Saturday, January 28, 2017

Susan B. Ridgely's "Practicing What the Doctor Preached"

Susan B. Ridgely is Associate Professor of American Religions at University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her work focuses on demonstrating the importance of age as a category of analysis in religious studies, by highlighting how children shape their religious communities as well as how the interplay of generations serves as a primary means of innovation. She is the author of When I was a Child: Children's Interpretations of First Communion (2005) and editor of Children and Religion: A Methods Handbook (2011).

Ridgely applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Practicing What the Doctor Preached: At Home with Focus on the Family, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Without a strong male role model, Focus asserted that girls, too, would be at risk for failing to embrace their femininity and having low-self esteem ... Girls without guidance risked turning to pre-marital sex, depression, and anger out of self-hatred, Dobson warned in Bringing up Girls (2010) ... Without a strong and supportive father at her side, a young girl, Dobson argued, either will not learn how to, or not desire to, embrace her modesty, which might lead ... sinful behavior that hurts both that young girl and the boys with whom she associates.
Page 99 of my book is near the conclusion of a section on the history of gendered child-rearing in conservative Christianity. The emphasis on sexuality here serves to highlight one of the main threads of the book: childrearing is a political act. On this page, I continue to explore the way conservative Christians embody the biblical template for families found in Ephesians. These quotes emphasize two of the central reasons many of my interviewees began listening to James Dobson and using his conservative Christian childrearing material from Focus on the Family--his attention to fathers and his blending of secular psychology with what they understand to be biblical principles. From the beginning of the organization in 1977, Focus has insisted that wives let their husbands know that fathers could find their value in the treasures of their family as well as in the treasures of their paychecks. To that end, Focus sought to give men practical advice about investing in their families. For example, Dobson suggested that fathers help their “daughters feel confident and comfortable in their girlhood by modeling for them what true love looked like: put ‘sweet little notes under her pillow,’ bring her flowers, and build her confidence [the term Dobson preferred to the more liberal-leaning ‘self-esteem’] by reminding her that she is pretty, mimicking what a husband should do for his wife” (99). The wives I interviewed often felt that structuring their families according to Focus provided their husbands with a meaningful and godly role, a role that their husbands could not abandon. Accordingly, a biblical family meant a secure family.

Simultaneously, however, this theology presented girls and women with seemingly paradoxical instructions: be submissive to male authority, yet be strong enough to turn male attention away from temptation and toward God. As in the earlier quote, girls are repeatedly told they must play their part as modest, submissive, feminine beings so that boys resist sin and fathers can define their future relationships by acting as proxies for their husbands. As models for marriage, male-female relationships at all ages and in all incarnations become sexualized, increasing the anxiety and fear that surround them. What other Americans might see as simple child’s play--cartoons, playground games, picture books--becomes a battleground for inculcating proper (which to Focus means heterosexual) male and female sexuality. Thus, Focus insists that parents consistently model godly-gender roles while they join school boards, attend PTO meetings, and write letters to Congress to ensure that all their children’s relationships, both public and private, encourage them (and all children) to embrace divinely-ordained gender roles. Although, as I show in the book, families have reinterpreted these roles to some extent, parents still hope that teaching their sons and daughters to base their decision-making on God’s desires for them rather than their own wishes for themselves will ensure that they have secure families of their own and eventually achieve salvation.
Learn more about Practicing What the Doctor Preached at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue