Many of us tend to react with righteous indignation when we read stories of women in foreign countries denied higher education, the chance to support themselves, and the freedom to live independently and make their own decisions.
How do we react when women are denied those same freedoms here in America—by some of our fellow Christians?
Christian patriarchy—a loosely organized movement encompassing Quiverfull, Stay-at-Home Daughters, and similar lifestyles—has been gaining more and more mainstream attention lately. From the pages of Time to cable reality shows, we're growing used to seeing families who deliberately have as many children as possible, dress ultra-conservatively, and observe a clear and unbreachable division of gender roles, to the point of preventing girls from going to college or working outside the home.
Blogger Karen Campbell, who has written extensively on this movement, coined the term patriocentric, which emphasizes the heart of the patriarchal philosophy: Translated, it literally means "father-centered." Campbell defines the movement's central teaching as follows: "that God gives a 'calling' in life to only men, specifically fathers, and that the purpose of the wife and children is to fulfill the father's calling."
In her book Quivering Daughters, Hillary McFarland offers the rare and valuable perspective of a woman who actually grew up in a patriarchal Christian home. She shares both her own story and her conversations with other women who have come out of a similar background. Unlike some others who have left patriarchy behind, McFarland has not lost her faith; her book, which is saturated in Scripture, critiques patriarchy from a Christian viewpoint. Though McFarland clearly loves and respects her parents, she writes frankly about the spiritual abuse that she argues is inherent in their belief system.
While that system is steeped in Christian terminology, one theme that emerges here is the pattern of idolatry practiced by McFarland's family and other families like hers.
- Idolatry of the past. McFarland opens her story with an account of having her hair washed with kerosene to remove lice: "I lay in it, drenched, my body on fire. I know [my mother's] hands burned too." But "Grandma Millie, our neighbor, said it worked because that's what they did in the old days." (Never mind that it never actually got rid of the lice.) Everything, according to her parents, had to be based on "what they did in the old days" because the old days were unequivocally better, case closed. "Living frugally and biblically … meant not relying on the conveniences of modern culture, but welcoming hardship."
- Idolatry of the parents, especially the father. McFarland was taught as a child that she could experience God's leading only through her father, and that it was wrong for her even to hope to experience it herself. As she astutely observes, this led to an enormous burden for father and children alike, as he struggled to micromanage every aspect of their lives. Some of her diary entries, recalling her feelings of despair at her father's constant fault-finding, are difficult to read. Like the time he scolded her for tucking in her blouse because that showed her "crotch and butt" and could lead to her getting raped.
- Idolatry of religion. This is perhaps the subtlest form of all. As McFarland puts it, "As a perfectionist who read the Bible every day and clung to commands to be perfect, holy, and to sin not, I committed idolatry. … I missed the voice that said Come to Me. Rest. I thought my obedience was the standard, not the love of Christ."
When rules and standards are exalted above God, it's not surprising that law is emphasized over grace. This leads, McFarland tells us, to children who feel that they have to keep working for love even though they believe they'll never be good enough for it. Quotes from the various daughters of patriarchy who talked to McFarland drive this point home—quotes like "I was never patient or perfect enough." "The guilt would just increase." "There is so much pressure to conform." "I thought I might be okay—not good, but okay—enough for God because I was still wearing my long skirts every day."
Ironically, McFarland writes, "While Quiverfull teaching exalts children as supreme blessings, it doesn't reveal its grim underside—the silent reality that takes place in hundreds of homes every day and of which I learned: I am only a blessing when I'm useful, helpful, obedient, cheerful, kind, unselfish, submissive, compliant, and responsible." Later, she adds, "We [children of patriarchy] see cognitive dissonance as 'blessings' essentially become 'property' to be manipulated and controlled."
What's even more disheartening is what happens to many of these children who grow up, break free, and share their stories. There seems to be a lack of understanding within the larger Christian community as to the actual nature of patriarchy. Sometimes the patriarchal lifestyle is even romanticized, as people marvel over how well-behaved the children seem and how adorable the girls look in their long dresses. All too often, Quivering Daughters warns, we fail to see the "fear-based living" and endless struggle for perfection behind the scenes.
If a young woman were to share her story of physical or sexual abuse—and occasionally, according to McFarland and others quoted in her book, it has come to that—she would receive sympathy and support from other Christians. But if that young woman describes having essentially taken over her mother's job at an early age, working every minute of the day with zero opportunity for rest, being robbed of her own childhood while she raised other children, being so exhausted that she longed to die—then she's likely to be told that she was just lazy, selfish, and whiny.
I've seen this happen more than once. It's happened to McFarland herself since her book was released. Stacy McDonald, author of Raising Maidens of Virtue and Passionate Housewives Desperate for God, has set up a blog (no comments allowed) for the purpose of debunking McFarland's account of her own upbringing. McDonald accuses McFarland of exaggerating, and states that she just needs to "get past this and move on." At one point, reviewing McFarland's advice to other young women like her, McDonald likens her to "Satan … whispering into the ear of a struggling sinner."
It should be noted that McFarland doesn't even urge girls from patriarchal homes to get out, unless their homes are "unsafe"; she only stresses that they need to find and follow God's leading for their own lives, whether that means staying home or leaving. If Satan were this mild a tempter, we'd still be in Eden.
But reactions like McDonald's show why it was so important that McFarland tell her story. For patriocentricity isn't just another quaint evangelical fad. Whenever legalism and idolatry are taught in Christ's name—and Quivering Daughters makes a strong case that this is what's happening—Christians need to call it what it is: bad theology leading to harmful beliefs and practices. If our calling, as Christ told us, is to serve "the least of these my brethren," then we must speak for those who have been rendered voiceless, not only by members of other religions, but by members of our own as well.
Previous articles on family include:
A Christian Response to Overpopulation | We can continue to affirm life while acknowledging that unrestricted population growth can put women and children at risk. (May 25, 2011)
Deconstructing the Quiver | A review of Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. (February 20, 2009)
The Case for Kids | A defense of the large family by a 'six-time breeder.' By Leslie Leyland Fields (August 1, 2006)