Godly Heritage and Plantation Chic: The Case of Vision Forum

Detail from a page of the Vision Forum 2014 catalogA recent news story has me thinking about the weird enduring appeal of the Lost Cause. It seems to me that this news story about a contemporary religious organization might lead us into an interesting case study. Why, at this late date, do so many Americans still want to see the antebellum South as a tragically vanished world of nobility and grace?

Most early Americanists are familiar with David Barton, a conservative activist who argues that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. He’s been mentioned here several times as the most visible proponent of a view that’s common among members of the “Religious Right.”[1] What’s less widely understood is how often his Christian-founding ideology overlaps with a claim advanced by a few other evangelical conservatives: that the Confederacy—and antebellum southern culture, if not slavery itself—are also part of “America’s Godly heritage.”[2] In these circles, in other words, the Founding is sometimes wrapped up with the Old South.

Consider a Texas pastor named Doug Phillips. Three weeks ago, Phillips, the president of an organization called Vision Forum Ministries, publicly admitted having an inappropriate extramarital relationship and resigned. Shortly afterward, the Vision Forum board of directors decided to shut down the San-Antonio-based organization.[*] Vision Forum and Doug Phillips are not well-known outside of evangelical homeschooling circles. But as religion scholar Julie Ingersoll wrote at the Huffington Post and Abby Olheiser noted at The [Atlantic] Wire, they have enjoyed significant influence within a controversial subculture of that movement. They are leaders of the “Quiverfull” movement, which encourages Christians to have large families as a way of exercising influence in the world, and are champions of “biblical patriarchy,” or in other words, the principle that family life (and ultimately society at large) should be organized under the divinely instituted authority of fathers and husbands. According to a statement prepared by Vision Forum, “the erosion of biblical manhood and leadership,” caused by modern ideologies that undermine God’s authority, “leads to the perversion of the role of women, the destruction of our children, and the collapse of our society.”

At Vision Forum, this view stems from a particular interpretation of Calvinist covenant theology that holds that God deals with the world at large through his relationships with Christian family units. Hence, apparently, the closing of Vision Forum, which could not easily survive such a violation of family integrity by its patriarch. To be clear, Vision Forum’s view originates in an identifiable theological tradition to which most members of the “Religious Right” do not belong. And it leads to some conclusions that most of them probably find repellent.

What sorts of conclusions? First, there are the obvious ones. Vision Forum advocates very well-defined gender roles. Through its merchandise arm, it distributes (or at least has distributed) books like an updated version of William Gouge’s Of Domesticall Duties, a 1622 treatise on family life. (A sample of the original wording: “Mildness in a wife hath respect also to the ordering of her countenance, gesture, and whole carriage before her husband, whereby she manifesteth a pleasingness to him, and a contentedness and willingness to be under him and ruled by him.”) The online store sells a two-DVD set called “Tea and Hospitality with Michelle Duggar,” inviting viewers to “celebrate the fruit of the womb with [mother-of-nineteen] Michelle!” Vision Forum also sells studiously gender-specific toys like an “all-American boy’s crossbow” and a “Princess Virginia” dress meant to encourage a girl as she “identifies with Mommy and experiences how unique and wonderful it is to be a girl, to be a daughter of the Most High King—to be His little princess!” Vision Forum’s entire merchandise catalog seems to be designed to encourage as much differentiation as possible between boy leaders and girl followers. Interestingly, there is a pronounced national dimension to gender in this catalog: these are clearly American boys and girls.

Vision Forum outdoor adventureFor the most part, debates over “biblical patriarchy,” both within evangelicalism and among outsiders, have focused on the obvious male authoritarianism on display in Vision Forum and similar ministries. Evangelical bloggers and journalists, especially those who identify as Reformed (i.e., Calvinist), have  clashed over the question of whether this perspective degrades women.[3] But they often overlook the nationalism lurking in the background of this form of covenant theology, with its implication that an authoritarian biblical family structure will regenerate God’s covenant with America. Yet militant identification with the United States—and especially with its early history—is evident everywhere in Vision Forum’s catalog, especially in its merchandise for boys.

Even more important, however, is that Vision Forum promotes a vision not just of male leadership in the family and the nation, but more specifically a vision rooted in an ideology of white male mastery. Vision Forum is not a racist organization; it does not directly or consciously advocate white supremacy. But it does deliberately promote nostalgia for the Old South.

