“Get married, have a quiver full of kids if you can.” That’s the commencement advice Mitt Romney delivered this past weekend to 110 new graduates of Southern Virginia University, a largely Mormon school near Lynchburg, Virginia, where many students volunteered with Romney’s failed presidential campaign.
Family values talk at a Latter-day Saints school is hardly surprising, but perhaps some of Romney’s scriptural citations were. In a speech peppered with admonitions that graduates should marry and start families young, he dropped in a biblical reference, Psalm 127, more often associated with another religious tradition: the Quiverfull movement.
In that Christian community, the verse Romney chose—”Children are a heritage of the Lord, and the fruit of the womb is His reward. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them”—has become almost synonymous with an absolutist rejection of all forms of contraception or family planning, and an embrace of what believers describe as “biblical patriarchy.” Quiverfull adherents have as many children as God will allow, describe their offspring as “arrows” in a divine army, and follow rigid gender roles in the home, where men are the spiritual leaders and women the submissive helpmeets.
Though the Mormon church is not officially anti-contraception, Romney’s use of biblical language most often associated with anti-birth-control fundamentalists is consistent. For years, conservative LDS leaders have partnered with right-wing evangelicals and Catholics on precisely this sort of “pro-family” issue. In one right-wing coalition, the World Congress of Families, a Mormon think tank leader coauthored a statement of “pro-family” principles, “The Natural Family: A Manifesto,” that echoes Romney’s language.
In the manifesto, once adopted by the town council of Kanab, Utah, families are described as the fundamental unit of society; individual rights are valued only insofar as they correspond with pro-natalist, pro-family goals; and women’s rights are qualified as follows: “Above all, we believe in rights that recognize women’s unique gifts of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding.”
Limiting women’s rights to their right to be mothers is par for the course in the Quiverfull movement. Its followers see feminism as a slippery slope, starting with family planning—which is viewed as women taking unlawful ownership of a body that rightfully belongs to God—and ending with gay rights, abortion, divorce, and witchcraft (really).
Given their view of feminism as “a totally self-consistent system aimed at rejecting God’s role for women,” the movement’s leaders instead suggested a sort of Renaissance woman alternative for conservative Christians: They would be submissive wives, prolifically fertile mothers, and home-schoolers who train their children (especially their daughters) to grow up and do the same. The children of these families, the “arrows,” are the tools of spiritual warfare for a community that envisions a long-term campaign to win the culture wars demographically—by having more children than its opponents.
I’m not inventing this language: Movement books, such as Rachel Scott’s Birthing God’s Mighty Warriors, emphasize military metaphors. And Rick and Jan Hess, authors of an early manual, Full Quiver, urge followers to procreate with the promise that, if just 8 million Christians were to have six children apiece, then conservative Christians would dominate politics, culture, academia, and commerce within a century, and could have their way in each.
That plan is unlikely to work, it’s probably safe to say. Along the way, however, the movement’s women and children will suffer significant harm and missed opportunities, as the stories on “survivor” sites like No Longer Quivering and Homeschoolers Anonymous document to devastating effect.
Yet as I argued in my 2009 book, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, the fallout and the ideology carry far beyond the fringes of that community. Anti-contraception arguments have found surprising support in the Republican Party, whose candidates compete to demonstrate their pro-life bona fides in terms of family size: Rick Santorum got a primary boost when the 19-child Duggar clan teamed up with his campaign, for example, and Michelle Bachmann (somewhat misleadingly) insisted that she had raised 23 children.
Now, even in defeat, Romney is trumpeting the ideal of his wife’s domesticity as “the most important, most demanding, most difficult, and most rewarding profession she could imagine.” Those are words that could have been taken from any book in the Quiverfull library.