Politics Religion

Just what we need, even more incredibly fecund fundamentalists

Although I’m clearly not as vociferous about this as other ScienceBloggers, I do remain concerned about the rise of fundamentalist religion, whether it be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or whatever. Whenever dogmatic, literal, fundamentalist interpretation of whatever holy scriptures someone believes in takes hold, the brain shuts off, and no other interpretation other than the narrow interpretation of the fundamentalist is viewed as acceptable. Another pernicious effect is that, if scripture seems to conflict with science, science loses, and religion-inspired non-science like creationism takes hold, something we see happening in this country. It’s also something that, despite setbacks to intelligent design creationism dealt at Dover, is likely to remain a problem.

Always fans of having lots of babies, now a sect of fundamentalists is taking it to an extreme and making babies by the “quiverfull“:

Lives such as these: Janet Wolfson is a 44-year-old mother of eight in Canton, Georgia. Tracie Moore, a 39-year-old midwife who lives in southern Kentucky, is mother to fourteen. Wendy Dufkin in Coxsackie has her thirteen. And while Jamie Stoltzfus, a 27-year-old Illinois mom, has only four children so far, she plans on bearing enough to populate “two teams.” All four mothers are devoted to a way of life New York Times columnist David Brooks has praised as a new spiritual movement taking hold among exurban and Sunbelt families. Brooks called these parents “natalists” and described their progeny as a new wave of “Red-Diaper Babies”–as in “red state.”

But Wolfson, Moore and thousands of mothers like them call themselves and their belief system “Quiverfull.” They borrow their name from Psalm 127: “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 in the gate.” Quiverfull mothers think of their children as no mere movement but as an army they’re building for God.

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…

“Our bodies are meant to be a living sacrifice,” write the Hesses. Or, as Mary Pride, in another of the movement’s founding texts, The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality, puts it, “My body is not my own.” This rebuttal of the feminist health text Our Bodies, Ourselves is deliberate. Quiverfull women are more than mothers. They’re domestic warriors in the battle against what they see as forty years of destruction wrought by women’s liberation: contraception, women’s careers, abortion, divorce, homosexuality and child abuse, in that order.

And the babies are meant to be culture warriors who, when they grow up, will make sure that the same dogma is perpetuated far and wide. Also, like nearly all fundamentalists, Quiverfull parents’ beliefs are absolutist:

Quiverfull beliefs are absolutist. Purists don’t permit even natural family planning methods, such as tracking fertility cycles (the only form of birth control condoned by the Roman Catholic Church). Also taboo: any form of artificial fertility treatment. “The point is to have a welcoming heart,” says Mary Pride, a mother of nine whose 1985 book, “The Way Home,” celebrated a return to traditional gender roles. It has sold about 80,000 copies and has inspired many quiverfull families. “You shouldn’t be unnatural in going to a fertility clinic or in trying to avoid having children by regulating when to have sex with your husband,” says Pride.

Geez. Even the Roman Catholic Church allows the “rhythm method” of birth control, in which the couple tracks the woman’s cycle and abstains from sex in the fertile time around ovulation. Of course, Church teaching on birth control is widely ignored, and many (if not most) Catholics now use other means of birth control, but not the Quiverfull families. No, Quiverfull families are producing and raising what they themselves describe as a new army of warriors for Jesus or weapons fired by the parents:

Only a determination among Christian women to take up their submissive, motherly roles with a “military air” and become “maternal missionaries” will lead the Christian army to victory. Thus is Quiverfull part of Mary Pride’s whole-cloth solution to women’s liberation: embracing an opposing way of life as total and “self-consistent” as feminism, and turning back the tide on a society gone wrong by populating the world with right-thinking Christians.

The gentle manner of Deidre Welch, another Coxsackie mom, with four boys, seems at odds with Quiverfull’s militaristic language, which describes children as weapons of spiritual war, as arrows shot out by their parents. But she describes the movement toward larger families in the same way: “God is bringing revelation on the world. He wants to raise up His army. He wants His children to be.”

The Quiverfull movement to me appears to be a rather obvious tactic to reimpose traditional order with the subservient wife raising the child, ruled by a–hopefully–benevolent husband:

Stephanie Coontz, director of research for the Council on Contemporary Families, says she has increasingly noticed articles on the subject in the Christian press. Part of the reason, she argues, is that conservatives are reacting to revolutionary changes in women’s social roles and seeking to re-impose a more traditional order. “The rhetoric is getting more shrill because people are getting more desperate,” she says. “It’s a backlash that I don’t feel will triumph. In the past, large families were helpful economically, but today, they become a disadvantage, especially to younger kids who don’t get as many resources.”

