This post is the final installment of my treatment of Kathryn Joyce, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement.
In my first post I summarized the book’s content. In my second post I offered a few critiques and generalizations. Here I’d like to offer some speculations about the movement’s future, drawing on a few personal experiences in the process.
I mentioned last time that Joyce doesn’t really go beyond her journalistic description to offer much analysis or interpretation of the movement. One exception to this is her assertion that the movement’s internal conflicts should not be interpreted as a sign of weakness,
As with most diversity on the religious right, this is not the fracturing of the movement that pundits unceasingly predict but rather a sign of strength and sophistication, of a body fit enough to allow, and then absorb, dissent. (p.61)
The sense one gets from reading Joyce’s book is that this small but increasingly influential movement is slowly taking over American Christianity, both by population growth (8-18 kids per family and pretty soon you’ve got a huge movement) and by converting more mainstream evangelicals to the perspective. In addition, the children of this movement who are growing up totally isolated from all outside influence are even more radical than their parents, “eclipsing their parents’ devotion to the cause” as she says of one set of siblings. (p. 237)
Joyce offers as an especially arresting illustration the spreadsheet created by Geoffrey Botkin, a prominent Quiverfull leader, who has plotted out a projected future family tree. I’ve got to quote at length, it’s so amazing:
Botkin’s personal plan plots major family accomplishments on his Excel sheet…and priorities are set out for the family that will unfold over the course of generations: a thorough listing of life goals set down for generations of children yet unborn. The generations themselves are projected as well: Botkin’s sons (still unmarried) are listed with their projected marriage dates, the projected births and number of their children, and their projected deaths. His grandsons and great-grandsons are charted as well until two hundred years’ worth of Botkin heirs and accomplishments have accumulated. At the end of his two-hundred year plan, Botkin estimates that he’ll have been the patriarch of some 186,000 male descendants, all of whom, he is confident, will begin their own two-hundred-year plans modeled on Botkin’s ideals.” (p. 229)
I personally find Both Botkin’s confidence in and Joyce’s fear of the future success of this movement far overstated, for four reasons. Let me articulate them now.
1. The Bible. The crucial presupposition of the quiverfull movement is that what they are doing is the Biblical thing to do. Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler writes, “either the Bible is affirmed as the inerrant and infallible Word of God…or we must claim that the Bible is, to one extent or another, compromised and warped by a patriarchal and male-dominated bias.” (p.16) Joyce’s subjects repeatedly affirm that the only reason to do all of this Patriarchy stuff is because it’s what the Bible teaches.
But is it? This seems to me to be the first and most obvious flaw in the Quiverfull movement. Protestants have been arguing and splitting over doctrine ever since the beginning of Protestantism, and all Protestants think their version of Christianity is the Biblical view and that other groups are misguided in one way or another. Why does this keep happening generation after generation? In my view there are two reasons. First, if you’ve ever actually read the entire Bible you know that it’s not a single coherent book at all but rather a collection of 66 books (in the Protestant counting), all written in various times and places reflecting a wide array of cultural contexts, literary genres, and Theological perspectives. Protestants have been trying for centuries to create systems to unify the diversity of voices reflected in the Bible, but the Bible keeps transcending their systems. On the particular issue of Patriarchal leadership and female submission one can draw on certain passages, as the Quiverfull folk do, to make one’s case. But you can just as easily draw on other passages to make a case for male/female equality. The Christian Think Tank website has a very complete example of this more egalitarian approach here, and the organization Christians for Biblical Equality has been arguing that gender equality is “the Biblical view” for decades now. I’m personally not interested in whether Patriarchy advocates or equality advocates or some other option is right. My point is simply that the Bible itself is so polyvocal that it can be interpreted to say a wide range of things on this and many other topics by people who are committed to its authority.
For the Quiverfull movement to really succeed like Botkin anticipates and like Joyce fears, it would have to be the case that the Bible really does clearly and unequivocally advocate what Quiverfull activists say it does. This is simply not the case, even if you hew to a naively literalistic hermeneutic.
2. Capitalism. Quiverfull advocates have rightly discerned that earlier generations of Christians who wanted to maintain a coherent Christian world-view were inconsistent in their many accomodations with modern life. But one area of inconsistency remains for Quiverfullers–entrepreneurial capitalism. Without meaning to, Quiverfull leaders have let slip into their ideals a preference for free market capitalism that is fundamentally at odds with the premodern life they are trying to recover. As many of these leaders are the children of cold warriors, raised to equate God and free markets and to pair Atheism and communism, this oversight is understandable. But one could argue that it was the Capitalist economic power unleashed by Protestantism that ultimately destroyed Puritan New England and the entire Patriarchal edifice of medieval Europe. As Cotton Mather himself put it, “Religion brought forth Prosperity, and the daughter destroyed the mother.” This is a lesson the Quiverfull folk have not yet learned.
