That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up — the harsh tide of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend.
Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity?
Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the (servants) of your sex; regard us then as being placed by Providence under your protection, and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness.
Abigail Adams to her husband, John Adams, 31 March 1776
So I’m a survivor who’s just now learning to make herself the subject of the sentence. A former ideological “battered wife” from a patriarchal Southern civil religion. A mom — the embodiment of all that is soft and nurturing and powerful and earthy and frightening. A writer-of-that-body who makes the myth-maker shake in his cuff links. A woman who’s taking an honest look at the facts.
The economic prospects for a mom in America aren’t great. But do you know where some researchers conclude she’s got a better chance of a loving life partner? You’ll never guess. . . .
Studies of Christian women who actively embraced this ideal suggest that the ‘submission’ required of them was a minor concession for a divinely sanctioned domestication of their husbands. During its heyday in the early 1990s, the evangelical men’s organization Promise Keepers struck a bargain that may well have been the best offer for many women. By submitting, they were rewarded with ‘husbands and fathers who forswear drinking, drugs, smoking, and gambling, who lovingly support their families by steady work, and who even choose to go shopping with them as a form of Christian service.’
This was particularly attractive accord since ‘submission’ in practice boiled down to little more than a rhetorical gesture at the husband’s final say in major decisions. When asked how it played out in marriage, few conservative Christians seemed able to recall an example where husbands actually pulled rank in decision-making. Instead, the couples coded expressiveness — emotional labor — and family responsibilities — reproductive labor — as ‘leadership’ to make them newly palatable to men (113).
Abigail Adams said as much.
It’s sometimes called “soft patriarchy.” And it’s not just the ideology that offers a more mutual environment for mothers. It’s the devotion to the ideology. The men that attend such churches most regularly are the most attentive, the most appreciative, the most domesticated.
Through servant leadership, evangelical men made a measurable contribution to the ‘economy of gratitude.’ In this schema, the best predictor of domestic harmony was not an equal division of labor — that option has virtually never been on the table in American families — but rather husbands’ consistent expression of gratititude for the gift of domestic labor women made to them. Unlike their supposedly egalitarian male counterparts, conservative Christian men had at hand an ideology that allowed them to praise and acknowledge women’s work at home without thereby running the risk of being required to share it equally. In contrast, nonreligious men who paid lip service to formal sex-neutral rights had no alibi for their demonstrated failure to split the labor at home, and may have found it safer to ignore the work altogether. Between the two, many wives preferred the former — especially since they seemed to have little hope of achieving actual parity (115).
But if these “soft patriarchs” attend church sporadically, they are more likely to be abusive. In other words, if they are unlikely to submit themselves to a religious community, they are unlikely to (mutually) submit to their familial obligations.
That’s at least what the sociologists conclude from the statistics. Mind you, I’m not saying there’s not room for improvement or that this is perfection. But these are the facts.
Evangelical scholars offer a few more caveats. Soft patriarchy might domesticate muscular Christianity, but hard patriarchy is dangerous for women and children. And the lines between the two are too easily muddled.
Nearly all evangelical and fundamentalist leaders preach a hard patriarchy, but the nitty-gritty of daily life has permeated the evangelical culture and softened that hard edge. In other words, the evangelical marriage advice is often simply out of touch. But when fundamentalists emphasize separation and tout a life hermetically sealed from the culture at large, their patriarchy hardens and calcifies.
The scholars describe three family structures: 1) the wife/mother is on the same level with the children and the father is above all of them (hard patriarchy).
2) The children are below the wife/mother and the father is above her (soft patriarchy).
3) The woman is on an equal plane with her husband over the children (egalitarian).
The last option, researchers conclude, is the best because abuse is the least likely, and the second one is tolerable if the father does have regular external oversight.
But the first one is disastrous. It creates the greatest risk for incest since the wife/mother and the child are equals, so that either can be defined as a sexual “being” to the entitled patriarch.
The perpetrator of incest has been described as a man ‘who is devout, materialistic, and fundamentalist in his religious beliefs, coming from a background in which morality was preached in public and breached in private. In a large research study done on incarcerated sex offenders, more than half of all incest offenders were found to be devout in their religious practice (83).
In other words, while soft patriarchy might domesticate Evangelical men, hard patriarchy does nothing of the sort. Religion fixes nothing when there are no consequences for criminal behavior and when the woman and the children are not autonomous Image-Bearers.
And this isn’t just a theory. This is all too frequent and prevalent. And it’s happening right now.