Kathryn Joyce: A Feminist Who Reports on the Christian Right

Three Way Fight


If you want to understand the U.S. Christian right’s gender politics, Kathryn Joyce’s writings are an excellent place to start. Joyce exposes the patriarchal, misogynistic nature of Christian right principles and practices, but she also writes with empathy about Christian right women and the choices they make under radically constrained circumstances. In addition, Joyce isn’t afraid to go after liberal feminist icons like Hillary Clinton, whose Christian right connections run much deeper than most people realize.

Kathryn Joyce is a freelance journalist based in New York City, whose articles about the Christian right have appeared in Ms., The Nation, Newsweek, Religion Dispatches, Slate, and several other publications. (Newsweek has also published several fiction reviews by Joyce.) Many of Joyce’s articles are available through her website at http://kathrynjoyce.wordpress.com/. Joyce’s interest in religious-based politics goes back at least to her days as a grad student at NYU’s school of journalism in the early 2000s. During that time, she and her friend and colleague Jeff Sharlet helped to found TheRevealer.org, a project of NYU’s Center for Religion and Media that calls itself “a daily review of religion in the news and the news about religion,” and Joyce served as the online journal’s first managing editor, from 2003 to 2006. Today Joyce is best known for her 2009 book Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement (Beacon Press).

Women’s oppression is a central concern in Joyce’s articles about the Christian right, but it’s by no means the only one. In “Christian Soldiers” she argues that Christian rightists’ growing influence in the U.S. military has included denouncing Islam, harassing Jews, promoting conspiracy theories about Satanic forces within the U.S. government, even demonizing mainstream Protestants. (Joyce reports that evangelical and Pentecostal clergy have flooded into the armed forces since the 1970s and 1980s and now number about two-thirds of all military chaplains.) In “Can Mormon Glenn Beck Unite the Christian Right?” Joyce discusses international alliance-building between conservative evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, and even a few Muslim fundamentalists, for example through the World Congress of Families. In “The Anti-Gay Highway” she notes the efforts by U.S. Christian rightists such as Rick Warren and Scott Lively to promote aggressively homophobic policies in Africa–as well as the growing influence of conservative African evangelical leaders on church politics within the United States.

Unlike many critics of the Christian right, Joyce targets Democratic Party leaders as well as Republicans. “Hillary’s Prayer” (co-authored by Joyce and Sharlet) highlights Hillary Clinton’s longstanding involvement in the secretive Christian right network known variously as the Family or the Fellowship, whose mission centers on recruiting members of the global ruling class. (Sharlet’s books The Family and C Street discusses this network in detail. See my review of The Family.) In “The Abandoned Orphanage,” Joyce and Sharlet recount how Family leader Doug Coe brokered a “peace” between Clinton and Mother Teresa over abortion, in which “Hillary’s support for abortion as a fundamental right [gave] way to an acceptance of it as a ‘tragedy’–one that should be made as ‘rare’ as possible.” As a token of their “common ground,” Clinton also helped the arch-conservative nun set up an orphanage in Washington, DC. (“The Abandoned Orphanage” also notes that Mother Teresa’s order has been accused of refusing to provide adequate medical treatment to its patients, while redirecting charitable donations away from their intended purposes into evangelism and lavish headquarters.)

To Joyce, the whole notion of common ground between defenders and opponents of abortion rights is a “mythical land.” Efforts by Democratic politicians such as Hillary Clinton or President Barack Obama to find such compromise amount to “appeasement” of the Christian right’s sweeping attack on women’s rights and have “shifted the frame of the debate” rightward. For example, when Obama called in 2009 for compromise in the abortion debate, the Family Research Council responded that if the president were sincere, he would support anti-abortion initiatives such as crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), which in Joyce’s words “are characterized by deceptive and coercive antiabortion counseling meaures.” In fact, the Obama administration does fund CPCs through its “National Fatherhood Initiative,” as Sarah Posner points out in a more recent article. Joyce’s “The Anti-Abortion Clinic Across the Street” details CPCs’ unethical practices and close ties with both sidewalk “counseling” (harassment) of abortion recipients and physical violence against abortion providers.

