Mainstreaming "Quiverfull"
Kathryn Joyce printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jan 09, 2007 at 05:44:13 PM EST
In November, I published a story in The Nation about a Christian pro-natalist movement called Quiverfull that, until recently, was little known outside of either fundamentalist or reproductive rights circles, or among progressive watchdog groups and websites such as this one. (Talk 2 Action's DogEmperor   and Carlos  explored the subject in these pages on several occasions.) The Quiverfull families I profiled had between four and fourteen children - the result of their belief that contraception is a form of abortion and that all family planning decisions should be left to Providence. But as a movement, Quiverfull has a scope far broader than individual beliefs.

Its word-of-mouth growth can be traced back to conservative Protestant critiques of contraception--adherents consider all birth control, even natural family planning (the rhythm method), to be the province of prostitutes--and the growing belief among evangelicals that the decision of mainstream Protestant churches in the 1950s to approve contraception for married couples led directly to the sexual revolution and then Roe v. Wade.

The authors of the founding texts of the movement believed that turning the tide back on the feminist and sexual revolutions would have to start with something more basic than abortion: with the notion of family planning itself.

In terms of very general demographics, I described Quiverfull families like this:

Quiverfull parents try to have upwards of six children. They home-school their families, attend fundamentalist churches and follow biblical guidelines of male headship--"Father knows best"--and female submissiveness. They refuse any attempt to regulate pregnancy. Quiverfull began with the publication of Rick and Jan Hess's 1989 book, A Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ, which argues that God, as the "Great Physician" and sole "Birth Controller," opens and closes the womb on a case-by-case basis. Women's attempts to control their own bodies--the Lord's temple--are a seizure of divine power.

In the past two months, Quiverfull has enjoyed a good deal of press, comparatively speaking; not just in the blogosphere but in mainstream media outlets such as Newsweek, and, last Thursday night, TV magazine Nightline , which focused more than half of its program on the 10-person Carter family in Nashville, Tenn. The program was equal parts humorous wonder at the Carter family's "Cheaper by the Dozen" antics, and tepid questioning of the movement's inherent sexism, outspoken support for patriarchal family structures, and its health implications of Quiverfull moms. Larger questions about the social and political implications of Quiverfull were left unexplored.

One such unexplored avenue is the significance of the Carters' family member, Nancy Campbell: an intensely influential figure in Christian women's movements, but one rarely recognized as such by the secular press. As it happens, I interviewed Mrs. Campbell last October while researching a book on conservative Christian women, and found her to be everything she appeared on Nightline: genteel, gracious, eloquent and warm. But this 30-year veteran of international culture wars and editor of the equally-veteran anti-feminist magazine Above Rubies, is also quite a bit more than the "Quiverfull grandma" that Nightline called her. Through her international magazine and ministry, Campbell has been pivotal in "restoring" a vision of "traditional" family life that takes square aim at the fruits of the women's liberation movement by encouraging evangelical women to emulate a past that never was.

There's a scary side to Quiverfull too, as dramatically spelled out in the literature of its own founders. As I wrote in The Nation:

After arguing Scripture, the Hesses point to a number of more worldly effects that a Christian embrace of Quiverfull could bring. "When at the height of the Reagan Revolution," they write, "the conservative faction in Washington was enforced [sic] with squads of new conservative congressmen, legislators often found themselves handcuffed by lack of like-minded staff. There simply weren't enough conservatives trained to serve in Washington in the lower and middle capacities." But if just 8 million American Christian couples began supplying more "arrows for the war" by having six children or more, they propose, the Christian-right ranks could rise to 550 million within a century ("assuming Christ does not return before then"). They like to ponder the spiritual victory that such numbers could bring: both houses of Congress and the majority of state governor's mansions filled by Christians; universities that embrace creationism; sinful cities reclaimed for the faithful; and the swift blows dealt to companies that offend Christian sensibilities.

"With the nation's low birth rate, the high divorce rate, an un-marrying and anti-child viewpoint, and a debauched nation perhaps unable to slow down the spread of AIDS, we can begin to see what happens politically. A half-billion person boycott of a company which violated God's standards could be very effective.... Through God's blessing we would be part of a replay of Exodus 1:7, 'But the sons of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty, so that the land was filled with them.'" "Brethren," they write, "it's time for a comeback!"

