Righting America

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Quivering Families, An Interview with Emily McGowin: Part II | Righting America

by Emily McGowin with William Trollinger

Emily Hunter McGowin has a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton and MDiv from Truett Seminary. Her work is at the intersection of religion, theology, and ethnography. Her book, Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family, will be published by Fortress Press in May 2018. Her work has also appeared in Ecclesial Practices and New Blackfriars. She serves as deacon and theologian-in-residence at Church of the Resurrection in Arvada, CO. You can learn more about Emily at her website

Read Part I of this interview.

Many evangelicals would claim that Quiverfull theology and practice is beyond the pale. They would insist that they aren’t really evangelicals and shouldn’t be taken seriously as such. What would you say to this?

I’ve actually had this conversation a number of times. A couple of years ago I presented some of my findings at a national conference. I received mostly positive feedback from those in attendance, but one evangelical scholar was visibly perturbed. As he explained his grievances to me and everyone else in the room, it became clear that this scholar did not have a problem with what I said, but what I didn’t say. He didn’t think I had been careful enough to distinguish the members of the Quiverfull movement from other evangelicals. He viewed Quiverfull proponents as completely beyond the evangelical pale. He didn’t say it this way, but the crux of his consternation was that I had made them look too much like us.

He certainly did understand what I was arguing! I don’t carefully distinguish between Quiverfull practitioners and evangelicals in general because I’m not convinced there is a significant difference between them. In terms of daily practice, there’s no doubt that a Quiverfull family looks and behaves differently than most of their evangelical neighbors. For many, this distinction is intentional. But, there’s no getting around the fact that Quiverfull families are evangelical in whatever way you construe that term: theologically, historically, politically, and culturally. In fact, when you view the Quiverfull movement in the context of evangelical history in America, the similarities vastly outweigh the differences. My evangelical colleague saw in Quiverfull a bizarre aberration from the norm while I see a movement that is thoroughly evangelical and thoroughly American.   

That leads right into the newly revived debate about the term evangelical. How do you define evangelical and evangelicalism?

This question was fraught long before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but the victory of Donald Trump with the overwhelming majority of the evangelical vote really compounded the issue. The historian in me wants to wait till the dust settles a bit more before attempting an answer.

I know many people who still use evangelical mostly as a theological term for a defined stream or wing of the Christian tradition. They draw on David Bebbington’s quadrilateral as a starting point so that evangelical is taken to mean people characterized by conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism. My concern with this approach, though, is that the focus is mainly on beliefs, which are private, personal, and very broadly conceived. Also, it is a definition detached from the concrete stuff of daily life, such as habits, communal practices, discourse, and cultural institutions.

Molly Worthen gets closer, I think, by imagining that evangelicalism coalesces around the crisis of authority manifested in several unresolved questions, like how to know Jesus and how to act publicly on faith. (I might add the unresolved question of gender, which has always been a focal point of evangelical culture.) This approach makes the concept of evangelical/evangelicalism a little more three-dimensional. Evangelical then refers not to people who all think the same way but people who are consistently engaged with the same questions. Unity consists, therefore, not in uniform agreement but ongoing debate around key focal concerns.

With all this in mind, I tend to see evangelicalism as a social and cultural phenomenon. So, evangelicals are participants in a subculture created and sustained through the interactions of churches, societies, publishing houses, TV and radio networks, music production companies, books and periodicals, blogs and websites, local co-operatives and non-profits, practices and rituals, and more. Not all participants in this evangelical subculture agree on the questions of gender, authority, or how to know and follow Christ, but all of them are engaged in the ongoing dialogue and debate.

In the book’s conclusion, you suggest that the problem with Quiverfull is not that they are too radical but that they are not radical enough. Can you say more about this?

Because the Quiverfull vision and practice of the family is an intensification of longstanding American evangelical tendencies, it is not, in fact, as counter-cultural as they intend. I do not think it constitutes a compelling Christian witness to an alternative way of life and I do not believe it can transform society in the long term. What is needed, in my view, is something more radical than Quiverfull, not less. Where there is privatization, families need connectedness to local churches and local communities. Where there is individualism, families need tangible obligations and contributions to the common good. Where there is isolation, families need healthy institutions and networks of support. All of this is stated in broad-strokes, I realize, but that’s the direction I’m thinking. Some Catholic theologians have already begun writing about this in compelling ways, including Julie Hanlon Rubio and David Matzko McCarthy. I think there remains work to do among Protestants, especially evangelical Protestants.

Could you say a little about what you’re working on now?

I have a few projects in the works right now. I want to do a follow up to this book that considers the adult children of Quiverfull families and their religious practice today. Do Quiverfull families, with their intense focus on childrearing, succeed in producing adults with a vibrant Christian identity and practice? I suspect that they are not any more successful than other evangelical families, but more research is needed to explore that. Also, as I hinted at above, I think more theological reflection is needed on the Christian practice of family in America today. The “traditional” nuclear family has proved to be quite unstable and, due to a variety of social, economic, and political factors, the form of the family in America is changing rapidly. What does Christian theology have to say about the family in the face of such shifts and transformations? I have a long-term project planned to explore that question in a more constructive way. Finally, I’m also working on a memoir that will tell some of my spiritual and theological journey as a Christian convert, student, minister, scholar, and mother.