Understanding the Bible as the framework for proper living isn’t a new approach to the “good” life. While the nature of scriptural interpretation varies from religious community to religious community, Christians by and large understand the Bible to provide moral and ethical insights applicable to a full range of situations and concerns. And each generation of Christians maps its relationship to scripture in light of the particular challenges of that historical moment.
Around the late 1980s, appeal to scripture as the source of life strategies took a particularly strong turn toward biological spirituality through what has become known as the “Quiverfull Movement.” Centering around 1989’s A Full Quiver, a book by Rick and Jan Hess, this movement seeks to understand proper family structure and roles based on these words from Psalm 127:3-5:
Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.
Blending elements of the 19th-century cult of domesticity and theological concerns of twentieth-century evangelicalism, the Quiverfull Movement argues for divine control over the number of children in a given household: God knows how many children a particular couple can handle. In addition, these children are to be nurtured and raised within the context of clear gender roles: the husband as head of the home, and the wife as submissive to the husband and primarily concerned with the raising of godly children.
Turning away from feminism, this movement defines women largely in light of one body function: the value of women is limited to their ability to produce children and support the basic arrangements of patriarchy, all with an eye on the expansion of Christianity. There is an underlying political agenda guiding some adherents of this movement. Discontent with current political developments to the extent Quiverfull Movement evangelicals find them immoral and unethical—deeply inconsistent with the will of God—requires strong action from the “godly.” And rather than simply electing new political figures (and perhaps watching them fail), Quiverfull families seek to change the political climate of the nation by adding to the population generations of children who will advance an evangelical agenda.
While faith is a vital component of this movement (as it is for evangelicalism in more general terms), it isn’t simply about faith; it’s also about works. And works in this context involves establishing a proper Christian ethos through the flooding of the world with Christians committed to bringing the United States under the authority of God. This approach is meant to enliven the failing Christian Right through the infusion of new life blood in the form of children who will become adults committed to a strong conservative and biblically-based agenda. Procreation becomes a weapon in the war against the decline of civilization.
The Economic Value of Children
The economic challenges facing Americans have brought this rather small movement a more prominent position in public conversations—who can afford such large families? The challenges to the environment posed by Quiverfull Movement life strategies also merit concern. Yet, there are also theological concerns here; particularly concerns related to theological anthropology. That is to say, the theology of family advocated here limits the humanity of those involved, “fixes” their importance to a range of activities and responsibilities that do not allow for the full expression of talent and capabilities. Shouldn’t those who argue that humans are made in God’s image—imago dei—want to think in more expansive terms concerning the importance of humanity, the value of children?
What does one say about the “raw” material for the movement? Quiverfull families seek to out-produce liberals and gain control of national structures of public life through sheer numbers. In the process, children and women have something of their full humanity (the manner in which they reflect the image of God, if you will) damaged if not destroyed.
An effort to understand children (having and raising them) through literal appeal to Scripture, without any attention to the historical and cultural context of the Bible, promises problems. It isn’t clear to me how such an attitude toward children—regardless of how it is covered by theological language—can prove useful.
This utilitarian take on children and their value seems to run contrary to any full regard for the wonder and value of human life. The value of these children is truncated, represented only by their ability to contribute to an army of missionaries meant to reshape the United States along biblical lines—they are foot soldiers in a war against perceived moral decay. The Quiverfull Movement’s perspective on children is almost a twenty-first century version of a children’s crusade through which, like those in 1212, committed young people strive to reclaim the land for God. This Movement’s approach to transformation may prove just as useless and damaging.
I think this movement is a theologically articulated attempt to reestablish things as they were; to render dominant a somewhat narrow and truncated perception of the life well-lived. Quiverfull philosophy proposes a cartography of public life that is premised on despair, an effort of last resort. It entails a Jeremiad, but one that fails to live out its own rhetoric of the sanctity of life in that children produced in line with the will of God are given limited significance—fodder for battle—and the significance of women is viewed in a rather myopic way (and against numerous biblical counterexamples).
Rather than enliven the political arena with moral and ethical insights that enhance our collective life, they deny public debate in line with the best of our democratic ideals, and instead speak in metaphors of war.
I understand and appreciate the value of family, but what we really need is the nurturing of life options, the development of our full potential—not the truncating of our relationships and value, and an attitude toward difference based in fear.