Quiverfull: More Children For God’s Army

Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce is working on a book about conservative Christian women's movements, to be published by Beacon Press.

Between 1985 and 1990, three books were published by small, independent Christian presses that would come to have a profound impact on Christian Right thinking on family planning, feminism and birth control. Charles Provan's The Bible and Birth Control, Mary Pride's The Way Home: Away from Feminism and Back to Reality, and Rick and Jan Hess's A Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ. Together, these three books laid a comprehensive framework for the pro-natalist, anti-birth control movement today known as Quiverfull, wherein believers eschew all forms of birth control, natural and hormonal, and argue that Christian families should leave the number of children they have entirely in the hands of God.

In the Nov. 27th issue of The Nation, I profiled a group of Quiverfull believers who had broods of 8, 11, 13 and 14 children, and who spoke of their decision to have such large families as a form of spiritual warfare. That much is reflected in their name, taken from Psalm 127: "Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate." Quiverfull mothers think of their children as no mere movement, but as an army they're building for God.

Kathryn Joyce is working on a book about conservative Christian women's movements, to be published by Beacon Press.

Between 1985 and 1990, three books were published by small, independent Christian presses that would come to have a profound impact on Christian Right thinking on family planning, feminism and birth control. Charles Provan's The Bible and Birth Control, Mary Pride's The Way Home: Away from Feminism and Back to Reality, and Rick and Jan Hess's A Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ. Together, these three books laid a comprehensive framework for the pro-natalist, anti-birth control movement today known as Quiverfull, wherein believers eschew all forms of birth control, natural and hormonal, and argue that Christian families should leave the number of children they have entirely in the hands of God.

In the Nov. 27th issue of The Nation, I profiled a group of Quiverfull believers who had broods of 8, 11, 13 and 14 children, and who spoke of their decision to have such large families as a form of spiritual warfare. That much is reflected in their name, taken from Psalm 127: "Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate." Quiverfull mothers think of their children as no mere movement, but as an army they're building for God.

Quiverfull parents try to have upwards of six children. They homeschool their families, attend fundamentalist churches, and follow biblical guidelines of male headship – "father knows best" – and female submissiveness. They refuse any attempt to regulate pregnancy. Quiverfull probably began as a self-conscious movement with the publication of Rick and Jan Hess's 1989 book, A Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ, in which they argue that God, as the "Great Physician" and sole "Birth Controller," is in charge of opening and closing the womb on a case-by-case basis. Women's attempts to control their own bodies – the Lord's temple – are a seizure of divine power.

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Its word-of-mouth growth can be traced back to conservative Protestant critiques of contraception, and the growing belief among evangelicals that birth control pills are an "abortifacient" (that hormonal contraception such as the pill can cause the "chemical abortion" of accidentally fertilized eggs). This is one of the strongest ties between Quiverfull conviction and the larger Christian Right, connecting a radically-expanded "pro-life" agenda that has broadened its political interests from abortion, to birth control and sexual abstinence, to international pro-natalist and pro-population movements. (Such an expanded agenda was on full display this fall at the Contraception is Not the Answer conference in Illinois, deftly covered in these pages by Tyler LePard.)

Pride's book – a grassroots hit among the homeschooling movement – denounced birth control as the hallmark of selfish feminists and paved the way for women's careers and abortion. "Family planning is the mother of abortion. A generation had to be indoctrinated in the ideal of planning children around personal convenience before abortion could be popular," Pride argued, calling for Christians to fight abortion by demonstrating that children were "unqualified blessings" by having as many as God gave them.

A number of families in the past twenty years have followed Pride's and the Hesses' charge. Though there are no exact figures for the size of the movement, the number of families that identify as Quiverfull is likely in the low tens of thousands. In its most benign self-descriptions, Quiverfull is about faith, pure and simple: faith that God won't give a woman more children than she can handle, and faith that by opening themselves up receive multiple "blessings" – in the form of children – they will bring God's favor upon them in other areas of life as well. God "deals with the hearts" about birth control, and if they submit, they are cared for.

But a more disturbing rationale for Quiverfull can also be found in its founding texts. After arguing Scripture, the Hesses point to a number of more worldly effects that a Christian embrace of Quiverfull could bring. "When at the height of the Reagan Revolution," they write, "the conservative faction in Washington was enforced [sic] with squads of new conservative congressmen, legislators often found themselves handcuffed by lack of like-minded staff. There simply weren't enough conservatives trained to serve in Washington in the lower and middle capacities." But if just eight million American Christians began supplying more "arrows for the war" by having six children or more, they propose that the Christian Right ranks could rise to 550 million within a century.

