Reason to Quiver?

Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement
  • Kathryn Joyce
  • Beacon Press, 2009; 258 pages, $25.95

Many Americans were appalled by the behavior of “Octomom” Nadya Suleman, the publicity-hungry, unemployed single mother whose litter of artificially-inseminated octuplets brought her offspring total to fourteen. Many were also outraged by developments on Jon and Kate Plus 8—the reality television show, which will presumably have to be renamed Jon (Plus Girlfriends) Minus Kate (with no Date) Plus 8 (Divided by One-Half of Their Divorced Parents’ Time).

Yet, if Kathryn Joyce is to be believed, the most disturbing trend in American family life surrounds a small band of conservative Christians who are strongly committed to lifelong marriage, traditional gender roles, and the scriptural admonition to “be fruitful and multiply”. . . in the quaint, old-fashioned way. In Quiverfull, Joyce takes aim at a “quietly organizing” movement of conservative Christian families that draw inspiration from these words of Psalm 127: “Children are a blessing from the Lord . . . Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.”

Joyce not only believes these Christians represent a serious threat to enlightened civilization, but she also finds sympathy for her concern among the readers of Mother JonesThe Nation, and other left-wing publications for which she often writes. For example, author Barbara Ehrenreich says the “Quiverfull” movement threatens to “reduce women to the status of slave-like breeders.” Former Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt says this subculture “twists religion to justify keeping women barefoot, pregnant, and powerless.” Likewise, author Michelle Goldberg says these families have “taken misogyny to sadomasochistic extremes.”

Joyce, to her credit, largely eschews such overheated language; but her ominous tone leaves little doubt about her biases. She begins, “In the corners of fundamentalist Christendom across the country, an old ideal of Christian womanhood is being revived.” Joyce proceeds to describe an archetypal mother “of eight, ten, or twelve children,” whose life largely consists of “homeschooling her children, keeping house, cooking bulk meals, and helping her husband in a home business or ministry.” This woman is “not the throwback to the fifties summoned in media-stoked ‘mommy wars,’” Joyce says. “She is a return to something far older.”

While Joyce’s characterizations are not flattering, neither are they contrived. Indeed, conservative Christians accustomed to seeing lazy journalists repeatedly commit factual errors—like calling the founder of Focus on the Family the Reverend James Dobson—will be pleased to find that Joyce has done her homework and done it well. In fact, some leaders probably think she does her homework a little too well—such as when Joyce reports that conservative Christian groups often “engage in purist rivalries within themselves and against each other” even though they are often separated by “minute doctrinal differences.” Amen to that.

Lest there be any doubt, Joyce knows about minute—and not-so-minute—theological differences. While she describes herself as a “secular feminist,” Joyce not only correctly identifies the key Bible passages animating the Quiverfull movement, but also displays a greater understanding of these passages than many self-described “evangelical feminists.” Joyce correctly notes, for example, that the case for male headship is rooted in the order of creation outlined in Genesis 1 and 2, not—as many religious liberals claim—in the Genesis 3 curse put on men and women after Adam and Eve rebelled against God. Still, Joyce’s curious omissions sometimes undermine her case. Her reporting on the pro-natalist ethos behind conservative Christian family life, for example, fails to acknowledge that many larger-than-average Protestant families practice “natural family planning” (such as the Billings method) much like their conservative Catholic counterparts.

To be sure, “Quiverfull” families have a preference for larger families than most Americans. They also believe strongly in the sovereignty and providence of God, which helps them welcome babies they didn’t “plan.” But most Quiverfull families do not literally seek to have as many babies as possible. Instead, most approach reproduction in a manner similar to the way many Mother Jones readers approach farming—with a back-to-nature appreciation for “organic” methods, a strong wariness of chemical intrusions that disrupt natural processes, and a keen awareness of the rejuvenating value of “letting a field lie fallow” from time to time.

Joyce’s case also suffers from her failure to entertain the possibility that certain biblical doctrines—like male headship—might be commonly practiced in ways that belie their conventional stereotype. To her credit, Joyce reports on the work of University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox, whose book, Soft Patriarchs and New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands, contains extensive research showing that conservative Protestant men who attend church frequently are more emotionally and constructively involved in family life than other men. Wilcox says a “soft patriarch” is unmistakably the head of his household; but in practice, “his authority is more symbolic than real.” Wilcox reports, “He is given the gift of symbolic leadership by his family in return for an expectation of practical and emotional engagement in the life of the family.” In essence, Wilcox describes “soft patriarchy” in non-threatening terms that bring to mind the humorous line from My Big, Fat Greek Wedding when the family matriarch tells her adult daughter, “The man is the head of the household, but the wife is the neck—she can turn him in any direction she wants.”

Joyce rejects this characterization, pointing to Quiverfull leaders whose writings make clear that the man of the house isn’t supposed to be a “paper tiger.” Still, she cannot seem to distinguish the “servant leadership” commonly practiced by these churchgoing men from the abusive male domination that say, singer Tina Turner used to receive from “The Man every night and day.” Joyce therefore repeats the mistake of her feminist forebears who a decade ago launched a public relations campaign against the evangelical men’s movement, Promise Keepers, until grass-roots women began challenging their views with first-hand reports from the field. As one Kansas woman memorably reported, “I sent a frog to Promise Keepers—and he came back a prince.”

Had Joyce really wanted to mount an effective critique against ultraconservative Christian groups, she could have easily pointed to their all-too-willing acceptance of cheesy patriotic hokum. Or Joyce could have lampooned their tendency to imitate the mainstream culture they claim to loathe—as when Vision Forum introduced a line of Christian dolls and books patterned after the popular American Girls Collection. Or Joyce could have questioned whether their attempts to live in a parallel universe, starkly separated from mainstream culture, are consistent with the Apostle Paul’s admonition to be “in the world, but not of the world.” But Joyce does not launch any of these challenges. Instead, she ends up painting a portrait of these super-sized families that mostly confirms old stereotypes, rather than showing these neo-traditional families to be far more sophisticated—and far less threatening—than commonly believed.

Were this still the nineteenth century, Joyce’s “authoritative report” might hold greater sway. But in the twenty-first century world, the folly of her alarm is fully exposed by the reality television show, 18 Kids and Counting. When viewers watch Jim Bob Duggar, the “soft patriarch” of the Arkansas family featured on this program, they don’t see a sanctimonious Mick Jagger determined to keep his little woman, “Under My Thumb.” Instead, viewers see a faithful, hardworking man seeking to offer his child-rich family something that the Octomom apparently thinks is optional equipment these days—an actively engaged, on-the-job husband and father.

Is Jim Bob Duggar really a reason to quiver?

Mr. Mattox, a married father of four who lives in Florida, serves on the board of contributors at USA Today.