The Quiverfull movement, topic of Joyce’s book and many of her articles, offers a useful window into the Christian right as a whole. The term Quiverfull comes 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.” Quiverfull supporters are Christian rightists who reject not only abortion but any form of birth control (even the rhythm method) as contrary to God’s authority, and promote a strictly patriarchal family model in which wives submit to their husbands. The image of children as arrows in a quiver embodies the movement’s belief that raising a big, male-run family is an act of spiritual warfare, a counterattack against feminism and related evils. Joyce estimates that the Quiverfull movement numbers in the tens of thousands, yet the beliefs it lives by resonate much farther. In a March 2009 interview with Religion Dispatches, Joyce argues that Quiverfull “positions are becoming more mainstream, particularly through the growth of complementarianism or ‘biblical manhood and womanhood’ teachings in mainstream evangelical churches.”

Quiverfull doctrine tells women that the desire to control their own bodies is selfish, sinful, and a revolt against God’s will. Submit to God–and to men–and they will be cared for. Joyce documents the costs to women this bargain imposes, in loss of autonomy, unfulfilling relationships, financial hardship, loneliness, and psychological or physical abuse. In “Arrows for the War,” for example, she writes, “An anonymous mother had written in to the Quiverfull Digest full of despair, saying she felt she was ‘going to die.” Her husband was older and unhelpful around the house, and she feared he would die and leave her to raise their six children alone and destitute. She wanted someone on the forum to give her a reason–besides the Bible–why one should be Quiverfull. The answers were quick and pointed. Apart from Scripture, there’s no reason why one should be Quiverfull.”

At the same time, Joyce seeks to understand why some women choose Quiverfull. Again in “Arrows for the War,” she points, in particular, to the gap between the larger society’s pretensions of gender equality and the limited options available to many women:

“For many Quiverfull mothers, [the financial struggle to care for a large family] is still preferable to the alternatives they see society offering working-class women–alternatives they see as the fruit of secular feminism. For poor women, the feminist fight for job equality won them no career path but rather the right to pink-collar labor, as a housekeeper, a waitress, a clerk. The sexual revolution did not bring them self-exploration and fulfillment but rather loosened the social restraints that bound men to the household as husbands and fathers. Even for women who stayed in the home, the incidence of women in the workplace led employers to stop offering a ‘family wage’ that could sustain both parents and children.”

One of the reasons I think Quiverfull is important is that it combines two distinct forms of right-wing gender politics: on the one hand, the demand that women should submit to men within the family as daughters, wives, and mothers; on the other, the claim (sometimes called “natalism”) that women have a responsibility to have babies not just for their husbands, but for something bigger: the community, the nation, or, in this case, God. These two doctrines don’t always pull in the same direction. The Nazis, for example, sometimes encouraged unmarried German girls and women to get pregnant if it meant producing more Aryan babies for the fatherland. Less blatantly, claims that motherhood is a duty to the nation tend to centralize male power through the state or the church, which weakens the direct patriarchal authority of husbands and fathers. (What if he doesn’t want to have kids?)

Joyce follows Quiverfull’s natalist implications into the work of social scientists such as Allan Carlson and Phillip Longman, who argue for big families in secular policy terms, such as propping up the Social Security system. Carlson is a rightist and Longman a centrist at the New America Institute, but both say that patriarchal families a la the Quiverfull movement are vital to a healthy society. Carlson and Longman also join with Christian natalists at the World Congress of Families and the Population Research Institute in urging Europeans to embrace a Quiverfull-type family model. This campaign, Joyce writes, capitalizes on racist fears that Europe faces a “demographic winter” due to low birthrates (coupled with an influx of Muslim and non-White immigrants) as a way to spread the U.S. Christian right’s influence abroad. Several commentators, such as Posner, have noted the connection between demographic winter fearmongering and the ideology of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian Islamophobe who took responsibility for the July 22, 2011 mass killings.

Kathryn Joyce’s writings are rich in details about specific campaigns, conflicts, organizations, and people. She has not (so far) devoted the same attention to analyzing the Christian right as a movement in broader terms, or explored Christian patriarchy’s relationship with broader social dynamics. Yet her work embodies a larger commitment to feminist principles–opposing women’s subordination and documenting the complex realities of women’s lives–that is pivotal to such analysis.

Leave a Comment