Cheaper by the dozen

bigfamilyOf the topics that are both universally experienced and wildly controversial, procreation has to rank near the top. Kudos to Eileen Finan at Newsweek for a remarkably balanced piece about a landmine-prone issue. (And thanks to reader Jon Swerens for letting us know about the article.) In an online-only piece, she looks at a movement of Protestant Christians opposed to birth control of any kind:

It's hardly a typical scene from the suburbs. The Bortel home outside San Antonio, Tex., counts 12 members -- parents David and Suzanne and their 10 children, ranging from 13 months to 15 (the 20-year-old married and moved away) -- all crammed into a four-bedroom house that trembles constantly with activity. Everything revolves around the home: Dad works there, the kids are schooled there, the youngest three were born there. The family uses a 15-passenger van to get around, and at night, the kids climb into multiple sets of bunk beds.

David and Suzanne hear the same questions repeatedly. So for the record: No, they're not Catholic. Yes, they've heard of birth control. And no, they're not crazy. In fact, they'd happily welcome a twelfth child. "It's about obedience to God," says David, 38. "The Bible says that God is the only opener and closer of the womb."

The Bortels form part of the "quiverfull" movement, a small but growing conservative Protestant group that eschews all forms of birth control and believes that family planning is exclusively God's domain. The term derives from Psalm 127:

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, The fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, So are the children of one's youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.

Judging from the high rate of birth control use by American families and the declining size of the average American family, I have no doubt that the Bortels' statement would be met with impassioned replies. Still, it's so nice to read a story in which the reporter just permits the featured players to describe their theology in their own words.

Journalists seem to spend so much time covering how people control their family size but very little time covering whether people control the same. It's refreshing to see a story on what is certainly a small but significant movement.

Archery2Finan's story gives a comprehensive overview of the Quiverfull movement before showing how opposition to birth control is growing among some evangelicals:

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has become one of its most prominent advocates. "If a couple sees children as an imposition, as something to be vaccinated against, like an illness, that betrays a deeply erroneous understanding of marriage and children," says Mohler. "Children should be seen as good by default." His stance isn't as extreme as that of quiverfull followers; for instance, he condones the use of condoms for married couples in extreme circumstances, like illness.

Still, Mohler's views are considered "an oddity" in mainstream Baptist circles, according to Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Land admits, however, that Mohler has certainly expanded his following. "He is seen as the popularizer of a position that is still very marginal, but 15 years ago, it wouldn't have even been discussed," says Land, adding that he knows of at least two former students who had reverse vasectomies after hearing Mohler's arguments.

Movements usually are not limited to one bureaucratic group, which is why I'm surprised when reporters write a trend story around single groups. I appreciate how Finan broadens it to show how underlying principles or values are not neatly contained in organizational boundaries -- even in a piece ostensibly about a single group. I also appreciate how she shows debate within the Christian community. She also speaks to opponents of the movement.

I wonder if there's some reason I've seen an uptick in coverage of opponents of birth control. Kathryn Joyce, former managing editor of The Revealer, had a piece in this week's The Nation on the same. As she is writing for a liberal magazine, we may not be surprised that Joyce takes a much harder look at the movement, but it still includes some great reportage -- and meatier criticisms -- between uses of the word "fundamentalist" and allegations of racism.

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