a thousand issues play into it that are in some ways understandable. I think there is some effort in various churches to promote these patriarchy doctrines as a safer deal for women. Then the setup is, wives submit to their husbands, but also that husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church. How that actually plays out in reality varies a lot with the husband, of course. But they're told that this is the trade off. You will submit, and your husband will love you. So there's that promise.
I think primarily they're just taught that this is what God requires of you. These are women are very devout and believe that the word in the Bible is true, and that what their pastors are telling them is true, and they want to be right with God. I think that can be a hard thing for secular people to understand. It's an incredibly powerful drive for women to feel that they're right with God. If they're told that to be right with God, they need to be more submissive, then they're going to try to be more submissive. If they're told they need to be open to having ten children, then they'll struggle with that. Some of them will say this is what I have to do to be right with God. They would feel, this is what God is telling me, and I feel God is speaking through male pastors and male leaders.
Karlin: The patriarchal fundamentalist movement leaders are the be-all to the women who are locked into this belief system. If you really want to break away from this belief, then the whole structure falls apart.
Karlin: Is this a growing movement?
Joyce: Yes, it is. It's really been going on for the past 20-25 years, so the first generation is starting to have their own children now. Obviously, not every child is going to continue in their parents' footsteps, but I think a lot of them do. These children often are raised in very cloistered home school environments, where their interaction with the outside world is very closely monitored. Their parents will discourage them from backsliding, particularly their daughters. They understand how important it is to keep the children of the movement within the movement in order to make this generational demographic victory possible.
There are quite a few women leaders in the submission and patriarchy and Quiverfull movements. They are under the headship of male leaders themselves, so you can question how much authority they actually have. But one of the most popular authors in bringing women about to this conviction has been a woman writing in a personal way. I think that's in keeping with tradition, as with Phyllis Schafly's example during the Eighties.
Karlin: How much of this do you think is a backlash to the feminist movement?
Joyce: I think generally it is, and that they have taken motivation and even structure from looking at the feminist movement. They organize in small groups and small mentoring models that seem to me very reminiscent of the rap groups, or the consciousness-raising groups of the early feminist movement, that appealed to women where they are, that talked to them about personal issues, and then exposed them to a political thought.
In this case, they are leading women or getting them organized into small groups and teaching them about submission and patriarchy rather than telling them about feminism and opportunities for women's liberation. But I think there's a lot of inspiration there. I think what they're attacking most vocally is feminism, and the idea that women are independent. They take feminism as a threat more seriously than probably anybody has since the 1970s. They talk about it obsessively. It's their main concern.
Karlin: Getting back to the race issue, it's been sort of unstated, but how did we get to the point where Jesus and Christianity are seen as white?
Joyce: That is a good question, but I'm not sure I am necessarily qualified to answer that, but I think I should clarify. I think there is subtext of race in a lot of the demographic concerns, but it's often not overt and I don't think everybody in this movement shares those beliefs. I think there's a very strong racial undercurrent, when they talk about demography as a crisis, or underpopulation, or declining fertility rates as a crisis, because they're talking about declining white fertility rates, not declining worldwide fertility rates. I think there are a lot of ties and connections between the extremist members of this movement and traditionally conservative and racist groups in the South. I don't think that's necessarily part of the theological basis for it, though.
Mark Karlin is the editor of buzzflash.com
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