Spring 2009, Vol. 12, No. 1

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Our Excellent ARIS Adventure

The Madoff Disgrace

Keeping the Faith-Based

Dolan Does Gotham

No Friends on the Right

A Buddhist Bishop in the UP

Breaking Up Is Hard to Adjudicate

Praise God and Pass the Diapers

Haggard Agonistes


New books

Praise God and Pass the Diapers
by Christine McCarthy McMorris

On Memorial Day, the show that held the most (9.8 million) Americans captive in front of their flat-screen (or otherwise) televisions was The Learning Channel’s Jon & Kate Plus 8. For fans of this reality show about the Gosselins, a Pennsylvania family trying to cope with twins and a set of sextuplets, it was the premiere of a new season fraught with mutual accusations of adultery. For those who had not yet dipped their toes into this guilty pop-culture pleasure, it was an introduction to the proliferation of reality shows featuring the daily lives of supersized families who disproportionally turn out to be evangelical Christians.   

In spite of this sudden boomlet of really big Christian families on TV—where out-and-proud evangelicals used to be as rare as naturally conceived octuplets—viewers don’t get to learn much about the families’ faith. In fact, in two of TLC’s best-rated shows, Kate and Jon Gosselins’ Pentecostal beliefs, and the Duggars’ (of 18 Kids and Counting) connection to the controversial Quiverfull fertility movement, are left on the cutting room floor. It is clear that while reality TV producers are happy to reap the benefits of making celebrities of big Christian families, they avoid the actual religious underpinnings that inspire these parents to reproduce on the grand scale.

The fascination with large TV families has increased as family size in the U.S. has declined. From the 1950s through the mid-’60s, the U.S. household size of two to three children was reflected in the “ideal” families seen in Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, My Three Sons, Father Knows Best. But as families sunk to a below-replacement-level low of 1.7 in the 1970s and ’80s, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, and Full House fed a new audience’s curiosity with a multiplicity of offspring on the small screen.

Today, family size has inched back up to 2.13 (the highest in the industrial West). But as Kate Zerinke wrote in the New York Times February 6, for women aged 40-44, only “four percent had five or more and just 0.5 percent had seven or more.” Explaining the attraction, Zerinke writes: “[A]s parents helicopter over broods tinier yet more precious, a vanload of children has taken on more of a freak show factor.”

Enter the much-maligned profit generator of reality television. Getting its start in the U.S. with MTV’s The Real World (not un-coincidentally during the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike), reality TV exploded in popularity in the early 2000s. According to Nielsen Media Research, in seven out of the last 10 years, reality programs (Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?, Survivor: The Australian Outback, and American Idol) have been the most-watched shows in the U.S.

Add to the mix the proliferation of cable stations looking for (cheap) content to fill airtime.

In 2006, The Learning Channel (TLC) found its niche with Little People, Big World, the first of a series of fly-on-the-wall family reality shows that followed the Roloff family on their Oregon pumpkin farm. (Both Roloff parents and one of their four children had a form of dwarfism—ergo, little people.)

In 2007, a mini-series Kids by the Dozens peeked in on three families, all with 12 or more children. The same year also brought the premiere of Jon & Kate Plus 8 on Discovery Health, which moved to sister company TLC the following year, becoming its top rated show. Next, Arkansas’ Duggar family debuted in 17 Kids and Counting. (Number 18 soon arrived.)

The mini-series Six for the Road followed the Loud family as they home-schooled their four children while crossing all 50 states in an RV. In March 2009, Table for 12 unveiled the Hayes’ boisterous New Jersey brood of two sets of twins and a set of sextuplets.

Of these eight families who opened their homes to TLC cameras, six are conservative evangelical (four specifically identifying with the Quiverfull movement), one is Catholic, and one Mormon. Most instantly became celebrities in the conservative religious world, where they go on lucrative speaking tours, sell books, and appear on Christian talk shows. Yet this celebrity status is just one more aspect of the families’ religious identity never mentioned on shows purporting to show us the reality of their daily lives.

In particular, TLC has shied away from any discussion of the Quiverfull movement. Eileen Finan’s November 13, 2006 article in Newsweek was one of the first to record the rise of Quiverfull as “a small but growing conservative Protestant group that eschews all forms of birth control and believes that family planning is exclusively God’s domain.”

Thought to have members in the U.S. and Canada in the tens of thousands, Quiverfull draws its inspiration from the 1985 publication of Mary Pride’s book The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality, and takes its name 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.”

In the same article, John Green of the University of Akron and the Pew Forum teased out the denominational irony: “What Quiverfull looks like is a group of Protestants who are more Catholic than the Catholics.” Once upon a time, the stereotypical large family was (Irish/Italian/Polish/Hispanic) Catholic, with the majority of Protestants seen as friendly to contraception. Today, the Catholic Church recommends natural family planning as a part of the “responsible parenting” described in Paul VI’s 1968 Encyclical Letter Humane Vitae to limit the number of children due to “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions.”

