Can religious fundamentalism turn otherwise nonabusive relationships abusive? Vyckie Garrison of the blog No Longer Quivering argued yes in a recent speech given at the American Atheists national convention in Salt Lake City. Garrison is a former adherent to a strain of fundamentalist Christianity called “Quiverfull,” an extremist branch of the anti-choice movement that rejects all forms of contraception—including natural family planning—as just an extension of the “abortion culture.” In fact, Quiverfull members aspire to have as many children as possible, arguing that to win the culture wars, the faithful must literally “out-populate the ‘enemy,’ that would be all of you,” as Garrison puts it.
Kathryn Joyce wrote about this subculture in her 2010 book Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, but Garrison’s speech offers the unique perspective of someone who actually tried to live this lifestyle for many years. As Garrison explains on her blog, the Quiverfull movement is about more than just having a ton of kids. It’s also a “patriarchal cult” that teaches that men are “leaders, teachers, initiators, protectors and providers” and women are “helpmeets” who serve men by being “submissive and yielding.” Submission is also demanded of children, particularly daughters, which is one reason that dating is not allowed and, instead, girls are to be “courted” under the watchful eye of the father, until they can marry and “experience their first kiss at the marriage altar.” Even though they don’t use the term “Quiverfull,” the Duggar family of the TLC show 19 Kids and Counting are the most famous example of adherents to this lifestyle.
After 16 years—and seven kids—of Garrison and her husband teaching this kind of biblical patriarchy to other families, Garrison finally admitted she was miserable and left both her husband and the lifestyle. Now, Garrison is talking about how the movement is abusive to women, even in cases where husbands are well-meaning and don’t intend to abuse. From her speech:
He never had to raise his voice to keep me and the children in our place. And when he did raise his voice, well that was “speaking the truth in love.” When he constantly criticized and complained about all the ways in which the children and I failed to live up to God’s perfect standards, he was “hating the sin, but loving the sinner.” He didn’t have to brandish a weapon in order to control our every action, indeed even our thoughts and feelings. All he had to do was fulfill his God-appointed role of Patriarch; to love us as Christ loves the church.
Garrison references the Duluth Power and Control Wheel, a diagram used by domestic violence counselors to explain the eight major tactics of a domestic abuser, and shows how these tactics are not only accepted but even taught in the Quiverfull world as virtuous, “the relationship we were supposed to use as our model between husband and wife.” Emotional abuse, for instance, is inherent in a lifestyle that teaches that women are so ill-equipped to make decisions that they need to always have a man, either father or husband, controlling their every waking minute, lest they develop a “Jezebel spirit”:
Plus, I knew that as a woman, I was particularly susceptible to deception by Satan. How many times, when we were discussing an important decision, had my husband said to me, “What you are suggesting SOUNDS reasonable, but how do I know that Satan isn’t using you to deceive me?”
Garrison gives plenty of other examples of how biblical patriarchy, regardless of intention, is indistinguishable from domestic abuse. Isolation “just kind of happened as a logical progression of our decision to live radically for Jesus,” she says of giving up work and education outside the home, rejecting nonbelieving friends and family, and dramatically sheltering her kids from “the evil influence of godless humanism.” Economic abuse, where women are kept dependent by not letting them have money of their own or a say in family finances, is also a natural outcome of the idea of “male headship.”
“When the very definition of perfect love is sacrificing your children and martyring yourself, there is no place for emotionally healthy concepts like boundaries, consent, equality, and mutuality,” Garrison said. She argues that while the Quiverfull movement is an extremist fringe, it exists because “Quiverfull beliefs are not actually a radical departure from conservative Christian teachings regarding marriage and family.”
She has a point. The Duggar family, for instance, is not generally regarded in pop culture as “a cult unto itself with Daddy enshrined as the supreme Patriarch,” as Garrison describes Quiverfull families. They tend to get treated more as an adorbs group of cutie pies who are just a little old-fashioned and extra dedicated to the conservative Christian faith. Michelle Duggar even got asked by Today to share “tips for keeping your marriage sexy.” Garrison has her own thoughts on that, by the way:
Oh … and for those who are curious, but too polite to ask what it is like for these Quiverfull wives who are breeding like rabbits, I have a little story for you. A guy bunny meets a lady bunny in the field, and he says to her, “This won’t take long, did it?”
All of the ideals of the Quiverfull movement—that men and women have separate and complementary gender roles, that sex should be restricted to marriage and is primarily for procreation, that the secular world is a threat that children must be sheltered from—stem directly from the mainstream conservative Christian movement. Quiverfull families just go after it a little harder. All of which is why Garrison felt that along with leaving her husband, “the primary breakup was with Jesus.”