Women and Children First

Every once in a while, two simultaneously published books work in tandem to illuminate their subjects in ways that each book might not if read alone. Readers interested in the challenges of achieving sexual equality and in the dangers of religious fundamentalism -- subjects that arguably cannot be understood in isolation from each other -- will find such a convergence in new books written by two of our most important investigative journalists.

Michelle Goldberg's latest, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World, (excerpted in the May issue of The American Prospect) is an essential account of how U.S. aid policy, beginning in the 1970s with efforts to slow spiraling population growth, came under the sway of the sexually puritanical demands of the American religious right, to ruinous effects. The resulting unavailability of safe abortion and family-planning services, combined with the devastation of HIV/AIDS and other disasters, has wreaked havoc, Goldberg argues, on personal lives, economic prospects, and therefore political stability. Taking her readers through Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe, Goldberg shows how homegrown religious fundamentalism, with its own restrictions on sexual autonomy, converges with the U.S. presence to upend the future of generations of children.

To some, Goldberg's view that religious meddling in the reproductive policies has led to a global crisis might seem overstated. After all, countless factors combine to undermine global security. Yet Goldberg's argument, bolstered by her meticulous policy and historical research, transcontinental on-the-ground reporting, and impassioned analysis, serves, if nothing else, as a wake-up call. Reproductive justice is not an outpost "women's" issue; it's essential for the well-being of the planet.

Goldberg offers numerous examples of how religious belief structures -- local and imported -- have crushed the everyday lives and future well-being of women across the globe: the HIV-positive Ugandan widow with a bevy of HIV-positive children facing dismal economic prospects; the declining female population in India due to sex-selective abortion to avoid paying dowry; the terrorizing effects of female genital mutilation in Africa.

These practices, Goldberg argues, stem from the desire of religious fundamentalists, in America and abroad, to produce order out of what they perceive as the messy sinfulness of women's bodies and sexuality. But the attempt to create order has only caused more disorder.

Think of Goldberg as the Al Gore of a sexual equality crisis. Reproductive freedom is not just a matter of justice, it's a matter of survival.

Kathryn Joyce's Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement puts the American fundamentalism that has fueled Goldberg's story under the microscope. The movement that provides the title of Joyce's book is just one subset of a broader feature of conservative evangelicalism that requires "wifely submission" to a husband's "male headship." Quiverfull, a natalist movement named for 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"), commands women to produce as many children as possible for their husband, in order to build an "army of God."

Although Quiverfull is best known for its insistence that followers have as many children -- 10, 12, 15 -- as possible, Joyce explores many more tentacles of a wide-ranging "wifely submission" movement that reaches into every corner of evangelical America. At the core of the movement is the requirement that wives submit to their husbands and produce for them -- and thereby for God -- obedient children and a religiously pure household.

The wifely submission demands are not only found in fringe movements like Quiverfull, which boasts only 10,000 to 20,000 adherents. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the nation's largest non-Catholic denomination, in 1998 adopted a resolution urging wives to submit to male headship. (The SBC does not permit women to become clergy.) And, as Joyce notes, this has become mainstream. A major party presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, an SBC pastor, signed on to the statement with virtually no political blowback. Even more evidence came after the election (and after Quiverfull went to press) when President Barack Obama selected the past president of the SBC, Frank Page, who has endorsed the SBC's position, to serve on the advisory council to his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

These wifely submission teachings animate numerous organizations, including Vision Forum, the brainchild of Doug Phillips, son of Christian-right luminary Howard Phillips, which provides training conferences and educational materials to homeschooling advocates around the country. Vision Forum advocates the "biblical family" as the answer to the country's woes, including adherence to "biblical manhood and womanhood." And it's not just men who tell women to submit. Ministries run by women model virtuous Christian behavior for others, through books, conferences, and other networks.

Quiverfull provides a comprehensive guide to the theology and political organization of these movements. Beyond being an indispensable guide to this landscape, Joyce's cultural reporting is the standout of this book, as she travels the country visiting some of the movement's leading lights, entrepreneurs selling their ideal of domesticated, godly bliss. The reader finds her on a weekend "Apron Society" retreat in rural Tennessee, casting an empathetic eye on a hugely pregnant young woman in the thrall of the submission theology; at the home of the publisher of a widely read magazine, Above Rubies, that peddles an antidote to feminism by promising liberation through submission; and at the authoritarian ministry of Debi and Michael Pearl, whose books on wifely submission and harsh child discipline have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

The question that goes unanswered by these religious fundamentalists is how their concern over policing the lives of women and children fits with the biblical mandate to help the poor. Given how much of the world -- including many of both Joyce's and Goldberg's subjects -- live in abject poverty because of their gender, the impact of fundamentalist movements that require women to submit to male "headship" (Ephesians 5:21), be virtuous (Proverbs 31), stay sexually pure, and care for home and family (Titus 2:3-5) has been to undermine Jesus' commands.

Means of Reproduction and Quiverfull, standing alone, each represent an invaluable contribution to understanding how religious fundamentalism still stands in the way of sexual justice. Read together, they are an urgent call to dismantle fundamentalism's hold on our politics, and our policy-making.

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