Did The “Taliban Dan” Ad “Backfire?”

As Julie reported yesterday, Florida Democrat Alan Grayson ran an ad against his Republican opponent, Dan Webster, calling him “Taliban Dan,” and pointing to statements he made to the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) about wives’ submission to their husbands — a topic covered authoritatively by RD contributor Kathryn Joyce in her book, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement.

As Adam Serwer reported this morning at Greg Sargent’s Washington Post blog, Factcheck.org accused Grayson of “lower[ing] the bar,” saying that his campaign took Webster’s statements, made to the fundamentalist IBLP, out of context.

Factcheck.org asserts that the quotes were taken out of context, claiming Webster was saying not to pick and choose Bible verses, and was pointing out that he doesn’t pick and choose only the ones about wifely submission.

But Joyce tells me Factcheck.org misunderstands Webster’s statements, even in context:

While the Grayson campaign can be taken to task for taking Webster’s comment out of context, in the larger context, they’re correct. Grayson’s campaign argued that Webster seemed to be supporting submission in his comments to an audience of conservative men, whom he directed to pray that they would better fulfill their biblical duty to love their wives, and leave prayers about women’s submission to their wives. However, the emphasis of these remarks, as those familiar with Christian rhetoric could recognize, is not on the optional nature of wives’ submission. Wifely submission is part of an often-unbalanced equation to Christians who subscribe to “complementarian” or “patriarchal” marriage roles, where men must “love” and women “obey.” Saying that a woman should pray for God’s guidance in submission, if she wants to, is not leniency, but rather standard evangelical language that emphasizes individuals must obey biblical mandates regardless of how others around them behave. So, Webster is saying, men must be accountable to God for their responsibility to love their wives regardless of whether she submits — that they must pray to do right, even if she doesn’t. 

However, the much more relevant application of this principle on following God’s orders despite your circumstances is on women. Submission is a contentious and tricky issue even within conservative evangelical churches. Most churches promoting submission make certain to couple demands for submissive wives with those for loving, servant-leader husbands. But at the end of the day, it’s women who bear the brunt of the principle; their obligations are to God, not to a husband who may or may not keep his end of the contract. Accordingly, the message is impressed by countless women’s ministries and leaders that women must continue submitting even when their husband doesn’t show love, because they owe their obedience, above all, to God. In circles that take submission seriously — as does any organization associated with Bill Gothard — that’s what wives’ options really look like.

What’s more, Factcheck.org fails in a much broader context to describe what the IBLP is really about, describing it as a “non-denominational Christian organization that runs programs and training sessions.”

A spokesperson for the IBLP told Factcheck.org that Webster spoke at its Advanced Training Institute, “a religious-based program developed by the Institute of Basic Life Principles ‘to support parents in raising their children to love the Lord Jesus Christ.'” Gothard, according to Factcheck.org, “said that Webster home-schooled his children using the institute’s curriculum and has given speeches at the training institute on more than one occasion.”

Sounds innocuous, right? Now let me be clear here: I don’t think describing far-right evangelical Christians as the “Taliban” is either a wise political move or useful for understanding either American fundamentalism or the Taliban itself. But neither that, nor Grayson’s clumsy use of “Taliban Dan” should obscure the fact that Webster has affiliated himself with an organization Joyce describes in her book as:

the source of a deeply influential set of Christian teachings among homeschoolers . . . a $63-million per year business that enumerates a series of “nonoptional” spiritual laws calling for strict authoritarian child training, including a fundamentalist condemnation of worldly modern music and toys and an ethos of unswerving obedience to one’s proper authorities in all jurisdictions of life.

Gothard’s teachings are not just to homeschoolers, though. As I reported in a 2008 article for Salon, as mayor of Wasilla, Sarah Palin designated her home a “City of Character,” after attending the supposedly (but not really) secular arm of Gothard’s institute, the International Association of Character Cities. As I noted there, even Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of the evangelical world, has expressed dismay over the “alarming” nature of Gothard’s teachings on authority, and allegations of physical and emotional abuse in his programs. (For the most comprehensive treatment of the IACC, see Silja J.A. Talvi’s 2006 piece in In These Times.)

Politico claims this morning that the Grayson ad “backfired.” If it did, it was because Grayson — and more fundamentally, Factcheck.org — failed to grasp what was crucial about this story.