That’s a big no-no for the Quiverfull folk, according to Kathryn Joyce, author of Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement (2009). Quoted in a March 17 Newsweek article, Joyce writes that for QF Christians, “even natural family planning is an attempt to control a realm—fertility—that should be entrusted to divine providence.”

Joyce also describes a regime of submissiveness for women that tells mothers to stay at home, wear modest clothing, and home-school their children. (She mentions that the first media storm over Quiverfull involved Andrea Yates, the Houston woman encouraged by her QF pastor to have more children until post-partum psychosis led her to drown her five children in 2001.)

Nancy Campbell, author of Be Fruitful and Multiply (2003), explained why some QF-ers want more children in a National Public Radio interview March 29. Calling the womb “such a powerful weapon,” she said: “We look across the Islamic world and we see that they are outnumbering us in their family size, and they are in many places and many countries taking over those nations, without a jihad, just by multiplication.”

Looking a little closer to home for their rewards, Rick and Jan Hess, authors of A Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ (1990), claimed that if more Christians began producing “full quivers,” they might again “control of both houses of Congress and reclaim sinful cities like San Francisco.”

It is impossible to know if Quiverfull icons Jim Bob Duggar, a former Arkansas legislator, and his wife Michelle—the patient parents of 18 children, all of whom have names beginning with the letter J—subscribe to all of the movement’s philosophy. TLC allows that the Duggars are conservative Baptists, who shun not only premarital sex but also premarital kissing. The show’s 22 (and counting) episodes focus mostly, however, on the logistics of everyday life of big families (see “Cheaper by the Duggars,” “The Duggars Learn to Drive,” and “Duggars Do New York”).

There is not a wisp of a mention of the Quiverfull movement on TLC 's 18 and Counting website where you are treated to recipes, cute pictures, and their number one parenting tip: “True success comes as you love God and treat others as you would like to be treated.” It’s a rather different world on the Duggars’ own website, whose main page is filled with Quiverfull-friendly Biblical quotations as well as links to the websites of Creation Science Evangelism, the American Family Foundation, and Phyllis Schlaffly’s Eagle Forum.

The number one parenting tip on this website is a bit more specific: “Teach our children to love God with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength, and memorize God’s word together as a family.” As Kathryn Joyce wrote in her Newsweek article, “A glimpse of this reality is sometimes visible beneath TV’s glossy treatment of Quiverfull families, but more often it’s difficult to see the hard edges of ideology underlying yet another large family adventure.”

The Gosselins of Jon & Kate Plus 8 like the Roloffs of Little People, Big World (who eschew homeschooling for attendance at the Faith Bible Christian School in Aloha, Oregon)—are more mainstream evangelicals. Kate Gosselin grew up in a non-denominational church while Jon was raised Catholic, but they now attend an Assemblies of God church in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Kate is a fixture on the Christian speaking circuit, promoting her books :  and the Scripture-heavy children’s book, Eight Little Faces. She speaks openly about her religion, from discussing her faith in a February 18 interview (“God is in control, and it was just about us waiting and learning to trust Him.”) to discussing her favorite Bible verse (Proverbs 3:5-6) on The 700 Club May 11.

In an October 2008 interview posted on the Religion News Service website, Kate Gosselin openly answered questions by journalist Ashley McGlone about her children’s spiritual education:

                  Q: What do you do to talk to your kids about faith or God?

                 A: Jesus, God, he’s in everything. The kids will say “Who made that?”
                 and I’ll say  “Jesus made it.”

 Having a big family was also a question of faith for the Gosselins, who are currently existing in tabloid hell for their impending trip to divorce court and its effect on the children (“Mom to Monster” according to the cover of the May 20 US Weekly). Unlike the QF-ers, they felt free to seek out fertility treatment after Kate was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome.

On April 17, Kate told religion editor Cary McMullen of the Lakeland (Fl.) Ledger that when an ultrasound showed six fetuses, her doctor recommended selective reduction to improve the chances of the remaining babies. As a “Bible-believing Christian,” Kate said, she refused.

But on TLC’s reality show featuring a website that asks viewers to “Put your Gosselin knowledge to the test and see how high you score!” any mention of Jesus or the Gosselins’ Pentecostal Christianity is kept under the radar. “Truthfully, I wish they’d cover more of our faith,” Kate complained to Camerin Courtney in the January/February issue of Today’s Christian Woman. “But it’s their decision to edit the episodes as they see fit.”

And from the Duggars to the Roloffs to the Louds to the Gosselins, editing is not only a tool of narration, but also one of omission. Audiences are drawn in by dizzying scenes of countless diaper changes and endless cups of juice poured (and inevitably spilled), but they learn next to nothing about what inspired such “multiple blessings.” Big Christian families may be 2009’s hot broadcasting trend, but the actual beliefs and practices of their faith are way too real for reality TV.


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