One of Doug Phillips’s first books, published in 2003, was a short edited collection of writings by Robert Lewis Dabney, a Southern Presbyterian theologian. (Its subtitle is The Prophet Speaks.) Dabney, though an opponent of secession, was no casual defender of southern slavery; he served in the Confederate army as a chaplain and as an aide to Stonewall Jackson, and after the war he published A Defence of Virginia, and through Her, of the South. This book defended human slavery, endorsing, for example, the notion that God instituted it through the “curse upon Canaan” after Noah’s flood. Dabney also published a Life of General Jackson and a pamphlet denouncing racial integration in Presbyterian churches.

None of this means that Doug Phillips endorses white supremacy. In his collection, instead, Phillips printed excerpts of Dabney’s later diatribes against public education and feminism. Yet Phillips was clearly enamored of Dabney as a person and as a cultural figure. “Perhaps no Christian leader of the nineteenth century,” Phillips wrote in his introduction, “filled the role of prophet with greater proficiency.” He even wrote that “for those individuals who long for the days in which a gentleman could hold the door for a lady without some indignant feminist snorting at him, Dabney’s writings will seem refreshingly virile.” As for Dabney’s positions on slavery … Phillips just coyly asked his readers to consider “the context of the War itself.”[4]

Indeed, the depth of Phillips’s admiration for Dabney and for Stonewall Jackson is evident in several of the items for sale by Vision Forum. They include a reprint of Dabney’s biography of Jackson, a collection of Jackson’s letters, and even a doll meant to remind girls of Stonewall Jackson’s “godly wife.”

Vision Forum doll collectionWith this doll, Vision Forum strays deep into Plantation Chic: “Stately homes, horse-drawn carriages, and beautiful dresses were special delights for Southern young ladies …. Now you can attire your doll in the feminine and delightfully flouncy styles of the mid-1800s!” And the Vision Forum “Beautiful Girlhood” doll collection is downright astonishing in its historical tone-deafness. It features four dolls—two black, two white. Two dolls are named Liberty and Jubilee. They’re both white. One of the black dolls is simply named Abigail. The other black doll? Her name is Fidelia, helpfully translated as “Faithful One.”[5]

Meanwhile, Vision Forum sells various books and audio albums that discuss the Civil War directly as a matter of history. Although the online descriptions are vague, these materials have the usual earmarks of soft Lost Cause history. They sometimes refer to the war as “the War between the States,” they fixate on southern “Christian warriors” like (of course) Jackson and Robert E. Lee, and they seem to imply that slavery’s role in the conflict is not what you’ve been told. (One blurb in the print catalog warns that “most of what we ‘know’ about it is actually revisionist history.”)

Ultimately, this shouldn’t be surprising, given Vision Forum’s close resemblance to a better-known ministry, that of Idaho pastor Douglas Wilson. Wilson, an unbelievably prolific writer, may be the best-known advocate today of a Reformed vision for patriarchal family life and gender roles. He’s also notorious as the coauthor of Southern Slavery: As It Was and author of Black & Tan (PDF), which condemn racism but deny that slavery is intrinsically evil.[6] In Black & Tan, Wilson, too, cites Robert Lewis Dabney as a “virtually prophetic” man. He acknowledges and condemns Dabney’s racism, but apparently has almost nothing to say about Dabney’s views on slavery as an institution.[7]

So here we have a contemporary case study in the Lost Cause. What can we learn from it? What can this tell us about the reasons so many Americans imbibe a toxic nostalgia for the prewar South, its culture, and its (supposed) views about government?

To me, it seems fairly clear that racism isn’t the place to start. Don’t get me wrong—I’m perfectly happy to question a slavery apologist’s claim that he isn’t a racist slavery apologist. And it’s obvious that Lost-Cause, Neo-Confederate, and other ideologies of attachment to the antebellum South often do result from either conscious or unconscious racism. Even so, in this case, I don’t think it’s helpful to identify racism as the main source of the trouble. There’s little direct evidence of conscious racism, and quite a bit of evidence that the people involved don’t want to be racists. If nothing else, blaming racism is the least interesting thing we could say about what’s going on.

What does seem useful to say, however, is that Vision Forum’s evident nostalgia for a slaveowning society is directly related to a general desire to rebuild an authoritarian social structure. The right to own slaves may not be the point, but the unquestioned authority of the male householder (exercised in a clear chain of command involving all other members of the family as subordinates) certainly is. No amount of talk about “complementary” roles for men and women can conceal what Vision Forum is actually eager to announce: that its key concern is patriarchy—a system of governance, not just a distribution of social responsibilities. From that perspective, the Old South represents a convenient image of white manhood and womanhood, and its fate serves as perhaps a hint of why authoritarian manhood seems endangered today.