But neither these extremist musings, nor the less-ambitious, but still seriously fundamentalist implications of Quiverfull's rise caught Nightline's notice. Nightline's failure to further explore the political nature not only of the general Quiverfull movement, but especially omitting the lifelong activism of the subjects they chose to personify that movement, demonstrates some of the key problems in a lot of religion reporting: depoliticizing grassroots movements until they appear strictly "personal" decisions, beyond intrusion, and failing to recognize that the complexity and factionalization of grassroots movements is a testament to its very strength.

In lieu of such investigations, journalism often succumbs to the temptation to either divide all subjects faith-related into categories "Good," "Bad," and quirkily irrelevant - Quiverfull, in Nightline's taxonomy, falls somewhere between the quirky obsolete, and the "to be watched." - or else, in the guise of "fair balance," giving lip-service to two "sides" of an issue without really delving into either one. Ironically, it's moral relativism - that bete noir of Christian conservatism - at its best, and the pinnacle of such a lightweight treatment of serious movements like Quiverfull is upcoming again on ABC. This past week I was forwarded an email by one of the network's casting directors, who has put out an open call for "wholesome Quiverfull families" willing to participate in an upcoming episode of "Wife Swap" in order to display their superior family values to the nation and receive a $20,000 honorarium for their troubles. Cheap laughs for the coasts, and cheap blessings for the heartland - an accurate representation of a movement this is not.

What flippant takes such as these fail to understand, or communicate, is that movements such as Quiverfull are different from the mainstream anti-abortion movement mainly in the level of their intensity, not in their foundational beliefs. (As illustration of how well within-the-fold many of their beliefs actually are, consider the text of an abortion ban on the table in Georgia. ) Quiverfull believers aren't "crazy extremists," so much as firm believers who have taken widely-shared conservative convictions to their logical ends. As purists within the larger anti-abortion/pro-family movement, they aren't fringe eccentrics, but a vanguard: representing the sort of society conervatives reference in condemning liberal, modern society. Journalism that covers such a complex ideological movements either as puffy human interest stories, or subjects them to judgment- (and idea-) free "balance," is not just intellectually lazy, but also potentially harmful, obscuring a forest-sized political agenda behind the novelty of its individual trees.

Rhetorical question, I know.


As in, weapons of death most commonly used (in ancient Biblical times in Israel) on humans of other nationalities.

Yes, hunting of wild animals was done by the non-Hebrew elite, but animals killed by bow-hunting probably would not have passed the kashrut test, therefore, the typical Hebrew hearing the Psalm would think of warrior sons, not hunters bringing home a little rabbit or deer for dinner.

Real war, with real dead people, is at the heart of the Quiverfull theology. Demographic war is all very well and good, but if (ie, when) their movement plateaus without accomplishing their goal, I wouldn't be surprised to see Quiverfull militia groups.

by NancyP on Tue Jan 09, 2007 at 06:47:21 PM EST

I used to do target shooting with arrows, tipped to pierce straw bales but not much else. It is fun, takes skill, and gives the arm some exercise. I never had the urge to bow-hunt or hunt with guns (fish-hooks, however.....).

Lots and lots of people bow-hunt deer around here (Missouri, S. Illinois). I daresay the "quiverfull" people live predominantly in the far suburbs or rural areas, simply because that's the place to find affordable housing for large families who don't want to have blacks for neighbors. The "quiverfull" people are perfectly aware of the lethal potential of arrows, and what a quiver is.

by NancyP on Wed Jan 10, 2007 at 12:21:10 PM EST

Interesting points, Nancy.

The militaristic language -- whether connoting spiritual, demographic, or actual warfare -- is something that really stuck out for me as well. (Not to self-promote too heavily, but there are abundant other examples of this war rhetoric in the Nation story.) "Arrows" are only the beginning. The entire family becomes a small military cell in this rhetoric, with extreme emphasis placed on rank, authority, and obedience. Obviously the language of spiritual warfare has a long tradition, and doesn't always translate to earthly violence, but in the context of a movement that talks frequently about national and global dominance, the line seems to blur beyond recognition.

by Kathryn Joyce on Tue Jan 09, 2007 at 07:31:57 PM EST

and thanks for your reporting on a movement that far too many still categorize as merely "quaint" or "quirky."

One can't help noticing that coverage of the Quiver Full phenomenon does tend to gloss over its underlying philosophy, as you said, dismissing it as a manifestation of "personal choice" -- while, when the subject is abortion, the value of personal choice and reproductive autonomy for women is trivialized further each year.

About a month ago, I did a piece on Doug Phillips and Vision Forum (A Beautiful Girlhood Christmas) that focused on the differences in how boy and girl children are reared in a "Biblical patriarchy" environment. Military costumes, weapons and rocket launchers for the boys, and dolls in "feminine" dresses, Victorian sewing kits and Elsie Dinsmore books for the girls.