Indeed, hundreds or thousands of years ago, child mortality was so high that large numbers of children were needed to provide a reasonable chance that a few of them would survive to adulthood. Children could also work on the farm and help support the family beginning at a fairly young age. Now, I have nothing against families with lots of children. If that’s what you and your spouse want to do and you can afford to raise them all, it’s nobody’s business but your own, and more power to you. (Heck, my best friend has five children.) But making the bearing of children the be-all and end-all of a religious movement is disturbing. For one thing, it is clearly meant to place women in the submissive role (you don’t see any Quiverfull husbands staying home with all those kids). Also, what is happening is that movement members judge each others’ righteousness by the number of children they have. If you’re infertile, God must have somehow judged you unworthy:

The hard Quiverfull line is something that bothers Dawn Irons, founder of Blessed Arrows. After Lyme disease left Irons “postfertile,” she felt stung by the assertions of “movement Quiverfullers,” who view the number of children one has as a gauge of holiness or spirituality. “If you follow the discussions on the Quiverfull Digest right now, you can see what happens when a ‘movement’ mentality sets in. Someone just asked the question today if a person can really be considered Quiverfull if they’re past the age of childbearing…as if being able to birth a baby is all that makes one Quiverfull. It’s a heart change.”

Sorry ladies, if for some medical reason you can’t have children, you don’t fit in. If a woman develops a condition that makes it dangerous to her health for her to have children, too bad. No birth control is allowed. And forget about fertility treatments, in vitro fertilization, or other assisted reproduction. All of that’s strictly verboten. If God doesn’t want you to have children, then there must be a good reason, and you should not dare to try to circumvent His will. I wonder if what these people think about modern medicine. I mean, if God wants you to get cancer and die, then what hubris it is to go to an oncologist and take radiation and chemotherapy to attempt to thwart His will. Why is it that reproduction is the area where these people view medical treatments as trying to defy God?

One other disturbing aspect is the thinly disguised racism behind part of the movement:

Population is a preoccupation for many Quiverfull believers, who trade statistics on the falling white birthrate in European countries like Germany and France. Every ethnic conflict becomes evidence for their worldview: Muslim riots in France, Latino immigration in California, Sharia law in Canada. The motivations aren’t always racist, but the subtext of “race suicide” is often there.

Yep. Better start making nice Caucasian babies or the white race will disappear in a tidal wave of brown. This subtext isn’t necessarily surprising, given one of the originators of the movement:

Among the first contemporary Protestants advancing the theory that contraception is anathema to Scripture was Charles Provan, an independent Pennsylvania printer, lay theologian and father to ten who was until recently deeply involved in the Holocaust revisionist movement. In 1989 Provan, whom both Pride and the Hesses name as an inspiration, published The Bible and Birth Control, which has been called the authoritative source for Protestants seeking scriptural guidance on contraception. In it, Provan traces Protestant opposition to birth control to three main scriptural bases: Psalm 127, the Genesis command to “be fruitful and multiply,” and the biblical story of Onan, slain by God for spilling his seed on the ground (seen by Provan as a form of birth control).

In fairness, however, it should be noted that Provan always believed that the Holocaust did happen; he simply thought the death toll was “exaggerated.” Eventually, he rejected most (but not all) of the tenets of Holocaust denial. He even did an experiment that showed that diesel gas vans could indeed kill as described in eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust, anathema to Holocaust deniers who deny that diesel gas can kill as described in the gas vans or that gas chambers were even used by the Nazis in the first place. His publication of a pamphlet describing that study made him persona non grata among Holocaust deniers. Also, in fairness, I’m guessing that the vast majority of Quiverfull parents are probably not racist; they’re more culture warriors determined to produce a new generation of fundamentalists who bury the Godless heathens in a tsunami of righteousness:

But if the Quiverfull mission is rooted in faith, the unseen, its mandate to be fruitful and multiply has tangible results as well. Namely, in Rick and Jan Hess’s words, to provide “arrows for the war.”

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.

I thought this had to do with religion and God, not politics. Apparently not.

The whole Quiverfull movement, however, really just illustrates the seriously magical thinking that drives fundamentalist dogma:

The references aren’t so much Falwellian bombast–9/11 as God’s judgment on a sinful country–as the magical thinking that goes along with a faith strong enough to convince poor families, who are struggling to make ends meet as it is, that God will provide for them unequivocally.

“Lean not on your own understanding,” Quiverfull mom Tracie Moore tells me, describing the scriptural foundations she’s discovered for the movement: Children are a blessing, a reward, an inheritance. Don’t worry about money–the Moores have never had much of it–because God will provide for his flock.

And in its most innocuous self-explanations, this is what Quiverfull is about: faith, pure and simple. Faith that God won’t give women more children than they can handle, and faith that by opening themselves up to receive multiple “blessings,” they will bring God’s favor upon them in other areas of life as well: Their husbands will get better jobs; God will send a neighbor with a sack of used children’s clothes just when the soles on Johnny’s shoes fall out. God, many Quiverfull women say, deals with their hearts about birth control, and if they submit, they are cared for.

This last equation–submit, and be cared for–is a fitting summary of the social logic of the Quiverfull life.

A better description of fundamentalist religion I have a hard time coming up with.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

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