The language of spiritual warfare, demographic victory in the culture war through population shifts drastic enough to influence the law, and the inversion of old patriarchal traditions to seem like rebellion against modern society, may seem dramatic, but these are key parts of the religious and pro-family agenda to fight birth control that has drawn the attention of policy makers on the right and in the middle, and deserves the attention of anyone concerned with reproductive freedom. A fuller portrait of the movement and its members is available here.

Analysis Law and Policy

Federal Court Says Trans Worker Can Be Fired Based on Owner’s Religious Beliefs

Jessica Mason Pieklo

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the owners of secular for-profit businesses could challenge laws they believed infringed on their religious liberties, civil rights advocates warned that the decision was just the start of a new wave of litigation. On Thursday, those predictions came true: A federal district judge in Michigan ruled that a funeral home owner could fire a transgender worker simply for being transgender.

The language of the opinion is sweeping, even if the immediate effect of the decision is limited to the worker, Aimee Stephens, and her boss. And that has some court-watchers concerned.

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

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According to court documents, Stephens, an employee at Detroit’s R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes, gave her boss—the business’ owner—a letter in 2013 explaining she was undergoing a gender transition. As part of her transition, she told her employer that she would soon start to present as a woman, including dressing in appropriate business attire at work that was consistent both with her identity and the company’s sex-segregated dress code policy.

Two weeks later, Stephens was fired after being told by her boss that what she was “proposing to do” was unacceptable and offensive to his religious beliefs.

In September 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Stephens, arguing the funeral home had violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination. According to the EEOC, Stephens was unlawfully fired in violation of Title VII “because she is transgender, because she was transitioning from male to female, and/or because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act allows those employees who have been discriminated against in the workplace to collect money, known as civil damages. Those damages usually come in the form of lost wages, back pay, and funds to make up for—to some degree—the abuse the employee faced on the job. They are also designed to make employers more vigilant about their workplace culture. Losing an employment discrimination case for an employer can be expensive.

But attorneys representing Stephens’ employer argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protected their client from legal liability for firing Stephens. On Thursday, a federal court agreed. It said that paying such damages for unlawfully discriminating against an employee could amount to a substantial burden on an employer’s religious beliefs. 

According to the court, despite the fact that Stephens’ boss admitted he fired her for transitioning, and despite the fact that the court found this admission to be direct evidence of employment discrimination, RFRA can be a defense against that direct discrimination. To use that defense, the court concluded, all the funeral home owner had to do was assert that his religious beliefs embraced LGBTQ discrimination. The funeral home had “met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs,” the court wrote.

In other words, Hobby Lobby provides employers a defense to discriminating against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious beliefs.

“The RFRA analysis is extremely troubling, and the implications of it [are] as well,” said Knight. “I believe this is the first case applying RFRA to a Title VII claim with respect to nonministerial employees.”

If the scope of the opinion were broader, Knight continued, “this would allow [employers in general] to evade and refuse to comply with uniform nondiscrimination law because of their religious views.”

This, Knight said, is what advocates were afraid of in the wake of Hobby Lobby: “It is the concern raised by all of the liberal justices in the dissent in Hobby Lobby, and it is what the majority in Hobby Lobby said the decision did not mean. [That majority] said it did not mean the end of enforcement of nondiscrimination laws.”

And yet that is exactly what we are seeing in this decision, Knight said.

According to court documents, Stephens’ boss has been a Christian for more than 65 years and testified that he believes “the Bible teaches that God creates people male or female,” that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift, and that people should not deny or attempt to change their sex.” For Stephens’ former boss, Stephens’ transition to a woman was “denying” her sex. Stephens had to be fired, her boss testified, so that he would not be directly complicit in supporting the idea that “sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.”

If the “complicit in denying God’s will” sounds familiar, it should. It has been the exact argument used by businesses challenging the birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act. Those business owners believe contraception is contrary to God’s will and that complying with federal law, which says birth control should be treated in insurance policies as any other preventive service, makes them complicit in sin. Thursday’s decision cites Hobby Lobby directly to support the court’s conclusion that complying with federal nondiscrimination law can be avoided by asserting a religious objection.

Think of the implications, should other courts follow this lead. Conservatives have, in the past, launched religious objections to child labor laws, the minimum wage, interracial marriage, and renting housing to single parents—to name a few. Those early legal challenges were unsuccessful, in part because they were based on constitutional claims. Hobby Lobby changed all that, opening the door for religious conservatives to launch all kinds of protests against laws they disagree with.

