Going Behind Closed Doors in Christian Right Households
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
"Models of idealized family structure lie metaphorically at the heart of our politics," writes linguist George Lakoff in his 2002 book Moral Politics . "Our beliefs about the family exert a powerful influence over our beliefs about what kind of society we should build."
Certainly, many Christian Right leaders would agree with him.
People who make it their business to track and fight the Right tend, with good reason, to focus on public, political activity, but the Christian Right sees the private home as a major arena of political struggle and a showcase for the world they want to live in. "These homes are the source of ordered liberty, the fountain of real democracy, the seedbed of virtue," write long-time activists Allan C. Carlson and Paul T. Mero in their new book, The Natural Family: A Manifesto.
The Natural Family attempts to distill a quarter century of "family values" organizing into a unified vision of social and political change in a bid to rejuvenate their flagging movement. It reflects a decade of international collaborations of Religious Right organizations through the World Congress of Families, organized by Carlson's Illinois-based think tank The Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society. First held in Prague in 1997, the congresses convene right-wing organizations from around the globe "to affirm that the natural human family is established by the Creator and essential to good society" -- and also to fight United Nations family planning initiatives.
As Carlson and Mero frame it, the single-family home -- awash with enough sentiment to drown an entire city -- might be the closest thing the Christian Right has to an actually existing utopian experiment. Examining these ideas can reveal a great deal about the psychology of the Christian Right as well as the visionary goals its adherents pursue.
But recent research into the daily lives of evangelicals also reveals the degree to which their ideal is vulnerable to social and economic forces that all American parents must confront. I believe Lakoff is correct to argue that the Strict Father conception of parenting -- which stresses authoritarian discipline and patriarchal control -- is key to understanding Christian Right politics, but his rubric might obscure [JAS1] the ways in which movement ideals are evolving in response to changing social conditions. Even as Christian Right leaders are "talking Right," as University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox puts it, some of the evangelicals who form the base of their movement are "walking Left" and embracing a more moderate way of political and family life. This creates a fissure in the Christian Right that no manifesto can close.
Villages are for Liberals
The Christian Right and evangelical Christians are not one in the same -- "Survey research shows that 70 percent of evangelicals don't identify with the Religious Right," reports Rice University sociologist Michael Lindsay -- but conservative evangelicals have been largely responsible for developing and promoting the anti-gay, anti-feminist "family values" agenda that has powerfully shaped the culture and platform of the Republican Party. The larger conservative evangelical movement is the cultural sea in which the Christian Right swims.
Thus if we want to understand what the ideal Christian Right home looks like, we must turn to the truly staggering amount of childrearing advice conservative evangelical preachers and pundits dispense to followers.
An evangelical home takes the Bible as the basis for all its rules and relations -- as opposed to the empirical evidence that shapes mainstream childrearing advice. "I don't believe the scientific community is the best source of information on proper parenting techniques," writes Focus on the Family founder James Dobson in The New Dare to Discipline , which has sold millions of copies since the first edition was published in 1971. "The best source of guidance for parents can be found in the wisdom of the Judeo-Christian ethic, which originated with the Creator and has been handed down generation by generation from the time of Christ."
As a result of this adherence to a holy text that cannot be changed and must be obeyed, the ideal Christian Right home is a place of authoritarian hierarchy. When University of Texas sociologists John P. Bartkowski and Christopher G. Ellison compared dozens of secular parenting books with conservative Protestant parenting manuals, they found that a literal interpretation of the Bible's childrearing advice contributed directly to a worship of authority in all spheres of life, including the political.
They also found that conservative evangelical parenting gurus disagreed with mainstream counterparts on virtually every issue. According to their study, secular, science-based parenting advice emphasizes personality adjustment, empathy, cooperation, creativity, curiosity, egalitarian relations between parents, nonviolent discipline, and self-direction.
Conservative Protestants, on the other hand, stress a tightly hierarchical family structure and a gendered division of labor, with a breadwinning father at the top of the pyramid and children at the bottom. "Children learn to make wise choices by having wise choices made for them," writes syndicated columnist and talking head Betsy Hart in her 2006 book It Takes a Parent (as opposed to a village - villages are for liberals!). Needless to say, all right-wing parenting manuals stress obedience -- especially for girls and women.
