Why It Matters That Farris Strawmanned Patriarchy

Last week Michael Farris published his white paper, A Line in the Sand. As I mentioned at the time, I appreciate his efforts to distance himself, and HSLDA, from the more extreme voices of the Christian homeschooling world. However, as I wrote immediately afterwards, Farris mischaracterized Doug Phillips’ views and those of Phillips’ organization, Vision Forum, throughout his piece. He wrote that “patriarchy teaches that women in general should be subject to men in general” and that “women are not to be the de facto slaves of men,” suggesting that this was what Phillips and his associates taught, when it was not.

Look, I’ve read the writings of Phillips and other proponents of patriarchy in the Christian homeschooling world, and no one says that women are to be men’s slaves, or that women in general should be subject to men in general. Now yes, we can look at its teachings—that wives must obey their husbands and that adult daughters are under their fathers’ authority until marriage, for instance—and argue that this amounts to slavery (though even then I would not say it amounts to women in general being subject to men in general). But one reason that patriarchy has attracted so many followers in these circles is that it is presented as being protective of women, good for women, fulfilling and safe for women.

Doug Phillips founded the Christian Boys’ and Men’s Titanic Society, and has frequently harkened back to the Titanic as a time when chivalry was still alive and the cry of “women and children first!” was still honored. As Phillips wrote before his organization’s 100th anniversary celebration of the sinking of the Titanic:

Every element of the Titanic 100 is designed to leave your family with stories they will retain for the rest of their lives, inspiring them to remember the heroism of the past and to embrace a fundamental principle of Christian civilization—that women and children are to be honored and protected.

Vision Forum’s Titanic anniversary celebration was well attended and included full costume and a Titanic play put on by the children, in addition to tea and a variety of remembrance ceremonies.

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Let me bring this back to Farris’s white paper. Farris’s portrayal of Phillips’ beliefs was in part a flat-out strawman and in part a description that, while sometimes true, would never be recognized or claimed by Phillips’ followers. By painting the picture he did, Farris gave Phillips’ followers ample room to to say “that’s not us” and carry on as before.

The problem, of course, is that Farris could not get at what Phillips actually believes, because he shares too much of it—the idea that wives must submit to and obey their husbands, for instance, and the idea that women’s role is in the home. Farris is as anti-feminist as Phillips. He, like Phillips, believed feminism has contributed to the “destruction” of the family, and that child protective services undermines the authority of the family, and so on. He can’t actually get at what Phillips believes because what he believes is too close to it. So instead he created a strawman version of Phillips’ beliefs and torched it.

This matters. It matters a lot. It matters because Phillips’ wife Beall could do this:

Beall

“Your representation of what Doug and I believe and what we have taught through Vision Forum was rife with gross error,” Beall says, and not incorrectly. “Your caricature of our views would be humorous if it were not so grossly offensive.”

It matters because it allowed Jennifer McBride, the homeschooling mother and author who runs the website Noble Womanhood, to write her own article, “A Line in the Sand and a Stab in the Back”:

We listened to almost every message VF [Vision Forum] ever produced and read almost every book or article they published on this topic and are extremely familiar with their stance. We agreed with VF’s stance personally. We are among the families that believe in Biblical patriarchy and we absolutely do not believe the things Mr. Farris has accused us of. We personally know many other families who also appreciated and agreed with Vision Forum’s teachings and they also in no way hold to, or practice patriarchy as defined by Mr. Farris.

. . .

It is one thing to address wrong teaching. That is necessary, well and good. It is quite another thing, however, to define what someone believes, accuse them of error and then attack them based on something that is a total fabrication, that they repeatedly deny and that can be proven as false from multiple public and easily obtained sources.

There is another reason it matters. It matters because it allowed Farris to argue, last spring, that Voddie Baucham is not part of the patriarchy movement he was beginning to condemn, even though Baucham has been and still is at the absolute center of that movement. Because Farris’ caricature of what he calls the “patriarchy movement” is that it does not allow its daughters to attend college, and because Baucham allowed his daughter to attend an online college called CollegePlus while living at home, Farris wrote Baucham out of the patriarchy movement, and was willing to speak alongside him at Virginia’s HEAV convention last June.

Of course, as I wrote at the time, the problem with this is that Doug Phillips and Vision Forum heavily promoted CollegePlus, which was in fact founded by homeschoolers for the purpose of enrolling homeschool graduates whose parents did not want to send them away to college. In other words, CollegePlus was arguably founded by and for the “patriarchy movement”—but this reality does not fit Farris’s caricature of that movement. Instead, for Farris, that Baucham’s daughter was getting a degree through CollegePlus meant he was not part of the patriarchy movement.

In the near future, we will continue to see people like Beall Phillips and Jennifer McBride being able to sway others by pointing out that Farris’s critique is a strawman and a caricature, and painting their own pretty picture of what patriarchy actually is. Now sure, they would likely try to wiggle out of Farris’s critique however worded, but Farris’s misrepresentation of what they teach has made their job easy. This is a problem because it will make them more effective at continuing their hold on other families.

Yes, Farris has distanced himself and HSLDA from Kevin Swanson. This is good, but it appears to be related to Swanson’s willingness to laugh at abuse and neglect in homeschooling circles, not Swanson’s embrace of patriarchy. It is also true that many more moderate Christian homeschooling families have interpreted Farris’s critique of patriarchy very broadly, and that his critique has alienated many supporters of patriarchy. These things are good, and I don’t want to minimize that.

But until Farris can be more honest in his critique of patriarchy, his efforts to combat it will be stymied by the fact that what he is combatting is a caricature rather than the actual thing. We will see Farris continue finding ways to defend and support some supporters of patriarchy (like Voddie Baucham) and being correctly and effectively accused of strawmanning by other supporters of patriarchy (like Jennifer McBride). But as I wrote earlier, the problem is that Farris can’t be more honest. He has to strawman Phillips’ positions, because Phillips’ positions were too close to his own for comfort. The difference between them is marginal, and appears to be centered solely on whether adult daughters remain under their father’s authority until marriage. In fact, I doubt there is even that much difference, or at least that there was in the past—it is my understanding that Patrick Henry College, the college Farris founded to raise up homeschooled young people for government and other culturally influential careers, originally required young men to get permission from a young woman’s parents before being allowed to date her.

I would say that it would help if Farris would come clean and admit that he used to believe the things Phillips taught, but I’m not sure he can, because I suspect he still believes most if not all of them. How can you call out patriarchy, really call it out, when you believe wives must submit to and obey their husbands, even when their husbands are wrong? You can’t. All you can do is create a strawman version of “patriarchy” and then burn it—which is exactly what Farris did.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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