Bobby Franklin, a favorite of VF, introduces some version of his abortion ban during every session of the Georgia lege. A few years ago, he authored a bill that would have required a woman to appear in court and obtain a "death warrant" for the fetus before she was allowed to have an abortion.

by moiv on Tue Jan 09, 2007 at 09:07:01 PM EST

Thanks, Moiv. I'm fascinated by the Phillips stuff and can't wait to read your piece on beautiful girl/boyhood!

by Kathryn Joyce on Wed Jan 10, 2007 at 10:13:17 AM EST

I added that to augment Kathryn's fine post and named the picture "Baby_arrow.jpg".

Children as "arrows" - yes, indeed. Babies as future instruments of warfare.

What more can be said ?

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Jan 09, 2007 at 11:58:25 PM EST

I always figure, when reading stuff like this, that those kids are going to have a *lot* to rebel against.

Meaning we'll have a "quiver full" of young liberals and libertarians!

by GreenEyed Lilo on Wed Jan 10, 2007 at 07:51:26 AM EST

Can Christians use birth control? (Al Mohler) 

The reality of abortion forced a reconsideration of other issues in turn. Affirming that human life must be recognized and protected from the moment of conception, evangelicals increasingly recognized Intrauterine Devices [IUDs] as abortifacients, and rejected any birth control with any abortifacient design or result. This conviction is now casting a cloud over the Pill as well.
Thus, in an ironic turn, American evangelicals are rethinking birth control even as a majority of the nation's Roman Catholics indicate a rejection of their Church's teaching. How should evangelicals think about the birth control question?
First, we must start with a rejection of the contraceptive mentality that sees pregnancy and children as impositions to be avoided rather than as gifts to be received, loved, and nurtured. This contraceptive mentality is an insidious attack upon God's glory in creation, and the Creator's gift of procreation to the married couple.
Second, we must affirm that God gave us the gift of sex for several specific purposes, and one of those purposes is procreation. Marriage represents a perfect network of divine gifts, including sexual pleasure, emotional bonding, mutual support, procreation, and parenthood. We are not to sever these "goods" of marriage and choose only those we may desire for ourselves. Every marriage must be open to the gift of children. Even where the ability to conceive and bear children may be absent, the will to receive children must be present. To demand sexual pleasure without openness to children is to violate a sacred trust.
Third, we should look closely at the Catholic moral argument as found in Humanae Vitae. Evangelicals will find themselves in surprising agreement with much of the encyclical's argument.

Should Christian married couples use birth control? (Today's Christian Woman)

I don't believe Christians should use artificial birth control. God created sexual intercourse both as an expression of love and unity for a married couple and as a means of procreation. Interfering with these purposes is an insult to God.

Make Love and Babies (CT Library)

The contraceptive mentality says children are something to be avoided. We're not buying it.

A Hard Pill to Swallow: How the tiny tablet upset my soul. (CT)

Being pro-life isn’t only about opposing surgical abortion. It’s about opening ourselves to the risk and mess and uncertainty that accompany any God-sent guest we allow into our lives. The least we can do is leave our doors unlocked.  (also see commentary)

Young Protestant Couples Rejecting “Contraception Revolution” (LifeSite)

The previous generation’s acceptance of a secular understanding of sexuality and marriage is no longer satisfactory to young people, Dr. Mohler said, who are challenging the separation between fertility and sexuality in the popular mindset.

COUNTERPOINT:  Should Christians use birth control?  (RBC)

But there are couples who are unable to conceive or who are past their child-bearing years. If it is impossible for them to have children, should they abstain from sex? The Bible doesn't even hint that this is the case. Nothing in Scripture implies that it is sinful for married persons to have sexual intercourse without the possibility of bearing children. Sex within marriage is pure and honorable, even when conception cannot occur. This is because marriage is an expression of the deepest intimacy possible between two people, an intimacy so deep that Paul uses it as a symbol for the love of Christ for His church.

Why, then, would there be any question about the use of artificial contraception within marriage? Isn't all sexual intercourse between a husband and wife made honorable and pure by the nature of their matrimonial commitment? Isn't the position of the Roman Catholic Church regarding artificial contraception and the reluctance of many sensitive couples to use it based upon an unbiblical asceticism and an unhealthy if not morbid view of the body and sexual function?

by devilsadvocate on Fri Jan 19, 2007 at 07:54:09 PM EST

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