This leads us to the third aspect of a Christian Right home: the subordination of women. "Obedience is the most necessary ingredient to be required from the child," writes Reverend Jack Hyles, late pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana and author of 49 books and pamphlets. "This is especially true for a girl, for she must be obedient all her life. The boy who is obedient to his mother and father will some day become the head of a home; not so for the girl. Whereas the boy is being trained to be a leader, the girl is being trained to be a follower." It's an unashamed, old-fashioned vision of oppression updated in The Natural Family: A Manifesto . "We do believe wholeheartedly in women's rights," write Carlson and Mero. "Above all, we believe in rights that recognize women's unique gifts of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding."
This commitment to inequality is not merely rhetorical: Wilcox found that "evangelical Protestant husbands do an hour less housework per week than other American husbands." And he notes that "sociologists Jennifer Glass and Jerry Jacobs have shown that women raised in evangelical Protestant families ... marry earlier, bear children earlier, and work less [outside the home] than other women in the United States." Wilcox concludes that "it is true that evangelical Protestantism -- but not mainline Protestantism, Reform Judaism, and Roman Catholicism -- appears to steer men (and women) toward gender inequality."
The Christian Right has tried to shape its institutions -- prefiguring plans for American society as a whole -- to reflect its conception of gender roles. Starting with the Fall 2007 semester, for example, the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas introduced a new major in homemaking -- available only to women. "We are moving against the tide in order to establish family and gender roles as described in God's word for the home and family," said Seminary President Paige Patterson. "If we do not do something to salvage the future of the home, both our denomination and our nation will be destroyed."
Born to be Bad?
Wilcox also found that evangelical Protestantism "steers fathers in a patriarchal direction when it comes to discipline. Drawing in part on their belief in original sin and on biblical passages that seem to promote a strict approach to discipline -- 'He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him' (Prov. 13:24) -- evangelical Protestant leaders ... stress the divine authority of parents and the need for parents to take a firm hand with children."
And so the fourth characteristic of a Christian Right home is that children are born evil and can become good only through a Godly mixture of love and punishment. "One does not have to teach antisocial behavior to toddlers," writes right-wing family psychologist John Rosemond in a 2006 column, syndicated in 225 newspapers. "They are by nature violent, deceitful, destructive, rebellious, and prone to sociopathic rages if they do not get their way."
I wrote to Rosemond in an email and asked him to elaborate. "In my estimation," he replied, "toddlerhood is a pathological condition that demands 'cure,' accomplished through a combination of powerful love and powerful discipline. ... The toddler mindset and the sociopathic mindset are one and the same: 'What I want, I deserve to have; the ends justify the means; and no one has a right to stand in my way.' This is a reflection of human nature."
Rosemond invoked the DSM-IV, the diagnostic bible of mental health practitioners, to justify his views and give them the veneer of scientific authority, but later in his response he made it clear that there is only one Bible that guides his parenting advice. "In every passage of Scripture that refers to the discipline (disciple-ing) of children, the central theme is leadership," he writes. "I am, first and foremost, a believer in and follower of Jesus, The Christ."
Psychologists I interviewed were horrified by Rosemond's use of the DSM-IV and his conception of children as mentally ill, which amounts to a translation of the doctrine of original sin, with its framework of damnation and salvation, into contemporary therapeutic terms. The difference is simple: A two-year-old human being is still learning how to deal with and express her feelings, but a true sociopath has no feelings. To treat a toddler like a sociopath is like studying snakes in order to understand koala bears -- and then declaring that koala bears are cold-blooded.
In fact, contrary to Rosemond's views, research has found that human beings exhibit empathic behavior from as early as 18 months. For example, Nancy L. Marshall at Wellesley College found that "when toddlers saw a teddy bear suffer an 'accident,' their faces showed distress and concern. They also responded by trying to help or comfort the bear" -- a behavior I've seen my three-year-old son exhibit many times. There are literally hundreds of empirical studies that echo these results. Based on findings like these, evolutionary psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Marc Hauser argue that moral behavior has evolved to keep selfishness in check and has deep biological roots.
None of the findings indicate that human beings are born saints, only that the capacities for empathy and cooperation are present from the very beginning and can be cultivated -- or squashed. Rosemond's views are, at best, one-sided. At worst, they suggest a deep fear and hatred of children. And among conservative evangelicals, Rosemond is hardly alone. "Your child came into the world with an insatiable faculty for evil," writes Pastor John MacArthur in his 2000 book, What the Bible Says About Parenting . "Even before birth, your baby's little heart was already programmed for sin and selfishness."
