Uncle Sugar as Religious Bogeyman

Mike Huckabee’s instant classic in the canon of modern Republican misogyny, denouncing overbearing government bogeyman “Uncle Sugar” for contraceptive handouts to women who “cannot control their libido or their reproductive system” may seem, on the surface, to be merely Tea Party anti-governmentism blended with run of the mill Rush Limbaugh slut-shaming. 

Any Republican cringing over Huckabee’s remarks is really about his phrasing, not his ideology. After all, the RNC just adopted the resolution proposed by Committeewoman Ellen Barrosse “to fight back against Democrats’ deceptive, ‘war on women’ rhetoric.” Huckabee may have not been this effort’s best messenger, but in reality he’s an honest one: religious conservatives see “Uncle Sugar” (or, in the more frequently used parlance, “government bureaucrats”) as encouraging women to — gasp! — have lots of sex, when women should only be having sex with husbands, and on their husbands’ terms.

Recall when Huckabee was running for president in 2008, he faced criticism over his endorsement of the 1998 Southern Baptist Convention Family Statement, which read:

A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.

Asked about this in a debate — and in the glare of the national spotlight — Huckabee fudged his answer, first questioning why he was the only candidate to be asked about religion, and then insisting that “it’s not a matter of one being somehow superior over the other.” But fellow Baptists wasted no time in calling out Huckabee’s lie, noting that despite his efforts to suggest he has an egalitarian view of wifely submission, the Southern Baptist statement is undeniably clear that, in Richard Land’s words, “somebody has to be in charge.”

Of course Huckabee isn’t the first Republican called to answer for his endorsement of biblical patriarchy. Just this week, New Mexico Republican Steve Pearce, in a new book, writes that “the wife is to voluntarily submit, just as the husband is to lovingly lead and sacrifice” and “the husband’s part is to show up during the times of deep stress, take the leadership role and be accountable for the outcome, blaming no one else.”

In 2011, Michele Bachmann had to explain what she meant in a 2006 speech at a megachurch when she said, in describing how her husband persuaded her to seek a second law degree in tax, “the Lord says, be submissive, wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.” Faced with a national audience, Bachmann fudged and said her marriage was based on love and respect.

In 2010, while running for his House seat, Rep. Dan Webster (R-FL) was faced with similar questions in Alan Grayson’s notorious “Taliban Dan” ad, which unearthed a speech Webster had given at Bill Gothard’s Institute for Basic Life Principles, in which he is seen saying, “wives submit yourselves to your own husband” and “she should submit to me, that’s in the Bible.”

Webster complained his words were taken out of context, as did Factcheck.org and others. The conventional wisdom was that the ad had “backfired;” it was Grayson, not Webster, who had gone too far. But as Kathryn Joyce, who wrote about biblical patriarchy in her book Quiverfull, noted, “submission is a contentious and tricky issue even within conservative evangelical churches,” and that Webster’s emphasis “as those familiar with Christian rhetoric could recognize, is not on the optional nature of wives’ submission.”  

A few months later, after Webster had unseated Grayson, I interviewed his mentor Gothard (who also counts Huckabee, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, and Republican anti-contraception darlings the Duggars among his fans). (In the full video excerpted in the Taliban Dan ad, Webster describes how Gothard’s teachings “absolutely changed my life” and are the “basis for everything I do today.”) Gothard, too, tried to backtrack on his authoritarian theology:

Gothard insisted to me (in direct contradiction to materials on his own website) that he does not teach submission. When I asked Gothard whether he teaches that wives should submit to their husbands’ authority, he laughed, answering, “no, no,” adding, that Jesus taught “he who is the greatest among you be the servant of all. That makes the woman the greatest of all because she has served every single person in the world by being in her womb.”

Gothard’s effort to soft-pedal his teachings—by portraying women as venerated objects, and by saying that “authority” is simply “love” and “love” is “freedom”—flies in the face of his critics’ descriptions of the impact of his authoritarian teachings on their lives. In interviews, former adherents to Gothard’s teachings, disillusioned former members of “ATI families,” and an evangelical critic told me that his unyielding theology, including “non-optional” compliance with seven “biblical” principles (the “basic” life principles), compliance with 49 “character traits,” and other periodic Gothard revelations, are contrary to the Bible and have wreaked havoc on their emotional and spiritual lives and those of their families.

Gothard doesn’t deny he teaches adherence to what he calls “the commands of Christ.” And even though he has developed his own highly unusual interpretation of the Bible, he insists he’s not demanding that his followers obey him, but that they obey God (or how he singularly has interpreted God’s word). Following this path, he tells me cheerfully, will bring one “success and health and happiness and joy.”

What is womens’ most important collective role, in Gothard’s view? “Serving” by having a womb. In the Southern Baptist Convention’s view, “nurturing the next generation.” Contraception, especially doled out (allegedly) by “Uncle Sugar,” gets in the way of that role of ultimate “love” and “freedom,” as described by Gothard. In this “biblical worldview,” “Uncle Sugar” puts government above God. But most important, and the reason why the Huckabee is so threatened by “Uncle Sugar” giving women an entirely different kind of freedom, is that Uncle Sugar upsets his “biblical” role as head of the household, the one to whom the wife must submit. And in that sense, Huckabee’s comments reveal not just his fear that the contraception benefit threatens womens’ traditional role, but how he worries that “Uncle Sugar” — and more crucially, women themselves — infringe on his.