And though the complaint may be framed as religious objections to birth control, to LGBTQ people generally, and whatever other social issue that rankles conservatives, these cases are so much more than that. They are about corporate interests trying to evade regulations that both advance social equity and punish financially those businesses that refuse to follow the law. Thursday’s opinion represents the next, troubling evolution of that litigation.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify John Knight’s position with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

Commentary Politics

The Loss of Our Sons and Daughters Is More Than a Political Moment

Toni Bond Leonard

We must bear witness to support the Black mothers who shared their stories of losing children to state and racial violence at the Democratic National Convention. But bearing witness means demanding justice and policy change.

When I watched the Mothers of the Movement—a group of Black mothers of slain children—take center stage at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) last week, I saw Black women “making a way out of no way.” We turn our suffering and righteous indignation into agency.

Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, talked about being thrust into the spotlight while grappling with her teenage son’s killing. Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, began her remarks by acknowledging God’s greatness and how the mothers’ presence at the DNC was itself proof of that greatness. She then related the horrific details of her 28-year-old daughter being found hanging in a Texas jail cell after a possibly unlawful traffic stop in 2015. She called it the worst nightmare anyone could imagine.

But as eloquent and moving as the Mothers of the Movement were, their narratives were treated as a political moment that demonstrated mostly that Hillary Clinton had successfully campaigned to garner the backing of these mothers who are surviving reproductive loss. As I watched Reed-Veal fight back tears, I wondered what type of strength it takes to find peace with such a loss.

The lives of women such as Fulton and Reed-Veal—and those of their deceased children and their remaining families—matter more than a fleeting appearance in Philadelphia. While Clinton is apparently able to imagine what it means to lose a child and talk about that on the campaign trail, it is different to live with the immeasurable weight of losing a loved one, especially when it was due to systemic racism.

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In the Christian tradition, we remember Jesus’ suffering on the cross. And the mothers’ words call us to bear witness to police violence and the women who suffer irreparable reproductive loss. But bearing witness requires us to do more than see and hear about atrocities. We must also demand justice.

Reproductive justice theory holds that women have the human rights to bear children (or not), and to parent with the necessary social and economic supports so that their children not only survive, but thrive. Thriving means access to safe affordable housing, quality education, a living wage, healthy foods, and health care that is grounded in prevention and healing. It means living without fear of violence, especially from the very state authorities entrusted with protecting us.

In Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, womanist theologian Delores Williams discusses Black women and a particular type of “surrogacy.” She uses the biblical story of Egyptian slave Hagar, who became Abraham’s concubine to bear him the son that his wife, Sarah, had not. Hagar’s body—and her child—were not her own. Williams argues that Black women have long been forced to step into others’ roles—raising white women’s children during and after slavery, for one—and that surrogacy has been exploitative.

We stand now in a moment where Black women are still surrogates. Their children are not their own, used as human targets by law enforcement and racists to act out their hatred of Black people. And even as the Mothers of the Movement struggle to grieve, their pain plays out in public.

To honor and address their pain, we must listen compassionately to Black people who say “Black Lives Matter.” The shootings of police officers cannot be used to scapegoat the legitimate concerns and demands of Black Lives Matter, which push us to confront historical and ongoing violence against Black Americans. Those urgent cries must fall on ears ready to understand the long history of our lives not mattering in this country. Those cries come from the collective memory of enslaved Black bodies, especially Black mothers forced to bear children to gratify economic greed, and firsthand contemporary experience.

Political candidates must also do more than just listen to the heartrending stories. They must also put forth concrete legislation to address the structural inequality behind racial profiling and the murders of Black people.

While Clinton’s platform includes ending gun violence and building trust between communities and police, what we did not hear at the DNC was how she would advance policies that would prevent the tragic reproductive loss that the Mothers of the Movement now know.

Her platform sounds progressive, but I cannot help but remember her racially coded comments in support of the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act: that youth in gangs “are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”

Typically, dogs are brought to heel so that they walk close to or follow their owners. An unconscious, unfortunate choice of wording, perhaps? Still, the anti-poor legislation passed during her husband’s administration, and which she supported, has created and worsened conditions that shove poor families, disproportionately families of color, further into poverty.

In this watershed moment, radical accountability is needed if we’re to stem the use of deadly force against Black people.

Our elected leaders can model accountability by admitting that their own policies or statements have fed the police and not hungry people. Quite frankly, Clinton’s support of the crime bill and of the federal welfare reform requires some meaningful and public repentance.

And that repentance has to be more than a moment at the DNC or any future political gathering, but a sincere strategy to correct the injustices that claimed the Mothers of the Movement’s children. This is what it means to bear witness.

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