A mark on the forehead
Is it harsh to accuse the parenting gurus of the Christian Right of fearing and hating the precious children they've worked so hard to protect? It's no harsher than the punishments they proscribe for wicked children. Let's say, for example, that your two-year-old insists on getting out of bed after you've told him to stay put. "The youngster should be placed in bed and given a speech," writes Dobson, who launched Focus on the Family as a forum for Christian parenting and is now a major voice in the Republican Party. "Then when [the child's] feet touch the floor, give him one swat on the legs with a switch. Put the switch where he can see it, and promise more if he gets up again."
But Dobson seems like Dr. Spock when compared to Tennessee Pastor Michael Pearl. "If you want a child who will integrate into the New World Order and wait his turn in line for condoms, a government funded abortion, sexually transmitted disease treatment, psychological evaluation, and a mark on the forehead," Pearl writes in his 1994 book To Train Up a Child , "then follow the popular guidelines in education, entertainment, and discipline, but if you want a son or daughter of God, you will have to do it God's way." Pearl's interpretation of "God's way" entails hitting disobedient children with quarter-inch plumbing supply line or PVC pipe -- "chastisement instruments" he endorses as excellent expressions of the Lord's will.
Christian Right ideologues argue that hitting a child with PVC pipe must be motivated by love, but their parenting advice is chillingly consistent with Christian Right voices in favor of using torture in the "war on terrorism." When evangelical Christian and Barnard College professor of religious history Randall Balmer asked eight Religious Right organizations to provide their positions on the Bush Administration's use of torture, two responded, the Family Research Council (founded by Dobson) and the Institute on Religion and Democracy. "Both were eager to defend administration policies," Balmer reported in a 2006 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education .
In this, they were reflecting the will of a wide swathe of their constituency: A 2005 Pew Research Center poll found that only 31 percent of white evangelicals said that torture is never justified, with the rest believing that it is necessary at least some of the time -- [JAS2] in contrast, 41 percent of secular Americans agreed that it is never justified. Unsurprisingly, Christian Right groups like the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family also actively campaign against laws intended to curb child abuse. "The campaign to end child abuse too often abuses families," declare the authors of The Natural Family , citing "witch hunts" against misunderstood parents who were probably only trying to protect their kids from the New World Order.
As Lakoff points out in Moral Politics , the Christian Right confuses psychologist Diana Baumrind's influential idea of authoritative parenting -- which sees discipline as supportive, not punitive, and is responsive to children's needs and thoughts -- with separate categories of permissive or neglectful parenting. As an alternative, the Christian Right promotes authoritarian parenting, which denies choices to children and expects them to obey without question -- a style that research has shown contributes to lower self-esteem, poorer social skills, and more feelings of depression.
Spare the Metaphor, Spoil the Rod
Evangelical homes must confront the same problems as their nonevangelical counterparts: the erosion of real wages, the rising costs of necessities like health care and education, the ubiquity of electronic media, and the declining rights of workers, to name a few. These forces shape the homes of evangelicals just as surely as they shape the homes of other sectors of society, which explains why, for example, rates of teen sex and divorce are not significantly lower in these homes. In fact, divorce is especially high in Bible Belt states, due at least in part to higher unemployment.
In The Natural Family , Mero and Carlson blame virtually all these fundamentally economic developments on feminism: in their view, it is the "imposition of full gender equality" -- not, for example, globalization -- that "destroyed family-wage systems." There's no empirical evidence for this claim, but that hardly matters: Scapegoating claims like this one serve to mobilize Christian Right constituencies for its social agenda of putting heterosexual men back at the head of family and society, a strategy that has seemed to work in electing conservative politicians. "People have personal standing in a discussion about what a good marriage is and what a bad marriage is," Republican operative Bill Greener told journalist Brian Mann. "They feel comfortable in that dialogue. It's about something they understand, a lot more than about trade policy."
The Natural Family describes a comprehensive range of public policies that flow from making the patriarchal family the basic building block of society. In the authors' view, families, not government, should care for the sick and the vulnerable, thereby making welfare, universal health care, and Social Security irrelevant and even anti-Christian; mothers should take care of young children instead of federally subsidized daycare providers (or, for that matter, fathers); older children should be educated at home, not public schools; and so on. In this way the Christian Right philosophy of the home roughly converges with antitax, antigovernment sentiment, except when it comes to legally enforcing the movement's vision of how families should be structured.
But for all its gains in the political realm -- which have captured most of the outraged attention of the political Left -- the Christian Right continues to lose the culture war. According to Gallup polls, in 1982, only 34 percent of Americans "believed that homosexuality was an acceptable alternative lifestyle." Last year, 61 percent of those polled by People for the American Way supported at least civil unions for gays. Families are more egalitarian than ever, with more and more men participating in housework and childcare, and with more and more mothers working.
