“One of Us”: Rick Santorum and the Politics of (Very Big) Family

“Seven kids! Seven kids!” one woman exclaimed at a Rick Santorum rally in Louisiana on March 21, when organizers asked people to say what they liked most about the ultra-conservative Catholic, homeschooling presidential candidate.

Two days earlier, the 19-child Duggar family, famous for their reality TV show about large-family living, had released a folksy video in support of Santorum: “19 Reasons & Counting to Vote for Rick Santorum.” In it, Michelle Duggar drove home the same point as the Louisiana fan, giving as the “number two” reason to choose Santorum that, “The Santorums are raising seven precious children, and they have one in heaven.” (The top reason, delivered by husband Jim Bob Duggar, was the longevity of the Santorums’ marriage.)

It’s the same sort of logic offered by another Louisiana rally-goer quoted by the New York Times, 18-year-old Haley Harris, part of the Oklahoma family band that created the unofficial Santorum campaign song, “Game On!”: “If he can run his household, he can run the country,” Harris (whose pastor dad is part of her band) told the crowd.

“One of the things that kind of caught our eye with Rick was the size of his family,” yet another supporter told the Washington Times in January.

“We’re Gonna Outnumber Them!”

It’s familiar rhetoric to me, after years of covering the Quiverfull movement—a largely Protestant, homeschooling community that believes contraception is anathema to faithful Christianity and that having many children is both the most authentic form of anti-abortion witness and women’s highest calling. Its adherents aim to prove the pro-life claim that every child is a blessing (or in case of rape, a gift, as Santorum has argued) by accepting as many children as God gives.

It’s the movement that looks to the Duggar family as de facto spokespeople (even if the Duggars have often hedged whether or not they consider themselves a part of it), and that so venerates the role of proud “patriarch” fathers leading their families—comparing them to CEOs and generals—that it’s easy to see where Harris’ appraisal of Santorum’s family-man qualifications come from. In this election, and the birth control debate that has become a significant part of its soundtrack, the convictions of the Quiverfull community seem to have made a mainstream debut.

Beginning in January, the Duggars began traveling with Santorum around Iowa and South Carolina to ask “families, Christians all over America to get behind Rick Santorum for the next president of the United States”; to “get the word out… that this is the family-values candidate,” as Jim Bob said, prior to a Greenville Chick-fil-A campaign stop.

Michelle and Jim Bob made an appearance at CPAC, while all 19 kids trekked to Oklahoma on a bus they decorated with Santorum’s name. The family has also stumped for Santorum in Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Illinois, and Missouri. When Santorum’s three-year-old daughter Bella, born with a genetic abnormality, fell ill in late January, the Duggars actually replaced the candidate on the campaign trail in Florida.

Religious differences (the Duggars are Baptists who have followed the fundamentalist teachings of Bill Gothard, while Santorum is a staunch Catholic) seem barely a second thought among supporters, who take for granted that fidelity to culture war issues supercedes faith. There, the Duggars and Santorum seem to speak with one voice.

At CPAC in February, Michelle Duggar participated in a panel satirizing The View, and was feted by fellow panelist Star Parker for having 19 children because, as Parker proclaimed, “We win if we just keep having children, ’cause we’re going to outnumber them!”—a staple argument of the Quiverfull movement.

Weeks earlier, Santorum had transformed this rhetoric into policy proposal at a South Carolina Fuddruckers appearance with the Duggars, where he argued that low birth rates and a declining American population (also longstanding concerns among the Quiverfull movement) should be fought by tripling the child tax deduction to encourage larger families. “We need to be a hopeful country that wants more children,” Santorum declared.

“We’ve had other countries coming to our doorstep asking us to please let their people know that they need to have more children, because their death rates are outnumbering their births rates, and they’re in crisis,” Michelle Duggar told Christian news network CBN last week. 

“My Body is Not My Own”

It’s not only on the campaign trail that the Quiverfull playbook is enjoying a wider audience. Amid all the discussion in recent months about the new fight over contraception—a development that seemed to take much of the mainstream media by surprise—a glimpse of the deeper philosophy guiding the attack came in a side comment written for the ecumenical journal First Things, the intellectual home for hard-right theology founded by late Bush bioethics advisor Richard John Neuhaus.

On February 28, between the time Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke was belatedly allowed to deliver her testimony about the need for contraception coverage at her Catholic school and Rush Limbaugh’s declaration that she was a prostitute who should earn the insurance coverage by releasing a sex tape, Atlanta Lutheran-Missouri Synod pastor Joshua Genig argued against the contraception mandate not on behalf of Catholic employees, but on the grounds that it was poisoning the minds of women.

“Who,” Genig asked, “is speaking up for the mothers who, under HHS mandate, have been falsely coerced into feeling that to be a woman means to have ‘control’ of their own bodies?”

The question seemed shocking enough on its face that liberal columnists Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan offered it to readers almost without comment, a self-contained punchline after the month-and-a-half-long assault on reproductive rights that Democrats have named “The War on Women.” But Genig’s words could have been taken directly out of the books that launched the Quiverfull movement. Taken together with Southern Baptist Mike Huckabee’s declaration that, in the wake of the contraception debate, “We’re all Catholic now,” Genig’s argument underscores how far the roots of the anti-contraception movement have spread beyond the Catholic Church.

Like Genig, families that follow Quiverfull precepts have a broader target in mind when they talk about contraception. In the words of early Quiverfull authors Rick and Jan Hess, authors of Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ, it’s that “Our bodies are meant to be a living sacrifice.” God may have given mankind dominion over the earth, they argue, but not over their own bodies, which must be dedicated to the almighty’s ends.

Or as homeschooling leader Mary Pride wrote in another foundational Quiverfull book, The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality, “My body is not my own.” The resonance of this counterintuitive battle cry with the feminist health text Our Bodies, Ourselves is intentional—this argument is over women’s bodies. Contraception, in this formulation, is a seizure of divine power, as well as a slipperly slope that leads to other feminist gains: abortion, women’s careers, divorce, homosexuality, and more.

“Family planning is the mother of abortion,” Pride writes. “A generation had to be indoctrinated in the ideal of planning children around personal convenience before abortion could be popular.” Turning back the tide, for Pride’s disciples, means going after the source: the idea that women may control their fertility in the first place.

It’s no wonder that, in Michelle Duggar’s appearance on CPAC’s satirical “The Right View,” most of the panel was given over to debunking feminism and attacking feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem for helping mislead or destroy American womanhood.

As it happens, Pride is not a Santorum supporter—she’s on the advisory board of the national “Homeschoolers for Ron Paul” coalition—but that didn’t stop her from saying Santorum would be “a president who is ‘one of us.’”

And enough of Pride’s evangelical followers are so excited to recognize one of their own in the Catholic Rick Santorum that they’re intent on seeing him win the nomination, and represent their convictions on the national stage—convictions that go a lot farther than making women pay out of pocket for the pill.

kathrynajoyce@gmail.com'

Kathryn Joyce is the author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption and Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. Her articles have appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones, The Atlantic, and many other publications.