3. Internal Dissent. I must say that, given what I know about the history of Protestant Christianity, I disagree with Joyce’s assessment that the differences between leaders in the Patriarchy movement mean little. Joyce recognizes that most of these leaders have a Calvinist theological orientation, and she even notes briefly how R.C. Sproul, Jr. was recently defrocked by the Reformed Presbyterian Church. If she had a deeper background in the history of American Christianity she might not be so worried by this movement. American Calvinists have been arguing and splitting since the very beginnings of the colonies. Reconstructionists, as I discuss in my book, have been especially adept at ripping one another apart. Botkin’s vision of a multigenerational patriarchal clan is just a recapitulation of Rushdoony’s similar vision. Rushdoony even bought a huge chunk of land for Clan Rushdoony to populate. But then he had a falling out with his son-in-law and heir apparent Gary North, who left in a huff for Tyler, Texas where he founded a Reconstructionist church that has since self-destructed. Rushdoony’s vision of a multi-generational clan birthing its way to millennial victory now seems laughable.
To take another example, look at recent history of Patrick Henry College, founded by HSLDA’s Michael Farris, who after a few years stepped down from the presidency because he had alienated almost all of his faculty and was a major liability in the school’s many failed attempts to get accredited. Farris’ grand vision of PHC being the training ground for a new generation of Christian leaders who will “take back the land” seems more and more like a pipe dream every year. The school has survived, but it grows ever closer to the American mainstream as it confronts economic reality and accreditation pressures. [For details see Hanna Rosin’s God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America]
I don’t expect anything different from the leaders of this movement. If past history is any guide, they will likely expend large amounts of energy fighting over particulars that to outsiders seem like trifles and end up alienating the vast American Protestant middle with their overbearing style and exclusivism. Their organizations over time will either move gradually into the mainstream under market pressures or fade from the scene.
4. Defections. Finally, I am very confident that 200 years hence there will not be 186,000 Botkins each with his own 200 year plan for how his family will help restore the Puritan patriarchy to America. The original Puritan colonists, full of even greater zeal than Botkin, couldn’t sustain their vision for even two generations and had to create the “half-way covenant” in 1662 just to keep their kids in church. A few generations later Harvard was more Unitarian than Calvinist. Over and over in American history we have seen how the zeal of the founding generation of whatever movement simply could not be sustained by their descendants. Many of these quiverfull children will no doubt continue in the path marked out for them by their parents, but even those who remain in the movement will not be the same, for they did not come to their convictions the way their parents did. Protestants who stress individual salvation like to say that God doesn’t have grandchildren. This will be a big problem for Quiverfull folk.
A second problem that will likely emerge is the simple difficulty of the life being recommended by the leaders. There are good reasons why modern people don’t typically have 14 children. In my research into homeschool history I found that many girls who spent their childhoods mothering younger siblings grew to lament their lost childhoods and decided not to have children themselves. Joyce documents the tremendous levels of self-sacrifice and self-denial required of these quiverfull mothers. Their personal commitment to the lifestyle gives them the strength to carry on (except when it doesn’t). But will their daughters, who may not have the same level of personal investment, continue the practice? Will their sons, raised outside of the secular world, have the burning moral indignation of their fathers? Will second-hand convictions be enough to keep the stringencies of this faith intact?
After college I spent a couple of years at the Yale Divinity School studying classics and Church history. The Div School is a bastion of old-line liberal Protestantism. Though there is a small and vibrant evangelical community there, the dominant ethos is very liberal. As I met other students there I was fascinated to hear over and over again the same basic life story. A VERY large percentage of these future liberal pastors, many of them gay or lesbian, were the children of fundamentalist Christian parents. They often carried with them deep wounds from an upbringing they saw as abusive and dangerous. I was for a time the AV guy at the div school, recording sermons for preaching classes. Over and over I heard autobiographical illustrations delivered with great emotion whose point was some variation on the theme that the Gospel must be rescued from these crazy bigoted fundamentalists. Overbearing fathers were almost always the source of the pain. As I read Joyce’s book I couldn’t help but think that in a few years Yale Divinity School might be full of young adults trying to recover from being raised Quiverfull. Some of them might even be named Botkin or Phillips.
For a plausible future for this movement we might look to other groups of Americans who have been doing for generations what Quiverfullers are trying to do now. I’m thinking of the Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and Mormons. Many Amish have a tradition called rumspringa, or “running around” wherein they give their teens freedom to leave the confines of their closed community to see what the world is like. Some of the children like what they find and leave the Amish community. Many return with a newfound personal commitment to Amish values. Mormons, to take another example, send their young adults on two year mission trips all over the world (girls go for 18 months). Even though such teens often fail to make a single convert, the experience of being on one’s own, free (to a point) from the oversight of family and community, is often a life-changing experience for them. While most Amish have held the cultural line, many Mennonite groups and most Mormons have gradually adapted to modernity in various degrees (and are still doing so). So far Quiverfull folks do not have a rite de passage that will help secure loyalty to group norms and weed out those who choose another way, and they have not been around long enough to create institutional structures like the Amish and Mormons have for deciding exactly what forms of modern life are acceptable and what are not.
In short, I predict that when the dust settles Doug Phillips and his fellows will have created yet another separatist Protestant denomination that over time will either become something of a historical curiosity like the Amish or will move toward the evangelical mainstream. Because of the instability of the Biblical text on these matters, the cultural compromises required by capitalism, and the likelihood of internal fissures among leaders and defections among their children, I don’t think this movement is going to take over America.