Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement
When I attended a production of Jesus Christ Superstar as a wee lad of fifteen, I marveled at the song-writing, vocal skills, and daunting cross that loomed amidst a gloomy set design. Being then (and now) agnostic, I was appalled by the religious persecution depicted. I have always been puzzled by the penultimate utterance of Jesus. In the Book of Luke (King James version) 23:34, it is written, “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
I can’t forgive the Christian patriarchy movement subjects of this superbly crafted and deeply troubling new book, for their bad faith, cognitive dissonance, and behavioral misdeeds carry heavy consequences. Whether or not they know what they’re doing remains an open question. Kathryn Joyce’s gripping new account, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, is about Christians who want literally to take over and remake the world by outbreeding everyone else, warping the minds of school-children, justifying bigotry with transparent illogic, and systematically denying civil rights. That most of the violence is committed quietly and privately against women and girls, most of whom accede to it with joy and penitence, will give even the most devoutly and egalitarian Christian reader pause. “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Christian patriarchy movement members who feel imperiled by Jews, lesbians, Muslims, atheists, gay males, feminists, foreigners, and the less fecund seem conveniently to have forgotten these words.
The book’s twenty chapters are divided into three gendered parts—“Wives,” “Mothers,” and “Daughters”—in each of which Joyce deftly explores the bizarre ideology and political-economy of feminine subservience. The resulting dystopian communities in real-time and on-line in cyber-space rival those depicted in novels such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale, George Orwell’s 1984, and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can't Happen Here. This ain’t fiction, however. As befitting their understanding and practice of “complementarian theology,” as opposed to the alleged unnaturalness and godlessness of egalitarian gender relations, men and women in the Christian patriarchy movement believe equally (but differently) in the inherent inferiority of Eve (the Original Sin), females (on biological and spiritual grounds), Jezebel (in terms of sex) and women (who have hearts and minds). Sisters are in the process brainwashed into becoming meek and quiet supporters of their brothers, wives are instructed to remain sexually available to their husbands 24/7 (and forego any contraception), and mothers who don’t home-school their children commit them to Satan. Insofar as submissive females require degradation—the more public, the better—virtually every page is painful to read.
Woe unto the woman who proclaims “domestic abuse” or reveals a less than godly husband. Quiverfull opens by recounting the attempted rehabilitation of the disgraced megachurch founder, Ted Haggard, whose initial denial and then avowal of his use of methamphetamine and male sex workers were ripe with possibility. “Complementarian” theology demands that it be not Haggard but Haggard’s wife, Gayle, who bears the brunt of Christian condemnation from low and high places.
Few books have so affected me. This is not the sledge-hammer account I might have written. With equal parts curiosity and compassion, Joyce explains how and why tens of thousands of American women have “chosen” forms of subservience that bankrupt and humiliate them, that crimp their mental development and that hurt them physically and lead sometimes to social leprosy. Each female interviewed firmly and confidently speaks her motivations and explains her anti-feminism while gleefully ignoring the Malthusian outcome of unfettered fertility.
My sole criticism is that Joyce praises the “openness, generosity, courage, and patience” of her key informants with whom she (sometimes, usually, inherently?) “sharply disagreed,” but without revealing any of those disagreements. Joyce’s secular feminist aesthetics and politics are “clear” enough in mind but not in body: how did she manage the flesh-crawling creepiness and awkward silences without every day saying “that’s obviously horseshit” or “I wouldn’t wish this lifestyle on the daughter of my worst enemy?”
That Quiverfull opens with Gayle Haggard’s exemplary case should rouse outside observers of this noxious fundamentalism not to sit on their hands. As she points out, “to follow these ideas to their conclusions can mean, in very real ways [as women], to disappear.”