These changing attitudes and practices are reflected in the rhetoric of conservative evangelicals. In The Natural Family , for example, Carlson and Mero must make their argument for inequality within the framework of what they disingenuously call "women's rights." John Rosemond must use psychological research to legitimate his fundamentally religious views on childrearing. Even patriarchal ideologues like Dobson and MacArthur call for dads to be "more involved" and "loving" with their families, deploying rhetoric about fathers that only rarely appeared prior to World War II -- and which is largely the creation of the secular, scientific culture they deplore.
Thus the changes of the past half century have altered the landscape and rules of discourse in ways that appear to be long lasting. On my parenting blog "Daddy Dialectic," one evangelical Christian argued against stay-at-home fatherhood: "Men should be out there doing whatever it takes to insure that mom can spend as much time as possible with her family because she is uniquely equipped by God for the role of managing the household and the kids on a daily basis." But another evangelical responded: "Scripture commands [that men provide for their families], and leaves it at that. It doesn't specify a paycheck. If my family needs income, and my wife is better suited to earn it, why risk my family's stability by forcing my way into the workforce?" My own conservative evangelical relatives openly supported my decision to become my son's primary caregiver.
In an interview for this article, Wilcox urged that we distinguish "between what elite evangelicals [like Dobson] say and what average people are doing." While elites may rail against the social and economic changes of recent decades, Wilcox told me that "your average evangelical takes all that with a grain of salt." That's in part because most evangelical wives work. "Part of that is a class issue," Wilcox said. "Evangelicals are more working class, than, for example, mainline Protestants, [and] they have less economic flexibility. And so the reality on the ground, with gender issues, is more flexible than some might expect." As a result, claimed Wilcox, "many evangelicals are walking Left, talking Right." In other words, the more their behavior compromises with reality, the shriller the rhetoric can be.
Wilcox also found that while evangelical men were more likely to use corporal punishment and less likely to do housework, they were also much less likely to yell at children, which indicates less anger in the home, and evangelical husbands were more likely than other men to be affectionate with their families. For his part, John Rosemond told me that he is ambivalent on corporal punishment. "Unfortunately, the word 'rod' as used in Scripture in the context of the discipline of children has been misinterpreted as a concrete object," he told me. "Careful Biblical exegesis will reveal that it is a metaphor for powerful, compelling leadership that is always conducted with the child's best interests in mind." (Of course, evangelicals and religious fundamentalists are not accustomed to thinking about holy texts in the metaphorical way Rosemond suggests.) At the same time, over the past two years, more and more evangelicals have come to oppose the use of torture -- this year, the National Association of Evangelicals even came out against the practice, providing a counterweight to the support coming from Christian Right organizations like Focus on the Family.
This is all to say that while Christian Right ideals might seem simple and frightening, the behavior of evangelicals who form the Christian Right social base is complex. Lakoff's Strict Father model may be useful as a way to link parenting with political beliefs, but it can also obscure the degree to which evangelicals can disagree and evolve -- which does happen, though it might not seem that way to outsiders. Certainly, no evangelical or even fundamentalist today lives as Christians did in the centuries right after Christ was crucified -- no one, for example, is putting adulterers to death, as the Bible advises (Deuteronomy 22:22 and Leviticus 20:10). Among other practical problems, that would wipe out at least half of the country's Republican politicians and destroy the spiritual leadership of the evangelical community. [JAS3] Wilcox argued to me that the strength of the evangelical narrative is that it explains why, for example, women still do twice as much housework as men -- it's their God-given inclination. But that can be turned around: The evangelical narrative can't explain why some men are doing more childcare than in the past -- many even claim they want to -- or why gay and lesbian families continue to multiply. Instead, the narrative simply declares some human desires as consistent with their version of biblical truth, and others as out of bounds. Given the inadmissibility of empirical evidence, the evangelical narrative can explain only what supports the narrative -- and must dismiss the rest.
This creates an unhappy gap between ideal and reality, the place in which average evangelicals must live. And stubbornly adhering to the narrative creates another gap, between their utopian homes and the homes of everyone around them. In the face of social change, individual homes might preserve their purity. But in the end, they will sacrifice their ability to communicate with neighbors -- or to win more political power.
Jeremy Adam Smith is senior editor of Greater Good magazine and author of Twenty-First-Century Dad: How Stay-at-Home Fathers (and Breadwinning Moms) Are Transforming the American Family, forthcoming from Beacon Press. He is a frequent past contributor to AlterNet, as well as publications like The Nation, Mothering, Utne, and Wired.