In addition, from that perspective, the failure of the South may be a convenient explanation for the supposed decline of Christian civilization in a providentially founded Christian nation. The Civil War can serve as the moment when God chastised his people in America, just as he did the ancient Hebrews, for straying from their appointed course. It also seems to represent what can happen when a society fails to cohere—when its authority structures, and thus its values, fail.

It’s easy to dismiss this as simple anxiety about modern life. But the impulse to give the war meaning this way may not be so very different from our tendency to see it as the moment when the nation suddenly started to cohere, when America finally started to realize values that were somehow embedded in the Founding. One is a narrative of decline and the other a narrative of progress, but both stories are based in a desire to see the Founding as an eternal moment with a cosmic purpose that we can make manifest today.

Whether any of this is really helpful for countering the Lost Cause in debate, I’m not sure. But surely it can’t hurt for us to be aware of the range of motives, in addition to simple racism, sectional resentment, or misdirected aesthetics, that may encourage nostalgia for the plantation. The Lost Cause myth, like all good myths, speaks to deep personal anxieties and desires. It’s up to good and sympathetic historians to do the same.

____________________

[*] Update/Clarification: As Julie Ingersoll points out, Phillips is known to have resigned only from the nonprofit wing of his operation, Vision Forum Ministries, and not the business wing, The Vision Forum, Inc., which apparently will remain in operation. These organizations are legally distinct entities, but they share a telephone number and mailing address, so I have treated them as one organization for the purpose of this post.

[1] I put the term Religious Right in scare quotes partly because the term has never been widely accepted by the people to whom it purportedly refers. Although I believe that the Religious Right does exist as a well-defined cultural movement, the term tends to blur crucial distinctions in thought, practice, and political goals. A lot of contemporary journalism treats the movement as more ideologically monolithic than it really is. Indeed, David Barton has come under strong and sustained criticism in, e.g., World Magazine, a leading evangelical conservative newsweekly. 

[2] The term “America’s Godly heritage” is widely used, but it is also the title of an educational video Barton has been distributing since at least 1992. (It’s worth pointing out that Barton has held a position of influence in the evangelical homeschooling movement since long before he came to wider public attention as an associate of Glenn Beck.) The word “heritage,” I think, is key to this mindset: it implies that American history is a record of contemporary Americans’ rightful inheritance (of values, institutions, and texts) and thus encourages nostalgic identification with the past in a way that certain related ideas, like constitutional originalism, may not.

[3] In general, this is part of a larger debate over “egalitarian” and “complementarian” views of gender in the church, the former stressing that men and women are created equal, the latter that they are created with different roles to play in church and family life. This debate is not limited to Reformed churches, but it currently seems to rage hottest there.

[4] See the introduction, especially pages 8-10.

[5] The racial implications do not seem to be intentional. Vision Forum seems to want to be genuinely inclusive. Fidelia, we are told, “can brave the voyage to New England as Priscilla Mullins, help Lewis and Clark find the Northwest Passage as Sacagawea, serve tea at the White House as Dolley Madison, and stroll the deck of the Titanic as Nan Harper.”

[6] “The issue is whether a Christian man could have lawfully owned a slave in 1850 America without being necessarily guilty of a moral outrage. Was slave ownership malum in se, an evil in itself? The answer to that question, for anyone who believes the Bible, is that it was possible for a godly man to own slaves, provided he treated them exactly as the Scripture required. In a sinful world, slave ownership generally is sinful, and it is a system that invites abuse. Over time the gospel will overthrow all forms of slavery. But again, the kingdom arrives like yeast working through the loaf, and not like a coup de main. In the meantime, to have the likes of the abolitionist Charles G. Finney (who said that it is impossible to be on the right side of God and the wrong side of the slavery issue) hurling his taunts at Abraham and Philemon is a bit thick.” Douglas Wilson, Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2005), 69.

[7] Ibid., 79-94.

9 comments on “Godly Heritage and Plantation Chic: The Case of Vision Forum

  1. Cory Young says:

    Very well-composed. Your culminating paragraph about a contemporary, Southern desire to “rebuild an authoritarian social structure” is both arresting and persuasive.

    Do you think that the cries of “racist!” (that I am certain follow advocates of this ideology) either prevent or overshadow popular deliberations on this more compelling explanation?

    • Thanks, Cory. Yes, I think that’s often the case. I think it’s entirely fair to point out that any defense or extenuation of slavery has racist implications as soon as you apply it to American history. But that’s not necessarily the same thing as accusing someone of racism.

      Using the R-word, in my experience, usually shuts down any productive conversation immediately, not only because the term is so pejorative but also because people like this genuinely don’t recognize racism in themselves. We do need to point out that slavery is inextricable from racism in the context of American history, and especially the history of the South. The association between slavery and racism isn’t accidental or contingent, as some people would have us believe; we wouldn’t even have the same concept of race if it weren’t for African slavery. But it’s also important to recognize what people are actually saying and consciously thinking if we want to be effective at all. And yes, I think charging racism often results in intellectual laziness on the part of us critics and keeps us from seeing the other (often very deeply problematic) things going on, even when racism is an apt charge.

    • I wholeheartedly agree. The Lost Cause so many mourn was the cause of hierarchical, class-based society, supplanted (by force) by egalitarian, democratic republican society. Those of us who were born after 1865 can be glad the North won the war, while regretting that the North hadn’t already won the debate, or more to the point, that the South never actually agreed they’d lost the debate.

  2. Christopher Graham says:

    This post is fantastic. The deprioritizing of the charge and motive of racism without denying the severely racist implications of this ethic is really very useful.

    I wonder to what degree the attraction to the Old South isn’t partly explained by the “clones in funny clothes” configuration, i.e. that these historical actors are just like us and therefore vindicate us. The Old South is the likely example for the VF types because of the genealogical familiarity of the people and the stories, so they elaborate on this. But I wonder if these folks could find any old, dying, patriarchal culture in this country and fit the story onto it… because it’s the trope of declension that matters.

    Speaking of providential history tropes, I have noticed a very recent trend among many evangelicals who see heresy and declension in American history: that the slaveholders are the heretics drawing America away from its godly heritage while the abolitionists–because they were largely evangelicals–were the prophets recalling the United States to its godly course.

    I think this is political opportunism, but fits well with your thinking about race as a motivation: these folks are genuine in wanting to demonstrate that they are not racists, at least in the traditional sense, and thus rush to embrace the most racially admirable white people available. I am eagerly awaiting the discussion between these two sides of the providential history camp.

  3. Judy Pearce says:

    Here is another perspective, from someone who as a youth experienced and then left the Christian patriarchy movement. He is not a scholar, nor an academician, but a person of faith who looks back upon patriarchy, Doug Phillips, and Dabney.

    http://fiddlrts.blogspot.com/2013/02/patriarchy-christian-reconstructionsim.html

  4. Jenny Islander says:

    Speaking purely as a spectator, Vision Forum’s obsession with the Old South appears to be an expression of Doug Phillips’ obsession with dressing up and playacting, as well as his preaching of patriarchy. He has also done costumed events themed around the sinking of the Titanic* (with the usual romantic talk about women and children first that completely ignores the fate of the lower-deck passengers) and World War II.** In addition, he has orchestrated “Hazardous Journeys,” trips for men that are written up as ventures into trackless wilderness and so forth, although ten minutes of research online will reveal them to be regularly advertised packaged tours offered by thoroughly secular businesses and designed for middle-aged tourists. Each of them, apparently, requires new outfits and gear in which Doug Phillips may be photographed.

    *Speaking about inadvertently showing one’s behind: It takes a certain kind of narrow focus to celebrate such terrible loss of life with an “Edwardian Ladies’ Tea.”

    **He has posed wearing at least one uniform to which he is not entitled; IIRC he has even done so while standing next to actual veterans. This leads to why I am mentioning this here. I think Doug Phillips’ playacting and his patriarchy are both reflections of an inner conviction that other people are just props***. There are lots of people like that in the world, but this one claims that God says so.

    ***For a particularly nauseating illustration of this, search on Doug Phillips Haiti and click Images.

  5. […] “More important, however, is that Vision Forum promotes a vision not just of male leadership in the family and the nation, but more specifically a vision rooted in an ideology of white male mastery.” […]

  6. katz says:

    Slavery isn’t necessarily evil? Yikes. Not big on the “liberty” part of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” is he?

  7. […] Wilson is a Ph.D. student in American intellectual history at Syracuse University. An earlier version of this article was posted in November at The Junto: A Group Blog in Early American History. It is reprinted in a […]

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